Friday, October 20, 2017

Cicero: On Grazing, Money-Lending, and Murder

Here's a slightly obscure passage that made me cackle. Among the ancient Greek philosophers, the virtues were considered to be philosophy and involvement in public life. Making money was not a virtue in itself, but rather a duty to be carried out so as to allow a life that could focus on the virtues, Moreover, make money was only to be done by honorable means--which in the view of the time emphatically did not include money-lending.

With that brief background, here's a story related by Cicero ( that is, Marcus Tullius Cicero), in his book De Officiis, which is commonly translated as "On Duties" or "On Obligations." I quote here from the classic translation by Walter Miller, first printed in 1913. Cicero is writing in  44 BC, the fall of the year when Julius Caesar had been stabbed to death on the ides of March. He is discussing how to behave, and the story comes at the end of Book 2 on "Expediency" and just before Book 3 on "The Conflict Between the Right and the Expedient." Cicero writes:
"As for property, it is a duty to make money, but only by honourable means; it is a duty also to save it and increase it by care and thrift. These principles Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, has set forth most happily in his book entitled “Oeconomicus.” When I was about your present age, I translated it from the Greek into Latin.
"But this whole subject of acquiring money, investing money (I wish I could include also spending money),is more profitably discussed by certain worthy gentlemen on “Change” than could be done by any philosophers of any school. For all that, we must take cognizance of them; for they come fitly under the head of expediency, and that is the subject of the present book.
"But it is often necessary to weigh one expediency against another ...  Physical advantages are compared with outward advantages in some such way as this: one may ask whether it is more desirable to have health than wealth; [external advantages with physical, thus: whether it is better to have wealth than extraordinary bodily strength;] while the physical advantages may be weighed against one another, so that good health is preferred to sensual pleasure, strength to agility. Outward advantages also may be weighed against one another: glory, for example, may be preferred to riches, an income derived from city property to one derived from the farm. 
"To this class of comparisons belongs that famous saying of old Cato's: when he was asked what was the most profitable feature of an estate, he replied: “Raising cattle successfully.” What next to that? “Raising cattle with fair success.” And next? “Raising cattle with but slight success.” And fourth? “Raising crops.” And when his questioner said, “How about money-lending?” Cato replied: “How about murder?”
From this as well as from many other incidents we ought to realize that expediencies have often to be weighed against one another ... 
For more on what Xenophon wrote in “Oeconomicus,” as well as how the ancient Greeks thought about economic activity and human virtue, a useful starting point is the article by Dodan Leshem in the Winter 2016 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, "Retrospectives: What Did the Ancient Greeks Mean by Oikonomia?" From the abstract: "[B]oth Ancient Greek oikonomia and contemporary economics study human behavior as a relationship between ends and means which have alternative uses. However, while both approaches hold that the rationality of any economic action is dependent on the frugal use of means, contemporary economics is largely neutral between ends, while in ancient economic theory, an action is considered economically rational only when taken towards a praiseworthy end. Moreover, the ancient philosophers had a distinct view of what constituted such an end—specifically, acting as a philosopher or as an active participant in the life of the city-state." For an earlier discussion of Leshem's previous work on this blog, see "Oikonomia, Revisited" (October 30, 2014).