Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The age of Hermes: Reflections on the conceptual affinities of the Olympic Games, the market society, democracy and globalization - Thanos Skouras


                                Hera Temple in Olympia


                         Hermes statue in Archaeological Museum of Olympia


Introduction 1

The most impressive exhibit in the Museum of Ancient Olympia is the full-body statue of Hermes. How come Hermes, the youngest and least heroic or god-like of the twelve Greek gods, is accorded such pride of place in the Olympic Games? The question springs naturally to mind when Hermes’ story is recalled. Hermes’ first deed, as a precocious new-born baby not yet out of his cot, was to steal the cattle of his older brother Apollo, feast on roast beef meat, hide the rest of the cattle away, and cover cunningly his tracks. After being accidentally found out by Apollo, he eloquently and brazenly protests his innocence not only to Apollo but even in front of his father, the mighty and fearsome Zeus. So, how can a thief and a liar (as well as arguably a glutton) of a supernatural prowess be celebrated in the Olympic Games?

A possible answer may be gleamed from the rest of Hermes’ story. Zeus is amused by baby Hermes’ eloquent even if impudent denial of guilt and, instead of punishing him, he orders him to reach a compensatory understanding with his wronged older brother. Hermes truly excels beyond any standard in this task. Not only he returns the stolen cattle but he invents the lyre, which he constructs out of the bones and entrails of the eaten animal, and totally charms Apollo by playing the musical instrument and then handing it to him as a present. At the end of the day, he manages to make powerful Apollo his best friend and protector.

Hermes grows up to become the messenger of gods. He intermediates between not only gods but also gods and mortals, and is the guide of the latter into the underworld. He is revered by humans as the god of communication, travel and commerce, as well as diplomacy and invention. On the dark side, he is also the god of thievery and deception. He is in fact the god, who is most involved with human society in all its aspects and there is no social interaction that is outside his scope. Hermes is usually depicted as an attractive young man with an athletic and harmonious body, that is far from both the strong warrior type and the body-building muscular ideal, and which fully conforms to the classical Greek maxim ‘μηδέν άγαν’ (nothing in excess).

As the last and most human-like god in the Dodekatheon, Hermes can be taken to represent a first step in a long and still enduring passage from the trust in gods to a belief in humanism.

Given Hermes’ characteristics above, how does he fit in with the Olympic Games? The paramount distinctive trait of the Olympic Games is to be found, above all else, in the cessation of war to allow free competition in the abilities of the human body. Its significance lies in the rejection of war and violence in favor of peacefully organized human competition. Beyond that, in its practical aspects, the Games were a large gathering of people, who had travelled from all Greek cities to participate as contestants and spectators, as well as all those who gravitated there in the expectation of doing business as caterers and merchants (including no doubt aspiring thieves). Communication, travel and commerce were the basic activities that inevitably accompanied the Games and all these were clearly under the auspices of Hermes. But Hermes’ affinity extends deeper into the essence of the Games, which is the rejection of war and violence. Hermes is not a warrior; his domain is the antithesis of war. All the human activities that Hermes protects can best flower in conditions of peace. Heroic deeds in battle are foreign to Hermes’ totally unheroic domain and the Olympic Games’ substitution of violent competition in war by peaceful competition in athletic abilities provides a fitting context for the celebration of Hermes. Even the god’s usual depiction as a youth with a well-proportioned athletic body is, in comparison to all other gods, more in accord with the physical appearance of the young contestants in the Games.

The affinity of the Olympic Games and Hermes is important for both humanity’s material progress and the spread of civilization. This claim needs some explanation. Let us begin by examining very briefly the importance of communication, travel and commerce, which are the main human activities under Hermes’ protection, for material progress. As Adam Smith has made clear in his ‘Wealth of Nations’ 2 (the book which founded the discipline of economics), material progress is premised on the increase in productivity that is made possible by the specialization of labour. In its turn, labour specialization depends on the size of the market, which goes hand in hand with the extent of communication. Consequently, material progress crucially depends on improvements in communication. Since the invention of agriculture and the first urban settlements in fertile lands, further agricultural inventions and improvements in transport were the sources of material progress. For millennia, until the invention of the printing press, communication required contiguity or physical closeness and this meant that better transport and easier travel were the means by which both markets and communication could be enlarged.

In other words, the human activities protected by Hermes were the ones that led to the expansion of markets, the increase in labor specialization, productivity growth and, hence, to greater wealth and material progress. The ‘wealth of nations’ crucially depends on Hermes- protected human activities. But there is more that connects Adam Smith to Hermes. Adam Smith’s view of the human nature in society is not far from the one conveyed by the story of the god that is most involved in social relationships. In proceeding from his cradle to steal, deceive and lie, Hermes exhibits not only the normal egocentrism of infants but also primeval proclivities of the human psyche in man’s relationship to man.

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and a keen student of human nature and morality before enquiring into the causes of the wealth of nations. The inscription on his grave hails him as the renowned author not of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ but of ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’, which was his first famous book preceding ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by nearly two decades. Adam Smith had no Rousseau-like illusions about humanity and no longing for the ‘noble savage’ that was supposedly the primeval but since lost state of human nature. He was fully aware of the tension between human ego centrism and the morality that is necessary to allow the functioning of human society. He recognized that man is a social being and sought to reconcile the human need to be in society with man’s egocentric proclivity, by investigating the basis of morality. His study provided such a reconciliation, by showing that the essential moral sentiment for existing within a social group is founded on self-interest. The essence of morality comes about from an innate ability to perceive that it is in our self-interest to develop the capacity to see ourselves through the eyes of others. 3 In the same way that the infant Hermes curbed his ego centrism to be liked by Apollo and accepted in the society of the Olympian gods, the human race tamed its inherent egocentrism to be able to live in society and the normal human infant naturally restrains his egocentrism to be part initially of a family and eventually a social group.

Smith introduces the notion of an imagined ever-present ‘impartial spectator’, which is an anthropomorphic representation of the disinterested self or conscience, enabling us to see with ‘the eyes of others’. This allows us to imagine ourselves in their place and thus develop sympathy for them and act in a way that takes their feelings into account. In this manner, we earn not only self-respect but also social approval while, at the same time and mostly unconsciously, serving our enlightened self-interest (see, Kennedy, Gavin, Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and his Political Economy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 and, especially, chapter 3 which has the title ‘so weak and imperfect creature as man’).

It should be borne in mind that, long before completing his enquiry into the wealth of nations, Adam Smith had tackled the problem of reconciling the fundamental egocentrism of human nature with the ‘moral sentiments’ required for living in society and resolved it on the basis of self-interest. His second book espoused a socio-economic system that seemed to resemble, at least in its broad characteristics, the market society dawning in his days, which was based on the elimination of regulations on economic activity and the operation of free markets. A system that had the promise of increasing wealth while not requiring more than a modicum of morality that is consistent with living in society.

Adam Smith’s great achievement was to understand and largely demonstrate a novel and rather counter intuitive idea regarding the functioning of the economy and the creation of wealth. This was that a system of competitive markets not only is able to replace by impersonal economic incentives and sanctions the customary regulation of economic activities by designated authorities but can also result, through the decentralized decision-making by the variegated totality of market participants, in a better allocation of resources and greater national wealth. Moreover, this superior economic result was possible without demanding unrealistically lofty ‘moral sentiments’ but on the basis of the self-interest that is ingrained in human nature (and consistent with the basic morality required for living in society). In other words, a market society is preferable to a planned one because it is more efficient in producing wealth and immediately practicable, as it is not dependent on the prior betterment of human nature. Hermes’ character, together with the rest of his attributes (such as, invention, communication and commerce or, in modern parlance, business enterprise) are the main if not sole prerequisites for greater social wealth.

It must not be forgotten that despite his basic ego centrism, Hermes’ character and ‘moral sentiments’ represent a more evolved stage of human nature, given that violence is contrary to his character in which ‘violent sentiments’ are totally absent. In fact, the market economy is itself quite antithetical to violence, as noticed quite early in its appearance, even before Adam Smith. Thus, Montesquieu already in 1748 observes the association of commerce to lack of violence. “It is almost a general rule that wherever manners are gentle (moeurs douces) there is commerce, and wherever there is commerce, manners are gentle”. 4 And he has no doubt about the direction of causation: “Commerce …. polishes and softens (adoucit) barbaric ways as we can see every day”. 5 Similarly, Condorcet notes “Manners have become more gentle …. through the influence of the spirit and industry, those enemies of the violence and turmoil, which cause wealth to flee …. “. 6

This view of commerce and the market economy, as contributing to a gentler human character, was echoed by many other thinkers and the story of how passions and the heroic ideal gave way to the idea that human society and civilization are better served by the gentleness promoted by the market society, in which people unheroically follow their own best material interests, has been brilliantly presented by Albert Hirschman. 7 If transposed to the realm of classical Greek mythology, it may be argued that this story has its parallel (and a similar insight can be discerned) in the evolution of the Dodecatheon. The older gods are unmistakably the heroic gods of passions while the youngest and last one is the egotistically-predisposed yet non-violent and gentle Hermes, who protects commerce, travel and especially communication, being thus involved in nearly all social activities and aspects of human society.

It is true that with the passage of time and the eventual dominance of the market society over other forms of social organization, this benevolent view of the market society has been strongly contested. In fact, the road to its present-day nearly universal dominance has been anything but smooth. Not only has there been a lot of resistance from the older gods and the virtues (or vices) which they represented but there have also been accusations that it is self-destructive and that the unbridled self-interest, which it encourages, corrodes the essential moral values for its own survival. Notwithstanding the dense network of relations and obligations arising out of the market and its expansion, it has been argued that the emphasis on self-interest impoverishes social life and undermines values such as honor, trust and solidarity, without which the macro management of the economy and the provision of collective goods become problematic.

It would be vain to deny that the market society has weaknesses, despite its overall successful historical trajectory. There is little doubt that its potential to excesses should be guarded against and moderated as needed. The classical Greek commandment μηδέν άγαν (nothing in excess) applies in this case, as in all human affairs. But the strongest defense of the market society is on the same grounds as that of democracy. Parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage is another institutional innovation that developed in tandem with market society. Both of them require the rule of law and they have historically evolved concurrently, to a large extent leaning on each other for mutual support. Democracy’s probably most famous defense was given in an aphoristic manner by Winston Churchill, when he stated: “No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Exactly the same can be said of the market system: No-one pretends that the market system is perfect but it is better than anything else that has been tried. 6

Having mentioned democracy, it is worth pointing out its close affinity to both the market system and Hermes in a crucial respect. They all share the most important distinguishing characteristic of progress in human civilization, which can be summed up as “gentleness rather than violence”. Demosthenes already in the 4th century BC detected this characteristic and encapsulated the essence of democracy in only five words “everything is milder in democracy”. This characteristic was systematically analyzed by the political philosopher Norberto Bobbio, who condensed the fundamental difference between democracy and all other political systems in a single phrase “democracy is the only form of governance in which decisions are taken by counting rather than by breaking heads”. 8

Humanity today lives in a globalized world, which seems to largely belong to Hermes’ domain. Globalization is the result of, on the one hand, invention and technical progress in communication and, on the other, socio-political and economic decisions to collaborate in the context of an international market society. Communication, both auditory and visual, can take place at a distance and nearly instantaneously. The volume of communication can today be measured and not only it exceeds in a day what has been communicated in centuries of human history but its rate of increase accelerates day by day. Travel by air to practically anywhere on earth is possible within a matter of hours and even travel outside the bounds of earth is not beyond humanity’s reach. Commerce and the market society is nearly universal. Invention and technical progress have become institutionalized in scientific disciplines and continuous progress can be taken for granted. These are the conditions which define globalization and this is surely the arrival of the age of Hermes.

Globalization has also increased wealth tremendously. The growth in wealth made possible and was accompanied by improving living conditions, rising life-expectancy and rapid population growth. 9

It is, of course, true that there are great disparities in living standards and that wealth inequality is extremely marked. 10 But it tends to be more pronounced in poorer countries, in which the market society is least developed. Countries with well-established market societies not only have higher living standards but they also have, in general, lower levels of inequality than low income countries. Moreover, in the last quarter 7 century, global poverty though still unacceptably high is nevertheless on a declining trend, with the reduction being particularly notable in China. 11

The age of Hermes may have arrived but it still has a long way to go before it can fulfil its promise. The differentials in the levels of both communication capacity and wealth between developed market societies and those in which the legal and other institutions underpinning competitive markets and democratic practices have yet to properly evolve, are still immense. Resistance from established interests, which mobilize misguided populist support for their protection, retards the development of the market society and the cultivation of democracy, thus also impeding the creation of wealth. A cluster of kindred ideological forces, such as nationalism, protectionism, populism, exceptionalism and isolationism, pose obstacles to the spread and deepening of the market society and globalization. Similarly, obstacles are also set by extremism of any kind, as well as all dogmas and political movements that ignore the precept of μηδέν άγαν (nothing in excess). These related forces are all inimical to the production of wealth and hinder the completion of Hermes’ age.

It is noteworthy that, outside the confines of developed market societies, the mildness in social interactions, which is the distinguishing common characteristic of Hermes, democracy and the market society, is rarely to be found and violence continues unabated. Needless to say, war and violence are totally incompatible with Hermes and the creation of wealth. The continued existence of numerous wars and manifestations of societal violence in many parts of the world is a crucial measure of the distance that needs to be traversed for the age of Hermes to be complete.

The age of Hermes should be completed but it needs also to be corrected. It must not be forgotten that Hermes is not without defects; stealing, deception and lying are part of his nature. Similar defects may characterize all the social constructs (that is, Olympic Games, market society, democracy, globalization), which are associated with him. Let us quickly consider them in turn. The obvious defect plaguing the Olympic Games is deception and the stealing of victory through the sophisticated use of doping. 12 Stealing and deception are also problems in the functioning of any economy but, as a rule, developed market societies are well rooted in the rule of law and suffer from these problems to a lesser extent than less developed, poorer economies. Democracy’s main failing is in the use of deception and lying, which can be witnessed not only in the politicians’ attempts to reconcile incompatible interests and particularly in their populist chase after votes but also in the unscrupulous persuasion practiced by the mass media in the service of partisan and other special interests. Finally, globalization’s main weakness lies in the underdevelopment of international law and especially in its applicability, despite the counterbalancing effect provided by the rapid development of communication technology. This lacuna in international policing allows the manifestation of all Hermes’ defects in the growth of organized transnational crime, such as drugs, arms and human trafficking. The latter in particular is intimately linked with the problem of large-scale migration, which globalization provokes through the economic dislocations it causes and, at the same time, enables through the rapid growth of travel and communication technologies. This short account shows clearly that the completion of Hermes’ age needs to be accompanied by a lot of effort, in order to correct all the Hermes-associated defects. Moreover, this effort must be based on an unprecedented extent of cooperation, given the high and increasing degree of interdependence characterizing the modern world.

In concluding, it is important to contemplate the eventual transcendence of the age of Hermes. Even before its completion and correction, there are signs that a new era unbeknown to Hermes has begun to dawn. This post-Hermes era is bound to arise and gather force naturally from the advance of globalization, which demonstrates clearly the interdependence of nations and the limits of the planet. It becomes increasingly evident that the spaceship Earth on which humanity travels in the Universe needs to be looked after and kept in good shape, for humanity to survive. The age of Hermes has left the valuable heritage of ‘peace and no war’ as a precondition to humanity’s survival but it has not recognized a further crucial precondition. This is the one arising out of the earth’s finiteness, which sets the ultimate bounds to the creation of wealth. Wealth creation needs to respect and protect the physical conditions that makes the planet habitable to humanity. The integrity of the planet thus sets the limits to the age of Hermes and requires its transcendence.

Protection of the environment and sustainable development are the new challenges of the future. To meet them effectively, enhanced international cooperation and understanding are of the essence. Humanity must realize that in meeting these challenges successfully, it must set aside its differences and single-mindedly concentrate on what unites it. Increasing globalization may be instrumental in bringing this about, by demonstrating clearly that humanity faces problems, which require international cooperation for their solution. Global warming, pollution (air, water and soil), ozone layer depletion and ocean acidification, are only some of the problems that demand international agreement.

In closing, it should be underlined that, despite the huge advances in communication and international ties that have been realized in the age of Hermes, humanity needs to come much closer in the days to come. Every possible endeavour in this direction should be encouraged. The present conference may be included within the large variety of efforts, which can contribute not only to the preparation of the coming era but also to the correction of Hermes’ defects in the current one, by promoting transnational communication and improving international understanding and cooperation. It is to be wished that an appropriate institutional framework may be created to enable the uninterrupted performance of this valuable role in the future.

1 I would like to thank A. Papandreou and N. Ritsonis for their comments on a first draft though, of course, I am alone responsible for any mistakes, omissions or other defects still remaining in the paper.

2 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London: W. Strahan, 1776; Methuen, 5th ed. edited by Edwin Cannan, 1904.

3 Smith introduces the notion of an imagined ever-present ‘impartial spectator’, which is an anthropomorphic representation of the disinterested self or conscience, enabling us to see with ‘the eyes of others’. This allows us to imagine ourselves in their place and thus develop sympathy for them and act in a way that takes their feelings into account. In this manner, we earn not only self-respect but also social approval while, at the same time and mostly unconsciously, serving our enlightened self-interest (see, Kennedy, Gavin, Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and his Political Economy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 and, especially, chapter 3 which has the title ‘so weak and imperfect creature as man’).

4 Montesquieu, Charles Louis, De l’ Esprit des Lois, Paris: Garnier [1748], 1961, Vol.2, p.8.

5 Ibid., p.81.

6 Condorcet, Marquis de, Esquisse d’ un Tableau Historique du Progres de l’ Esprit Humain, Paris, 1975, p.238.

7 Hirschman, Albert, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments For Capitalism Before Its Triumph, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

8 Bobbio, Norberto, In Praise of Meekness: Essays on Ethics and Politics, Polity Press, 2000 (original Italian edition 1996).

9 World population rose from an estimated 1 billion in 1804 to well over 7 billion today, with half of this rise occurring in the last fifty years https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

10 For example, the poorest 10% accounted for just 0.5% and the wealthiest 10% accounted for 59% of the whole world consumption in 2008, according to the World Bank Development Indicators. Moreover, the income and wealth of the richer 1% seem to be increasing at a much faster rate than the rest, particularly in the last 3-4 decades (see, Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press, 2014).

11 China’s poverty rate fell from 85% to 15.9%, or by over 600 million people, while in the rest of the world poverty fell only by around 10% (see, World Bank Development Indicators 2008).

12 The accusation (often heard in Greece) that they have degenerated into a commercial event dominated by big business misses the mark. The scale of an event watched throughout the world by billions (more than half of humanity watched the last Olympics in London) necessitates a high cost and is inevitably a big business affair. But it is the only truly global event that unites humanity in a celebration of human abilities demonstrated in peaceful competition. This inestimable achievement in the service of understanding and peace of humanity must be appealing to the mass of humanity and be based on a realistic rather than idealized view of man’s nature. Cultural elitism (which underlies the above accusation), whatever its merits, is certainly incapable of having a comparable appeal to the mass of humanity.

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