Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Review of Money and the Early Greek Mind by Richard Seaford

Seaford's language is difficult at times, in fact quite a lot of the time. He assumes his reader has a deep knowledge of Ancient Greek History - which I don't and was therefore often searching Wikipedia and the like to gain context. I also didn't like the structure of his book. And sometimes he said things that made me wonder if he's missed the point. There was a moment on page 112 when I was tempted to give up.

"As currency precious metal has advantages over iron. It is rarer and more valuable, and so can embody monetary value in pieces that are smaller and more easily concealable and portable than spits." (bold highlighting is my own)

So you may wonder why I've given it a full 5 stars? Because at its best it's brilliantly insightful; one of the most important books on the origin of money of recent times.

But first my criticisms. I can live with the first two. Both just required a bit more effort on my part. Besides, I guess the book was originally written for a readership of Greek Scholars and has garnered broader attention by being cited in writing on the origins of money (in particular Graeber's Debt - the first 5000 years). Regarding the quote; I see this as circular reasoning - isn't he just saying that a silver coin is valuable because its silver and not iron? I read the book as someone interested in Money rather than ancient Greece or the development of Philosophy, so I might be overly sensitive to this sort of thing. I was left asking if Seaford wants us to believe in a commodity theory of money - the rarity of silver? - or to believe in a social relations theory of money - the sharing of sacrifice? I'll happily dismiss both, or consider a conflation of the two, but Seaford should tell me from where he thinks money came. He does tell us at length what he thinks money is. And this leads me to the most serious criticism of this book; the structure of his argument.

Seaford defines money early in his book. Clearly he feels it is important to do so and later he criticises others who have been less rigorous in defining what they mean by money. In essence Seaford's definition is functional - money is, what money does. When he looks for examples of this money stuff  the reader is not surprised that he finds the first significant instances of it in Ancient Greece. If I defined music as having a 4/4 time signature with an accentuated backbeat, I would find music was born in 1950's America  in the form of rock n roll. In Seaford's defence he is only doing what many Anthropologists have done before. But for me his argument - that Greece is a special case because its coinage, its money, differentiates it from the Near Eastern civilisations - is undermined. Surely it would be possible to construct functionalist definitions of money to preclude or include any particular society or historical period? The discourse he cites between Polanyi & Veenhof being a case in point. In addition you have arguments - such as that presented by Joel Kaye in Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century - which make similar claims about the effects of monetisation, but in reference Medieval Philosophy (& proto-science) and its difference to Greek Philosophy.

Fortunately, almost inevitably, Seaford steps outside of these self imposed constraints. And then we move from a difficult book with a flawed thesis to a sublime work which offers deep insights into the nature of Money and its relationship to Mind. Just a few dozen pages after the frustration of the passage quoted above I was rewarded for my perseverance with Chapter Eight - The Features of Money. And it's here that Seaford really begins to hit his stride. The detail in the opening chapters is interesting - particularly on Laum's spits & sacrifice - but from Chapter Eight the quality of Seaford's insights into the nature of money begin to match his obvious mastery of Greek literature. He is clearly fascinated by money's metaphysical mystery - its impersonal/personal nature, its unlimitedness, the paradox of concrete abstractedness, and its simultaneous sameness and distinctiveness. It's a fascination that's infectious and it propelled me through the remainder of the book. At times I was reminded of Simmel's Philosophy of Money. There is more than a hint of psychoanalysis in Seaford examination, and I wanted more of this. His thoughts on these fuzzy ideas about money and their relation to the Greeks is what really made this book for me. (They also serve to highlight the limitations of a functionalist definition of Money)

Its a tough read - especially if you're not a Greek scholar. I've unintentionally spent more time criticising the book in this review than praising it. So I need to say this without equivocation; if you're interested in, or studying, the origins of money you must read this book. The rewards far exceed the (considerable) effort required. My wish is that Professor Seaford write a book for the general reader on Money and Midas. A freer reign on his thoughts and feelings about money combined with his knowledge and understanding of Greek mythology would make for a fascinating book on a myth that everyone knows.


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