Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

From Homo Economicus to Political Animal

Who is Economic Man? Every economic paradigm presupposes an anthropology, a theory of human nature. This project explores the anthropologies presupposed and produced by ancient Greek economic texts, and the specific knowledge forms that shape these anthropologies.

2021 - 2026
Tazuko van Berkel
NWO Vidi NWO Vidi

Project description: Human self-understanding in ancient Greek economic reflection

“The central problem of economics is not scarcity, but abundance.”
“Economics is not about growth but about happiness.”
“Freedom is the capacity to not pursue your desires.”

These are paraphrases of pieces of ancient Greek economics, of reflection on the ways in which human beings interact with their natural and social environment for the provisioning of their livelihoods. From a modern, Neoclassical, economic view, these statements are symptomatic for the incommensurability of ancient and modern economic ideas: they run counter to the very definition of economics as the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses. Ancient Greek economic thinking was intertwined with ethics, having overtly normative and moralizing pretensions.

This fundamentally ethical nature of ancient economics has often been noted—dismissed as a handicap by adherents of Neoclassical economics, and celebrated by heterodox economists who seek an alternative to mainstream economics. However, the anthropological and epistemological implications of this ethical agenda are not systematically appreciated and grasped: a systematic analysis of the ethical protagonist of Greek economic thought and of the specific kind(s) of knowledge that gives rise to normative economic statements is lacking. 

This project seeks to do remedy this omission, by supplementing the question:

  1. What are the central concepts, questions and principles of Greek economic thinking?

    with the two fundamental questions:
  2. What kind of human being is ancient Greek economics “about”? What kind of “anthropology” (defined as “(implicit) theory on human nature”) is at stake in different instances of ancient economic reflection?
  3. What kind of knowledge is ancient Greek economics? What kind of knowledge practices and epistemologies are producing, shaping and reproducing ancient economic thought?

In engaging with these questions, this project seeks to offer a revisionist account of the ancient Greek history of economic reflection.

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Principal investigator: Tazuko van Berkel

Postdoc: to be hired

PhD: to be hired

3 Fundamental questions

This project seeks to offer a revisionist account of the ancient Greek history of economic reflection by asking three fundamental questions:

  1. What are the central concepts, questions and principles that the ancient Greeks thought were “economic”, i.e. pertaining to the ways in which human beings interact with their natural and social environment for the provisioning of their livelihoods?
  2. Who or what is the ancient Greek equivalent of Economic Man: what kind of anthropologies are implied and propagated by ancient Greek economic reflection? How do particular anthropologies inform and shape key economic concepts?
  3. What kind of knowledge is “economic knowledge” in the ancient Greek world? What kind of discursive practices are producing, shaping and reproducing ancient economic thought?

3 Axes of analysis

Accordingly, we will approach Greek economic thought in terms of three main axes corresponding to these questions:

  1. Key economic concepts: what is the conceptual architecture of a specific instance of economic thought? EMIC concepts (e.g. kerdos, chrêsis) will be analyzed in their discursive and systemic contexts, and will be confronted with ETIC notions (“profit”, “use”); comparison of “false friends” (e.g. oikonomia and “economics”) will be used for heuristic purposes.
  2. Anthropologies: what aspects of human nature and being human (e.g. body-soul dualism, desire, freedom, rationality, competitiveness etc.) are presupposed, mobilized or articulated by specific economic theories?
  3. Knowledge practices/epistemologies: what forms and practices of knowing and reasoning (e.g. maxims, genealogy, utopianism) are involved in the production of economic thought? How is the generality (or particularity) of a piece of economic knowledge established? How is normativity grounded or motivated?

3 subprojects

This project will consist of 3 components that each explore the intersections of these three axes:

This page will be updated during the project.

This project contributes to an understanding of the ways in which ancient economic theories always imply an anthropology. In West-European ersatz economics this is Rational Economic Man: our everyday language and policy-making reflexes reveal an anthropology in which we assume that our fellow-humans are driven by self-interest, and where incentives (rewarding and punishing) are the only ways in which behavior can be influenced or changed. Everyday economic discourse, in advertisement, campaigns slogans, media and informal interactions, activates this specific anthropology, mobilizing a particular theory of human nature without motivating or questioning it.

This is a very limited understanding of human nature that fails to do justice to the complex creature that human being is. This project aims to question this self-portrait that we live by, to raise awareness of the artificial and constructed nature of Rational Economic Man and to stimulate the development of a richer view on human nature. While this is relevant to many different groups in society, this project will target two groups specifically: (1) young consumers; (2) financial professionals.

Activity 1: “Eigen schuld” (“Debt is guilt”): educational module for secondary schools

Consumer debt problems are endemic among adolescents. According to a self-report study of the NIBUD, almost 60 percent of high school students has difficulty in handling money in a responsible way. Although many financial literacy programs invest in prevention, the focus is often on “instrumental rationality”, i.e. on the calculative side of debt problems (“Geld lenen kost geld!”). The dynamics of consumerism (e.g. how are your “wants” created? What is the influence of your peers on your consumer choices? How are your desires and aspirations shaped by Instagram or ads?) are often neglected. A confrontation with different kinds of anthropologies or possible self-images (Am I a Social Animal? Am I exercising my consumer liberty or am I being a slave of my desires? Do I want these shoes because everybody has them, because nobody has them, or because everybody knows they’re expensive?) can make adolescents more resilient and reflective in the choices they make as young consumers.

The project team will develop two six-hour educational modules (one for HAVO/VWO/Gymnasium (A), and one for vmbo-t (B)) for “young consumers”, i.e. secondary school students of age 15-17. These modules can be either implemented in the courses of regular school subjects (economics, social studies (“maatschappijleer”), philosophy, Latin/Greek, ancient cultures (KCV) or in interdisciplinary programmes (“vakoverschrijdend”). Both modules aim at enhancing adolescents’ understanding of the dynamics of consumerism and at broadening the range of “possible self-images” that are activated in choice processes.

Activity 2: “Socrates op de Zuidas” (“Socrates on Wall Street”): dialogues with financial professionals

Professionals in the financial world operate with implicit ideas of what it is that motivates and drives their customers, collaborators and competitors. After the financial crisis of 2008 many banks have shown interest in changing “culture and behavior”. Understanding how economic and financial models and language often implicitly subscribe to a particular anthropology is a crucial part of such a culture change.

In a series of 4 evenings (year 3), a selection of key “classics” in the early history of economic thought (Aristotle, Bryson, Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Mandeville) will serve as stepping stones towards exploring real-life cases (introduced by the participants themselves), raising fundamental questions, analyzing the different anthropologies and confronting these with our own implicit views. The goal is (1) defamiliarization: to become more conscious of the “knowledge system” in which we live; (2) enhancing “responsivity”.

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