Money and Virtue in the Ancient World
By Sarah Skwire
It is never a bad idea to remind students of economics that, long before Smith’s Wealth of Nations gave birth to modern economics, complex and vivid discussion of economics were already happening. They have been happening, I am certain, for as long as humans have trucked, bartered, and exchanged. Two excellent reminders of the length and complexity of the human interest in economic matters are the summary of Stoic ethics by Aurius Didymus, from the first century BCE, and Cicero’s De Officiis (44 BCE).
Most striking in the Didymus text is that his continued interest in the Stoic definition of the virtuous man gives particular attention to the economic aspects of the virtuous man. At the end of an extended litany of the qualities of the virtuous man, Didymus writes, “[the virtuous man] is happy most of all, and fortunate and blessed and prosperous and pious and god-loving and worthy, like a king and a general, a politician and a household economist and a money-maker.” The crowning function of the virtuous man, in other words, is to be a money-maker. It is, quite literally, the end all.
Didymus explores this more thoroughly at another point in the text when he tries to understand how the Stoics can say that “all good things belong in common to the virtuous.” He argues, first, that all virtuous men are in concord about how things ought to be done, and therefore the choices they make are the same. Then he argues:
Although it is doubtful how well this clarifies the question of how things are or are not held in common, it does clarify one thing of enormous interest to readers of Smith. Money-making is not a bar to virtue. In fact, it is only possible for the virtuous, because the wisdom necessary to make the decisions that are necessary in order to make money is only available to the virtuous.
In much the same way that Didymus cordons off illegal activity from the praiseworthy activity of “money-making,” Cicero, in De Officiis notes that exploitation of others is unacceptable:
Money-making and profit are fine, but they must be pursued in ways that do not violate other virtues. Cicero then works through two hypothetical “case studies” of moments where a virtuous man would need to think carefully through a decision about profit and money-making. The first of these is a discussion about corn trading:
Cicero then follows this hypothetical case with examples of ways in which various philosophers would respond to the situation––which serves to show that even wise and virtuous people may find reasons for debate here, and which suggests that economic decision-making can be sophisticated and difficult. To emphasize this, Cicero suggests a second hypothetical case study, as follows:
Again, a series of possible responses to the question are mapped out, inviting the reader to consider the complexities of the question. Equally, I think, the two case studies here invite the reader to compare them, asking if they are alike or different, and if they are different, where does the difference lie?
Our view of economic thinking in the ancient world tends, understandably, to be largely dominated by Aristotle and his very negative attitude towards money and interest.[i] While he is a towering figure, the Stoics and Cicero may offer another view of market transactions that will allow us to deepen and enrich our vision of ways in which the classical world thought about money. Certainly, seeing money-making listed as a virtuous activity and seeing complex theoretical debates over the ethics of asymmetric information are aspects of classical thinking about economics that may come as a surprise to many.