Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where am I?

For this post we take you on a factory tour.

As we enter the building we notice stacks of raw materials, rows of partially completed product, and near what looks like the shipping department, lines of finished goods.

It’s a busy place as I am able to count a hundred workers in the building. Its obvious that a division of labor and mass production techniques are being utilized. We notice several stations where raw materials are used to manufacture an assembly that will eventually become the final product. Additional parts are in piles next to workstations down the line where employees attach them to the assembly. Completed products are then taken away for finishing.

At the beginning of the finish process, a worker stamps the company logo and the name of the shipper on the product. This latter step saves time when the finished goods have to be loaded.

The finishing step includes applying paint and putting the product through a drying process to make the paint adheres to its surface. There’s a team of painters doing their best to keep up with the units ready for them.

One of the shippers comes to the back door and wants to speak with the owner. He wants to know whether his shipment is ready. The owner tells him it is, and the shipper calls to some men to come and start loading The shipper complains that business is down because there are too many people getting into the same business. Most of his contracts involve hauling goods overland to the nearest port for shipment overseas and these newcomers are undercutting his rates. He may have to lay off some of his crew.

After he is done talking to the shipper, the owner has a conversation with one of his supervisors. They discuss how to dispose of defective product. The customer’s inspectors at the port will certainly reject any product with marks or dents. To avoid having a whole shipment rejected because of a few defects, the owner has located a customer who re-sells damaged goods. The owner is pleased that this customer is willing to pay 40% of the wholesale price of each unit. That’s certainly better than throwing them away.

When the daily shift comes to a close, the workers wash up and head for home. The owner and his supervisors do an inventory to determine how many shipments will be complete for the week. Even though production is good the owner is worried. It won’t be long before his outgrows the factory and will have to look for a new place. That means more loans and dealing with a fluctuating interest rate, but this is the life of a business owner.

Where am I?

The main pottery production facility in central Athens, summer 451 B.C.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Greek Expression of Humanness

In the last post I described the similarity between the Greek Dark Ages and the European Dark Ages in the centuries before the modern Renaissance. The analogy also works when you drop beneath the surface and examine each period in more detail. For example, there was en enlightenment period in ancient Greece like the enlightenment period that began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries A.D.

I was thinking about this similarity and wondered whether the fact that the human race (western anyway) became actualized twice signals an innate human behavior pattern? I think it does.

We look at the amazing accomplishments of the Greeks and seek to explain them. How could a people twenty-five hundred years ago explode mankind out of a world of spirits and fear of nature to one of modern analytical thought?

Then I started thinking about Maslow’s triangle: the great psychologist’s method of describing a hierarchy of human needs.
Maslow’s categorizes human needs starting from the most basic animal functions at the bottom and moving upward through other needs toward self-actualization.

I mentioned in the previous post that man living alone he doesn’t have time to contemplate metaphysics, he has to spend his time surviving. He’s stuck at Maslow’s lowest level. If he joins a community, however, the group will help him move up the scale of needs toward self-actualization. In human society, his safety needs can be satisfied with the help of others and he can also develop friendships and intimacy.

The Greek intellectual accomplishments of the Golden Age resulted directly from an environment seen rarely in history where a culture of self-actualization was possible and encouraged. The Greeks couldn’t be thinkers until they had time to think and when the notion of philosophical thinking was tolerated.

The issue of human self-actualization is larger than Greece. I believe the development of any society and its institutions are a human driven process toward self-actualization, the twenty-first century being its greatest opportunity. What now? Do we keep moving forward or do we corrupt ourselves?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feudalism Do Over

Ask anyone what they know about Feudalism and they immediately bring up the Dark Ages/Middle Ages in Europe – those glorious days of kings, vassals, and serfs when men were men. The term Feudalism is problematic, however, because it tries to define a general political condition in Europe when, in fact, the European experience was not uniform. Italy, for example, had no “Feudal” experience.

The term Feudal was first used in 1610 by French lawyers to describe traditional obligations between members of a warrior aristocracy and then co-opted later by Montesquieu and others to represent the medieval period in Europe. Since Feudal was not used during the period it describes, there has never been a clear definition of the term and more than one historian refuses to use it.

The word Feudalism has a separate purpose in this post, however, where I will use it to describe stage two of the three stages of development of human society. In my view, this process includes tribal, feudal, and political stages: the latter referring to a society of laws and complex government (democracy, republic).

The stage I’m calling Feudalism is a required step before tribesmen can become citizens. In a tribal society there was a leader who exerted control over the people. Over time, this leader accumulated wealth and then named himself king. The kingship gave him power over an enormous amount of land and a distributed mass of humanity. At some point the king needed to use his wealth to bargain for power. He traded land for loyalty and a feudal society was born. Then, over time, as wealth became more broadly distributed, those with money began to demand rights. At this point we enter stage three with the advent of a legal system and complex government.

In the history of Europe this process had occurred twice: during the time leading up to the classical age and once again after its fall. This twice exercised process is represented in the following chart.

In 476 A.D, when the Roman Empire collapsed, Europe regressed into a tribal society which served as the foundation for re-building the modern age. What if those thousand years had not have been lost? Where would western society be today?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pottery Tours Along with the Greeks

I mentioned in a previous post how Greek pottery acts as a timestamp because of its constantly changing styles. Pottery shards at a site can narrow the site date down to a decade or so. Greek pottery on tour has equal value because, when the Greeks left home, they took with them (or had sent to them) pottery which was required for daily living so its debris at a settlement site can point to its origin.

Let's see why pottery followed the traveling Greeks.

Alien Greeks who did not have access to their own kilns would require pottery from back home. Sometimes local pottery was available but of inferior quality, again requiring imports. Of the various types of containers we have pottery for transport (e.g. amphorae for olive oil), large and small containers and utensils for the home, and objets d’art. The first and last of these types may or may not be reliable in pointing to the link between a Greek settlement and its point of origin. The middle category, however, is superior because, as a personal container, it would not be sold or traded.

Transport vessels were undecorated during the early archaic period and only began to show distinguishing marks in the seventh century. The finest of Protocorinthian painting appears on perfume flasks that were undoubtedly shipped by Corinth, but these containers also went to non-Corinthian settlements. This tells us specifically about what the Corinthians were up to but no one else.

With respect to objets d’art, the story is more interesting. In the mid-seventh century, the Corinthians were turning out so much beautifully decorated pottery the pieces began to be used in homes for decoration. Greek settlements in the west could not get enough of the stuff so they demanded more. The Corinthians, being good capitalists and responding to a supply demand imbalance, increased production and lowered the quality. Then, in the first quarter of the sixth century, Athens seized on an opportunity to win on quality, and began to market the first of their Black Figure vases. Trying to regain their position, the Corinthians countered with a line of beautiful mixing bowls, but they were unsuccessful. In all these cases, Objets d’art were not localized enough to build a link between Greek settlements and their mother city.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Greeks: Touring During the Archaic Period

The Greek Archaic Period can be characterized by two currents: the development of the Polis and the emigration of Greeks from their homeland. It is the latter we will discuss in this post.

The map below shows the area of the Mediterranean and labels many of the colonies founded by the Greeks during the period of 800-600 B.C. (click to enlarge).

Colonies in the sense used here are not the same kind of colonies as those of the early United States. The Greek word for these new settlements, “apoikia”, does not imply a dependence between the settlement and its “mother” city. And there were many mother cities: Sparta founded Tarentum; Euboea, Al Mina and Cumae; Corinth, Syracuse; the Phocaeans, Tartessos. The mother cities gave support to the new settlements more because of common culture than political association.

Trading posts were developed to support the shipment of goods back to Greece. Tartessos and Masallia, for example, were vitally important in the tin trade, serving as ports for tin shipments sent over land from the mines. Tin was the metal used in bronze, and always existed in shorter supply than its partner copper.

The reasons for emigration were as varied as the destinations. Some were created by those who wanted to start a new life, some because of famine or drought at home, and some were created through forced emigration (Cyrenaica).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Stoic Philosophy of the Greeks

Stoic philosophy, as introduced by Zeno in 300 B.C, was an important philosophical school through the time of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who died in 180 A.D. Quiet during the Middle Ages, it rose again as an intellectual force in the modern age. In spite its position as secular philosophy, Stoicism has a connection to Christian philosophy, particularly as it relates to the inner kinship man has with God and the inherent evil of mankind.

The name Stoic comes from the Greek “Stoa” which is a covered colonnade. Zeno and his friends would hold their meetings at the Stoa adjacent to the market in the center of Athens, and the name of the group became associated with it. Zeno, himself, was born in Citium, a large Hellenized city in Cyprus. Drawn to the teachings of Socrates, he traveled to Athens at age twenty two and began to study with the prominent Greek philosophers of the day. He came under the influence of the cynic Crates, Polemo head of Plato’s Academy, and Stilpo.

These men served as the wellspring for Zeno’s ethics.

The centerpiece of his ethics is moral advancement based on conformity with nature. That is health and wealth are not goods but instead natural objects of pursuit. We should seek to obtain them not because they make our lives better, but because they help us live in agreement with nature. This leads to rationality, happiness, and a good life. This Stoic belief system is eerily similar to the Christian “be sinless and be happy”, creating a link between harmony with nature and loving God.

In order to achieve harmony, man must exercise self-control by using reason to control the passions – treat good and bad as equal and react equally to both. Resist the passions because they pull the individual away from harmony.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Iron Age in Greece

It is believed that iron production originated in the Caucasus or Anatolia (Western Turkey) around 1300 and then spread westward until it reached Europe in 800.

Greece was processing iron around the year 1100 B.C, based on excavations from that period iron debris along with bronze. The Greeks. like other civilizations in the ancient world, used bronze as the hard metal of choice after 3000 B.C. Manufactured by making an alloy of 90% copper and 10% tin and heating it to 1000 degrees, bronze was in high demand throughout the western world after it replaced the much softer copper.

Iron, more plentiful than copper, would not replace bronze until ancient blacksmiths learned how to make fires hotter than the 1400 degrees required to melt iron. Heating iron ore to its melting point in the presence of carbon (coal) draws oxygen out of the ore leaving wrought iron which can be hammered into a desired shape.

The supply demand economics of bronze and iron provide an interesting part of the story, as we observe capitalism in the ancient Aegean. There were enormous quantities of copper in Cyprus, but the amount of tin available to the smelters varied from time to time. Shortages of tin and its impact on the manufacture of bronze prompted gangs of bronze pirates to steal the metal for re-sale. The variation in prices and supply help drive efforts to make the production of iron more practical.

Once the techniques of producing iron were perfected, the metal began to move toward dominance. The adoption of iron for a wide variety of applications took place over centuries, so one should not view these “Age” transitions as immediate. Iron was used for weapons initially before other applications were brought into use. Bronze has some characteristics that are superior to iron (strength, resistance to rust) which allowed it to continue as an important alloy. Even today, bronze is superior to all other alloys for certain applications.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pottery – The Remarkable Greek History Book

The work done by archeologists in helping us put together a picture of life in antiquarian Greece is absolutely critical given the shortage of information from other sources. This is particularly true for the Dark Ages of 1100-750 B.C. when other evidence has been elusive.

Among the archeological evidence, pottery plays a critical part. The earliest pieces date from 29,000 B.C. when it is thought that clay figures were placed in bonfires to process them. Production was advanced when the potter’s wheel came into use sometime between 8,000 and 1,500 B.C. Pottery was the vessel of choice for the storage, transportation and consumption because there were no glass, plastic, tin, or paper or containers in the ancient world. Human beings used pottery in the home for storage, utensils such as drinking cups, and as objects of art.

In Greece, specifically, decorated pottery provides us with a specificity and chronological reference other artifacts do not. There are three reasons for its contribution. First of all pottery is virtually indestructible. Pots break but shards last forever. If a shard has decorations remaining, it can be identified and placed on the historical timeline.

Secondly, a pottery shard has no value so it would always be discarded. Other durable materials such as metals would be melted down and re-used.

The third reason is pottery's use as an expression of art and fashion. There was a continuous stylistic development of Greek pottery over the centuries which includes internal developed styles and influence from outside. The specificity is so remarkable, the time of creation of a piece can often be isolated down to a decade within a single century!

Below are the major periods in the history of Greek pottery.

1050 -------Protogeometic style develops out of debased Mycenaean forms
800s -------Geometric
700s -------Animal and human forms appear
late 700s ---Protocorinthian and “Black figure”
530s -------Athenian “Red figure”

Greek pottery has not only told us much about Greek history, but also about the timing of Greek settlements in the rest of the world. When the Greeks left their homeland, they took the current style of pottery with them. That style, fitted to the timeline, tells us when the settlements occurred.

The photo on the left is copyright Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Karl Marx Redux

While I was reviewing Marx’ theories for my last post, I noticed something interesting which is worth discussing as a separate topic. We don’t think of Marx as linked to the ancients, but his lack of knowledge of antiquity certainly had an impact on the validity of his theory of class warfare.

Marx is considered one of the founders of sociology, along with Weber and Durkheim, and there is no question about his contribution to the understanding of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the lives of the workers in the factories of England. He was the first to describe the individual’s economic value as a producer of manufactured goods and he accurately described the negative impact of the exploitation of labor and the alienation of the worker. Marx felt that political leaders would always be dependent on the economic value of industrial production, support the corporations over the workers, and create private property on the backs of the exploited, so the only way for the workers to recover their value as human beings and end the exploitation would be through class revolt.

Marx provided a context for this revolution by placing it on the historical timeline of economic development in Western society. He started his progression with the feudal system, moved to the capitalist system, and finally predicted a transition to the communist system. In other words, he saw a pattern which, for him, showed the way to the future, and defined a communist political system as the ultimate result.

I’m not sure how much was known about the ancient economies during Marx’s time or how much Marx read what was available. Had current knowledge been accessible and had he been aware of it, Marx would have seen his context was invalid. He apparently didn’t understand that there were elements of capitalism in both ancient Greece and Rome and that the feudal system was not the first step in the development of modern production but merely a retrogressive period which occurred after the collapse of the ancient civilizations.

The ancients had corporations, factories (in a crude sense), capital formation, and the building of wealth through the accumulation of assets and capital. This is the natural behavior of people as they form a complex society.

The key factor that differentiates the ancients from the Industrial Revolution is efficiency. The ancients did not have the machines or efficient means of transportation to produce and ship goods in quantity like we do today. Nevertheless, as I state often, the ancient world put into practice ideas we consider “modern” and any description of Rome and Greece as ignorant and undeveloped is totally false.

I suggest that the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century was the true anomaly because it ushered in a period of severe exploitation of human beings in industry. Marx did not realize the inevitability of forces that would mitigate the harm – namely laws against exploitation and the rise of labor unions. Those safety valves were triggered before class warfare could become a reality.

In ancient and modern cultures, forces exist that create conflict between classes of human beings, but, ultimately, when exploitation reaches the breaking point, the people rise up and change their leaders or their political system. The structure of those uprisings is the sum of the contributions the role of the various classes and could never come from or evolve into a single class society.