The Good of Poverty in Aristophanes’s “Wealth”

In his “Plutus,” or “Wealth,” the Greek playwright Aristophanes presents the possibility of catastrophic consequences resulting from actions otherwise expected to be universally beneficial. In so writing, Aristophanes raises questions not only about the specific subject of the play, wealth, but also wider questions about relationship of want to need.

The play begins with Chremylus and his slave Cario in a chance encounter with the eponymous god of wealth. Discovering that wealth is a blind dotard, they determine to bring him to the temple of the god Asclepius for healing. Chremylus describes this plan as an “honest and god-fearing plan, a plan which is good and full of virtue, a plan which will serve the whole of humanity!” He explains, “If the god of Wealth regains his eyesight, he won’t be wandering aimlessly and blindly about like he does now and he’ll be able to see who’s honest and who’s not and so he’ll go to the good folk and shun all the godless crooks and all the bastards. The result? Everyone will become good and god-fearing … and rich!”

Chremylus and Cairo have concocted a scheme which they believe will result in the establishment of a utopia. Wealth, freed of his blindness and able to move about with  youthful freedom and swiftness, can now bring his gifts to all good people.. As a result, good people will be rewarded for their goodness. All people, then, desiring to partake of the bounties of Wealth, will become good.

After his healing at the temple, Wealth begins to fulfill this plan, going about to reward the good for their goodness. The result of this munificence, however, is not entirely what was expected. Rather than creating a utopian society, the abundance of wealth begins to cause the destruction of society.

Chremylus had desired that “that the good folk, the god-fearing folk, the folk who do an honest day’s work” would be those to benefit from his plan because, he says, they “should be the ones who deserve to be rich, not the dishonest, godless crooks!” Visited by the goddess Poverty, Chremylus is warned, however, that should his plan come to fruition no one will be “do[ing] an honest day’s work.” “If Wealth were to get his sight back and if he spread himself around to everyone,” Poverty warns, “who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?” All of the workmen, including the “smiths and . . . the ship builders, . . . the tailors, the cartwheel makers, the cobblers, the brick makers, the launderers, the tanners” and those who “till the soil with the ploughs and then reap” will choose instead to “sit around idly all day, doing nothing and caring about nothing.” Without the threat of poverty, no one will exert themselves or risk their health to do work. “It is I who forces them to do all that work,” says Poverty. “Yes, me, Poverty, whom they all want to avoid and earn themselves a livelihood, it is I who’ll be making them do all that work for you!”

Once Chremylus goes through with his plan, he finds that more dire consequences follow as a result of his actions. Just after returning from the healing of Wealth, he encounters an old woman whose young lover has left her because he no longer relied upon her for her wealth. Within this single broken relationship is encapsulated the two primary relationships that uphold and perpetuate any society, the love relationship between man and woman and the relationship of respect and dependence between the young and the old. With wealth gone, there is no need for anyone to depend upon another for sustenance. The result is that lovers separate from each other and the young, no longer in need of the inheritance passed on by the old, no longer respect the elderly.

The final calamity to result from the new profusion of wealth is revealed to Chremylus by the god Hermes, who comes to inform him that Zeus is “angry [with him] because from the moment you gave Wealth his sight back, we gods received nothing from you mortals! Not a single sacrifice, not a whiff of incense, not a single leaf of bay, not a single barley cake, not one victim, nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Because there are no more wants among men, piety has abated. Men no longer rely upon, and so no longer worship, the gods.

Through his effort toward creating a utopia, Chremylus has caused the dissolution of the primary institutions necessary to the continued stability of society: work, family, and religion. Through his exploration of these unexpected consequences of Chemylus’s attempt to eradicate poverty, Aristophanes also points to the often wide chasm between human want and human need, between what people believe is best and what is really best.

Aristotle and John Locke on Property

In his treatment “Of Property” in the fifth chapter of his Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke evinces the various ways in which he has been significant influenced by the thought of Aristotle on the subjects of wealth and property ownership. He also, however, departs from and makes meaningful additions to the theories of Aristotle on key points, thereby forging a theory of his own from the foundation provided by Aristotle.

Both Aristotle and Locke begin their exploration of the origins of property with the notion of an original human family which held all property in common. Aristotle asserts that “the first community . . . which is the family . . . originally had all things in common.” Locke, adding to this the biblical names of Adam and Noah as the forefathers of the collective human family, similarly states that God granted the entire world to “Adam, and to Noah, and his sons,” from which “it is very clear, that God . . . has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.”

From this original collective ownership of the earth, both Aristotle and Locke explain, there was a departure in favor of private ownership, from which, in turn, resulted the development of exchange and, later still, the use of money. It is in the reasons they provide for this departure from a primitive collectivism that Aristotle and Locke begin to depart from each other in their respective theories. Aristotle puts forward the notion that the development of private ownership out of the early collective economy of the primeval human family was the result of the growth of the population. “Later, when the family divided into parts,” says Aristotle, “the parts shared in many things, and different parts in different things.” The division of property among private owners, then, is the result of the limitation of one’s purview to those things that are of direct concern to one.

Locke, however, offers a theory that, while not in conflict with Aristotle’s ideas, provides an alternative explanation for the development of private property out of early common ownership. Locke sees this development as a natural extension of the private ownership each person naturally possesses over his or her own body. “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,” says Locke, “yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.” Because of this natural ownership over one’s own body, it is also the case that anything one uses one’s body to produce is also one’s own. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his,” according to Locke.

While Locke’s theory of the origin of private property does not stand in opposition to the theory of Aristotle on the same subject, and the two are even potentially complementary, there is a clear difference in their perspectives on this point. After this brief departure from another another, however, Locke returns again to an agreement with Aristotle in his theories of the origins of exchange and money, adding to Aristotle while relying upon Aristotle’s earlier assessments.

Commenting on the origins of an exchange economy, Aristotle states that “the art of exchange extends . . . arises at first from what is natural, from the circumstance that some have too little, others too much” of certain goods. As a result, an individual exchanges that which he has too much of for that which he has too little of with another individual who finds himself in the inverse situation. The use of money developed, continues Aristotle, because the “various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like.”

While holding to a nearly identical theory regarding the development of an exchange economy and the use of money, Locke adds to Aristotle’s idea the observation that those goods which are necessary to life are generally perishable goods. “And thus came in the use of money,” writes Locke, “some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.”

While departing slightly in some places and proposing slightly divergent alternative theories in others, Locke largely relies upon Aristotle’s account regarding the origins of private property, the exchange economy, and the use of money. Given the clear reliance of Locke upon Aristotle’s ideas, it is perhaps useful to view Locke’s writing on the subject as a commentary upon the earlier work of Aristotle upon the same.

“Productive and Unproductive Labour” in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations

In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”

The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.

Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”

The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.

It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.

It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.

Race, Religion, and Conflict in the Gilded Age

During times of significant change and upheaval, humans tend to retreat into a tribal mindset that seeks protection in groups and places special emphasis on developing closeness with other people with whom they seem to have some obvious natural affinity. For example, according to The Barna Group, a California-based research organization, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, church attendance in the United States “increased by perhaps 25%” before returning to “normal levels.”1 Similarly, according to Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has studied extremist groups extensively, involvement with racist organizations and ideologies tends to be tied to the lack of a stable home, family life, and career.2 The Gilded Age was undoubtedly a time of massive economic and social upheaval. With the advent of industrialization, rural Americans flocked to the new and increasingly large industrial centers in America’s major cities. While 19.8% of the population of the United States lived in urban areas (defined as any area with a population greater than 2500) and 80.2% lived in rural areas in 1860, 39.7% lived in urban areas and only 60.3% lived in rural areas by 1900.3 Simultaneously, these same growing urban areas experienced a massive influx of immigrants, including a total of 13 million from the end of the Civil War in 1866 to the dawn of the twentieth century in 1900.4 As a result of these and other drastic changes in the American landscape and way of life, race and religion exercised an important role in the lives of Americans of the Gilded Age.

Race and religion are often intimately linked as both tend to be inherited. Although the very idea of “race is biologically incoherent,” the sets of phenotypes generally identified under that heading are heritable and readily recognizable differences between groups of people.5 Similarly, as with other elements of culture, children generally adopt the religion of their parents. This link between race and religion was readily evident during the Gilded Age which saw a significant uptick in the number of people coming to the United States from places such as Ireland, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, whose populations differed both ethnically and religiously from the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant mainstream of the United States.6 These ethnic and religious differences in combination triggered a backlash on the part of many native-born Americans. Prescott F. Hall, for instance, a leader of a group which sought to limit immigration to the United States to only Anglo-Saxons, insisted that America should “be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive” peoples rather than “Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”7 Similarly and simultaneously, many Protestants protested against the changing religious landscape of America caused by the Catholicism many of these immigrants were bringing with them.8

As a result, many Catholic immigrants to America retreated into ethnic and religious enclaves where they could be around those of the same or similar language, culture, and religion. Rather than send their children to American public schools, in many of which teachers still read frequently from the Protestant King James Version of the Bible and led classes in prayers that reflected Protestant beliefs and practices, for example, many communities of Catholic immigrants chose to create parochial schools based around their local parish churches. In addition to the use of a curriculum which reflected the contents of their Catholic faith, many of these schools also taught in the languages of the immigrant communities which populated them in the belief that “language saves faith.”9

For their part, Catholics, including both immigrants and the subsequent generations born to them in the United States, also developed and engaged in actions motivated by their own sets of prejudices. This is particularly evident in the leading role that Catholics of the working class played in excluding Chinese immigrants, whom they saw as a threat to their economic wellbeing, from unions and in supporting anti-Chinese legislation by the federal government. The Knights of Labor, for instance, was at one point the largest labor organization in the United States and was headed during its heyday by a Catholic, Terence Powderly.10 In spite of its relatively welcoming membership policies, which allowed blacks and women to join, a rarity among labor unions, the Chinese were explicitly targeted for exclusion from its ranks and, in fact, the Knights advocated banning further Chinese immigration.11 The anti-Chinese movement in the West was also led by Catholic workers such as Dennis Kearney, whose followers adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must GO!”12

Nearly all groups, Protestant or Catholic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, held prejudices and fostered discrimination against blacks. While the Knights of Labor allowed blacks to join their ranks, most labor unions did not. Blacks, most of whom were freed slaves from the American South, were seen by others not only as economic and social threats but even as existential threats to white dominance and to the white race itself. Historian Richard L. Hughes has pointed out, for example, that the development of a concept of “blackness” that attached to those of African descent and that more often than not consisted of little more than caricatures and stereotypes, “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”13 In comparison with the idea, mostly imaginary, of an existential “other” in the black who differed substantially, comically, and seemingly in over-the-top and essential ways from anyone of European descent, the differences between a person of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and another of Italian or Polish ancestry seemed to recede into insignificance.

During the Gilded Age, people from all over the world converged in the new urban and industrial centers of the United States. The differences they encountered in others in both appearance and thought along with the separation from family, from traditional ways of life, and from homelands were often bewildering and frightening. As a result, many Americans entered into a defensive posture in which they clung fervently to their race and their religion as defining features of their selfhood, often going on the offensive against perceived threats. Only after the period of crisis and upheaval had passed did America finally begin to become comfortable with and embracing of its new diversity, a process that continues still today.

Notes1 The Barna Group, (26 November 2001) (accessed 23 March 2013).

2 Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 233.

 3 Robert G. Barrows, “Urbanizing America,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 102-3.  

4 Roger Daniels, “The Immigrant Experience in the Gilded Age,” in ibid., 76.

5 Atran, 246.  

6 From 1866 to 1900, Irish made up 13% of immigrants to the United States and Italians and Austro-Hungarians made up 7.7% each. (Daniels, 78-9).

7 Prescott F. Hall, quoted in Daniels, 93.  

8 Daniels, 89.  

9 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 172.  

10 Kevin Schmiesing, “Brothers and Sisters of Charity: The Catholic Response to a Transformed World,” Christian History 104, 2013, 17.  

11 Eric Arnesen, “American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, 61.  

12 Daniels, 90.  

13 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.