Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street

By Tomas Sedlacek | Go to book overview

3
Ancient Greece1

… the safest general characterization of the European philosophical
tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato
.
Alfred Whitehead

European philosophy was born in the ancient Greek world; the foundations of Euro-Atlantic civilization, and economics as well, were inspired here in many ways. We will not be able to completely understand the development of the modern notion of economics without understanding the disputes between the Epicureans and the Stoics; it is here that the part of philosophy was born which later became an indivisible part of economics. It was the hedonism of the philosopher Epicurus that would later receive a more exact economization and more technical mathematization at the hands of J. Bentham and J. S. Mill. The foundations of rational idealization and the topic of scientific progress expressed in mathematics can be found in ancient Greece, especially in the teachings of Plato, and both helped to define the development of economics. “Plato’s most important and enduring contribution to formal thought was the elevation of mathematics to a primary position in scientific inquiry. All sciences, including economics, which use mathematical analyses must comprehend the essence of Platonic idealism in order to properly evaluate the significance and limits of mathematics in their discipline.” 2 But first we will look shortly at other early philosophers, and even before that at the prephilosophical, poetic ancient tradition.


FROM MYTH: THE TRUTH OF THE POETS

The poetic tradition, as culminated in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, played a major role in the beginnings of Greek civilization. In his book The Masters of Truth in Ancient Greece, the Belgian historian Marcel Detienne highlights the fact that before the development of the Greek sophist and philosophical traditions, poetry played a much more important role than

1 The co-author of this chapter is Lukáš Tóth, who also co-edited this book.

2 Lowry, “Ancient and Medieval Economics,” 19.

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