The irony of reading Plutarch

I read a short essay by Plutarch yesterday. It’s 2.000-year-old text against the notion of borrowing. “Against borrowing money” is the essay’s title and it’s part of his book on Morals.

Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD)

Of course he wasn’t an economist so you won’t find financial doctrines in it. But the simple fact of reading a Greek ancestor who has written simple ideas on the notion of borrowing/lending makes it, well, ironic if not tragic.

And then we go back to our news channels and our dear government and we listen things like “we didn’t know” or “there was no alternative”.

Go on, give it a try, it’s long but not too much.

Sec. I. Plato in his Laws [881] does not permit neighbours to use one another’s water, unless they have first dug for themselves as far as the clay, and reached ground that is unsuitable for a well. For clay, having a rich and compact nature, absorbs the water it receives, and does not let it pass through. But he allows people that cannot make a well of their own to use their neighbour’s water, for the law ought to relieve necessity. Ought there not also to be a law about money, that people should not borrow of others, nor go to other people’s sources of income, until they have first examined their own resources at home, and collected, as by drops, what is necessary for their use? But nowadays from luxury and effeminacy and lavish expenditure people do not use their own resources, though they have them, but borrow from others at great interest without necessity. And what proves this very clearly is the fact that people do not lend money to the needy, but only to those who, wanting an immediate supply, bring a witness and adequate security for their credit, so that they can be in no actual necessity of borrowing. [882]

Sec. II. Why pay court to the banker or trader? Borrow from your own table. You have cups, silver dishes, pots and pans. Use them in your need. Beautiful Aulis or Tenedos will furnish you with earthenware instead, purer than silver, for they will not smell strongly and unpleasantly of interest, a kind of rust that daily soils your sumptuousness, nor will they remind you of the calends and the new moon, which, though the most holy of days, the money-lenders make ill-omened and hateful. For those who instead of selling them put their goods out at pawn cannot be saved even by Zeus the Protector of Property: they are ashamed to sell, they are not ashamed to pay interest on their goods when out at pawn. And yet the famous Pericles made the ornament of Athene, which weighed forty talents of fine gold, removable at will, for “so,” he said, “we can use the gold in war, and at some other time restore as costly a one.” So should we too in our necessities, as in a siege, not receive a garrison imposed on us by a hostile money-lender, nor allow our goods to go into slavery; but stripping our table, our bed, our carriages, and our diet, of superfluities, we should keep ourselves free, intending to restore all those things again, if we have good luck.

Sec. III. So the Roman matrons offered their gold and ornaments as first-fruits to Pythian Apollo, out of which a golden cup was made and sent to Delphi; [883] and the Carthaginian matrons had their heads shorn, and with the hair cut off made cords for the machines and engines to be used in defence of their country. [884] But we being ashamed of independence enslave ourselves to covenants and conditions, when we ought to restrict and confine ourselves to what is useful, and dock or sell useless superfluities, to build a temple of liberty for ourselves, our wives, and children. The famous Artemis at Ephesus gives asylum and security from their creditors to debtors, when they take refuge in her temple; but the asylum and sanctuary of frugality is everywhere open to the sober-minded, affording them joyful and honourable and ample space for much ease. For as the Pythian Priestess told the Athenians at the time of the Median war that the god had given them wooden walls, [885] and they left the region and city, their goods and houses, and took refuge in their ships for liberty, so the god gives us a wooden table, and earthenware plate, and coarse garments, if we wish to live free. Care not for fine horses or chariots with handsome harness, adorned with gold [886] and silver, which swift interest will catch up and outrun, but mounted on any chance donkey or nag flee from the hostile and tyrannical money-lender, not demanding like the Mede land and water, [887] but interfering with your liberty, and lowering your status. If you pay him not, he duns you; if you offer the money, he won’t have it; if you are selling anything, he cheapens the price; if you don’t want to sell, he forces you; if you sue him, he comes to terms with you; if you swear, he hectors; if you go to his house, he shuts the door in your face; whereas if you stay at home, he billets himself on you, and is ever rapping at your door.

Sec. IV. How did Solon benefit the Athenians by ordaining that debtors should no longer have to pay in person? For they are slaves to all money-lenders, [888] and not to them only, what would there be so monstrous in that? but to their slaves, who are insolent and savage barbarians, such as Plato represents the fiery torturers and executioners in Hades who preside over the punishment of the impious. For they make the forum a hell for wretched debtors, and like vultures devour and rend them limb from limb, “piercing into their bowels,” [889] and stand over others and prevent their tasting their own grapes or crops, as if they were so many Tantaluses. And as Darius sent Datis and Artaphernes to Athens with manacles and chains in their hands for their captives, so they bring into Greece boxes full of bonds and agreements, like fetters, and visit the towns and scour the country round, sowing not like Triptolemus harmless corn, but planting the toilsome and prolific and never-ending roots of debts, which grow and spread all round, and ruin and choke cities. They say that hares at once give birth and suckle and conceive again, but the debts of these knaves and barbarians give birth before they conceive; for at the very moment of giving they ask back, and take up what they laid down, and lend what they take for lending.

Sec. V. It is a saying among the Messenians, that “there is a Pylos before Pylos, and another Pylos too.” So it may be said with respect to these money-lenders, “there is interest before interest, and other interest too.” Then of course they laugh at those natural philosophers who say that nothing can come of nothing, for they get interest on what neither is nor was; and they think it disgraceful to farm out the taxes, though the law allows it, while they themselves against the law exact tribute for what they lend, or rather, if one is to say the truth, defraud as they lend, for he who receives less than he signs his name for is defrauded. The Persians indeed think lying a secondary crime, but debt a principal one, for lying frequently follows upon debt, but money-lenders tell more lies, for they make fraudulent entries in their account-books, writing down that they have given so-and-so so much, when they have really given less. And the only excuse for their lying is covetousness, not necessity, not utter poverty, but insatiable greediness, the outcome of which is without enjoyment and useless to themselves, and fatal to their victims. For neither do they farm the fields which they rob their debtors of, nor do they inhabit their houses when they have thrust them out, nor use their tables or apparel, but first one is ruined, and then a second is hunted down, for whom the first one serves as a decoy. For the bane spreads and grows like a fire, to the destruction and ruin of all who fall into their clutches, for it consumes one after another; and the money-lender, who fans and feeds this flame to ensnare many, gets no more advantage from it but that some time after he can take his account-book and read how many he has sold up, how many turned out of house and home, and track the sources of his wealth, which is ever growing into a larger pile.

Sec. VI. And do not think I say this as an enemy proclaiming war against the money-lenders,

“For never did they lift my cows or horses,” [890]

but merely to prove to those who too readily borrow money what disgrace and servitude it brings with it, and what extreme folly and weakness it is. Have you anything? do not borrow, for you are not in a necessitous condition. Have you nothing? do not borrow, for you will never be able to pay back. Let us consider either case separately. Cato said to a certain old man who was a wicked fellow, “My good sir, why do you add the shame that comes from wickedness to old age, that has so many troubles of its own?” So too do you, since poverty has so many troubles of its own, not add the terrible distress that comes from borrowing money and from debt; and do not take away from poverty its only advantage over wealth, its freedom from corroding care. For the proverb that says, “I cannot carry a goat, put an ox on my shoulder,” has a ridiculous ring. Unable to bear poverty, are you going to put on your back a money-lender, a weight hard to carry even for a rich man? How then, will you say, am I to maintain myself? Do you ask this, having two hands, two legs, and a tongue, in short, being a man, to love and be loved, to give and receive benefits? Can you not be a schoolmaster or tutor, or porter, or sailor, or make coasting voyages? Any of these ways of getting a livelihood is less disgraceful and difficult than to always have to hear, “Pay me that thou owest.”

Sec. VII. The well-known Rutilius went up to Musonius at Rome, and said to him, “Musonius, Zeus Soter, whom you imitate and emulate, does not borrow money.” And Musonius smilingly answered, “Neither does he lend.” For you must know Rutilius, himself a lender, was bantering Musonius for being a borrower. What Stoic inflatedness was all this! What need was there to bring in Zeus Soter? For all nature teaches the same lesson. Swallows do not borrow money, nor do ants, although nature has given them no hands, or reason, or profession. But men have intellect in excess, and so ingenious are they that they keep near them horses, and dogs, and partridges, and jackdaws. Why then do you despair, who are as impressible as a jackdaw, have as much voice as a partridge, and are as noble as a dog, of getting some person to befriend you, by looking after him, winning his affections, guarding him, fighting his battles? Do you not see how many opportunities there are both on land and sea? As Crates says,

“Miccylus and his wife, to ward off famine

In these bad times, I saw both carding wool.”

And King Antigonus asked Cleanthes, when he saw him at Athens after a long interval, “Do you still grind, Cleanthes?” And he replied, “I do, O king, but for my living, yet so as not to desert philosophy.” Such was the admirable spirit of the man who, coming from the mill and kneading-trough, wrote with the hand that had baked and ground about the gods, and the moon, and stars, and the sun. But those kinds of labour are in our view servile! And so that we may appear free we borrow money, and flatter and dance attendance on slaves, and give them dinners and presents, and pay taxes as it were to them, not on account of our poverty (for no one lends money to a poor man), but from our love of lavish expenditure. For if we were content with things necessary for subsistence, the race of money-lenders would be as extinct as Centaurs and Gorgons are; it is luxury that has created them as much as goldsmiths, and silversmiths, and perfumers, and dyers in bright colours. For we do not owe money for bread and wine, but for estates, and slaves, and mules, and dining-rooms, and tables, and for our lavish public entertainments, in our unprofitable and thankless ambition. And he that is once involved in debt remains in it all his time, like a horse bitted and bridled that takes one rider after another, and there is no escape to green pastures and meadows, but they wander about like those demons who were driven out of heaven by the gods who are thus described by Empedocles:–

“Into the sea the force of heaven thrusts them,

The sea rejects them back upon the land;

To the sun’s rays th’ unresting earth remits them;

The sun anon whirls them to heaven again.”

So one after another usurer or trader gets hold of the poor wretch, hailing either from Corinth, or Patrae, or Athens, till he gets set on to by them all, and torn to bits, and cut into mince-meat as it were for his interest. For as a person who is fallen into the mire must either get up out of it or remain in it, and if he turns about in it, and wallows in it, and bedabbles his body all over in it, he contracts only the greater defilement, so by borrowing from one person to pay another and changing their money-lenders they contract and incur fresh interest, and get into greater liabilities, and closely resemble sufferers from cholera, whose case does not admit of cure because they evacuate everything they are ordered to take, and so ever add to the disease. So these will not get cleansed from the disease of debt, but at regular times in the year pay their interest with pain and agony, and then immediately another creditor presents his little account, so again their heads swim and ache, when they ought to have got rid of their debts altogether, and regained their freedom.

Sec. VIII. I now turn my attention to those who are rich and luxurious, and use language like the following, “Am I then to go without slaves and hearth and home?” As if any dropsical person, whose body was greatly swollen and who was very weak, should say to his doctor, “Am I then to become lean and empty?” And why not, to get well? And do you too go without a slave, not to be a slave yourself; and without chattels, not to be another man’s chattel. Listen to a story about two vultures; one was vomiting and saying it would bring its inside up, and the other who was by said, “What harm if you do? For it won’t be your inside you bring up, but that dead body we devoured lately.” And so any debtor does not sell his own estate, or his own house, but his creditor’s, for he has made him by law master of them. Nay, but by Zeus, says one, my father left me this field. Yes, and your father also left you liberty and a status in the community, which you ought to value more than you do. And your father begot you with hand and foot, but should either of them mortify, you pay the surgeon to cut it off. Thus Calypso clad and “dressed” Odysseus “in raiment smelling sweet,” [891] like the body of an immortal, as a gift and token of her affection for him; but when his vessel was upset and he himself immersed, and owing to this wet and heavy raiment could hardly keep himself on the top of the waves, he threw it off and stripped himself, and covered his naked breast with Ino’s veil, [892] and “swam for it gazing on the distant shore,” [893] and so saved his life, and lacked neither food nor raiment. What then? have not poor debtors storms, when the money-lender stands over them and says, Pay?

“Thus spoke Poseidon, and the clouds did gather,

And lashed the sea to fury, and at once

Eurus and Notus and the stormy Zephyr

Blew all together.” [894]

Thus interest rolls on interest as wave upon wave, and he that is involved in debt struggles against the load that bears him down, but cannot swim away and escape, but sinks to the bottom, and carries with him to ruin his friends that have gone security for him. But Crates the Theban, though he had neither duns nor debts, and was only disgusted at the distracting cares of housekeeping, gave up a property worth eight talents, and assumed the philosopher’s threadbare cloak and wallet, and took refuge in philosophy and poverty. And Anaxagoras left his sheep-farm. But why need I mention these? since the lyric poet Philoxenus, obtaining by lot in a Sicilian colony much substance and a house abounding in every kind of comfort, but finding that luxury and pleasure and absence of refinement was the fashion there, said, “By the gods these comforts shall not undo me, I will give them up,” and he left his lot to others, and sailed home again. But debtors have to put up with being dunned, subjected to tribute, suffering slavery, passing debased coin, and like Phineus, feeding certain winged Harpies, who carry off and lay violent hands on their food, not at the proper season, for they get possession of their debtors’ corn before it is sown, and they traffic for oil before the olives are ripe; and the money-lender says, “I have wine at such and such a price,” and takes a bond for it, when the grapes are yet on the vine waiting for Arcturus to ripen them.

Footnotes:

[881] Page 844, A. B. C.
[882] Reading with Wyttenbach [Greek: didousi] and [Greek: echousi].
[883] See Livy, v. 25.
[884] See Appian, lv. 26.
[885] See Herodotus, vii. 141-143; viii. 51.
[886] Reading with Reiske [Greek: katachrusa].
[887] The technical term for submission to an enemy. See Pausanias, iii. 12; x. 20. Herodotus, v. 17, 18; vii. 133.
[888] Reading with Reiske [Greek: daneistais]. Perhaps [Greek: aphanistais] originally came after [Greek: agriois], and got somehow displaced.
[889] See Homer, “Odyssey,” xi. 578, 579, and context.
[890] Homer, “Iliad,” i. 154.
[891] “Odyssey,” v. 264.
[892] “Odyssey,” v. 333-375.
[893] “Odyssey,” v. 439.
[894] “Odyssey,” v. 291-295.

The text was taken from Project Gutenberg’s archive on Plutarch’s works. You can find the whole book of Morals here.

 

4 responses to “The irony of reading Plutarch

  1. well researhed article.about 1950 years late!

    Like

  2. Thanks for your comment. Indeed a bit late :)

    Like

  3. This is the most wonderful blog, thank you.
    I was reading Lucian yesterday ( and that lead me to Solon and his reforms) and that lead me here.

    I have linked to this superb blog here.

    http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.se/2012/07/steve-keen-goes-off-deep-end-with-debt.html?x#echocomments

    and Here

    http://www.golemxiv.co.uk/2012/06/save-the-euro-who-for/#comment-19442

    Like

  4. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    The domain for this great site covering the greek crisis and more has expired I am re blogging so that it remains searchable and readable.

    Like

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