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  • Kalokagathia:The Ethical Basis of Hellenic Political Economy and Its Influence from Plato to Ruskin and Sen
  • George A. Petrochilos

The purpose of this article is to introduce the concept of kalokagathia () and to argue that it provides the ethical basis of classical Hellenic political economy. The latter is not value-free, and therefore it can best be understood only when its ethical underpinning is explained. It is probably the failure of its critics to do so and their attempt to evaluate classical Hellenic economics in terms of the "engineering" or technocratic approach that account for the controversy regarding the importance (or not) of classical Hellenic economic thought.

The term Hellenic political economy in the title of this essay may seem, at first sight, paradoxical, but it is deliberate, and, hopefully, the reasons for using it may become apparent in what follows. The ancient Greek sophists, philosophers, and writers did not set out to write economics as such, but the ideas of, for example, Hesiod, Democritus, Protagoras, and, most important, Plato, Xenophon, Lysias, and Aristotle, on atomistic behavior, private ownership of property and its protection, the division of labor, free foreign trade, exchange, value, money, and interest, as well as efficient and effective estate management and certain policy issues, have been considered as forerunners of our present views on these matters. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Greeks [End Page 599] were well received as authorities on economic issues. However, in modern times, the contribution of ancient Greek writers has been questioned by a number of critics, not necessarily all of them economists.

For at least the last hundred years a great dispute has existed on whether or not the economic ideas of the Greeks have been of any significance to modern economic thought. This dispute perhaps originated in part from the fact that the Greeks did not develop economics as an autonomous discipline but instead considered economic matters as part of their general inquiry into ethics and politics, and more important, their much wider study of the best social organization of the city-state. Thus, economic aspects are treated by, among others, Plato in his Republic and Laws, and Aristotle in his Politics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Eudemian Ethics. All these works have as their central theme the quest for the establishment of the best constitution for the city-state to achieve particular worthier social and ethical ends. It must be clarified that at the heart of the debate lies the attempt, by a number of critics, to evaluate ancient societies and economies in terms of present-day criteria and norms and to use the ancients as a battleground to resolve contemporary ideological disputes; the dispute also stems from the failure or refusal of today's scholars to accept that there are two origins of economics "concerned respectively with 'ethics' . . . and . . . 'engineering'" (Sen 1987, 3), in addition to a confusion as to what exactly economics is all about in the first place.

Consequently, to elaborate on some of these issues, the remainder of this article is organized as follows. There is a brief discussion of the genesis of social science through the teachings of Socrates and a presentation and an elaboration of the concept of kalokagathia, as well as the Greek value system of which it is part, as the ethical basis of life in the Greek city-state; the influence of Greek philosophical thinking on the development of social theory and economics; a brief account of some of the representative criticisms of Hellenic economics; a riposte by the defenders of the relevance of Hellenic economics; and, finally, an evaluation.

The Genesis of Social Science—Kalokagathia

We mentioned above the role of the pre-Socratic philosophers and sophists in the development of economic thought. The Ionian philosophers, particularly the three Milesians—Thales, Anaximander, and [End Page 600] Anaximenes—of the sixth century B.C., made nature and the cosmos the center of their inquiries. They dealt with astronomy, cosmology, and geometry (among others), but did not consider social matters. Thus, despite their insights into a number of economic issues, such as Thales' knowledge of monopoly and how he was able to profit from it—two subjects discussed by...


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