An Intellectual History of Sophism versus Virtue
Chapter 2: Sophism, Academia, and Greek Economics
2. Sophism, academia, and Greek economics Historians of economic thought have traditionally questioned whether the ancient Greek philosophers comprehended the workings of the market (Blaug 1991; Petrochilos 2002: 600). As S. Todd Lowry has written, ‘The most fundamental question of substance in this material is the failure of the ancient Greeks even to advance a theory of general market price’ (Lowry 1969: 65). To be sure historians can give examples of indications of market ideas, such as the writings of Democritus, who produced a treatise on economics that did not survive intact, or Xenophon, who had a rudimentary understanding of how the market fostered the division of labour but did not elaborate on it (Roll 1956: 28; Lowry 1987: 45–79). There is also the case of an early poet, Hesiod, who showed an understanding of the basic problem of scarcity and the need to make choices as a result (Gordon 1963: 147–51). One explanation for the lack of a systematic study of market economics by the Greeks, as Karl Polanyi has pointed out, is that the use of market exchanges based in profits was new to Athens during the period of classic Greek philosophy (Polanyi 1971: 67). While there was a growing commercial sector with a related class of merchants, political and social power was held by aristocratic landowners. These landowners used slavery as the basis of their output and wealth, which minimized their use of exchange. Another explanation is that the trade in Greece involved the unique...
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