Between Justice and Accumulation: Aristotle on Currency and Reciprocity

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticle
Political Theory
2019, Vol. 47(3) 363 –390
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591718802634
Between Justice and
Accumulation: Aristotle
on Currency and
Stefan Eich1
For Aristotle, a just political community has to find similarity in difference
and foster habits of reciprocity. Conventionally, speech and law have been
seen to fulfill this role. This article reconstructs Aristotle’s conception of
currency (nomisma) as a political institution of reciprocal justice. By placing
Aristotle’s treatment of reciprocity in the context of the ancient politics of
money, currency emerges not merely as a medium of economic exchange
but also potentially as a bond of civic reciprocity, a measure of justice, and an
institution of ethical deliberation. Reconstructing this account of currency
(nomisma) in analogy to law (nomos) recovers the hopes Aristotle placed in
currency as a necessary institution particular to the polis as a self-governing
political community striving for justice. If currency was a foundational
institution, it was also always insufficient, likely imperfect, and possibly tragic.
Turned into a tool for the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, currency
becomes unjust and a serious threat to any political community. Aristotelian
currency can fail precisely because it contains an important moment of
ethical deliberation. This political significance of currency challenges accounts
of the ancient world as bifurcated between oikos and polis and encourages
contemporary political theorists to think of money as a constitutional project
that can play an important role in improving reciprocity across society.
1Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stefan Eich, Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, Princeton University, 10 Joseph Henry
House, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.
802634PTXXXX10.1177/0090591718802634Political TheoryEich
364 Political Theory 47(3)
Aristotle, money, reciprocity, justice, exchange
No society can exist without exchange, no exchange without a common
measure, and no common measure without equality. Thus all society has as its
first law some conventional equality, whether of men or of things. . . .
Conventional equality among things prompted the invention of money, for
money is only a term of comparison for the value of things of different kinds;
and in this sense money is the true bond of society.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau1
What seems most familiar, Hanna Pitkin once observed, can be just as dif-
ficult to perceive accurately as what is wholly missing from our experience.2
Money structures our lives in this sense, yet it often remains elusive. Subsumed
in markets, it easily appears as a purely economic means of exchange and accu-
mulation against whose encroachments politics ought to be defended.3 But
money was once seen as offering a very different promise. This article recovers
one such early hope by turning to Aristotle’s account of currency (nomisma) as
a crucial aspect of reciprocal justice.4 According to this promise, when used
correctly, currency can be the bond of society, bringing citizens together rather
than dividing them, serving justice rather than corrupting it. Reconstructing the
role of currency (nomisma) in analogy to law (nomos) recovers the high hopes
Aristotle placed in money as a necessary but, as we will see, always insuffi-
cient, likely imperfect, and possibly tragic institution particular to the polis as a
self-governing political community striving for justice.5
The political centrality of currency is most fully reflected in Aristotle’s
account of reciprocal justice in Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics. “A
polis,” he asserts there, “is maintained by doing things in return according to
proportion” (NE 1132b33). Similarly, in the Politics, he writes that “recipro-
cal equality preserves city-states, as we said earlier in the Ethics” (Pol
1261a30–32). At the hands of Jill Frank, Danielle Allen, and others, reci-
procity has recently started to receive the attention it deserves as a crucial
part of Aristotle’s answer to the problem of political justice and civic equal-
ity.6 In turning to reciprocity, commentators have however tended to focus
on how law and speech can foster relations of reciprocal justice. When the
role of coinage is acknowledged, it is often moved into the background, be
it out of suspicion or incredulity.7 Perhaps thanks to its association with gift
exchange in modern anthropology, “reciprocity” is often assumed to be
opposed to monetary exchange. As a result, it is tempting to see reciprocal

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