Ancient and modern

How Plato and Aristotle would have tackled unemployment

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

Labour is up in arms because many of the new jobs currently being created are among the self-employed. This seems to them to be cheating. Quite the reverse, ancients would have said.

Ancient thinkers knew all about the needs of the poor and were worried about their capacity to cause trouble (as they saw it) by revolution. So in a world where everyone lived off the land (the wealthy by renting it out), Plato thought there should be a law that everyone should have a basic minimum of land to live off, and no one should own property more than five times the size of the smallest allotment; any excess should be surrendered ‘to the city and to the gods’, presumably for redistribution as necessary.


Since Aristotle argued that the way to perpetuate prosperity was to distribute funds so as to give the poor the means of standing on their own two feet, he would presumably have agreed; but he disapproved of free handouts, because when the poor got them they simply wanted the same again, maintaining their destitution.

That was the point of both Plato’s and Aristotle’s thinking: to make people independent and therefore self-reliant. This meant not working for someone else (i.e. in a job), but only for oneself. However humble a person’s means, however lowly their origin, they could hold their heads up if they could run their own lives and not be beholden to other people.

Here was the crucial distinction between slave and free: the slave had no capacity to determine what his life should be like. He lived at others’ beck and call. But the free man, however poor, at least could choose to take whatever path he liked, consonant with his means: he was in some sense in control. Therein lay the route to self-respect and the capacity, as one ancient writer put it, to ‘think big’.

The virtues of the welfare state and the job market are many, but ancients would be contemptuous of a culture that deprived people of self-respect by keeping them dependent. They would have seen that as the equivalent of keeping them in slavery.

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  • swatnan

    Plato’s answer to unemployment? Get yourself a job! Same as this Govt.

  • Ian Walker

    As I say to my kids, “have you ever heard of a someone-else-made millionaire?”

    • styants64

      Lottery Winners.

  • EschersStairs

    Interestingly, the ancients seem to have a consensus.
    In Biblical history, every Jewish family owned property that had been distributed at one particular point in time. They were not legally allowed to sell this land, but could lease it for a maximum of 50 years, at which point the ownership reverted to the family who held the title. The land was divided by set rules among the children when the inheritance was claimed.

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