Why we hate the rich, according to Aristotle

A leader in The Guardian (22 January 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/21/the-guardian-view-on-davos-and-inequality-a-demagogue-takes-advantage) on the World Economic Forum currently taking place at Davos begins with a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The rich, as F Scott Fitzgerald noted, ‘are different from you and me’. Their wealth, he wrote, makes them ‘cynical where we are trustful’ and their affluence makes them think they are ‘better than we are’.

The first part of this quotation is well known: it has given rise to the myth of a face-to-face exchange between Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in which the observation that ‘the rich are different from you and me’ elicits the retort: ‘Yes, they have more money.’ In fact, the contributions of the two writers here were made years apart, and in their published fiction (http://www.quotecounterquote.com/2009/11/rich-are-different-famous-quote.html). In a short story called ‘The Rich Boy’, published in 1925, Fitzgerald wrote:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

It was only in 1936, in the original publication of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, that Hemingway used this as the basis for a comment mocking the awe that Fitzgerald was supposed to experience towards the rich.

Clearly, the original passage in Fitzgerald expresses nothing of the sort. But the insight that it does express, the one that is reused in the Guardian editorial, goes back a long way – as far as Aristotle, at least, but also beyond him into the traditional Greek thought for which Aristotle has such respect.

This is Aristotle’s take on the subject (Rhetoric 2.16, 1390b32–1391a2):

The kinds of character that accompany wealth are plain for all to see. The wealthy are hybristic and arrogant – something happens to them as a result of the acquisition of wealth (for they are so disposed as to think that they possess all good things …).

As a result, the rich have a false idea of their own worth and a misplaced confidence in their own good fortune (1391a1–14, especially 13–14: ‘in a nutshell, the character that belongs to wealth is that of a lucky fool’).

What happens to the rich, in Aristotle’s view, chimes with Fitzgerald’s view – they think they’re better than we are. As Aristotle makes clearer than Fitzgerald does, this is obnoxious because it involves a claim to a quality – esteem, respect – to which the rich have no special claim and which indeed they often forfeit precisely because they fail to recognize the claims of others. Hybris, the (reprehensible) behavioural attitude that Aristotle attributes to them, is a matter of putting other people down for the sheer hell of it, just for the pleasure of feeling superior (Rhetoric 2.2, 1378b14–15, 23–31).

For Aristotle, hybris is a form of injustice. In the rich, it manifests itself in a tendency to assume that having more money (as Hemingway put it) entitles them to more respect. For Aristotle, indeed, this is why people pursue wealth – not simply in order to have more stuff, but to command greater esteem (Nicomachean Ethics 4.3, 1124a17–20). (Just so, Aristotle believes, people seek esteem in order to convince themselves that they are good: Nicomachean Ethics 1.5, 1095b26–28; cf. 4.3, 1123b35; 8.14, 1163b3–4). According to Aristotle, this is not only wrong, but also socially divisive, because it translates material inequality into inequality of esteem. Whereas the poor (who favour democracy) seek to extend the equality they enjoy by virtue of their free-born status and claim equality in all other respects, for the rich, who prefer oligarchy, the converse is true (Politics 5.1, 1301a28–35): being unequal in material wealth they believe themselves to be unequal absolutely (a32–33). For Aristotle, this is a form of greed: the rich seek to ‘have more’ (pleonektein, 34–35). But this greed is not purely material: the rich already have more in material terms; their greed, their unfairness, is about esteem and privilege, not just about money.

This is a conclusion that will surprise readers of Ryan Balot’s book, Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens (Princeton, 2001). Balot argues that in Aristotle – and ‘especially in the Politics’ – the concept of greed (pleonexia) is ‘focused on power and material goods, rather than on honor’ (p. 64 n. 21). Balot argues that ‘Aristotle’s separation of the terms’ hybris and pleonexia is typical of a progressive tendency to see material acquisitiveness and the pursuit of honour as alternative sources of motivation in the development of Greek political thought from the Archaic to the Classical periods. But in fact, even where Aristotle makes a distinction between profit and honour as motives (as at Politics 5.2–3, 1302a38–b10), he makes it clear that greed (pleonexia) can focus on honour as much as on profit – ‘people are stirred up against each other’, he says ‘by reason of profit (kerdos) and honour (timê), not in order that they may acquire them for themselves …, but because they see others – in some cases justly and in other cases unjustly – trying to get more (pleonektountes) of them’ (1302a38–b2).

Inequalities of wealth and income can no doubt be intrinsically unjust – as in the current global distribution by which 1% of the world’s population have more wealth than the other 99% put together (which is the main subject of the Guardian leader referred to above). But as soon as we begin to talk about justice or fairness, we are no longer simply talking about wealth. To insist that we are is a favourite tactic of the right – if the rich are just people who have more money than we do, if that’s all we care about, then there is no injustice to be remedied. All we’d be expressing would be envy and social disapproval, and the rich are in the clear. But in fact the well-known ‘ultimatum game’ – in which you and I can keep whatever shares of a windfall I can persuade you to accept – shows that human beings’ attitudes to material gain and the distribution of material resources are conditioned by a sense of our own worth, by the notion that it would be beneath our dignity to accept an excessively unfair share – people walk away if the distribution is too unequal. Modern research in a variety of disciplines – like Aristotle and like much traditional Greek thought – emphasizes that material prosperity is intimately related to issues of status and social comparison. Epidemiological and sociological studies suggest that the deleterious effects of inequality of wealth and income – at least in modern societies where absolute poverty is rare – are largely a function of the link between wealth and status, of what your wealth and the things you can buy with it say about your standing relative to others.

This is why we took what might, on the face of it, seem to be a strange decision – to inaugurate our project on Honour in Classical Greece with a lecture by Sir Michael Marmot on ‘Health, Status, and Inequality’.


Featured image: Luca della Robbia, ‘Logic and Dialectic’ (Plato and Aristotle) (Giotto’s Campanile, 15th cent., Florence) – photo by Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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