Making Something New of Old Evidence: Ellen Meiksins Wood's Introduction to Peasant-Citizen and Slave

Since news of Ellen Meiksins Wood's death was announced earlier today, tributes to her life and work have already begun to appear online and across social media.  

A motif shared by many of these early remembrances is an appreciation for Wood's remarkable clarity of thought and expression; her singular talent for presenting the fruits of a vast and ambitious historical project in crisp, accessible prose.    

In a blog post, Corey Robin writes "
Wood was an extraordinarily rigorous and imaginative thinker, someone who breathed life into Marxist political theory and made it speak—not to just to me but to many others—at multiple levels: historical, theoretical, political...She was also a remarkably clear writer: unpretentious, jargon-free, straightforward." 

Or, as Matt Bolton put it on Twitter: 

"It ought to be possible," Wood wrote in the introduction to her 1989 book 
Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy, "to address several audiences without cheating any one of them."

That book's introduction, reproduced in full below, not only announces the volume's immediate historiographical concerns, but also offers an account of the spirit behind the impressive balance Wood was always able to strike between a range of sometimes competing committments. 

This book represents, among other things, an attack on conventional wisdom, but it is a conventional wisdom whose logic permeates scholarly studies. Just the other day, I came across a statement in the
Guardian which illustrates to perfection the kind of misconception I have in mind and its wide-ranging effects. In an article on ‘anti-racist’ maths (‘The Unknown Quantity’, Tuesday, 3 November 1987) a senior lecturer at a London polytechnic was explaining the proposition that ‘maths is as much a social invention as any other form of knowledge’. So far so good. The interviewer raised the inevitable objection. Isn’t the Pythagorean theorem (for example) value-free and culturally neutral? ‘The difference between Greek and Babylonian maths’, came the reply, ‘is that the Greeks brought in abstractions because they were a slave society, work was beneath them whereas the Babylonians did work and their maths were related to their working, practical lives. The great advance in Greek maths was because of certain social values.’

Now I have no objection in principle to the notion that maths, like other forms of knowledge, is a cultural artifact (a proposition which, it apparently needs to be said, does not imply that mathematical theorems are false, whatever their provenance). But this interpretation of Greek maths is simply nonsense. It is, however, a nonsense which itself represents a significant cultural artifact, constructed out of historical misconceptions that have become part of Western Culture.

Greece was certainly a ‘slave society’ (though to what extent that description already applied to the time of Pythagoras in the sixth century BC is another question), but it is equally true that chattel slavery in Greece had as its corollary a citizen population of working peasants and craftsmen. Poleis whose citizens were most completely spared the necessity, even the right, of working for a living tended to be those in which other forms of dependent labour predominated over chattel slavery — the helots of Sparta, the ‘serfs’ of the Cretan cities or Thessaly. In the most notable ‘slave society’ of ancient Greece, classical Athens, the majority of citizens laboured for a livelihood. The difference between these particular Greeks and the Babylonians was certainly not that Athenians regarded labour as ‘beneath them’ while Babylonians worked, but, on the contrary, that labouring Athenians were full citizens while Babylonian workers were not.

The unique status accorded by Greek democracy to people who worked for a living was the culmination of a historical process which also produced a distinctive cultural legacy — the kind of pride in the ‘practical arts’ which even before the democracy encouraged Greek craftsmen to sign their work (in sharp contrast to the anonymity of their counterparts in the ancient Near East) and which inspired dramatists like Aeschylus and Sophocles to glorify the practical arts as the foundation of civilized life. (It is, incidentally, worth noting that mathematics was lumped together among these arts with very practical activities like farming, carpentry and navigation.)

But these developments also produced an oppositional culture. In fact, some of the most notable achievements of Greek civilization —such as the philosophy of Plato — belong to this reaction, the reaction of people who did indeed regard labour with contempt, against the political status of labouring citizens. These developments, of course, came to fruition long after Pythagoras produced his famous theorem, but he lived at a time when conservatives — like the poet Theognis — were already expressing their unease at social and political pressures from below. If the Pythagorean theorem reflects ‘certain social values’, it may belong to this conservative tradition. At least, Pythagorean principles, the essence of which is the concept of ‘proportionate equality’ and the harmonious unity of unequal parts, whether expressed in the proportions of the right-angled triangle or in the ratios of a musical scale, were later consciously deployed in theory and practice by disciples of Pythagoras (like Archytas of Tarentum) as defences of inequality against democratic egalitarianism. Similar abstractions expressing the principle of order in inequality were adopted by Plato to challenge the Athenian democracy.

It might be very tempting, then, to argue almost the reverse of the view expressed by the Guardian’s expert: that (some) Greeks ‘brought in abstractions’ because their compatriots showed too much respect for work. At least this explanation accords better with the known facts of Greek history. But whatever the explanation for this particular cultural product, it needs to be said that the attempt to associate Pythagorean mathematics with slavery is symptomatic of a much more general tendency to attribute the patterns of Greek culture to the institution of slavery and to a disdain for labour which is supposed to have been associated with it.

Curiously, this tendency is not confined to non-specialists who proceed from a faulty conventional wisdom. While disputes still rage about the extent and function of slavery, scholarly opinion is all but unanimous in the view that many Greek citizens, and more particularly the majority in the most culturally vigorous polis, Athens, worked for a living as peasants, craftsmen, and even casual labourers. Yet this labouring citizenry, which has no known precedent and arguably no later parallel, has somehow never achieved quite the same status as a ‘distinctive’, ‘essential’, or ‘determinative’ feature which has so often been accorded to slavery in the explanation of Greek culture. To some extent, this has been true simply by default, since probably the most common alternative to the association of Greek culture with the ideology of slavery has been a detachment of Greek political and intellectual history from any social roots. At any rate, it seems to me that there remains an imbalance between the growing body of knowledge about Greek economic and social history and the accounts that have been given of Greek political and cultural development. My object is to offer some suggestions as to how this imbalance may have occurred, and, above all, to make a contribution toward its correction —first, in Chapter I, by tracing the myth of the idle Athenian citizenry to its ideological roots in the historiography of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and then in subsequent chapters, by reconsidering the roles of slaves and labouring citizens, especially peasant-farmers, in the evolution of Athenian democracy and its culture.

The book is, then, intended for more than one audience. It ought to be possible to address several audiences without cheating any one of them, and I have tried to write the book in such a way that it has something worth the attention of specialists while capable of capturing the interest of the ‘intelligent general reader’. Inevitably, there will be some imbalances. I am aware, for example, that there is a difference in tone and style between Chapter II which began as an article for a ‘refereed’ journal and is more replete with scholarly apparatus and reference to primary sources, and other chapters which proceed in a more interpretative vein. It seemed to me appropriate to leave that chapter as it was, and even to expand it along similar lines, because it deals with some of the more highly contentious issues around which much of my argument revolves. I hope — and believe — that this will not detract from its appeal to the general reader. At the same time, the interpretative character of other chapters, if I have succeeded in what I set out to do, ought not to disqualify them from the specialist’s respect. I hope — and believe — that I have made something new of old evidence.

So this is neither a specialist monograph nor a general textbook. Nor does it pretend to an exhaustive coverage of Athenian democracy, its narrative history or its political procedures. Specialists will know more than enough about all that, as will many non-specialists; and others can refer to the many excellent general studies, some of which I cite. This study should stand on its own as an exploration of some distinctive features of Athenian democracy — and especially the ‘peasant-citizen’ — whose distinctiveness explains much else.

I am very conscious that in my effort to give due weight to the unique position of the labouring citizen in Athens I have a tendency to lapse into rhapsody. I have tried to stave this off by keeping in mind the less attractive features of Athenian life which are every bit as integral to it — slavery (about which I have quite a lot to say), the position of women, or the simple fact that life for the ordinary Athenian citizen was surely always hard and for many pretty miserable. But in case I have sometimes failed to keep my enthusiasm in check, perhaps it needs to be said explicitly that, while I make no apology for being impressed by much that is good in Athenian democracy, I have no intention of downplaying the evils of slavery (even if I think there are some things about this institution that must be reassessed, as I have tried to do) or the subordination of women and their exclusion from citizenship (even if Greece is regrettably far from distinctive in this respect, and even if what I have to add to the growing literature on this subject is very modest indeed).

One more thing. Perceptions of ancient Greek history have, as I argue in Chapter I, been deeply coloured by political commitments and controversies which have had as much to do with the historian’s contemporary world as with the history of ancient Greece. I do not regard such political motivations as unavoidably disabling; they need not, though they can, distort the picture. Nor is there anything rigidly predictable about the outcomes of such commitments. For example, the tendency to neglect or underestimate those aspects of Greek history which seem to me so important has been motivated by commitments from both ends of the political spectrum — from the right, because there is a resistance to ‘history from below’ or to placing the labouring poor in the vanguard of history; and from the left (indeed from political locations very close to my own) because slavery, and increasingly also the subordination of women, seem to overshadow everything else. In any case, I freely acknowledge that my own enthusiasm for the subject of this book is inseparably both political and scholarly. Readers will have to judge for themselves, as I have judged other historians, whether my extra-scholarly commitments have distorted my historical perceptions. 

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