A History of Trust in Ancient Greece

A History of Trust in Ancient Greece

by Steven Johnstone

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An enormous amount of literature exists on Greek law, economics, and political philosophy. Yet no one has written a history of trust, one of the most fundamental aspects of social and economic interaction in the ancient world. In this fresh look at antiquity, Steven Johnstone explores the way democracy and markets flourished in ancient Greece not so much through


An enormous amount of literature exists on Greek law, economics, and political philosophy. Yet no one has written a history of trust, one of the most fundamental aspects of social and economic interaction in the ancient world. In this fresh look at antiquity, Steven Johnstone explores the way democracy and markets flourished in ancient Greece not so much through personal relationships as through trust in abstract systems—including money, standardized measurement, rhetoric, and haggling. Focusing on markets and democratic politics, Johnstone draws on speeches given in Athenian courts, histories of Athenian democracy, comic writings, and laws inscribed on stone to examine how these systems worked. He analyzes their potentials and limitations and how the Greeks understood and critiqued them. In providing the first comprehensive account of these pervasive and crucial systems, A History of Trust in Ancient Greece links Greek political, economic, social, and intellectual history in new ways and challenges contemporary analyses of trust and civil society.

Editorial Reviews

Josiah Ober
“This is a fresh, highly intelligent, and well-reasoned take on institutions and social practices, public and private, in the world of the Greek city-states. Steven Johnstone shows that the bias in the classical Greek world was toward personal forms of trust, whereas in modernity we are biased toward impersonality. There is no other book that covers this terrain. Johnstone’s surprising and convincing insights are especially relevant given the collapse of a supposedly bulletproof system of impersonal trust in the economic crash of 2008.”

Mark Lawall
“Attempts to characterize economic life in ancient Greece often suffer under the weight of the past century of scholarly polemic. Johnstone’s treatment of the topic avoids the pitfall entirely. His refreshing and highly accessible contemplation of the ‘heap of evidence’ related to ancient economics and politics welcomes readers from the first page, introducing newcomers to the topic while offering plenty to challenge the specialist.”

Victoria Wohl
A History of Trust in Ancient Greece is an ambitious and thought-provoking project that asks important questions with significant implications for our understanding of ancient Greek politics and economics. Johnstone reconstructs a diverse set of ancient practices and the social logic that grounds them from an impressively wide array of sources, and each chapter is full of gems—unfamiliar documents, novel interpretations, unexpected collocations, provocative claims—that offer an extremely valuable contribution to our knowledge of the ancient Greeks’ mental world. A fascinating and exciting book.”


“Highly recommended.”

Journal of the History of Economic Thought
 “Well-written and interesting. . . . The main attraction of this book is that it describes how the rambunctious, commercially oriented democracies of ancient Greece attempted to come to grips with the same practical problems modern societies face today.”
“Johnstone’s work is a product of extensive learning, broad perspective, bottomless curiosity about human interaction in antiquity, and an unyielding urge to subject even familiar evidence to fresh analysis.”

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A History of Trust in Ancient Greece


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-40509-4

Chapter One


Greeks thought a lot about the heap ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], soros). Some ancient philosophers used the heap to critique the arbitrariness of boundaries and definitions. They offered this paradox: Any heap (of, say, grain) has a specific (if actually uncounted) number of kernels, so you can take away a kernel and it will still be a heap. But then take away another, and another, and so on. You reach the point where either a single kernel makes up the heap (absurd!) or you have to define the number of kernels that constitutes a heap, an arbitrary and indefensible boundary. (Why would one hundred grains of wheat be a heap, but not ninety-nine?) The heap, an essentially unbounded object, counterpoises what is limited. For Greeks, measure (metron) relied on an exact boundary to create fullness, a filling to the brim. Although full measures could be counted as units, measure itself was not quantitative; it was qualitative, the quality of completeness. The contrast between the unbounded and the limited drives the mythic showdown between two prophets, Calchas and Mopsos, recounted in a preserved fragment of a sixth-century poem ascribed to Hesiod. Calchas defies Mopsos with an enigma: "Amazement seizes my soul at how many figs this wild figtree has, tiny though it is. Can you say the number?" Mopsos responds by first seeming to concede the contest—"The number is infinite"—then veers from counting figs to measuring them—"but the measure is a medimnos. And just one fig is left over which you could not add to it." Mopsos here revolutionizes the problem of naming the number: admitting that the number of figs is incalculable, he nevertheless introduces the medimnos, a standard measure of volume. Calchas's challenge requires a number, but Mopsos does not return the number of figs—as, for example, the Delphic oracle claimed to know the number of grains of sand—but the number of measures, "1 medimnos + 1 fig." Because "the number of measure seemed to them to be true," Calchas, overthrown by his own dare, dies. The boundedness of the measure makes possible the enumeration of the uncountable by shifting the unit from the fig to the medimnos. The medimnos was a measure that had an exact limit—you could not add even one more fig—but to a heap you could pour on any number of grains without altering, violating, or destroying its nature. A measure defined a precise fullness, but a heap—unmeasured, uncounted, unlimited—represented abundance.

This book is a heap.

* * *

Both economics and politics flourished in ancient Greece because of novel systems of impersonal trust. If personal trust refers to confidence vested in an individual because of particular familiarity, impersonal trust denotes the ways that abstract systems allow people to routinely interact, even with strangers, as if they trusted one another. Ancient Greece saw the proliferation of such abstract systems—money, standardized measurement, law, rhetoric, and so forth—which profoundly affected people's lives from the most public settings to the most intimate. Understanding these systems as sets of practices—what people did as opposed to their psychological dispositions—this study analyzes how they functioned and their effects.

Although sociologists often take the prevalence of impersonal networks as a mark of modernity, ancient Greeks routinely interacted in ways mediated by complex, abstract systems. Theirs was not—or not essentially— a "face-to-face" society but a society constructed of a range of relationships, from the intimate to the objective. Nevertheless, these abstract systems operated and were limited in historically specific ways. Money, for example, did not exert a universally depersonalizing effect, nor did the fact that Greeks had standard measures imply that they used them in the same ways we do. Indeed, abstract systems acted sometimes to depersonalize relationships, but sometimes to repersonalize them, that is, to allow novel personal investments and trust that would not have been possible otherwise. In many cases, then, you should not understand personal trust as an original condition supplanted by the operations of abstract systems (as a lost state of nature), but rather as an effect of such systems.

* * *

The heapiness of this book derives in part from the ways I have treated theory. I have used theoretical and comparative insights to inspire questions and hypotheses with respect to the evidence from ancient Greece in an attempt to generate novel and productive lines of inquiry. I have relied on these theoretical insights not as frameworks on which to stick evidence, but as scaffolding to be removed as the evidence accumulates. (I'm not denying that the initial theoretical positions have informed the answers, but these initial positions themselves are not my fundamental objects of inquiry.) This book, then, does not attempt to articulate a totalizing model either of trust or of Greek society. Nor to test a contemporary theory or model against the ancient evidence. Nor to apply a theory to the ancient evidence (as sometimes happens "to fill gaps"). Nor to use ancient evidence to illustrate a universally true theory. I do think, however, that using theory to generate questions can open up new vistas on the past as well as link sometimes separate fields.

* * *

In this book I rely on a particular analytical vocabulary to frame my questions, especially three terms: trust, systems, and practice.

Trust. While I treat personal relationships of trust, I focus more intently on trust lodged in impersonal systems that allowed people, strangers even, to interact as if they trusted each other. I have borrowed this distinction between personal and impersonal trust from sociologists writing about the modern world, especially Niklas Luhmann and Anthony Giddens. 8 For these writers, impersonal or generalized trust—trust reposed in abstract systems like money or law—renders marginal or even irrelevant usual notions of personal trust: indeed, you drive without worrying about whether you can trust the people speeding almost directly at you; you hand large amounts of your money over to complete strangers (tellers) in a bank without a moment of doubt; you go into buildings designed and put up by people you know nothing about; you interact confidently all the time with strangers in the world. Those who repeatedly fail to do this (who will not drive or fly, who will not use credit cards or banks or even currency itself, who will not rely on the police or the government in any way), those who will not act within systems are generally treated not as distrustful but as insane. For social theorists like Luhmann and Giddens, the prevalence of impersonal trust uniquely marks the everyday activities of modernity. Without disputing the special nature of the modern world (as a historian, I approach all worlds as distinctive), that is, without simply assuming that the Greeks were like us, retrojecting our world back onto theirs, I'm asking: How did systems of impersonal trust, such as they were, work in classical Greece? Although this book concentrates on the history of these systems, it also considers personal relationships of trust. Even in the modern world, the suffusion of systems has not rendered personal trust obsolete. Giddens acknowledges the complex relations between personal and impersonal trust: he argues that personal trust undergirds the ability to trust systems, that systems often depend on "gatekeepers," individuals with whom you may develop a personal relationship (e.g., your doctor), and that systems may allow the cultivation of novel, even radical forms of personal trust. And this raises a second question: What were the relations between abstract systems and personal trust in classical Greece?

When I began this project, I was enticed by the work of scholars of the contemporary world who link personal trust nurtured in the institutions of civil society to the success of democratic politics. Robert Putnam, for example, argues that robust relationships of personal trust, nurtured in the voluntary associations of civil society (churches, clubs, etc.), are necessary to allow citizens in modern democracies to trust and engage with each other. Relationships in civil society create "social capital," a generalized attitude of trusting, which gets transferred to and used in democratic political settings. For Putnam, our age has seen a decline in personal relationships (hence his concern about those who go "bowling alone"), causing a weakening of democratic engagement.

At first glance, such a model would seem relevant for ancient Greece. Aristotle, after all, imagined the relationships among citizens of the polis as a koinonia, a community based on affection or shared regard (philia). This emphasis on personal relationships accounts for his famous claim that the ideal polis would not be too large: citizens need personal knowledge of each other's character. Following in this tradition, several historians of ancient Athens have located the sources of democratic political power in civil society, seeing the roots of political cooperation in the personal bonds cultivated in other groups and institutions.

Yet as I worked on the history of trust, the limitations of this model became apparent. For the modern period, certainly, many scholars have not been convinced that a robust civil society promotes a democratic political order. Some have pointed out that the theory does not explain the causal mechanism; indeed, it often relies on "social capital," a metaphor, to insinuate a moneylike fungibility. Others have noted that empirical research rarely bears out the theory. For my purposes, moreover, the theory seems to generate few compelling questions, perhaps in part because it already presumes an answer (that civil society determines political engagement). But it is also the case—and this would be an empirical conclusion from the second half of this book—that the successful functioning of the political system should and can be explained in the first instance by the composition of that system itself. Greek citizens ran their cities successfully not because they were especially disposed to personally trust one another but because the political system—the protocols of working on boards, the legal mechanisms of political accountability, and, most of all, rhetoric—allowed them to act as if they did.

A history of trust is also a history of distrust. You can treat these as opposites, or as functional equivalents. Both, after all, arise from personal familiarity and provide resources for making decisions and taking actions. My point here isn't exactly taxonomical; rather, it's that distrust is not always and necessarily dysfunctional, and that there are contingent, unpredictable, and historically specific relationships between trust and distrust.

Systems. I'm not committed to any particular systems dogma (e.g., functionalism), but I find the idea of systems analytically prolific because it raises profound questions about how to understand the past. I would note in particular three topics broached by systems analysis: complex relationships, expertise, and emergence.

The analysis of systems prompts you to think about relationships, not (or not just) entities. Aristotle's analysis of the oikos, the household, in book 1 of his Politics, does this. He cleverly decomposes the oikos into three parts, which consist not of people but of relationships: master-slave, husband-wife, father-children. But his account of these relationships could be more complex in two ways. First, he treats them as exclusively hierarchical (they are forms of ruling), but thinking in terms of systems allows for more complex configurations. In reality, there were reciprocal elements to each relationship. Second, an analysis of systems points to the interconnections among relationships. Aristotle describes the differences between the three he considers, but does not consider how one might affect another. Thinking of them as a system encourages understanding relationships as dynamic rather than static.

Systems have complex relations to expertise. On the one hand, systems often concentrate expertise in a few authorities, allowing most people to interact in routine ways. Consider here the Greeks' economic system, in which a limited number of experts—people who knew how to mine, smelt, mint, and verify silver coins—enabled others to use these coins without having to consider their intrinsic value on each occasion. On the other hand, for a system to work, people need general competence in the relevant skills, though this is usually a less burdensome requirement than the dispersed expertise needed in the absence of a system. (Think of the difference between knowing how to use coins and knowing how to make them.) The combination of concentrated expertise and general competence allows the majority of people to act in routine ways that limit the need for both dispersed expertise and personal trust.

The emergent effects of systems offer a fecund analytic for understanding trust because of its potential to illuminate the complex relations between trust and abstract systems. Emergence describes ways in which the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Thus, for example, the dynamics of climate cannot be reduced to (though they depend upon) the interactions of molecules. Emergence has both an epistemological aspect (the behavior of the system cannot be predicted from the behaviors of the parts) and an ontological one (the interactions of the parts cause outcomes that the serial addition of the parts could not). Recognizing that systems may create effects unlike any of their components or inputs raises the possibility that people's trust in abstract systems is an emergent property of those systems, not a precondition of them. If emergence points to the ways in which systems create (rather than require) impersonal trust, it also suggests that complex impersonal systems can transform the conditions and configurations of personal trust as well. The work of Giddens shows that the abstract systems of modernity have altered and intensified the most intimate relations. One thing to look out for, then, is how abstract systems in ancient Greece may have impelled a repersonalization of social relationships.

Practice. In analyzing these systems, I have found particularly helpful Pierre Bourdieu's elaboration of the idea of practice. Bourdieu articulated the notion of practice out of dissatisfaction with structuralist accounts of society, which tend to be static, monolithic, and mechanistic. Practice, in contrast, which names an ordinary person's unselfconscious ability to do what he or she does, attempts to allow for the uncertainty, contingency, and trickiness of ordinary life. It attempts to restore agency to people by shifting from a notion of rules that govern action to an idea of strategies that people can take up at times and in ways of their own devising. This focus on practice attempts to account for both structure (there are only so many practices, each with its own logic) and individual agency.

Focusing on various practices entails three consequences. First, I'm offering not a story of agents (a traditional narrative history) but an analysis of the conditions that made agency possible. Second, practices often involve people using things, whether physical things like coins, standardized measuring vessels, writing instruments, or shipping containers, or intellectual things like money values, or rhetorical language. These things, however, are not themselves determinative but take on importance depending on how they're used. Third, I'm fundamentally interested in how people relate to each other through what they do. I treat practices as essentially social.

* * *

The heapiness of the book also derives from the ways I have treated evidence. Because I use the idea of trust analyticallyless as a rigid criterion, pruning away everything unrelated, than as a fecund problematics, the idea of trust generates myriad questions to pose to ancient evidence. This has had the dual effect of offering new insights into some texts that may have become threadbare from familiarity, and also of encouraging the search for new evidence. At times the absence of limits in this inquiry has awed me a little—what text, however obscure, long, or seemingly irrelevant could I safely fail to ransack? Following the sources has also meant that my analyses of them have attempted to present them in their full and sometimes confounding complexity, even when this goes beyond the question of trust. One friend who read this manuscript remarked, "You historians are in love with evidence!" It's true, and if I've lingered over their description, I hope you'll share some of my bedazzlement.


Excerpted from A History of Trust in Ancient Greece by STEVEN JOHNSTONE Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Steven Johnstone is associate professor of history at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Disputes and Democracy: The Consequences of Litigation in Ancient Athens.

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