Reciprocity in Ancient Greece

By Christopher Gill; Norman Postlethwaite et al. | Go to book overview

12
The Commodification of Symbols: Reciprocity and its Perversions in Menander

SITTA VON REDEN


INTRODUCTION

In this chapter I aim to show that reciprocity is not only a socioeconomic practice but a local concept of order, peace, and social cohesion.1 More precisely, by looking at the images of commerce in New Comedy, I shall argue that the confrontation of reciprocity and commodity exchange, which occurs in more than one play, was a metaphorical confrontation of order and disorder, civic community and its corrosion.2 Menander's motif of the 'commodification of symbols' -- that is, his representation of civic symbols as objects which have a price and are transacted arbitrarily -- suggests that commodity exchange was regarded as the moral opposite of civic exchange and thus in certain circumstances detrimental to the polis. Conversely, the moral improvement of characters and the dramatic climaxes of various plays seem to make sense against a background in which the good life was linked to reciprocity and gift exchange.

____________________
1
Already Marcel Mauss Essai sur le don had an implied philosophical agenda. It not only offered an ethnography but aimed to show that the system of the circulating gift was the foundation of early society; gift exchange meant abstention from violence in favour of solidarity, peace, and community. Thus, he suggested that the gift was the primitive parallel to the social contract regarded in early modern political philosophy as the origin of society. See Mauss ( 1925), cited from (1990), 65-71, 79-80; also Sahlins ( 1972), 168-83; Douglas ( 1990), pp. viii-x; Van Wees, Ch. I, Sect. IV.
2
It thus starts from, and attempts to confirm, the assumption that in the Greek polis the distribution of symbolic goods, such as power, civic and connubial status, as well as divine blessing, could still be envisaged in terms of reciprocity and gift exchange. See Kurke ( 1991); von Reden ( 1995); Seaford ( 1994) argues, by contrast, that the development of the polis and the spread of market exchange and coinage, which was related to it, tended to dissolve notions of reciprocity and gift exchange; thus also Gernet ( 1981).

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