Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer

By Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy; Irene S. Lemos | Go to book overview

13

GIFT EXCHANGE: MODERN THEORIES
AND ANCIENT ATTITUDES

Beate Wagner-Hasel

In a recently published volume, Reciprocity in Ancient Greece, the classical historian Hans van Wees begins his comments on 'The Law of Gratitude' with a citation from Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan 1651: 1.15) which makes clear that no one gives something or anything without expecting to benefit from it (van Wees 1998: 13). In the discourses of political economists and early theorists of gift exchange in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as in actual sociological debates, precisely the opposite is held to be true.

For Helmuth Berking, sociologist and author of Giving: On the Anthropology of the Gift), gift exchange offers an 'opposing image to an excessively utilitarian morality', for such exchange represents a 'form of praxis' in which 'the symbolic order and the moral vocabulary of archaic sociability are crucially grounded' (Berking 1996: 11). In his most recent book L'enigme du don the French ethnologist Maurice Godelier makes a similar argument. Crises in the fabric of contemporary society motivated his renewed investigation into the practices of gift exchange. For him even the most secularised societies require religious objects such as gifts to guarantee social cohesion (Godelier 1996: 7–16). In an essay published in 1990 in a commemorative volume for Karl Polanyi, the economist Bjorn Hettne argues very strongly for the revival of the principle of reciprocity since crisis management, both in its neo-liberal and statist forms, has failed to cope with global recession, structural unemployment and crises in political trust (Hettne 1990: 208–20; see also Caille and Godbout 1991: 11–32; Elwert 1991: 163).

How can we explain these current positive evaluations of gift exchange? Why is the quality of achieving social cohesion ascribed to the exchange of gifts? The answer lies in the history of the making of the modern theory of gift exchange. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss is generally recognised as the main initiator of modern debates on gift exchange in the early twentieth century. But Mauss's conception of the gift and gift exchange developed in his Essai sur le don is itself a child of the modern critique of capitalism, or rather the critique of the classical liberal theory of Adam Smith. As such, it was conceived as a counterimage to modern exchange understood as egoistic (Mauss 1923–4). In what follows, I firstly wish to outline the history of these origins, which I have pursued

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