GYGES MAGIC RING
THE ORIGINS OF COINAGES AND OPEN SOCIETIES
A quick glance at the ethnographic studies of primitive money1 should convince us that a myriad of objects have been used as tallies and tokens within a host of pre-modern societies. Coins are a specific set metal objects, issued by states for use in a broad range of transactions, within and without market places. They seem to have come into use between 650 and 450 BC in three different location on the globe, the Eastern Mediterranean, Northern India and China.
It will be argued here that the introduction of coinage wrought enormous changes upon human societies, one of the most fundamental restructurings of the way people live that has ever been seen. Although there are a number of problems facing anyone enquiring into the origin of coins, to do with paucity of written and archaeological sources, the main problem I believe is the unwillingness of scholars, at the dawn of the 21st century, to deal dispassionately with matters which bear so fundamentally upon the basic structure of our political life. In the following pages I will sketch a suggestion about how coins may have originated, and set out the matters which would need to be studied and debated if this suggestion is to be objectively corroborated or refuted. In addition I will offer criticism of suggestions made by Dr Howgego (Ashmolean Museum) and Prof Seaford (Exeter University) in writings about the origins of coins.
I have selected from the work of Howgego and Seaford since they are surely both amongst the most constructive and most able scholars writing on this topic in recent times. Both are professional academics, with access to literature and international forums of debate that are in practice out of the reach of most amateur scholars. I freely admit that were these facilities at my own disposal, I perhaps lack the abilities to make best use of them. Thus both of these scholars very likely know a thousand times more than I do about the Ancient Greek literature that bears on the subject of coin origins. However, the grounds on which I base the criticism is not knowledge of the sources, but the philosophies which separately underpin the treatments of those sources. For there are grounds to fear that, in common with all academic writing on this subject that I am aware of, each of these scholars select and present their material in a way that gives an appearance of bias, a sort of philosophical bias that might, in some rather profound sense of the word, be seen as political. It is no part of my plan to try to diminish the stature of either of these scholars. Quite the reverse, I picked them out entirely because they are the two most interesting writers I have come across in my reading of recent literature. Nor is it part of my plan to accuse them of a crude form of personal political bias. In my view the problems arise because they each belong, (to put it very crudely), to rival gangs of scholars: each a school of thought bound together by commonly held and very deep seated core beliefs.
It is prudent to admit that I too think of myself as taking sides on this matter with a number of other scholars. For instance, I find myself strongly in agreement with significant fragments, bearing on the current matter, amongst the writings of the philosopher Karl Popper, the archaeologist Gordon Childe, the academic historian Andrew M Watson and the popular historical writer Colin McEvedy. However, although these men certainly had views bearing upon coin use, and they were in some sense political, I would argue that they did not share a common political program. Rather they were ‘bound together’ solely by a common curiosity, the desire to seek an objective understanding of the nature of the world we live in. And the reason I chose to speak out, is that I am very disturbed by the fact that these days I only ever seem find such attitudes in the writings of the dead.
Popular images of the Ancient Greeks
Readers who have not taken any special interest in the Ancient Greeks will probably just have a few dimly recollected school lesson to rely on as a guide to their doings, perhaps buttressed by occasional TV documentaries and the like. So this understanding will be our starting point. According to my recollections and observations, the popular account of the ancient Greeks derived from such sources runs something like the following.
Archaic Greece was divided up by rough terrain into lots of isolated independent communities. In some rather mysterious way, this is supposed to have given rise to a special independence of mind in the Ancient Greeks. This independent mindedness, given noble patronage by Cleisthenese, and fostered by their two great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, grew into the world’s first democracy at Athens. Democracy in turn led to a great flowering of the human spirit, with great strides being made in art and architecture, mathematics and literature, and much else besides. It also gave the Greeks the self confidence to beat off the horrors of Persian tyranny in battle, a feat especially remembered in connection with a plucky little band of Spartans at Thermopylae.
Popper on the Ancient Greek Enlightenment
Many years ago an interest in the philosophy of science led me to Popper,2 and once hooked, I read further, into his ideas about Ancient Greece (primarily in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ 3).
The account Popper gives of Ancient Greece is astonishingly different from the above. He suggests that prehistoric society in general had an ‘organic’ structure, ruled by a hierarchy of priests and aristocrats. Understanding was shrouded by myth and fettered by ritual: society, science and the arts stagnated. This state of affairs was perpetuated into historic times in Sparta, a state segregated on racial grounds. The lower orders, the great majority, carried out all manual work, and were held in place by frequent acts of arbitrary violence, essentially a policy of random murder carried out by the ruling elite. For reasons Popper himself does not explain4, just up the road at Athens things went differently, and a great generation of ‘Sophists’ appeared. These were professional teachers who sold their services, addressing all manner of subjects, men who brought forward contentious new approaches to every aspect of nature and society, and disputed these opinions in public. Their new ideas concerning cosmology, mathematics, history and mechanics are of course well known, and can easily be read up in the histories of those subjects.
However in Open Society Popper focuses upon political change. Amongst the Sophists he singles out the Protagoras as proposing that all men equally have an innate sense of honour and justice, and that it is on the basis of these instincts that human institutions must be built. Antiphon is represented as arguing for the equality of man, that to draw distinctions based on of class or nationality is barbarous. Hippias is associated with such views, and also, along with Alcidamas, with criticism of the institution of slavery. Lycophron is associated with notions of a social contract, Democritus with democracy. Popper leaves little doubt about his view that at the heart of the advances in Greek sciences and arts was this movement towards open and egalitarian political life, led by the Sophists.
In contrast Plato is revealed by Popper as a fan of the reactionary form of state exemplified by Sparta. An elitist and authoritarian, Plato is shown advocating the use of the education to propagate politically expedient lies. Thus the popular picture of Ancient Greece has the picture upside down. Progress and enlightenment is not product of the Greeks, to be defended against the barbarian Persians. It is rather a product of the Sophists, under attack from the reactionary nobility and their allies the Spartans. Plato rose to prominence as the most prominent spokesman from amongst the reactionary nobility.
A Theory Concerning the Origins of Coinage (i)
This very brief excursion into Popper’s account of developments in Greece of course gives the barest outline of events, just sufficient for the purposes of the current argument
Most authorities accept that the earliest ‘Greek’ coins were struck in Lydia, or somewhere close by in Western Turkey. They were produced around the time of the first recorded tyrant, Gyges, who ruled in Lydia c. 650 BC, or a little later. The chief evidence for this is found in Herodotos, who collected it from oral tradition around 450 BC. "The Lydians were the first people we know of to use gold and silver coinage, and to introduce retail trade" 5 Thus two new institutions, coins and tyranny appeared more or less simultaneously, and then rapidly spread from Turkey throughout the Greek world. There is ample evidence to show that the tyrants of that period were frequently populists, propelled to power by the lower orders of society seeking protection from economic exploitation by a narrow aristocratic elite.
Thus it seems that we must consider the possibility that a group of individuals associated with Gyges, or whoever started coin use, were deliberately seeking a new, more egalitarian way of ordering society. That coins were perhaps invented as a mechanism to replace the ways of the archaic aristocracies, the rituals and tithes, the obligations and tributes.
It is easy to dig out facts which in some ways support this idea. Take the Persian ruler Darius, who if not an outright tyrant, at least took power in unorthodox ways. He apparently introduced coinage sometime after 520 BC. His own rock carved inscriptions proclaim his dedication to egalitarian ideals. His approach to diverse religious traditional customs was sophisticated, critical and pragmatic, and his Greek critics snobbishly derided him as a ‘tradesman’. Likewise in Athens it was men like Solon, adopting the mantle of a tyrant, and associated with moves towards egalitarian structures and the establishment of coinage that set the state on the road to democracy and intellectual eminence. Cleisthenese, the ‘father of Athenian democracy’, not only inherited a tradition of tyranny (and hatred of Dorian culture) from his grandfather (tyrant of Sicyon) but his family traditionally traced its rise to wealth and power to an alliance with the Lydian tyrants themselves.
Coin use arrived in the Greek world from the East. To judge from the volumes of very ancient coins that have been preserved from the cities of Western Turkey in general, and Miletos in particular, these areas were far ahead of the rest of Greece in their enthusiastic adoption of coinage. To judge from the plentiful supply of low denominations that were struck, these cities were also ahead of the rest in making coins appropriate to the use of the common man. Miletos of course was also the earliest center of Greek speculative thought, long before Athens. Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes all taught there, Heraclitus was stationed close by.
If we trust Popper as our guide, it seems that egalitarian ideas also arrived in Greece from the East. Consider the men he cites as the intellectually progressive element of the Ancient Greek enlightenment at Athens. Protagoras was a citizen of Abdera, a colony of the Ionian city of Teos (reactionary elements of Athenian society had his books publicly burnt for supposed impiety in 415 BC). Democratus also came from Abdera. Hippias was tyrant of Athens, but was driven out of Athens by sections of the nobility in league with Sparta. He sought sanctuary in Lydia, and actually sided with Darius in the great war against Greece6. Alcidamas was from Ionian Elaia.
These few facts cannot do more than hint, but they do hint that like coins and tyranny, sophistry also came to Greece from the East. The freedom to think speculatively was surely part of the basis of the Greek enlightenment, and it was intimately associated with movements towards popular tyranny, egalitarianism and coin use. All of these developments apparently originate in Turkey. Mankind had long been equipped with kings, and even longer with brains, so the only thing that seems to be completely new in the history of the world is that of a state sponsored coinage. Thus it seems logical to consider the possibility that our modern world, bequeathed to the West by Ancient Greece, owed its origins primarily to the invention of coinage.
The bones of this argument are so obvious that it should need little prompting to get it an airing. It seems to shout from the very pages of history itself. The big question is not whether this thesis demands serious consideration, but why such consideration is so remarkably lacking in the current literature.
It is easy to see why Plato himself might not support such an explanation. Plato was born with a reactionary aristocratic pedigree. His uncle led the clique of aristocrats who sided with the Spartans and drove the democrats out of Athens. His life’s work was dedicated to demonstrating that, since men were by nature unequal, elite rule was the only valid form of political constitution. He explicitly suggests that this should be carried through by propagating politically correct lies by means of the education system. He loved Dorian Sparta, and hated everything about the Ionian Greeks, including their music. Most interesting of all, in the context of this argument, he wished to follow the Spartan approach to coinage; as far as possible to phase it out of use.7
It is now appropriate to turn to the work of Seaford and Howgego, or at least, a few specific sentences from their texts. On the completion of this exercise, I will return to complete the development of this explanation of the origin of coinage.
Prof Seaford, and ‘Reciprocity’
I am delighted to find a classics scholar of such standing taking an interest in the origins of coinage. I am even more delighted by some of the suggestions he has made. We find in his work an explicit discussion of the birth of coinage, developed within the context of the appearance of tyranny in general, and Gyges in particular8. More interesting still, under the chapter heading Cosmology, Money and Tyranny, we find discussion of the idea that "The mythological conception of a cosmology controlled by a monarch from the top is replaced, in the thought of Anaximander, by an equality of various powers symmetrically organized around a center and controlled by a justice that is the same for all."9 This fascinating contribution will be discussed and extended below.
The problems I find in Seaford are not primarily to do with the facts he presents, or the explanations he offers, but to do with what seems to be an in-built bias he associates with coin use.
In part this is do with his characterization of what he calls ‘reciprocity.’ Seaford designates gift exchange in archaic society as an aspect of reciprocity, and distinguishes it from modern commercial exchange because reciprocity is a voluntary act10. Commercial exchange, in contrast, is said not to be a voluntary act, since it relies upon the law to force parties to fulfil their obligations. Anyone who has studied the history of the intellectual problems associated with voluntariness, that is to say, the freedom of the will, will be aware that they have an extraordinarily contentious history, not just in philosophical and theological dispute but as part of the pretext, time and time again, for rebellion and bloodshed. I am reluctant to see the matter dragged into this arena at all, if it can be avoided. In fact I think it can very easily be avoided. Directly from my own experience, I know that I have been trading with individuals worldwide for 20 years, and have in fact never once relied upon the law to back up any transaction. Nor do most other individual traders, as far as I understand the matter. According to my own observations, around 99% of customers are honest, and are motivated to pay their bills by nothing more their own high standard of personal ethics. Perhaps 0.9% fail on this score, however, when the suggestion is made that details of their behavior will be made public, this usually produces a more satisfactory result. Ultimately most small traders find it usually makes sense to put debit experiences with the residual 0.1% of the population down under the heading ‘experience’. Thus in reality, the small trader today operates within the sort of voluntary code of ethics Seaford (correctly, in my view) attributes to the archaic period. Commercial life as a whole is of course very much more complex today than it once was, but that is surely largely to do with the complex actions of institutions and associations, to do with profit sharing, monopolisation and such like. There is nothing specific to the use of coinage by individuals that forces us to consider it as creating a completely new and involuntary category of human ethical behavior.
The second area I would take issue with Seaford concerns egoism. He writes "the centralization of economic…power, in the monstrous figure of the ‘tyrant’ could substitute mere egoism for the central moral principle of reciprocity" 11 Again I find Seaford covertly importing unnecessary prejudices into his text. Why does he call the tyrant a monster? As previously mentioned, tyrants seem to have been promoted as progressive individuals ruling by popular consent. It is true that Plato, and likely Homer, would have held a different view, but that view might well be felt to be reactionary and self interested, and there is no particular reason for us to adopt it for ourselves12. Nor is it clear that the commercial lifestyle encouraged under many of the tyrants was in any real sense more egotistical than that found in the age of Homer. My recollection of the Iliad is of a story about two men, both wanting to posses the same woman because of her beauty, regardless of the carnage it wrought amongst the innocent kinsmen drawn into their feud. Egoism was as much a part of the world of Homer as it is of our own. If that world differs from ours, it is perhaps that the egoism is now spread around a bit more evenly, and is not quite so monopolised in the hands of a few ancient oligarchs and their priests.
The main objection to Seaford’s approach is that it seems to conceal a hidden agenda, an agenda to use the overt academic study of the ancient world as an arena in which to covertly discredit the use of coins and practice of commerce in the modern world. Seaford gives us a licence to think imaginatively and constructively about the origins of coins, but only if we first sign up to the idea that over all, coins are a ‘bad thing’. Finding the names Polanyi13, Finlay, Sahlins, Bourdieu, and Levi-Strauss cited by Seaford greatly increases such concerns, since these men all belong to a fairly tightly associated gang of scholars, many of whom profess Marxist views. Some associated with this school openly advocate the substitution of political propaganda for scholarship, and others seem to have been rather close to the wheels of power politics themselves. All of them of course have thrived in the somewhat hierarchical and authoritarian world of modern higher education. All of them seem ultimately to be tied intellectually, in some sense, to the original reactionary program set out so long ago by Plato.
Returning finally to a point of fact, we find Seaford associating ancient coins with public finance rather than trade because of the "high intrinsic value of archaic (relative to later) coinage" 14. This surely misleads. If we look at the coins of Lydia themselves we find amongst the earliest types a denomination of one ninety-sixth stater, weighing just 0.15 grams. If numismatists were really contributing to this debate in the way they should, it would also be better known that amongst Archaic Greek, Hindu and Burmese silver coinages we find further pieces weighing 0.05 grams or less – literally smaller than a pin head. Such tiny pieces force us to consider the conclusion that all these early states were perhaps under great pressure to service the needs of small transactions, perhaps even petty retailing (all of these examples of miniscule silver coins apparently pre-date the introduction of base metal coinage). However, any blame to be associated with the misrepresentation of Early Greek denomination structures surely does not rest with Seaford, but his source, Kraay. I have long felt that Kraay’s treatment of small change misleads us about its frequency and distribution15, and this passage in Seaford seems to validate the view. Kraay’s treatment of small change seems more suited to disguising the great truths (about tyrants, egalitarianism, market economies and the East) rather than revealing smaller ones (about the denomination sets of the Archaic Greeks). Whether the flaws of detail in the works of Kraay, (and for that matter parallel anomalies in the treatment of money in the ancient world by Crawford16) can reasonably be associated with the sort of ‘Platonist bias’ found in the theoretical work of their more eminent contemporaries such as Finlay (or Collingwood) I cannot say.
Dr Howgego, and ‘positivism’
Again, there is much to please in the work of Dr Howgego. It is a delight to find someone with such a mastery of both the coins and sources who states a position in plain language in a readily accessible text. I could raise a cheer when I see some of the rather futile barriers to our understanding, erected by earlier scholars, so confidently kicked over. For instance "Pay …presupposed…a cash based market" 17 and "it is…flat footed to ask whether the limited denominational structure of early coinage implies that it was not intended to facilitate retail trade".18
Turning to more substantial matters, we find him writing that "it is tempting to see the usefulness of coin for market exchange as underpinning the whole system" 19 and "the rapidity of the spread (of coinage) is better explained by the economic, political and social transformation of the Greek polis" 20 and even "the spread of coinage may…be seen…as an agent in…the radical transformation of the polis in the 6th century BC" 21.
Thus the relationship of coins to trade is brought center stage by Howgego, exactly where it should be. Nor is it clouded by any talk about egoism or free will. The possibility that coin was an agent in social change, and that such change was associated with Athenian democracy are also acknowledged. However, there are other big issues, such as the relationship of these changes to the appearance of the benevolent tyranny, that Howgego does not explore. Neither does he more than vaguely hint about the role of coin use in the abandonment of more hierarchical political structures.
I would trace this reluctance to take on the bigger issues to a kind of ‘positivism’. Howgego gives expression to such a tendency when he writes "We know nothing about the function of the earliest coinage…literary and documentary evidence is…quite inadequate to allow us to decide between competing hypotheses" 22. This council of despair is contrary to the spirit of good scholarship. Bearing in mind what Herodotus wrote, we should collect and examine all the other evidence, and then form the most sober assessment of the whole as we can. Howgego comes very close here to saying that since we cannot have a perfect knowledge of this matters, we need not enquire seriously into it at all. When taken in conjunction the way Howgego neglects secondary evidence to do with politics and tyrants, and intellectual change and sophists this suggests an unreasonable restriction upon his investigation into the role that coins played in the social revolution occurring in Ancient Greece.
At the close of the section, "What difference did having a coinage make?" Howgego indicates to us what he thinks the big questions are23. It seems to me the two questions he asks us to focus upon specifically re-inforce the grotesque simplification of ancient Greece described as ‘the popular account" above. The first is: Does the development of coinage help explain why Greek society was less ‘feudal’ than say Persian? Surely this skews our perspective – since the great dichotomy was actually between the coin use of most of Greece, Lydia and Western Persia on the one side, and hierarchical Sparta on the other? The second is, "To what extent did the working of Athenian democracy depend upon coinage?" Surely the crucial relationship was not that specific to Athenian democracy; it was that between coinage and the broader range of egalitarian structures and aspirations found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean?
I fear the sort of indirect evidence, actively pursued by Seaford and arising from discussions of the role of tyrants, and from the changing in the nature of ancient political and cosmological philosophies, is edged out of court by Howgego, impoverishing our understanding of the real roots of modern society.
Even the slenderest notion of how far scientific speculation has extended mankind’s understanding of the universe must mitigate against the sort of attitudes Howgego seems to be expressing here. Past experience has shown it a mistake to try to draw lines in the sand, beyond which human understanding cannot go. Secondary and indirect evidence must be used with caution of course – but it must be used. The way to protect ourselves from illegitimate use of indirect evidence is by encouraging open free debate, not by denying it.
Britain has a long history of hard headed empiricism. It is perhaps just a pleasing fancy to push this back to Pelagius, Wycliffe, or Bacon. However the importance of the continuous philosophical (and political) tradition that runs through Locke, Hume, Mill and Russell cannot be denied. Nor can we deny the status of those who have sought to synthesize British empiricism with continental speculative ‘idealist’ philosophies; Voltaire and Kant in previous centuries, Quine and Popper in this. However, when applied in excess, the results of this empiricist bias can become stultifying, and in the works of some 20th century British philosophers, such as Ayer, and Ryle, one time Professors of Logic and Metaphysics respectively at Oxford, many believe that it was taken too far. Demanding impossible standards of evidence is just as sure a way to kill off scholarship and encourage ignorance as book burning ever was. Perhaps it is even more sure.
Since I have hinted above that Prof Seaford cites characters in his text who lead something of a double life, it would seem to me to add balance to comment here on Ayer. Readers must judge for themselves to whether I correctly detect a streak of positivism in the writings of many mainstream Anglo-American academics, including numismatists, and including Howgego. Readers must also consider whether there was likely to be any intellectual overlap between Ayer’s activities as a Professor of Logic, and his extra mural activities. It is however, a matter of fact that Ayer was part of a secret conspiracy, underwritten by British and American governments, to direct the course of popular and academic culture in politically appropriate directions. This conspiracy involved not only politicians and the secret services, but also international bankers24. It is important for me to stress, of course, that Dr Howgego does not actually cite such as Ayer in his text. Equally, it is important to stress that although Professor Seaford does cite characters who seem likely to have been involved in ‘extra-mural activities’, to the best of my knowledge, their cover has not yet been blown.
A Theory Concerning the Origins of Coinage (ii)
Both Seaford and Howgego stress the possible importance of coin use in the social transformation of archaic Greek into a recognizably more modern society. It is Seaford however who attacks this problem the more boldly, when citing work by Vernant, he suggests that old hierarchical power structures were being replaced by a circle of equal powers, held in place by a universal justice. (Vernant’s insight being ultimately derived for a surviving fragment of text attributed to Anaximander, c. 550 BC).
Before discussing this idea of a circle of power, held in place by justice, there is one glaring omission in almost all previous work on coin origins, including that of Howgwgo and Seaford, that needs to be pointed out. Coinage did not have one birth, for most intents and purposes, it had at least three. When we look at the general conditions surrounding the ancient births of coinage in Greece, India and China, we start to find some astonishing resemblances. Firstly, all three zones where coins first appeared seem to have been fragmented into numerous statelets, each supposedly the leftovers of some great pre-historic conquest. Secondly, at the dawn of history, which to some extent seems to coincide quite closely with first coin use in each of the zones, we find these states locked together in mortal combat. Thirdly, at approximately the time that coins appear, in all three we find a rejection of ancient priestly ritual, and the embrace of new speculative and disputative schools of philosophy. It will be remembered that Popper attributed the birth of the new ‘open’ society, to the Sophists (and their books). If we examine the traditions concerned with the Greek sophistry, and compare them with the parallel developments in India known as the Upanishads, and those in China, known as the The Hundred Schools Contending, it is impossible not to be struck by astonishing resemblances in what is going on. We will return to this topic shortly, to outline a fourth resemblance recorded in the texts, concerning the nature of the authoritarian backlash to these open societies in both Greece and China.
It is possible to make an approach to a circular idealization of the ancient political system quite independently of the source cited in Seaford25. It is the version which I am calling here (somewhat in jest) "Gyges’ ring" I actually found the idea ready made in Ibn Khaldun’s, Muqaddimah, (1377 AD). Ibn Khaldun in turn found it in Persian oral tradition. He gives two versions of it, one attributed to the period of Bahram II, c. 280 AD, the other to Khusraw, c. 550 AD, (although the dates associated with oral traditions are of course not to be considered necessarily reliable). The most polished version runs thus:
Royal authority exists through the army, the army through money, money through taxes, taxes through cultivation, cultivation through justice, justice through the improvement of officials, the improvement of officials through the forthrightness of wazirs, and the whole thing in the first place through the ruler’s personal supervision of his subjects condition and his ability to educate them, so that he may rule them, and not they him.26
Immediately after quoting this passage, Ibn Khaldun makes the claim that the same circle of dependant forces can be traced out in Aristotle’s ‘Politics’, but that there argument is ‘mixed with other things’. Whilst I lack the detailed knowledge of Aristotle’s text to comment fully on Ibn Khaldun's claim, it is surely clear that the vision of the state lying behind Aristotle’s arrangement of offices, laid out in Politics, VI.8.21, bears on the argument:
First, there are the functions connected with public worship, military matters, and revenue and expenditure. Second, there are those connected with the market place, the city-center, the harbours and the countryside, third, there are the functions connected with the law courts, the registration of contracts, the enforcement of penalties, the custody of prisoners, and the reviewing, scrutinizing and audit of the accounts of the magistrates. Finally there are the functions connected with the deliberation of public affairs.
Ibn Khaldun’s claim was that the fundamentals of civilization itself are contained in this circular image, and that it is better expressed by the oral traditions of the East, than the text books of the Greeks. It seems to me that if this suggestion were pressed harder, with the aid of a broader range of sources, this suggestion might turn out to be more fruitful than even Ibn Khaldun himself suspected. [27/1/2003 - shortly after publishing the booklet, my attention was drawn to this passage: The authority of the prince must be defended by military force; that force can only be maintained by taxes, all taxes must, at last, fall on agriculture; and agriculture can never flourish except under the protection of justice and moderation (Cited by D'Herbelot in Bibliotheque Oriental s v Ardeshir (quoted by Gibbon) & attributed to Artaxerxes 465-24 BC!]
If we consider first the situation in Ancient India, then we seem, as mentioned above, to have a situation where the first use of coins approximately coincides with a social and intellectual revolution, associated with wandering ascetics and vratyas. It is the period of the composition of the texts known as the Upanishads, and of atheist and materialist philosophies of Buddha, Mahavira and Gosala. The only book I am aware of that might throw light upon the changing social structure that is associated with early coin use is the Arthashastra27. In my opinion, the traditional dating of the core contents of this work to the late 4th century BC is quite plausible. In part because it describes a world of warring states, such as apparently existed close to that time. In part because it displays an objectivity and critical detachment from the deluge of religious abstraction, dogma and superstition so characteristic of many other early Hindu texts. Just as Machiavelli and Rabelais are creatures of the renaissance, and Voltaire and Paine of the enlightenment, so the hard headedness of the logic behind this text seems to belong, with parallel Greek and Chinese texts, to another earlier enlightenment.
I do not claim a particularly sophisticated understanding of the text of the Arthashahtra. Nevertheless, even a cursory familiarity shows its astonishing relevance to our current inquiry. The very name of the text translates as wealth-power, it is concerned to communicate a new political philosophy to the ruler. If we turn to the head of Book six - we find it headed The circle as the basis. The first principle is given thus: The king, the minister, the country, the treasury, the army and the ally are the constituents elements. Thus its central message is that the circle of the king is the fundamental basis of the state. The internal elements of the circle are seven in number: - the king, the minister, the country, the fortified city, the treasury, and the army. (Thus it follows the Greek and Persian model, save for the fact its adds the ally as a seventh element) It teaches that the king depends upon the army, and the army depends upon money; thus finance is the key concern for the welfare of the state. Further, it teaches that the ruler’s contribution to the maintenance of this state is the provision of an impartial justice.
If we turn to the Chinese sources, we find a much greater wealth of ancient literature bearing on the political economy than exists for India. Whilst the Chinese sources for very early periods may not match the Greek for political philosophy, or for chronological detail, they certainly far surpass it in regard to the recording of ancient economic thought. Extant literature gives us a somewhat lopsided view of early Greek political and economic life. It is dominated by the views of Plato, who actively disliked both freedom of thought and market economies, and Aristotle, whose account of economic activity is also both excessively rudimentary and fundamentally negative. Popper has already stressed the fact that alternative views which existed in ancient Greece are now greatly under represented in the literature that has been retained. Chinese literature however allows us to see more of both sides of the argument. Texts associated with the Chinese sophists, such as the Guanzi, have been preserved within an ongoing Confucian tradition. It records the radical and sophisticated economic insights associated with early Chinese coin use. The book of Lord Shang on the other hand gives us a vision of the philosophies of the bitter opponents of the Confucians, the aristocrats of the state of Chin. In it the Chinese sophists are described as fleas, sucking on the blood of the state. It outlines the principles of a philosophy of authoritarianism refined to its purest essence.
The Guanzi was perhaps composed, in the main, in early 4th century BC, or earlier. Its tone is strongly pro-coinage. For instance, we read: "the proper amount of money for circulation should be made available in each locality"28, and "Market place and court (should use) the same sort of money"29. Inter-dependence of powers is also a central theme, expressed both in the abstract principle of yin and yang, and in concrete forms that are reminiscent of early coin using societies to the West. For instance, we read "the safety of the country is assured by its cities, the strength of the city lies in its army, the performance of the arms lies in the men who use them, the strength of the men lies in the grain which nourishes them"30, or more abstractly, "Land is the foundation of government, the court is the seat of justice, the market is the regulator of prices. Gold is the measure of prices31. The remarkable aspects of the Guanzi, at least to those only familiar with European treatises of this date, is its confident mastery of aspects of the quantity theory of money, which underpin its whole philosophy of the political economy of the state.
‘The Book of Lord Shang’ is a more consistent piece of work, written around 340 BC, in the state of Chin. It apparently aims to denounce many of the conclusions of the Guanzi (which must therefore be earlier, if this observation is correct). Lord Shang laid the intellectual foundation for the unification of China, actually brought about in the 3rd century BC by Shih Huang Ti, popularly remembered both for his Great Wall and his more recently discovered tomb with its pottery army. Whilst thousands of books, magazines, and documentaries have featured the paraphernalia associated with Shih Huang Ti, his great wall, and his army, this book has apparently been translated only once, in 1928, and never reprinted32. It is perhaps the most horrifying book ever written.
In it Lord Shang specifically denounces money and trade. "The appearance of gold means the disappearance of grain…wickedness will be encouraged….and the state…will come to extinction" 33 and again " do not allow the merchants to buy grain, nor the farmers to sell grain" 34 and again, "If the prices of meat and wine made high, and the taxes on them heavy…….then merchants and retailers will be few……and the people will not neglect agriculture" 35.
Success in war is the sole purpose of the state for Lord Shang; farming and war the only worthwhile pursuits. The life of the farmer should be so miserable that he welcomes the terrors of war. The following are listed as ‘parasites’ upon the state: "rites and music, odes and history, moral culture and virtue, filial piety and brotherly love, chastity and integrity, benevolence and righteousness" 36. The wise ruler looks down upon sophists and artisans, and despises itinerant scholars. The horrifying central message of Lord Shang is, when the people are strong the state will be weak, make the people weak and state will be strong, when the people are clever the state will be stupid, make the people stupid and the state will be clever.
The extent of the resemblance between the core philosophy of Lord Shang, and that which was isolated within the works of Plato by Popper are astonishing. This is the central principle that Popper finds in Plato:
"nobody….should be without a leader….even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership….he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and become utterly incapable of it" 37
In Lord Shang we find:" all will apply their full knowledge and utmost strength to the service of their leader, even to their deaths, and follow him like flowing water" 38.
In the state of Sparta, mothers supposedly told their sons "with it or on it" (ie return in victory carrying your shield or dead upon on it).
In the state of Chin "the father to the departing son, the elder brother to the younger, the wife to husband, all say: do not return unless you win"
Popper was surely correct to identify a new kind of society – a more ‘open’ society, which arose, indeed created, the birth of history, around two and a half thousand years ago. Social circumstances apparently changed in ways which allowed some of the boundaries to free speech to be pushed back. He was also correct to associate it not with Greek thought as a whole, but with specific elements in Greek society, associated with the sophist movement, and via them to the radical tyrants. However, he failed to properly make the final association, to the new institution of coinage. Forging this link leads us directly to similarities in the events unfolding in other areas apparently adapting to, or preparing for, coin use, in India and China.
The hints in Seaford and Howgego, that this social change was in part due to the adoption of universal state coinage, partly rectify the omission in Popper’s account. The major flaw in Seaford’s work is the deep seated and unwarranted bias, to do with an antagonism towards anything which smacks of individualism. This is not at all personal criticism aimed at Prof Seaford, since this and kindred ideas seems to be almost the badge of membership common to many areas of contemporary social science. The major flaw in Howgego is a determination to unreasonably constrain the arena of numismatic debate, selling numismatic science at a discount. This deliberate refusal to look imaginatively at evidence also seems, to me to, be a badge of membership to a different grouping of contemporary Anglo-American scholars. Again the criticism is not a personal one, Howgego is surely amongst the most, not the least, imaginative members of that ‘gang’.
I hope it is obvious that I do not believe the struggle to create an open society was over and done with in Ancient Greece or China. That I believe the fight still goes on in every generation, and that this pamphlet is intended as a gentle blow, struck in its favour?