David's Reviews > Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy

Money and the Early Greek Mind by Richard Seaford
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's review
Jul 24, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: social-history

I probably should have given this five stars because it's absolutely brilliant. It's an extrmely important contribution to a developing debate on the invention of coinage and its effects on Greek thought: the argument, ridiculously compressed, is essentially that the dual nature of Greek coins, which were at once valuable pieces of metal, that is, whose value seemed to come from their very material substance, but simultaneously, political objects stamped with a collective seal that got some of their value from pure convention, a political decision to treat them as valuable (all ancient coins circulated at a value higher than their pure metal content) was a philosophical problem that kicked off endless debates about the nature of meaning and materialism, the mind/body split, imminence and transcendence, and all those classical Axial Age philosophical problems that have been with us ever since. If it seems far-fetched, the evidence is pretty overwhelming: for instance, the fact that the first Greek philosophers lived in precisely the city (Miletus) that saw the first coinage, at exactly the time it appeared, and also - though Seaford never talks about this - the fact that exactly the same thing seems to have happened in northern China and the Ganges valley of India at just around the same time coinage was invented there as well.

The four stars is mainly to express my displeasure at Seaford's one major flaw, which is that he's extraordinarily ungenerous - a bit of a Classicist-Hellenophile snob I'd even say. For instance, Marc Shell, who made very much the same argument decades ago, but who is not a a Classicist, is almost completely ignored. Sure, Seaford has written a more detailed and ultimately better analysis and Shell is a bit of a wild and crazy thinker, but he's also obviously brilliant and laid the ground-work for all this. Fair's fair! Similarly, Seaford only talks about the civilizations of the Near East to disparage them, arguing that they didn't really have egalitarian distribution in sacrifice (probably true) which is why they never developed coins, in an interesting variation on Bernard Laum's old argument), but goes from there to ultimately argue that those civilizations didn't "really" have money at all - leaving one to wonder what it even means to have "real" money if one can have compound interest rates, expense accounts, and counter-endorsed promissory notes without it. Still, his own argument is fascinating and important.
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10/08/2017 marked as: read

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message 1: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher I will give this book a read after I finish Foucault's History of Madness.

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