State patronage and private charity in Athens

Some notes from Paul Millett’s essay referred to here:

  • The tyrant Pisistratus offered monetary support to farmers “so that,” in Aristotle’s words, “they should continue to maintain themselves by farming.” Millett comments that “The effect of this would presumably be to reduce peasants’ dependence on local, wealthy landowners, and transfer allegiance to the tyrant, thereby centralising patronage and buttressing the tyranny.” Millet thinks that this was funded by a tax on crops (23).
  • “The survival of the Athenian system of democracy depended on the participation of the demos, which in turn relied on preserving their independence of the wealthy.” This meant that “public pay” to the poor was a way to achieve their equality in the political system by keeping them out of patron-client relations whereby the rich could control the poor. They were not meant to level out wealth: “The solution to the problem of economic independence seems to lie, not with the distribution of property, but with the redistribution of income.” Millet believes that Isocrates and Plato criticized the system of public pay because it empowered the poor to participate in politics (37-38).
  • There were many types of public pay, including pay earned for officeholding, jury service, going to the assembly, and serving as a naval oarsman. There were also “the occasional handouts known as theorika.” The payments didn’t usually seem to be enough to pay a full day’s wage, but even small amounts seem to have been welcome. The money for this seems to have come from the spoils of the Athenian empire, built in the 5th century BC.
  • Aid from philoi (“relatives, neighbors, and friends”) was “a secondary redistributive mechanism, serving to focus funds where they were most desperately needed,” such as sickness. Philoi‘s “obligations extend from borrowing [does he mean lending?] household goods (Theophrastus, Characters 10. 13) to the lending or giving of large sums of money (Demosthenes 53, 4-13).” This was not a state program, but a cultural expectation (41-42).

Democracy, patronage, and redistribution

Peter Leithart, reflecting on an essay on ancient Athenian democracy by Paul Millett, notes that the Athenian system featured payments to the poor as a way to break the “dependence” caused by private patronage and debt. I have requested the book containing Millett’s essay from the library and hope to read it soon, but from my knowledge about ancient Athens I can fill in a few of the details. The practice of selling Athenians into slavery because of debts sparked the rise of Solon, the famous Athenian lawgiver. By the 5th century BC, when Athens was at its height, the poor were paid for attendance at the assembly (the body of all adult male citizens that passed laws and elected officers), for serving on juries, and for attending religious festivals so that missing work would not hurt them financially. I look forward to having a better understanding after reading Millett’s essay.

Leithart concludes with considerations for contemporary democracies:

Aristotle thought that the Athenian system of “public pay” was one of the marks of advanced democratic governance. Is he right? Is redistribution of resources perhaps not a corruption of democracy but a prerequisite for it? The problem is not one of ancient history: If democracy requires redistribution and capitalism requires accumulation of private resources, is “democratic capitalism” a coherent concept?  Or, we could ask: Can a political system that values equality thrive in an economy founded on debt?

Put it this way: Athenian democracy was able to demolish the corrupting webs of personal patronage by making the polis the universal patron and turning all citizens into clients of the state. If democracy has an internal pressure toward redistribution, and we don’t like redistribution, what is the alternative? Perhaps something more Roman or medieval, perhaps a system that includes zones of personal patronage or, perhaps, a system patterned by subsidiarity.

Polycarp’s martyrdom contrasted with Greek self-sacrifice

Peter Leithart recently passed on observations from an article by J. Warren Smith:

Smith discerns similar motivations [of self-glorification] in early Christian martyr theology, but interprets the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which contrasts the evangelical martyrdom of Polycarp to the self-aggrandizing efforts of Quintus, as a very different sort of self-sacrifice.

Fundamentally, Christian martyrdom differs from Aristotelian self-sacrifice because martyrdom does not seek to establish the greatness of the martyr but to emphasize the greatness of God’s sustaining grace: “The true martyr—unlike the Noble Soul—does not seek greatness but is willing to be used by God to display the power of grace.”  As a result, the Christian martyr doesn’t seek out death but waits patiently.  The Christian martyr waits for the time, place, and circumstances of his death to be chosen, ultimately by God, rather than choosing them himself.

On these points, Polycarp’s is a model martyrdom: “Polycarp proves himself a true disciple of Jesus because he followed the pattern of Jesus’ proto-martyrdom in the gospels. He is a true disciple precisely because he waited to be arrested, thereby proving his election by God who gave the eighty-year-old bishop the grace sufficient to die nobly. The result was that Polycarp’s bold witness brought an end to the persecutions. Moreover, Polycarp’s martyrdom, which was not sought but even avoided, is an example of a martyrdom that breaks with the classical view of self-sacrifice for honor and glory (Homer) or of self-love that seeks nobility (Aristotle).”

See Leithart’s post for further explanation of Aristotle’s conception of self-sacrifice.