Thursday, September 4, 2008

What is economics, anyway? (Part 2: Goddesses)

In the last post, I suggested that it might be fruitful to look at the similarities between the Greek and Roman goddesses of household management. The idea was that by finding where they overlap, we could gain insight into the basic nature of economics. After all, not only were they goddesses of the hearth and household (microeconomics), but also of the state (macroeconomics).

As it turns out, this wasn't easy. Or flattering to economists.

Although Hestia and Vesta were considered extremely important deities, not much is known about them. Their cults were results-driven. As long as the state and household survived, they were paid lip service. When things went south, the goddesses were invoked with unusual fervour, and their followers punished. In neither case was the history, personality or nature of the goddess the point.

This is not entirely unlike the cult of economics today. Most people know that economic thinking exists, and have a vague idea that it has something to do with spiky graphs, dollar signs and an unfortunate fashion sense. As long as the economy is thriving, economists and their discipline are paid lip service. When things go south, magic words ("Trickle-down!" "Free trade!") are invoked with unusual fervour, and practitioners of economics are punished. In neither case is the history of economic thought or the nature of current economic thinking the point.

We'll start our analysis with Hestia. Hesiod mentions her a few times in his Homeric hymns.

First, in a hymn to Aphrodite:

"Nor yet does the pure maiden Hestia love Aphrodite's works. She was the first-born child of wily Cronos and youngest too, by will of Zeus who holds the aegis, -- a queenly maid whom both Poseidon and Apollo sought to wed. But she was wholly unwilling, nay, stubbornly refused; and touching the head of father Zeus who holds the aegis, she, that fair goddess, sware a great oath which has in truth been fulfilled, that she would be a maiden all her days. So Zeus the Father gave her an high honour instead of marriage, and she has her place in the midst of the house and has the richest portion. In all the temples of the gods she has a share of honour, and among all mortal men she is chief of the goddesses."

In other words, Hestia doesn't care much for passion, and would rather stay at home than marry the richest gods - Apollo, of medicine, music and the sun, and Poseidon of the seas.

The second mention of Hestia in the hymns makes her decision all the stranger:

"Hestia, you who tend the holy house of the lord Apollo, the Far-shooter at goodly Pytho, with soft oil dripping ever from your locks"

Although Hestia refused to marry Apollo she is his housekeeper. And has hair so oily that it drips. (I did say this wasn't flattering to economists.)

This minor mention is important combined with the last - it shows that Hestia's nature is management. This is what fulfils her; this is what she does willingly, even as she refuses the conjugal advances of a sun god.

A sacred fire, representing the hearth, was an important part of her cult. It was not just a sacred fire, it was the sacred fire, and so a share of any sacrifice to the gods was reserved for Hestia.

Now on to Vesta.

Not much is known about Vesta herself. She is mentioned a few times in the Aenid, mostly invoked or sworn by in times of great duress.

We do know a lot about her followers - the Vestal Virgins.

Yes, that's right. One of the shared attributes of the goddesses is the focus on chastity and an utter lack of interest in the carnal.

Did I mention this wasn't flattering to economists?

The most important duty of the Vestals was maintenance of the sacred fire, representing the goddess's protection. If the sacred fire went out, it was often assumed that one of the Vestals had broken her oath of chastity. This was punishable by live burial. The Vestals were also responsible for making a special flour that was a required ingredient in public offerings to any god.

When we overlap Vesta and Hestia, what do we get?

1. Both were virgins. This was a Big Deal.
2. Both were hearth goddeses, the hearth being a symbol of the home.
3. Both had a sacred fire that must not go out.
4. Both were considered essential for the well-being of the state.
5. Both had a part in sacrifices to any god.
6. No one seemed terribly interested in the personality or history of either.
7. No one felt the need to explain their roles in detail.

Points six and seven are more important than they may appear at first - another case of a dog not barking in the night.

We know these goddesses were extremely important. Hestia the 'first and last', Vesta, state goddess of Rome. This suggests a very basic function. That this function was never explicitly named in turn suggests that either it was very difficult to summarize, or (and?) it was so obvious that it did not bear mentioning in a literary work.

Household management and its extension to the national 'household' fit these clues. Everyone lived in a household, and everyone knew what was involved. The moment the phrase 'hearth goddess' was uttered, it summoned images of cooking, budgeting, hospitality, planning and so on. No further explanation was needed, and in fact, any explanation at all would have been overly pedantic.

The lack of personality and lack of stories involving the goddesses goes hand-in-hand with their virginal status. Zeus's monumental libido made for great stories. Hestia's scrupulous chastity? Not so much.

There was no passion, no emotional drive to the actions of the hearth goddesses - they could not afford such. They had to be pragmatic and in a sense, compassionate, taking into account not their choices, but those of the household members when making their decisions as managers.

This enforced neutrality may well be the reason why Hestia was invoked in matters of law, and Vestals were given privileges when in court, such as not having to swear the customary oath.

Love and passion would introduce bias, and so were out of the question. Hestia would gladly be Apollo's housekeeper, but never his wife. A Vestal who broke her oath of chastity would withdraw the goddess's protection from the city, and be sentenced to death. Vesta's servants could show no bias of this sort.

The goddesses were essential to the state, because of their status as household managers - the allocation of scarce resources among competing needs and desires is the business of the state. Their fires could not be allowed to go out. Even among the feasts and festivals, a thought must always be given to these considerations, or the state, like any unminded household, would collapse.

What of the final attribute, the share in any sacrifices to the gods? It did not matter whether the prayer was for love, wealth or victory - at its source, and at its granting or denial, it had to interface with a world of scarcity. Where there is scarcity, there is the need for management.

Such is the essential nature of economics according to the ancients, then. The practical management of the household, be it a family or a nation. Economic considerations are found in all things, and must never be lost sight of or be allowed to go astray through momentary passion or an inordinate fondness for one group or individual.

On Tuesday, I'll talk about the concept of equilibrium. And kittens.

No comments: