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Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Slavery, An Epicurean Business Model

Early Economics

The world is composed of atoms, which can combine and re-combine to form everything and anything, including the gods, but can never be destroyed. There is no afterlife and creation is simply trial and error carried out over infinitely long times. The only purpose to life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

These ideas should all sound familiar to people acquainted with the mores of modern society, all part of a belief system based on the scientific method, even leading to a conception of the pleasure-pain principle that sounds suspiciously like the basis of neo-economics: self-interest. However, these ideas are thousands of years old, championed by followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and Epicureanism didn’t imply capitalism but the only other economic system that has ever had lasting success – slavery.

Atomic Troubles

It's a little sobering to remember that our world is founded on ideas that are millenia old – atomism can be traced to the Ancient Greeks, was rediscovered during the Renaissance by Italian scholars and then developed by European philosophers into the scientific ideas that we have today. Atomism, not heliocentrism, lay behind Gallileo’s troubles with the Inquisition as he insisted that the idea of transubstantiation – the literal transformation of the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the flesh and blood of Christ – was scientifically impossible.  His insistence on Copernican heliocentrism was simply annoying in comparison with this greater heresy (Copernicus, Muddling Through).

Even for their time the Epicureans were unusual in not believing that gods interfered with human life or that there was afterlife. Their focus on the twin aims of earthly pleasure (which actually meant retiring from the world for a life of quiet contemplation rather than all-night partying) and the avoidance of pain seem strangely familiar to students of modern economics – these are the ideas behind hedonic utility, the idea that we engage our self-interest to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. As we saw in Economics and Psychology: the Divorce, it was this calculus of self-interest that led to the development of the classical economic theories that still rule our lives today.  Perhaps the links between the Epicureans and modern economic theory were best expressed by  Ludwig von Mises in Human Action: A Treatise on Economics
The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism.
Err ... I think he's saying that Epicurean ideas are embodied in economic theories arguing for the specialization of trades.  But maybe he's just cross about something.

Christian Party-Poopers

However, the Epicurean philosophy was eventually crushed by the early Christian church which seems to have engaged in a deliberate policy of eradicating the idea of hedonism as the purpose of life. Christian teaching demanded sacrifice in life in return for eternal salvation in the afterlife so the suggestion that there wasn’t an afterlife and that the highest principles should be based on having a nice time rather ran counter to this, and early Christian propaganda targeted Epicureanism by tarring it as an outlandlish sect of pleasure loving hooligans, and effectively drove it to extinction.  Here's the early Christian philosopher, Lactantius getting all worked up about it:
"[Epicurius] was an advocate of most disgraceful pleasure, and said that man was born for its enjoyment.  Who, when he hears this affirmed, would abstain from the practice of vice and wickedness? For; if the soul is doomed to perish, let us eagerly pursue riches, that we may be able to enjoy all kinds of indulgence; and if these are wanting to us, let us take them away from those who have them by stealth, by stratagem, or by force, especially if there is no God who regards the actions of men: as long as the hope of impunity shall favor us, let us plunder and put to death."
 Yeah, whatever. Pass me another martini.

Horse Power

From a modern perspective, it’s easy to think that the persecution of Epicureanism by the Church, and the subsequent retreat into faith driven dogmatic ideology, put back the path of human development by hundreds, if not thousands, of years but it’s not quite that simple. For the vast majority of people for the vast majority of human existence life has been nasty and short, with little opportunity for hedonic maximisation, and Christian teaching at least held out the hope of a better life after death, in return for prior good behavior. Back in the days when the only source of horsepower was a horse this was a vastly more achievable lifestyle than that promoted by the Epicureans.

On the other hand Christianity offered redemption for all, and given the miserable lives that most people experienced it’s not at all surprising that the vision of a better afterlife was appealing to the masses.  In the pre-industrial age the masses generally had quite a lot to be miserable about. Apart from squalid poverty, disease and rather of lot of pointless fighting most people actually weren’t in any position to enjoy anything because the main source of power was people: manpower. Slaves built the Egyptian pyramids, tended the Greek philosophers, manned the Roman mines, fought for the Ottoman sultans, provided the labor that supported the British Empire and worked the tobacco plantations of the American South.


For thousands of years manpower was the only real engine of economic growth on our planet, and it was a durable and effective system. It can be argued that, other than capitalism, slavery is the only economic system that has ever been successful. It's been called different things at different times: although Christianity nominally put a stop to slavery – of Christians by other Christians – it was replaced in Europe by a system derived from it: feudalism. Peasants were serfs, and worked for a lord of the manor in return for their protection: not slavery exactly, but close to it.  Even the mid-twentieth century alternatives – Communism and Fascism – relied on forced labour in the Gulag, the ghettos and the concentration camps. 

Epircurean ideas were lost to Europeans for the best part of a millennium, before being recovered by the discovery of a copy of On The Nature Of Things, a philosophical poem that expounds the Epicurian approach. Many of the ideas from it were to inform scientists across the continent, and while this was happening, something else important was happening in Holland: a breakdown of the semi-slavery of the feudal system. The reclamation of land from the North Sea required free people, who ended up owning the land and creating water boards, democratic institutions, to manage the water defences. This had the unforeseen consequence of creating a class of free men willing to fight, and pay taxes, in defence of their rights. As Jeffrey Robertson and Warwick Funnell note:
"Politically, the water-boards were relatively autonomous, democratic institutions located within a federal structure that operated as a network of interconnected cells, rather than a hierarchy."

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that this was the basis of all modern democracy, but not by too much. And as the ideas of freedom and democracy were sprouting in the low lands so  science was spreading north from medieval Italy.  Advances in technology primed by the rediscovery of Ancient Greek learning led to the development of the first steam engine, by Thomas Savery, patented in 1698 and, for the first time, humanity was on the verge of a new economic system, powered by technology rather than people. Developing the capitalist institutions to fund these developments was a story we touched on in Going Dutch, the Benefits of Sound Money. The combination of science, capitalism and freedom to enjoy the rewards of one's own labor lit the blue touchpaper of economic growth.

It was the recovery of Epicurean ideas during the Renaissance which sparked the scientific revolution that eventually undermined the old religious certainties and replaced the mainspring of the slave economy with industrial power systems. This change that finally removed the widespread need for forced labor and eventually created the Epicurean lifestyles that many of us now experience as of our right.   The Christian vision of sacrifice now for reward later has largely been ditched because it's no longer required in our new world where rewards are available in the here and now.

Effete Faustians

Here, then, is one of the great ironies of history. The Epicureans, aloof and effete pleasure seekers operating in a society reliant on slave labor eventually inspired the development of the scientific principles that led to the invention of the sources of mechanical power that removed much of the need for slavery. The development of capitalism and the abolition of slavery was – and is – founded on the easy availability of sources of mass energy.

It isn’t a surprise that the easy availability of power has made us more focussed on life rather than the afterlife, and that many of us are the direct modern descendents of an ancient pagan sect, even while claiming to be otherwise. This history perhaps explains why, despite the justified anger with the excesses of modern capitalism, no one really wants to bury it, merely to improve it. After all, if the only alterative to capitalism is slavery and the exchange of a life of earthly pleasure for a promise of a better afterlife we can be forgiven for a Faustian pact with the wealth generating monsters that drive our lives.

There is a theory that the work ethic of Protestantism in Europe, built on Christian principles of sacrifice now for reward later, was a driver in the success of the capitalist model.  Viewed as an upbringing that puts an emphasis on self-control this, when allied to scientific knowledge, allowed the creation of an economic system that balanced wealth creation with responsibility.  It's an odd thought that maybe it's the eclipse of religious ideas which has led to an imbalance between pleasure-seeking behaviors and (lack of) self-control and brought us to our current, parlous economic state.  Rather than teaching ethics to budding capitalists perhaps we ought to be sending them to religious seminaries.

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