BANAUSIA


"The Athenian working man simply cannot think. . ."


The Greek word '"baunos", which referred to the metal melting and reducing forge, was always seen as a smoky and dirty place, and the "basaun oi" were workers who with their dirty hands and rough manners were considered vulgar and incapable of fine thinking by the society for whom they produced essentials for the citizens at large. They worked the metals and coinage, did carpentry for shelter and for ships, stonework for walls and temples and a whole range of pasturing, fishing and farming. Of course without fire and skill at metal production, Athens could not have developed, since its extensive trade was based on talents or weights of silver and gold, as well as a wide range of manufactured export items. These things all traced back to the "basaunos" who was an artisan or hand-worker at a trade, the key man in the infra-structure of the Athenian Empire.

But throughout its history Athens despised hand work and made it clear than the handworker was common and vulgar. He really could not understand anything beyond the craft of his demeaning trade, and Aristotle remarked that in the best city he should not be allowed to be a citizen. He gives further details about slave-workers, who are owned by a person and must provide good only for the use of the family, while day-laborers are in another class since they provide various necessities for the good of the city. Undeveloped in body (Aristotle Pol.1341a7) and vulgar in manner (Pol. 1337b7) the basaunoi are a necessity to any state, but he feels they stand in the status of "a tool (organon)" mechanically operating craft equipment, of which they are just a functioning part. These craftsman "basanoi" have no capacity for understanding philosophy, higher mathematics and the religious and cosmic speculations in which the educated upperclasses were interested. They do not have the ability to think, and cannot participate in a democracy where intelligent thought is needed.

Plato takes a somewhat parallel approach to all kind of business at Laws XI 920 ff, and does admit that retailers of sales items do provide things which are important and valuable. But he specifies that no family can engage in Retailing because there is inherent corruption which comes from the handling of funds, and no retailers should normally be members of the Athenian society. However if there is sufficient oversight and contract supervision of them and their operations, they may be permitted to do their trade although trade is never considered appropriate to a good family. In other words Plato had already thought of the subject of "Regulation by the State" as a need or an rather an excuse for something which the society must have.

I am impressed by Plato's actual spelling out of the idea of Regulation vs. Deregulation for Athens, which sounds so remarkably similar to some of the problems which have recently beset our economical stability, that I will give you the reference to his view to pursue at your convenience. It is at Book Eleven of Plato's Laws, Stephanus Sect. 902 ff. which you will find in the second volume of the old Random House Jowett Plato which most older libraries still have. The Laws is not a popular volume so it may not yet appear on-line. I was thinking of quoting the passages here, but they are long and require careful reading, so referring seems a wiser alternative. But his point is most carefully made. It should be in the contract of every modern business CEO, with Plato's rubric for a year in jail for first infraction, another year for second, and for a third banishment forever. Maybe that is something we should consider these days.

The word "banausia", was more often implied in a context than actually used since it was itself a vulgar term. But the idea was widespread and lasted through the Greek period. It was tentatively connected by late commentators like the Etymologicon Magnum of the 9th c. with the noun "baunos" which is a furnace or forge, but the change of the diphthong -au- to an -a- is not linguistically valid in modern terms. Hesychios adds: "baunos + auo" or lighting the furnace, but that would refer only to the metalworking aspect of handicraft, whereas the Basaunic person can be in any one of the dozens of major trades. I suspect that we may have an entirely different etymological source for this socially important word, perhaps even a borrowing from one of the Near Eastern manufacturing cities which had been active in trade and production for millennia. Ancient Greek pseudo-etymologies are untrustworthy and notoriously odd, e.g. 'methuein' or to be drunk, from 'meta + to.thuein" meaning 'after the sacrifice'. But getting drunk at a sacrifice was impiety, and there is no connection between these terms at all.

But banausia is an obscure word which must be properly re-defined in the ancient and modern world, since it is loaded with confusing social implications for both then and now. The term shaped the social consciousness of Athens and its high-minded Greek thinkers, while diverting attention from what we now are now praising as 'science and engineering', as furnishing the mechanical building blocks on which any major civilization bases itself. Yet we are still maintaining a social differentiation in 21st century America between the well educated upperclass "white collar" person in banks, industry and government, as against the "blue collar" workers who rarely appear in white-collar roles.

The Athenian working population, ranging from slaves owned as property, to the myriad free day-laborers, are not in an entirely different position from the lower-paid segment of working America. Lack of training and education in underfunded inner-city schools, lack of encouragement at the bottom of the job market, lack of medical insurance and little pretense of any financial aid in retirement ---- these discouraging traits are still with us. It would seem that in America the basic worker is seen as a necessity in the whole range of ill-paid jobs, while the nation's interest follows high profit investment and the success of high-tech corporations. The gas-pump-man, the hamburger flipper and and the night-time floor sweeper are in fact slaves to their own unrewarding status. One step up are the workers still always needed in local chicken processing plants, while those in old-style manufacturing lose their jobs which go overseas. Since the credentials for any better level of employment will be a college education with specialization in Business and good computer skills, the chance of an upward motion is virtually impossible for the poor, who are dealing daily with matters of bare survival.

We do know that Plato was in some part right when he said that money and business often corrupt and must be regulated at best, or at least warily scrutinized with caution before they get out of proportion. On the one hand uneducated working-class people when given the opportunity will quickly earn the title of being greedily 'vulgar' in their search for riches, while the more educated will slip vast wealth away in a hidden ledger-book style, to be seen as slick and sophisticated thieves. This recalls Plato's dilemma closely and it is easy to suspect that there are traits in human consciousness which have been operating since the last Ice Age and continuing into the beginnings of formal civilizations.

Thinking of the great minds of antiquity as we are taught in our school readings, we tend to lose perspective about what makes an actual society work. Plato's Republic and his Laws are not real descriptions of an actual state, they are not even ideal sketches for the future of his Athenian democracy. But when you look at the Parthenon, or at reconstruction of a fleet of triremes loaded with soldiers or cargo ship loaded with commercial goods, or the vast underground of mines which brought up cash as silver and gold for a market economy, then you get a better idea of why Athens became for a short period such a startling success.

This was a social and economic formula which our Southern States copied for America before l860, and it may still in spirit be with us in our areas of global banking and the world of credit and of investing, which ride on top of a society where a minority of persons are the white-collar business personnel, while the great proportion are jeans and blue-collar factory workers. Salaried management even at the lowest level is considered far more honorable than the role of hourly-paid workers.

Now the question might arise: Are American workers true members of this democratic society, are they actually a full-fledged citizenry? Yes, they all can vote, that is true. But in this day in which money buys TV time, in which money buys influence both financial and also psychological, is the majority of our working population really making the critical choices which our government needs? We do not win an election with a popular vote, but with the Electoral Process which was adopted from the undemocratic European states, as a semi-democratic way of preserving the role of landed aristocrats who were the holders of power in the 18th c. America. Indeed, the two party system has advantages over the one party system, but when we speak of an ideal democracy, there is much more to be considered.

The Athenians were very proud and pleased with their democratic formula, which accepted the voice of one fourth of citizens, but never the word of the large foreign resident (metic) class, or of a foreigner, and of course of the women. Now that we can gain a better perspective about the ancient world, we might do well to see what we can do to better the world we live in, to include more realistically the voice of the people as voting individuals, without the cloud of money-vested confusion and finance-based shammery overshadowing the voting of what we like to call an "equal-rights society".



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris