Cosma Rohilla Shalizi

May, 1993

Sing, ye countinghouse Muses, of so many talents of copper,
So many horsehide bales, and so many measures of broadcloth:
How the monopoly-mad King Priam defied the Achaeans,
Charging them fifty per cent on goods for the shores of the Euxine.
--- Robert Graves, Homer's Daughter

In this paper I will attempt to show that there was a historical association among the Greeks of support for the traditional aristocracy, opposition to commerce and suspicion or hostility towards music and the musicians ; suggest some reasons for this association; and show how the musicians used the myths - and especially the way the myths were told - to disavow these links and reinforce their privileges. It is only fair to confess at the outset that much of the evidence of the linked biases is drawn from the philosophers. This is unfortunate; they are late, and by definition rather unusual individuals. Before their time, however, our only possible sources are the poets themselves, who understandably do not condemn themselves very strongly. (Though there are hints - see below on the Odyssey.) Further, there is reason to think that, in these matters, the philosophers were in agreement with a section of lay public opinion. Nonetheless, I admit this evidence is far inferior to, say, a Gallup poll of seventh century Hellenes. Mea culpa.

We can see the very beginnings of our pattern in the Odyssey. Whatever its exact date of composition, it was around the end of the post-Mycenaean dark age; it was composed in Ionian dialect; and it was in Ionia that the rebirth of commerce and literacy was most advanced, and first lead to upheaval.

There are three approved ways of getting wealth in the Odyssey. The first is the owning and skillful management of the land - thus, for example, we find Laertes quite skilled in tending his orchard in Book XXIV, and one of the constant reproaches against the suitors is that, along with undermining Odysseus' authority and attempting to suborn his wife, they are literally eating into his capital. Almost by definition, this source of wealth is available only to aristocrats.

The second approved way of getting riches is to take them from others. Odysseus calls himself ``sacker of cities'' (IX, 504), and boasts to the Phaiakans,

``From Ilion the wind took me and drove me ashore at Ismaros
by the Kikonians. I sacked their city and killed their people,
and out of their city taking their wives and many possessions
we shared them out, so none might go cheated of his proper (!)
On the other hand, Polyphemus says to Odysseus on meeting him,
``Strangers, who are you? From where do you come sailing over the watery
ways? Is it on some business, or are you recklessly roving
as pirates do, when they sail on the salt sea and venture
their lives as they wander, bringing evil to alien people?''
So clearly there is some difference between approved-raiding and disapproved-piracy (unless part of the Cyclopes' savagery is the inability to tell the difference!), but the point remains clear. Done properly, taking other people's wives and possessions by force of arms is a valued aristocratic prerogative.

The third way is to get gifts, such as Odysseus receives from the Phaiakans in VIII, 385-443. All of them, in the Odyssey, are given from members of the nobility to other members of the nobility. Thus, all the approved ways of obtaining wealth are reserved for aristocrats and land-owners. There are two other possibilities mentioned by the poet, but neither of them is cricket: Piracy and commerce. We have already seen piracy. When Euryalos wishes to offend Odysseus, he does so by calling him

`` who plies his ways in his many-locked vessel,
a man who, careful of his cargo and grasping for profits,
goes carefully on his way. You do not resemble an athlete.''
Here too belongs the story told by Eumaios the swine-herd, of how he was deceitfully taken and sold into slavery by Phoenician merchants, combining as it does hostility to merchants, non-Hellenes and a shock to aristocratic sensibilities (XV, 390-484). Now at this point we should notice that slippery-tounged Odysseus, in addition to resembling a pirate and a wily merchant, also is something of a bard. Alkinous says,
``You have
a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,
and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told,''
And Eumaios says to Penelope,
``If only these Achaians, my queen, would let you have silence!
Such stories he [Odysseus] tells, he would charm out the dear heart within you.
Three nights I had him with me, and for three days I detained him
in my shelter, for he came first to me. He had fled from a vessel;
but he has not yet told me the story of all his suffering.
But as when a man looks to a singer, who has been given
from the gods the skill with which he sings for delight of mortals, so he enchanted me in the halls as he sat beside me.''
Yet the praise of Alkinous is prefaced by
``...the black earth
breeds in great numbers people who wander widely, making up
lying stories, from which no one could learn anything.''
This is not a great deal, I admit, and we should hardly expect otherwise, for the Odyssey was made and recited by musicians, who could hardly be expected to condemn their own class. But it does show that the links we find later were already extant at a very early date, and the poet's constant praise of music and musicians is, as we shall see below, far from insignificant.

Be that as it may, this pattern was fully elaborated at Sparta, at the same period as the Homeric epics or not long after. The Lacedaemonian aristocrats fought a number of wars for Lebensraum; trade was non-existent, owing both to Spartan prejudice against it, and the fact that their money was iron, and absolutely worthless:

``He [Lycurgus, in Plutarch's account] forbade gold and silver money, allowing only iron coinage, of so little value that `to lay up thereof the value of ten minas, it would have occupied a whole cellar in a house.' By this means he banished `all superfluous and unprofitable sciences,' since there was not enough money to pay their practioners; and by the same law he made all external commerce impossible. Rhetoricians, panders, and jewellers, not liking iron money, avoided Sparta.... `One of the best and happiest things which Lycurgus brought into his city, was the great rest and leisure which he made his citizens to have, only forbidding them that they should not profess any vile or base occupation...' Plutarch goes on to tell a story of an Athenian condemned for idleness, upon hearing of which a Spartan exclaimed: `Show me the man condemned for living nobly and like a gentleman.' ''
Homer was not respected, and music in general was not bothered with (see below).

At this point we naturally turn to Plato, who based much of his program on Sparta and conforms to the pattern excellently. Summarizing his program, Karl Popper writes that ``The state must be [economically] self-sufficient. It must aim at economic autarchy; for otherwise the rulers would either be dependent on traders, or become traders themselves [both of which are unacceptable].'' He similarly condemns music, and especially Homer, whom he ranks (Republic, 600) below a contemporary Sophist or even a ``banausic and depraved'' technician. Plato goes on to say that

When any of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. And so when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city.
On the basis of such passages, Popper writes that
``Plato's political principles of literary education are based upon a simple comparison. Sparta, he saw, treated its human cattle just a little too harshly... Athens, on the other hand, was altogether too liberal and slack in her treatment of slaves. Plato took this as proof that Sparta insisted just a little too much on gymnastics [= physical training], and Athens, of course, far too much on music. This simple estimate enabled him readily to reconstruct what in his opinion must have been the true measure or the true blend of the two elements in the education of the best state, and to lay down the principles of his educational policy. Judged from the Athenian viewpoint, it is nothing less than the demand that all literary education be strangled by a close adherence to the example of Sparta...''
Art in general is condemned as imitating, and creating false appearances of, sensible things, which are themselves imitations and false appearances of the Ideas. This is a rather abstract and Platonic point, but the gist of it is clear. Art is bad because it is deceptive; a prejudice that could be, and was, held by many.

Heraclitus is something of a degenerate case. Of our three elements, he displays the hostility to music in abundance: ``Homer should be turned out the lists and whipped,'' ``The learning of many things teacheth not understanding, else it would have taught Hesiod [among others],'' ``Hesiod is most men's teacher. Men are sure he knew very many things, a man who did not know day or night!'' His approval of the aristocracy (to which he belonged), and its primary recreation, war, is also plain: ``War is the father and the king of all things. It proves some to be gods and others to be mere men, turning these into slaves and the former into masters... Who falls fighting will be glorified by gods and men... The greater the fall the more glorious the fate... The best seek one thing above all others: eternal fame... One man is worth more than ten thousand, if he is Great.'' However, there is no evidence of direct anti-mercantile bias in the extant fragments.

In Aristotle, by way of contrast, I have been unable to find evidence of hostility to music. He is, however, aristocratic, and anti-commercial. His ethical ideal is the ``magnanimous man,'' who is explicitly a man who has inherited high social position. In connection with Heraclitus' emphasis on fame, and the importance of musicians in generating it, it is interesting to note that

``It is chiefly with honours and dishonours [that] the magnanimous man is concerned; and at honours that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honour that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him... Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour...''

What is of more importance, though, are Aristotle's views on trade, especially as they ``represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day.'' (Russell, p. 172).

``There are [he says in the Politics] two uses of a thing, one proper, the other improper; a shoe, for instance, may be worn, which is its proper use, or exchanged, which is its improper use. It follows that there is something degraded about a shoemaker, who must exchange his shoes in order to live. Retail trade, we are told, is not a natural part of the art of getting wealth (1257a). The natural way to get wealth is by skillful management of house and land. To the wealth that can be made in this way there is a limit, but to what can be made by trade there is none. Trade has to do with money, but wealth is not the acquisition of coin. Wealth derived from trade is justly hated, because it is unnatural. `The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. . . . Of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural' (1258).''
Russell goes on to point out that ``Greek philosophers belonged to, or were employed by, the landowning class; they therefore disapproved of interest'' as land-owners tend to be in debt to merchants, which was not calculated to improve relations between the classes. Trade is unnatural and depraved; rent is not. This puts the musicians in a bind. Their traditional employers - as we have seen from the Odyssey - are the aristocrats. It therefore behooves them to dissociate themselves from such ``unnatural'' activities. But the proper and customary use of music is an exchange, namely its public performance. What, then, is the musician? A merchant, a ``mere mechanical'', the voice of the gods - ?

Part of the reason trade was so disliked - apart, that is, from putting some people in debt, and making others rich - is the feeling that it was inequitable. Whether the Greeks interpreted ``justice'' as ``arithmetical equality'' (which is to say, equality) or ``proportionate equality'' (which is to say, right and proper inequality) is debatable, but Popper does show that it did mean equality of some kind. Even from the arithmetical standpoint, trade can be condemned, since the greater skill of merchants at bargaining makes equality between buyer and seller impossible. If the customer was of higher status than the merchant, it was that much worse in the proportional view.

The disapproval of inequity can be seen from the Prometheus myth. There is a series of increasingly unequal exchanges, starting with Prometheus tricking Zeus at Mekone about the sacrificial offerings; Zeus peevishly withholds fire - like, one might say, a merchant driving up his price; Prometheus steals fire. Now, forcibly taking things from people is not, of itself, un-cricket; we have seen how Odysseus boasts of sacking cities. But Prometheus did not sack Olympos. He ``eluded the eye of Zeus whose sport is thunder'' and ``stole'' it. This is a very unequal exchange - men and Prometheus get fire; Zeus only gets righteous indignation. The gods retaliate with a gift, Pandora, who, at least in Hesiod's estimation, more than repays us for fire. (Admittedly, being staked out on a mountain so that a vulture can eat your liver through all eternity is a very strange gift, if it is a gift at all.)

This becomes important when we remember another link between trade and music, namely, the feeling that both are deceptive. Somehow, in haggling with a merchant, one never comes out ahead, though at every step everything seems reasonable, and there is no coercion involved. (Cf. Marx on how, even if the capitalists were fair, the proletariat would still be miserable.) Similarly, one feeds bards at feasts; treats them with incredible respect; listens to them, even - and for what? What does one have to show for it in the end? Your shoemaker or fish-monger does not ask to be present at all festive occasions, and at least when one deals with him one ends up with something tangible and practical - shoes, or fish, or whatnot. Musicians leave nothing but words, memories - vapor. Are their wares any better than the chattering of apes from Gibraltar, or the birdsong one gets for a handful of seeds, if that much? Are they the ultimate con-artists, slicker and more deceptive than any mere merchant or usurer?

The musicians frequently point out that music is not a useless or senseless activity. As Eumaios says to Antinous the suitor,

[Who] goes visiting elsewhere so as to call in another
stranger, unless he is one who works for the people, either
a prophet, or a healer of sickness, or a skilled workman,
or inspired singer, one who can give delight by his singing?
These are men who all over the endless earth are invited.
According to the Theogony (64-129), the muse-gifted end strife and make ``straight judgements.'' ``Though a man's heart be withered with the grief of a recent bereavement, if then a singer, the servant of the Muses, sings of the famous deeds of old, and of the blessed gods who dwell in Olympus, he soon forgets his sorrows and thinks no more of his family troubles, quickly diverted by the goddess' gifts.'' Moreover they are accurate sources of knowledge:
Odysseus the resourceful spoke to Demodokos, saying:
``Demodokos, above all mortals beside I prize you.
Surely the Muse, Zeus' daughter or else Apollo has taught you,
for all too right following the tale you sing the Achaians'
venture, all they did and had done to them, all the sufferings
of the Achaians, as if you had been there yourself or heard it
from one who was...''
These claims by themselves would leave the musicians in a precarious position. By emphasizing their use, they free themselves from the suspicion that they are mere swindlers, but that same emphasis risks demoting them to the ranks of the merely useful, of the ``banausic and depraved,'' and loosing their traditional privileges. They avoided this by claiming to be divine.

It would be easy to pile up claims that music is divinely inspired, pleasing to the gods, etc., until the reader became quite sick of them. In fact, I have already quoted some, in other contexts, above. There is, however, one which I think deserves to be treated at some length. The first time Hermes performs on the lyre, to ``sooth'' Apollo, ``mightier though Apollon was'', he sings a myth, and a theogonic myth at that:

Playing sweetly on the lyre,
The son of Maia boldly stood to the left
of Phoibos Apollon and to the clear-sounding lyre
he sang as one sings preludes. (!) His voice came out lovely,
and he sang of the immortal gods and of black earth,
how they came to be, and how each received his lot.
Of the gods with his song he first honored Mnemosyne,
mother of the Muses, for the son of Maia fell to her lot.
And the glorious son of Zeus honored the immortals
according to age, and as each one had been born,
singing of everything in due order as he played the lyre on his arm.
Thus Hermes pays for Apollo's cows. The analogy to a mortal singer, supported by a mortal land-owner more powerful than himself, is clear enough. From Apollo's speech following, it is clear that this is something new, and valued by the very gods. Moreover the poet begins with ``Of Hermes sing, O Muse,'' i.e., it is not him singing, really, but the Muse, who may be expected to know what she is talking about. This is not an isolated incident. All the hymns begin this way; so do the epics, as does Hesiod. In fact, the Theogony says ``This is what the Muses sang'' (64-96), in such a way as to leave little doubt that it is talking about itself.

Music is thus not a worthless thing, but at once divine and of practical utility. But performance is a fair exchange. The musician is not short-changed. From the Odyssey, Book VIII, we can see the treatment of ``hero Demodokos,'' (as he is called in 483), that in exchange the Muse-taught, muse-loved singer gets a prize cut of meat ( 475-8), honor and praise, e.g., 497-8:

``I will speak of you before all mankind, and tell them
how freely the goddess gave you the magical gift of singing.
The poet in the Hymn to Apollo, 156-176, makes a similar bargain with the ``Delian maidens'' who ``tell of men and women who lived long ago, and sing a hymn, charming the races of men,'' exchanging praise for praise. (We are assured that this is no lying merchant's bargain for publicity, but entirely deserved on both sides.)

On the other hand, it is made clear that the patrons are not underpaying either. The Greeks had a well-developed sense of (pardon the phrase) Greek gifts. If too much was claimed for music, the claims would have been met with skepticism. Instead it is made clear through the myths that music is a moderately useful thing, for which patrons might pay a fair price without bankrupting themselves.

For instance, Apollo doesn't give Hermes the form of divination he asked for, because it was too valuable:

``Mightiest one and cherished by Zeus, it is not the divine will
for you or any other immortal to know the divination
you are asking about. The mind of Zeus knows this. For my part,
I pledged and agreed and then swore a mighty oath
that, except for me, none of the eternal gods
would know the inscrutable will of Zeus.
And you, my brother of the golden wand, do not ask me
to show the divine decrees which far-seeing Zeus contemplates.
To some men I will bring harm and to others benefit
as I herd the wretched tribes of men about.
My utterance will bring blessings to those who come
guided by the voice and flight of birds of sure omen.
No deception for him; he will profit from what I utter.
But whoever puts faith in the idle chatter of birds
and wishes to pry into my divination, against my designs,
and to understand more than the eternal gods,
makes his journey in vain...''
Thus, there are three sorts of divination. One is practiced by Apollo, by ``voice and flight of birds''; it is legitimate, but misleads if the user attempts to ``pry'', to know too much. A second was revealed by Apollo to Hermes when he told him of the ``three awesome sisters, virgins, delighting in their swift wings'' -
[A]fter they eat yellow honey, they are seized
with mantic frenzy and are eager to speak the truth.
But if they are robbed of the sweet food of the gods,
then they do buzz about in confusion and lie.
Thus, it, too is potentially unreliable, misleading if improperly used. The third sort is a direct knowledge of the will of Zeus, which is always sure, but which Apollo will not - cannot - give to Hermes, or to anyone else. Now, poetry also misleads at times:
Sing well with this clear-voiced mistress [the lyre] in your arms,
since you have the gift of beautiful and proper speech.
From now on in carefree spirit bring it to the well-provided feast,
the lovely dance, and the revel where men vie for glory,
as a fountain of good cheer day and night. Whoever
with skill and wisdom expertly asks, to him
it will speak and teach him all manner of things
joyful to the mind, being played with a gentle touch,
for it shuns toilsome practice. But if anyone should
in ignorance question it at first with rudeness,
to him in vain it will chatter high-flown gibberish forever...
So that the exchange is equal. They trade one source of knowledge for another, both potentially veridical, but which lie if abused. Music is a great and important gift, but through a fortunate coincidence, exactly great and important enough for the traditional compensation of musicians to be fair.

In closing, I would like to call attention to a very interesting feature of the mythic poems, namely, their agreement with the charge that music is unreliable and deceptive. To some degree these feelings were encouraged and used by the musicians themselves. Having first established the value of music, they point out that its recipients cannot tell if they are getting the genuine article. We have seen abundantly that music is not always truthful. More important is that, as the musicians choose - pardon me, as the Muses choose - they can give their true gifts, or a seeming and a counterfeit, for

``...we know to tell many lies that sound like truth,
but we know to sing reality, when we will.''
So said mighty ZeusŐ daughters, the sure of utterance...
The fame so precious to heroes and aristocrats (vide Aristotle's ``magnanimous man'' above) also depends on the Muses, through the mouths of their servants. ``Muses of Pieria, who glorify by songs, come to me, tell of Zeus your father in your singing [because of which] mortal men are unmentioned and mentioned, spoken and unspoken of...'' In the Odyssey the singers sing of Troy, and the ``Delian maidens'' glorify ``men and women who lived long ago.'' The effect of this is, I think, clear. The aristocracy and the musicians are mutually dependent, yes, but the musicians can hoax their patrons if ill-treated, whereas food and shelter are difficult commodities to fake. It therefore behooves the patrons to treat the musicians well, least they be mis-informed, ridiculed or (worst of all) simply forgotten.