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The Preeminence of Use: Reevaluating the Relation Between Use and Exchange in Aristotle’s Economic Thought
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[T]here’s no profit in my words for you.—Teiresias1

Controversies over the interpretation of key passages in Aristotle are not without their significance, and in some cases, the delineation of entirely different schools of thought results from the decision as to which side of the debate one takes.2 My engagement with Aristotle’s thinking on use (chrêsis) and exchange (allagê) in his economic thinking arises from what I view to be a similar kind of interpretive dilemma. My analysis has gathered around whether or not Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics 5.5 and Politics 1, intends such an oppositional separation between use and exchange to the point where we can equate this dichotomy with the modern conceptions of use-value and exchange-value.

Part of the difficulty in interpreting what Aristotle might mean by his distinction concerns the problem of historical prejudice. We can often tend to read economic discussion in Aristotle through classical economic definitions, as if in some cases he was a primitive economist who first observed economic phenomena but failed to develop them any further. Most notably Karl Polanyi, M. I. Finley, and Scott Meikle have provided compelling arguments for abandoning this kind of comparative approach as a way of reading Aristotle. Instead, they see his relegation of economics to the ethical realm as indicative of a unique interpretation of economic activity in its own right.3 These clarifications should be well noted, but as I will show, they still retain some of the key definitions of terms that emerged only after economics became a science in a formal sense. In particular, Meikle’s commentary assumes the modern conceptions of use-value and exchange-value to be an integral part of Aristotle’s historical anticipation of political economy.4

In this essay, I attempt to disclose the originality behind Aristotle’s understanding of use, its ethical pre-eminence, and how its meaning should be clarified in contradistinction to our modern conceptions of exchange and value. I will not be specifically concerned with an analysis of the varying points of view in the history of commentary on Aristotle and economics. I will be engaged primarily with Meikle’s well-known study of the subject, since he provides both a survey of the field, as well as a thorough and convincing argument of the interpretation I wish to challenge. In part relying upon Meikle’s study, Jill Frank has illuminated the significance of use in Aristotle’s thinking in her recent work on democracy.5 In the end, nonetheless, she departs from Meikle’s pejorative view of money, and in making my own specific contributions to the debate on Aristotle’s economic thinking, I will draw upon the insights Frank offers in order to relate exchange and money holistically to use.

My thesis is that in Politics 1, Aristotle does not hold use and exchange to be opposed to one another, and this involves seeing use as principally an ethical mode of being in which virtue is exercised and actualized. In other words, exchange itself is not prohibited from Aristotle’s polis, but rather the ethical “comportment”6 towards being in which exchange is used merely for excessive wealth-getting (chrêmatistikê). Accordingly, exchange is not opposed to use, but derivative of it. While this thesis agrees with the general recognition that Aristotle accepts economic activity as it is defined according to its natural occurrence within the household, it is much stronger in arguing that even the exchange that Aristotle appears to oppose can be included in the ethical good life.7 The status that Aristotle attributes to household management (oikonomikê) as the example for ethical exchange should not be interpreted to mean that he reduces the entire sphere of exchange to the household. To the contrary, household management is the model of exchange by which the polis as a larger whole functions. Aristotle describes the household as the “primary” form of community (prôtêi koinônia) (Pol 1257a19–20).8 Yet at the same time, the household is not sufficient by itself, and for Aristotle this means that “the whole must necessarily be prior to the part” (Pol 1253a20). Individual households cannot exist...

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