Friday, December 23, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Since austerity is now the order of the day, Greeks are doing the sensible thing and beginning to barter. Aristotle thought it was the only system that kept the world honest.
At the centre of Aristotle’s thinking lay a concept dear to him — the purpose for which something was designed (its telos). So, the purpose of a shoe was to wear it. That was its ‘use-value’. Bartering it for something else did not change that: the shoe was still a shoe, with a specific use. If you did not wear it, someone else would. In return for the shoe, you would be receiving a commensurate item — a cloak, a pot, a mattock — which you would also put to the use for which it was made. Aristotle agreed there was a problem about the commensurability of any barter — how would you equalise the use-value of a shoe/bed/house? — but that did not affect the principle.
Now bring money into the equation. Aristotle’s point here was that it added a further dimension to the idea of use. Take medicine. Doctors used it to provide health. But if the doctor also used it to make money, health, a good per se, was no longer the sole aim: it was also a means to a further end — making a profit. So what were the priorities?
Further, the fact that anything from health to education could be turned into money suggested that the stock of wealth was infinite; believe that, and making money became life’s goal. But how ‘good’ was the activity of generating profit by compromising the use of something good in itself?
Aristotle knew about furthering trade by credit and loans. But his was an ethical, not economic, analysis. Barter keeps one honest because it puts equality, not profit, at the heart of all exchange. It does not judge the worth of any activity by its profit/loss potential, nor make financial accumulation the sole arbiter of life’s value.
But money in Aristotle’s time did at least derive directly from use-value. He would be aghast at today’s myriad instruments for producing fantasy money on the back of other fantasy money, and not a bit surprised by the consequences.
Newcastle University library, happily removing academic journals from the shelves to the (apparent) cheers of the academics (Letters, 12 November), is well behind the pace. Michael Wilding, an Australian correspondent, writes that Sydney University’s Fisher Library is planning to chuck out 500,000 books and journals to make room for, of course, more computers.
The first libraries we hear of are found in the Near East and, like Ashurbanipal’s (c. 650 bc), were mainly for internal reference purposes. That contained about 1,500 titles, with warnings against theft, maltreatment and late return. Libraries of the sort we would recognise began with the ancient Greeks. The finest of all was founded in Egyptian Alexandria in the 3rd century bc by the Greek king Ptolemy. His purpose was to outdo Athens as the intellectual centre of the Mediterranean, and his money ensured he did. Acquiring or copying texts went on at a phenomenal rate. Eventually it held nearly 500,000 rolls. Others got the idea, and rival scholarly libraries sprang up in Antioch and Pergamum, poaching top directors. They were a matter of national pride.
But they were not public libraries. These came with the Romans, martial conquerors of Greece but Greece’s cultural captives. Julius Caesar planned Rome’s first (39 bc). Emperors endowed them in large numbers, and by ad 350 there were 29 in Rome alone. You could not borrow the rolls, except by bribing the librarian, but you could make copies. Nowadays librarians rejoice that you can gawp, one page at a time, at a screen.
Mr Wilding likens modern librarians’ purges in favour of computerised literature to the Gutenberg revolution, when anything that was judged unworthy of becoming a printed book was lost forever, or to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, where books are rewritten to match state requirements — so easy on a computer. To that extent one must applaud another Australian university’s decision to bury books in landfill sites. When an electronic storm wipes out every computer and its contents, it will become the new Oxyrhynchus.