Tag Archives: Greek Antiquity

aristotAristotle’s Categories is an ontological piece attempting to differentiate between states of being. It is a short piece, broken up into fifteen chapters. The most basic component is the distinction between the subject and the predicate. The former is what the statement is about; the latter is what is describes.

In chapter two, Aristotle gives a two-type difference between the natures of the subject in a statement of truth. Firstly, there is a statement that which is said of the subject. This type of ontological deduction is that which is essential to the subject. It is arranged in universal hierarchies. One example would be “the saxophone is (said of) an instrument” where the “saxophone” is the more specific type than the lesser universal distinction of “instrument.” This statement of truth is essential to the subject. However, both “instrument” and “saxophone” are two distinct parts and can exist independently in different statements of truth.

The second differentiation deals with what is present in the subject. This signifies dependence, since it can not exist without the subject. Thus, it is description which is non-essential to that subject. Such an example would be “Aristotle was wise” where wisdom is used as a description of the subject. In this case, the description of “wise” cannot exist in the same context without its subject. Therefore, it is not a part all of itself; it is merely present in the subject.

This distinction forms the basis of Aristotle’s ontology since it differentiates between two states of being. That which is said of the subject are parts which are essential to the subject, but are not dependent on each other in statements of truth. And that which is present in the subject is a description of it which cannot exist without the subject.


Aristotle’s Categories


Socrates, a Visionary Head (1820) by William Blake

In Athenian society during Greek Antiquity, religion played a crucial role in mediating public and state affairs. It served a social function rather than a personal one. Polytheism was embedded as the cultural foundation of Athens, where “priests and officials were regularly voted honors for their sacrifices that they had performed ‘on behalf of the Athenians’ or ‘for the health and safety of the Athenians’” (Parker, 95). Assemblies were opened with religious rituals to demonstrate good faith (Parker, 100). Thus, although individualist in nature, Athens was paradoxically mostly collectivist in its interpretation of religious affairs. To go against this consensus was public suicide – and likewise, any denigration of these practices was met with scorn by Athenians, especially by the more conservative members of the ruling class. For Socrates, this would mean his eventual trial and execution.

Impiety is relative to the culture in question. When discussing the charges against Socrates, it is important to realize the society which produced them. Firstly, the assumption must be made that Athenian law was justified in prosecuting persons for impiety, despite the fact that this type of offense does not exist in the contemporary Western world. From there, having abandoned our modern biases, the real contextual controversy arises – was Socrates impious or not?

Given what is known about Athenian religion, it would be very probable to argue Socrates was in fact guilty. In Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates speaks of a divine voice that prevents him from doing certain actions.

It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason… I have a divine or spiritual sign… This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything (Apology, 31c – 31d)

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

In alternate translations, this “divine or spiritual sign” is called daimonion in Greek. According to Socrates, this voice has been present since he was a child. He follows it to a fanatical degree, resembling religiosity, and it “continues [to come] to [him]” (Euthyphro, 3b). To the typical Athenian observer, Socrates’s daimonion comes off as antithetical to religious norms. He had a private channel of talking to the gods (Ferguson, 174), which threatened the power of priests who were seen as the mediators between gods and man. Plato hints towards the rowdiness of the crowd as Socrates truthfully explains his “inner voice,” while at the same time begging the crowd to bear with his defense and believe him (Apology, 31a).

In the earlier part of Apology, Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon and the oracle which proclaimed that there is no man wiser than Socrates (Apology, 21a). Socrates goes on to question different groups of people, each skilled in their craft, to test if their wisdom was greater than his own. “As a result of this investigation… I have acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates goes on to remark (Apology, 23a). In an effort to justify his inquiring, he appeals to the gods.

So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not know who he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the gods (Apology, 23b).

However, the immediate question that arises is – when did the gods ask that of Socrates? There was no command by the gods for Socrates to do such actions. The oracle merely declared that he was the wisest of men. The story is, therefore, inconsistent. It is likely that Socrates said this to appeal to the audience and to further prove his piety, albeit disingenuously.

Socrates’s assertion that his actions were god-inspired can be interpreted differently when related to his daimonion. He describes his divine signs as never action-inducing, but are rather a means to prevent him from doing wrong. Xenophon’s account of the trial disputes this. Socrates says bluntly, “a clear divine voice indicates to me what I must do” (Xenophon, 12). This is a noteworthy distinction. According to Plato, Socrates’s spiritual visions prevent him from doing certain actions. In Xenophon’s account, these induce him to act. Therefore, Socrates’s appeal to piety is a method to mask this inner voice. Regardless of this voice’s origin, be it religiously rooted or not, such a phenomenon goes against the orthodox Athenian conception of religion. Athenians practiced a public religion, not one of unique personal revelation – if such an interpretation was to take hold, the chief structure of Athenian culture would lose its rigidity. This was the fear of the Athenian ruling class and why Socrates was deemed impious, despite his efforts to mask these “voices” through the gods. In the context of the city’s religion, it certainly went against the consensus.

There are hints of Socrates’s skepticism in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the beginning of the dialogue, he questions the basis of believing in the stories of the Homeric gods (Euthyphro, 6b). However, this by itself is not entirely impious. Dr. Manuela Giordano-Zecharya writes in As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe Not in Gods, “[Athens] was moving away from a focus on ‘belief’ and towards questions of ritual, power relations and symbolic ambiguity…” (Zecharya, 328). Therefore, the fact that Socrates was questioning the Homeric stories themselves was not impious – it was that he responded to his skepticism by failing to engage in religious public life as he truthfully tells the audience in Apology.

Given what is known about Athenian religion, Socrates was indeed impious. His impiety can be broken up in two parts. One, Socrates failed to engage in the public rituals which held Athens together. Religion served a social function, to maintain hierarchy and social cohesion, and his absence from these customs was seen as contrary to orthodox traditions. And second, Socrates’s daimonion angered the ruling religious class in Athens since it was unprecedented. It created a personal channel with which Socrates could speak to the gods. And if such a conception became commonplace, it would leave religion to individual speculation and action rather than to experts. Aside from being offensive to the religious ministers, it threatened the Athenian consensus on religion. Simply put – regardless if death was the proper punishment or not – Socrates was impious.


– Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. USA: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

– Cooper, M. John. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub Co, 2nd Edition, 2007. Print.

– Freguson, A.S. The Impiety of Socrates. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul 1913), pp. 157-175

– Giordano-Zecharya, Manuela. As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods. Numen, Vol. 52, Fasc. 3 (2005), pp. 325-355.

Writings on the different kinds of exchange can be traced back to Classical Antiquity. The Greeks were fascinated with markets, especially the ethical implications of such transactions, and soon began to formulate their  own opinions on the emerging markets in ancient Greece. Aristotle, especially, devoted some of his writing to understanding its complexity. He observed four types of exchanges in the developing market of Ancient Greece:

1.     C –> C ; where C = commodity

Better known as bartering, Aristotle had little issue with this mechanism of exchange in the market. He found it to be the most “natural” out of all exchanges, but saw major drawbacks in its inability in dealing with surpluses and deficiencies properly. The reason for exchange, from Aristotle’s understanding, was because an individual viewed the seller’s surpluses as being of higher value than his or her own surpluses, thus creating a transaction of equal value. He based the need for exchange around the concept of “use value” or “true value,” which a commodity holds if it is necessary for one’s life, household, or even community. He equated value with necessity. Therefore, Aristotle’s reasons for exchange can be seen as one of the early precursors the the subjective theory of value, since it acknowledges different use values for different households — based on their respective surpluses.

2.     C –> M –> C ; where M = Medium of exchange (i.e money)

The most prevalent method of exchange today — Aristotle was ambivalent to it. He found money to be necessary in establishing a common comparable measurement for all commodities in the market, however he also felt it facilitated the next two forms of exchange (3 & 4).  This particular transaction is very similar to barter in that the purpose of it is consumption. The use-value for each receiving end of the transaction is virtually the same, therefore the exchange is equal, with money serving as simply ameans, rather than as an end. Important to note also, is that Aristotle did not see money as a representation of value or wealth; it was a representation of want by agreement. Keep this in mind, because this is the one of the foundations for his criticism of the next two transactions.

The economy of Ancient Greece is useful to bear in mind when trying to understand Aristotle’s  analysis of markets. The majority of the work in Ancient Greek society was done by slave labor, mostly agricultural work, and many of the commodities on the market were products of individual artisans. Therefore, the full value was realized in its exchange of another commodity because the artisan’s sweat and work was fully accounted for in the transaction — the artisan kept all of what he produced, including his surpluses, and traded it likewise for a commodity of relatively equal value.

3.    M –> C –> Mp ; where Mp = M prime or M + profit

This mechanism of the market Aristotle found to be ethically problematic and abominable. He calls this retail trade and the issue, he felt, was that money served as a starting and end point of a transaction, rather than a medium of exchange. He also felt this violated the principle that market transactions should serve the needs of thehousehold, rather than succumbing to endless exchanges to increase profit. Aristotle did not consider this to be true wealth because the end goal is a greater quantity of money; it is simply a representation of exchange value in moneyed form — because it is purely qualitative, it lacks a limit, which was present in the first two kinds of market transactions. He believed there was no natural restrain on this form of transaction because the market exchange, in and of itself, was not entirely equal. In the first two methods of exchange, trade was limited to commodities that were produced by, presumably, individuals – therefore the starting point required an exertion of labor, and the transaction itself was virtually equal in its entirety. Because the starting point of this transaction, “M,” lacks that necessary productive capacity and because the individual is acquiring more of the same item he started with there is fundamentally no restriction on how much profit can be acquired — and the need to acquire more is intensified. Frankly, the major difference lies in that the first two transactions were to consume, this particular one is to accumulate.

4.      M –> Mp 

This market behavior is usually grouped with the third one shown, but Aristotle groups it differently because “C” is absent. He calls this usury, and the most unnatural of all market exchanges. He considered the reason for loans to be exploitative in that the giver of the loan was demanding higher returns than what was handed out — abusing the situation of the receiver of the loan.

Granted, there are issues with Aristotle’s understanding of basic market functions. The fourth market mechanism, in particular, is lacking in analysis — it fails to understand that that the interest payed back is a portion of the new productive potential that was created by that loan (i.e what it was put to use for, invested in, etc). Requesting a loan does not necessarily mean an individual is in distress, but since Aristotle was primary concerned with ethics, it is easy to see why he made that assumption. Aristotle’s fascination with ethics is also the driving reason he criticizes the moneyed interests driving the marketplace. His bare-boned economic analysis as an ethicist, albeit lacking in much empirical reasoning, does bring an important aspect of the market to light — the market is amoral. This is crucial. It is precisely due to this amorality, and because the market lacks any moral mechanisms and requirements, that the market sometimes succumbs to moneyed excesses of the socially damaging kind.

– Much of the information mentioned can be found in this article titled “Aristotle and Economics”
– More information on Plato’s and Aristotle’s economic views can be found here.



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