Friday, August 5, 2011


Ralph M. Rosen, Ineke Sluiter (ed.), Valuing Others in Classical Antiquity. Mnemosyne Supplements 323. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. xii, 476. ISBN 9789004189218. $224.00.

Reviewed by Brendan Boyle, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This is the fifth volume in the "Penn-Leiden Colloquia on Ancient Values," the first four of which were released to justly warm reviews. This volume's eighteen chapters take up the question of "valuing others" in contexts as varied as ancient domestic and civic architecture, Athenian forensic oratory, Athenian drama, Roman moral philosophy, funerary inscriptions, and much else in between. The volume, then, pairs a surprisingly broad topic – "valuing others" – with a surprisingly broad body of evidence, and the result is a bit shapeless. There is little conversation between the pieces beside the odd footnote, and the editors, to their credit, don't pretend otherwise. This makes for a difficult read straight through, even though the papers themselves are well done, and some – David Konstan's, Josiah Ober's, and Kathleen Coleman's, in particular – are excellent. Each paper is clearly summarized by the editors on pp. 7-12. Individual chapters will solicit different readers' interest, as many are taken up with relatively specialized questions in the fields mentioned above.

The volume's central significance is, I think, methodological. Not so much because it articulates a coherent method for addressing questions of "value" but rather because it shows the waxing influence of a particular stripe of social science. Here is the volume's opening paragraph, which I quote in full:

The scale of human societies has expanded dramatically since the origin of our species. From small kin-based communities of hunter-gatherers human beings have become used to large-scale societies that require trust, fairness, and cooperative behavior even among strangers. Recent research has suggested that such norms are not just a relic from our stone-age psychological make-up, when we only had to deal with our kin-group and prosocial behavior would thus have had obvious genetic benefits, but that over time new social norms and informal institutions were developed that enabled successful interactions in larger (even global) settings. 'Market integration,' for instance, measured as the percentage of purchased calories, is positively correlated with a sense of fairness. And indeed, the more a community depends on the market for sustenance, the more important it is to have that market work as smoothly as possible: mutual trust and a shared sense of fairness are clearly helpful and may thus have coevolved. Larger communities will show a greater willingness than smaller ones to engage in the individually costly behavior of punishment: the more strangers there are, the more important it is to stifle exploitative behaviors (1).

I would not normally put much stock in the opening paragraph of a volume like this, but the terms of the argument were so surprising ("market integration measured by the percentage of purchased calories;" "stone-age psychological make-up"), that something excitingly unfamiliar seemed afoot. But the language of the social sciences disappears in the second paragraph, which turns its attention to "stories about the origin of human society from classical antiquity" and suggests that these stories, too, "express a deep awareness of the need for prosocial norms." "When Cicero offers his own myth on the origin of civilization," say the editors, "he emphasizes the need for morality in the successful formation and maintenance of human communities" (1-2).

How, though, the two paragraphs are meant to be understood together is unclear. The first offers a decidedly third-personal standpoint on value. This is the language of the evolutionary biologist, the economic historian, and the cognitive scientist. Intentional doings are nowhere to be found. "Valuing others" is instead to be explained by way of "markets" and the "costs" of different kinds of strategic behavior. The second paragraph, by contrast, offers a decidedly first-personal standpoint on value. These "stories about the origin of human society" are not the products of market or evolutionary forces, but are intentional doings, the results of how human agents take themselves to have become what they are.

The editors offer the following sentences by way of reconciling the two standpoints: "Notions of 'fairness' and 'trust' seem universally to underlie or to have coevolved with human communities, and it is likely that they also universally found expression in evaluative language; furthermore, human communities probably universally developed norms and values expressing and constructing a basis for the idea that people somehow or other 'belong together,' that they 'value each other.' Although there is an evolutionary rationale for such norms, their expression in specific value terms and concepts is culturally embedded" (2). This is fairly said, though I am not sure that it tackles the problem head-on. It seems to simply reaffirm the priority of the third-personal standpoint – to reaffirm, that is, the "evolutionary rationale" for such norms. "Fairness" and "trust" are said to have "coevolved" with human communities, which looks to be another way of saying that they are not, in the first instance, the result of human doings. The first-person standpoint comes on the scene rather late, if at all. We hear only that the specific expression of value terms is "culturally embedded." And even here, culture seems to be doing most of the "intentional" work.

But what, exactly, has the evolutionary account established? The editors say only that "human communities probably universally developed norms…expressing…the idea that people somehow or other 'belong together' [and] 'value each other'" (my italics). That may be true, but if all the evolutionary account tells us is that people somehow or other belong together, it isn't telling us very much. We want to know what counts as belonging together, what counts as valuing another. This is where all the interesting questions lie. "Somehow or other" is, to say the least, underspecified.

I single out the editors' introduction for extended comment because, as I said above, it may well be the early sign of a new, social-scientific approach to the study of "value" in antiquity. (Later in the introduction the editors say that they were "inspired by [their] colleagues from the (social) sciences" to supplement the traditional paper-reading conference format with "poster presentations.") I should say that this social-scientific language does not appear frequently in the papers themselves. And this only reinforces the oddness of the editors' introduction. It's all the less clear just what relevance the evolutionary biological papers cited in the bibliography to the editors' introduction have for the remainder of the volume. I enjoyed reading those papers, both from the journal Science, but I don't quite see how they help us get any clearer on the questions that need answering. If, again, all they tell us is that people somehow or other value each other, they haven't told us much. The papers in the volume, by contrast, which make almost no use of this language, do tell us an awful lot about what somehow or other means in particular local contexts. And they manage to do so without any reference to the evolutionary account. So what work is the evolutionary set-up doing? If none at all, it ought be dispensed with. If some, then that needs to be specified in more detail.

The paper that makes the most use of the evolutionary biological studies is the first paper, John Bintliff's "Classical Greek Urbanism: A Social Darwinian View." I should say in advance that the paper offers a very clear account of the development of ancient urbanism and would make for a very nice contribution to a course on ancient cities or the like. I should also say in advance that it is the paper most outside my ken, but I do not think I lack the expertise to register the following objection, which turns on what seems another under-theorized invocation of the social sciences. On the bottom of page 35 Bintliff offers a précis of some of E.O. Wilson's rich studies of insect behavior. "Eusociality in social insects," says Bintliff, "arises in contingent if predictable circumstances, but primarily where a large community ('nest') surrounded by rich resources encourages communal action to defend and exploit them both. Kinship can be a minor but need not be a major factor in stimulating the community to assert its special identity against other 'nest' communities. What is important is 'imprinting:' when members are brought up in a highly introspective society and bound through shared social and cultural education focused on a unique enclosed 'small world.' For social insects a unique odor for example imprints a special recognition of belonging to one's nest." The following paragraph begins like this: "Applying these concepts to Greek societies" and continues by drawing a connection between the "unique odor" that allows social insects to "recognize" who belongs to the "nest" and the "formal citizenship rituals" that helped cultivate solidarity between members of a polis (36).

I find this very hasty. One moment we are talking about the unique odors of social insects, the next moment about "formal citizenship rituals." And how did we get from one to the next? By "applying [Wilson's] concepts to Greek society." Maybe that's all that needs to be said. Indeed, maybe the near future will reveal all human intentional doings to be a mirage. Insects build nests, we build cities. The only difference is one of scale. But I am not sure we are at such a point just yet. It seems, that is, that right now something more than "applying these concepts to Greek society" needs to be said to get us from insect odors to the ephēbeia.

I said above that Ober's contribution, "Instrumental Value and Institutional Change: An Athenian Case Study," was one of the best. Indeed it is, but even it is framed in the language of the social sciences. It is structured around questions of "transaction costs," of the "transaction- cost/productivity equation," of "elite capture" of political power, of "tipping points" and of "foreigner-preference-satisfying policy changes." This language is, to be sure, distinct from the editors' and Bintliff's evolutionary biological language, but it bears an important family resemblance. To appreciate my claim about the study of ancient "value" being tugged toward the social sciences, one might simply set this essay against Ober's earlier works like Mass and Elite and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, where such language is wholly absent.

This social scientific work obviously has much to contribute and may well transform studies like these. I have here simply attempted to note, first, that this work brings in its wake theoretical questions that deserve closer attention than they received here; and, second, that pieces like Ober's signal that such work is already shaping the field, making attention to the theoretical questions all the more pressing.

I said above that the volume is a difficult read straight through, but not only because of the discontinuity of the subject matter. I also found myself having to scurry away to other journals to read articles with which the authors here are in conversation. That moots the question whether these chapters might have a better home in specialized journals, where they would be welcomed by experts in various fields. The price of the volume intensifies the gravity of the question.

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