Monday, June 22, 2009

What's Wrong with a World without Limits?

TLS June 19 2009

from "World without limits," a version of the Presidential Address to the Classical Association, delivered by Richard Seaford:

As I argued some years ago in Money and the Early Greek Mind (2004), the pivotal position of the Greeks in world culture stems largely from the fact that the sixth-century polis was the first society in history (with the conceivable exception of China) to be pervaded by money. Coinage was invented  towards the end of the seventh century BC, and spread rapidly in the Greek city-states from the beginning of the sixth.


The new and revolutionary phenomenon of money itself underpinned and stimulated two great inventions in the Greek polis of the sixth century, "philosophy" and tragedy. "Philosophy" (or rather idea of the cosmos as an impersonal system) was first produced in the very first monetized society, early sixth-century Ionia, and--even more specifically--in its commercial centre Miletos. The tendency of pre-modern society to project social power onto cosmology (for example, "king Zeus rules the world") applies to the new social power of money and to much of the cosmology of the early philosophers: universal power resides not in a person but in an impersonal all-underlying, semi-abstract substance.

But the relationship of money and tragedy is no less striking. Tragedy was created shortly after the introduction into Athens of coinage. . . . Greek myth is, of course, largely pre-monetary, but in tragedy it is shaped by the new all-pervasive power of money. It is not only the obsession with money of some tragic tyrants (Oedipus, for example) that I have in mind. An entirely new feature of money is that its possession renders unnecessary in principle all pre-monetary forms of social relationship: reciprocity, redistribution, kinship, ritual, and so on. Money allows you o fulfill all your needs. It provides the power to increase itself. And it tends to promote predatory isolation. Hence the focus of much Athenian tragedy on the extreme isolation of the individual--from the gods and even (through killing) from his closest kin. I know of no precedent for this in literature, certainly not in the pre-monetary society depicted in Homer. This horrifying possibility is embodied in the figure of the tyrant (turannos), who in historiographic, philosophical and tragic texts characteristically kills his own kin, violates the sacred, and is much concerned with money as a means of power. The word "hero", the preoccupation of so much critical literature on the subject, barely occurs in Athenian tragedy, but turannos (or some form of that word) occurs over 170 times. 


Greeks of the classical period were anxious about the potentially unlimited scope and power of money, and this anxiety contributed to their explicit privileging of limit over the unlimited, especially but not only in metaphysics and ethics. For instance Plato in the Philebus states that limit should control the unlimited, and that the introduction of limit brings safety in countless spheres, notably in health and music. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that "bad if of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans surmised, and good is of the limited". This persists into the Pythagorean and Platonist philosophies that remained popular throughout antiquity.

But these Greek ideas are not confined to philosophical texts. If I was forced to characterize the outcome of Aeschylus' Oresteia in a single abstract formula, I would call it the victory of limit over the unlimited, in various respects that include the limitation of the potentially unlimited cycle of revenge and of the potentially unlimited accumulation of wealth. Among the ancient Greeks there is what I call a culture of limit. By contrast, our culture is characterized by hostility to closure (limit) in various spheres: economic, metaphysical, conceptual, narrative, and others.

This opposition is related to an opposition in basic forms of life. For the Greeks, the realm of freedom (economic and ethical) was stable self-sufficiency; and this determined the manner in which they . . . reacted to the unlimitedness of money. But we react to it in a manner determined by the fact that for us the realm of freedom is constant exchange. "Metaphysical categories", wrote Adorno, "are not merely an ideology concealing the social system; at the same time they express its nature, the truth about it and in their changes are precipitated those in its most central experiences". The same is true of the modern theoretical hostility to metaphysics, the postmodern fetishization of fragmentation, depthlessness, and indeterminacy, and its sublimation of the universe of free-floating images.

The impact of money on philosophy and drama, as outlined by Seaford above, is certainly an interesting one. Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, and Creon in Antigone are both afraid of the power of money to corrupt seers and citizens to work against them. I am less persuaded by Seaford's attempt, in the second half of the address, to distinguish between classical Greek society and modern society by valorizing the former's supposed "privileging" of limits, and condemning the latter's apparent "fetishization" of limitlessness. The distinction, and the evaluation, sounds like an over-simplification. Why is one called "privileging" and the other "fetishization"? 

The lesson taught by Walter Kaufmann in the prologue to his translation of Martin Buber's "I and Thou" comes to mind. Would-be prophets and moral teachers like to divide the world into two groups, and to place one above the other. Seaford's prioritization of the Greeks (first society to use coinage extensively), with only a parenthetical grudging admission that the Chinese could have been earlier, sounds like special pleading for an academic discipline that's losing prestige and clout. True scholarship would have encouraged a comparative approach: investigate the Chinese relationship between money and metaphysics, to see if the same Greek effect was true, and, if not, why. 

But the address is less concerned with scholarship than with with a moral critique of "the postmodern devotion to abolishing "Western" (that is Greek) metaphysics. The shorthand equation ""Western" (that is Greek)" is telling. (His commas round "Western" are cosmetic.) The "Western" is many things, besides Greek. And "Greek" itself is an impure composite. To link the postmodern critique of Greek metaphysics to unbridled greed for money--on the basis of the amorphous idea of limitlessness--as Seaford does here, is violently tendentious. Not only is postmodernism a complex phenomenon itself, irreducible to a single label or tendency, in some of those forms, postmodernism attacks the very same (capitalistic) greed criticized by Seaford. 

Limit or limitlessness--which better represents the hope for a more just and less destructive world? The question is false. Taoist and Hindu thought teach that dichotomies are inter-dependent. The truer question is, what limits, what limitlessnesses? And what limitless limits and other such complications? 

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