This is actually just a bit of a digression from hacking my way toward the end of Graeber’s book. This is an excerpt that really blew my mind:
“In Athens… the language of money, debt, and finance provided powerful – and ultimately irresistible – ways to think about moral problems. Much as in Vedic India, people started talking about life as a debt to the gods, of obligations as debts, about literal debts of honor, of debt as sin and of vengeance as debt collection. Yet if debt was morality – and certainly at the very least it was in the interest of creditors, who often had little legal recourse to compel debtors to pay up, to insist that it was – what was one to make of the fact that money, that very thing that seemed capable of turning morality into an exact and quantifiable science, also seemed to encourage the very worst sorts of behavior?
It is from such dilemmas that modern ethics and moral philosophy being. I think this is true quite literally. Consider Plato’s Republic, another product of fourth-century Athens. The book begins when Socrates visits an old friend, a wealthy arms manufacturer, at the port of Piraeus. They get into a discussion of justice, which begins when the old man proposes that money cannot be a bad thing, since it allows those who have it to be just, and that justice consists in two things: telling the truth and always paying one’s debts. The proposal is easily demolished. What, Socrates asks, if someone lent you his sword, went violently insane, and then asked for it back (presumably so he could kill someone)? Clearly, it can never be right to arm a lunatic whatever the circumstances. The old man cheerfully shrugs the problem off and heads off to attend to some ritual, leaving his son to carry on the argument.
The son, Polemarchus, switches gears: clearly, his father hadn’t meant “debt” in the literal sense of returning what one has borrowed. He meant it more in the sense of giving people what is owed to them; repaying good with good and evil with evil; helping one’s friends and hurting one’s enemies. Demolishing this one takes a little more work (Are we saying Justice plays no part in determining who one’s friends and enemies are? If so, wouldn’t someone who decided he had no friends, and therefore tried to hurt everyone, be a just man? And even if you did have some way to say for certain that one’s enemy really is an intriniscally bad person and deserves harm, by harming him, do you not thus make him worse? Can turning bad people int o even worse people really be an example of justice?), but it is eventually accomplished. At this point a Sophist, Thrasymachos, enters and denounces all of the debaters as milky-eyed idealists. In reality, he says, all talk of “justice” is mere political pretext, designed to justify the interests of the powerful. And so it should be, because insofar as justice exists, it is simply that: the interest of the powerful. Rulers are like shepherds. We like to think of them as benevolently tending their flocks, but what do shepherds ultimately do with sheep? They kill and eat them, or sell the meat for money. Socrates responds by pointing out that Thrasymachos is confusing the art of tending sheep with the art of profiting from them. The art of medicine aims to improve health, whether or not doctors get paid for practicing it. The art of shepherding aims to ensure the well-being of the sheep, whether or not the shepherd (or his employer) is also a businessman who knows how to extract a profit from them. Just so with the art of governance. If such an art exists, it must have its own intrinsic aim apart from any profit one might also get from it, and what can this be other than the establishment of social justice? It’s only the existence of money, Socrates suggests, that allows us to imagine that words like “power” and “interest” refer to universal realities that can be pursued in their own right, let alone that all pursuits are really ultimately the pursuit of power, advantage, or self-interest. The question, he said, is how to ensure that those who hold political office will do so not for gain, but rather for honor.
I will leave off here. As we all know, Socrates eventually gets around to offering some political proposals of his own, involving philosopher kings; the abolition of marriage, the family, and private property; selective human breeding boards. (Clearly, the book was meant to annoy its readers, and for more than two thousand years, it has succeeded brilliantly.) What I want to emphasize, though, is the degree to which what we consider our core tradition of moral and political theory today springs from this question: What does it mean to pay our debts?”