In the 1980s capitalism triumphed over communism. In the 1990s it triumphed over democracy and the market economy.

Those are the opening lines of David Korten’s book The Post-Corporate World (2000). I met Ed Cohen earlier this week spring, a successful banker and professor of Classics, who gave a talk here in Athens outlining some of the same concerns about the capitalistic spirit in Classical Greece, and what lessons we can take from its study.

Demosthenes already knew that confidence (πίστις) was the backbone of the financial industry (36.44): 

εἰ δὲ τοῦτ’ ἀγνοεῖς, ὅτι πίστις ἀφορμὴ πασῶν ἐστι μεγίστη πρὸς χρηματισμόν, πᾶν ἂν ἀγνοήησειας.

You know nothing if you don’t know that for the markets Confidence is Capital—the greatest (factor) of all.

In the same speech, he describes the banking industry in skeptical terms (36.11):

ἡ δ’ ἐργασία προσόδους ἔχουσα ἐπικινδύνους ἀπὸ χρημάτων ἀλλοτρίων.

The bank is a business operation that produces risk-laden revenues from other people’s money.

He also tell us that the reputation of financiers was not great (36.44):

ἔστι δ᾽ ἐν ἐμπορίῳ καὶ χρήμασιν ἐργαζομένοις ἀνθρώποις φιλεργὸν δόξαι καὶ χρηστὸν εἶναι τὸν αὐτὸν θαυμαστὸν ἡλίκον.

It is remarkable what a striking thing it is in the eyes of people who are active in commercial life and in banking, when the same man is accounted industrious and honest.

A note by an ancient scholar on another speech of Demosthenes provides an anecdote of the sort of behavior that earned that reputation (Scholion to 24.136):

ἔδοξε τοῖς ταμίαις, ὥστε λάθρα τῆς πόλεως δανεῖσαι ταῦτα τοῖς τραπεζίταις, ἵν’ αὐτοὶ κερδάνωσιν ἐκ τοῦτου. ὡς δὲ τοῦτο ἐποίησαν, ἔτυχεν ὕστερον ἀνατραπῆναι τὰς τραπέζας. ἔδοξεν οῦν αὐτοῖς ἐμπρῆσαι τὸν ὀπισθόδομον, ἴνα δόξῃ τὰ χρήματα ὑπὸ τοῦ πυρὸς ἀναλωθῆναι καὶ μὴ ὑπ’ αὐτῶν.

The treasurers decided secretly to lend the Goddess’ coins to the bankers so that they themselves could profit from this. But it happened later that the bankers went bust, and so the treasurers decided to burn down the Parthenon so that it should seem that the monies were consumed in the fire and not by their own actions.

What I recall about Cohen’s conclusions was his focus on confidence: he asserted that confidence in banks and markets must be maintained at all costs, including swift government action in the case of failure. What he never addressed, however, was how—or even whether—those responsible for irresponsible ventures should be held accountable. Demosthenes was trying to prevent the passage of new laws designed to protect men who were convicted of defrauding the public: εἶτ᾽ οὐ καταγέλαστος δόξει ἡ πόλιςεἶναι, εἰ τοῖς ἱεροσύλοις, ὅπως σωθήσονται, νόμον φανεῖται τιθεμένη; Will not Athens be a laughing-stock if she is discovered enacting laws for the protection of temple robbers? I imagine the situation then was not so different from now: the public, although surely outraged, was too busy tending to the problems of everyday life to notice or prevent powerful men evading justice. Then as now there was a need for watchdogs and activists to work for the interests of the working class.


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