Ancient and modern

Democritus on the 50p rate

What Ancient Greeks would have made of Ed Balls

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

What a song and dance about a tax rise affecting a minuscule proportion of the richest in society! Greeks would have been baffled.

Classical Greeks did not have the automatic admiration for self-made millionaires that we do. They felt that only the very lucky or the very wicked could aspire to wealth. ‘No one gets rich quickly by being honest,’ says one character in a play, articulating that sense of the injustice of the good poor man and the evil plutocrat. Riches could also produce bad citizens because it was easy for a man to become ‘enslaved’ by his money (a common image). By contrast, Socrates, rejecting payment for his teaching, preferred ‘looking after his freedom’. No Greek worth his salt associated with those who were ‘in love with money-making’ (the word used is eros), especially if they spent it all on whores, gambling and luxury food.


But Greeks still needed the rich, and offered them the means of justifying their wealth. The carrot was ‘honour’: that those who had made money in ‘business’ (i.e. trade and finance) would gain the public respect of the community. So they asked the very richest to contribute to the security and happiness of society, both in emergencies (a war tax) and everyday life (e.g. personally paying for the upkeep of the fleet and for annual dramatic festivals). So Athenians did not boast about avoiding such duties: ‘I rejoice in performing public services,’ says one litigant. ‘I have spent almost all I have on you,’ says another. Democritus argued that a community became strong through the ‘concord’ that developed when the rich were generous to the poor, whether in public duties or general charitable works, e.g. ransoming prisoners of war, providing dowries, paying for funerals and so on.

But our tax contribution is never acknowledged. It just disappears down the government maw. In the Greek world, everyone knew what the rich had done for them: it was personal. That is the crucial difference.

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In the British Museum on 22 February, Peter Jones will introduce participants to ‘Ancient Greek from scratch’ (Google ‘Alpha Museum February 22’).

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