The Flying Scrolls of Logos

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.



This blog is intended to represent some of my ideas concerning brotherhood, peace, and proper learning. I invite all who read my posts to respond with their own opinions, including disagreements. It is my hope that others will find my ideas appealing, take up the torch and carry that light in the path of their own glory.


Love is the law, love under will.


Cheers,


Davin Maki

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gift Giving During the Winter Solstice

Underpinnings
     Throughout my life, I have questioned the economics of gift giving. What aroused my interest initially was the economics of gift giving during the winter months. Why would a family risk exhausting their resources during the most barren and trepidatious times of the year? For me, it would make more sense to give gifts to members of the community during times of plenty, such as mid-summer, or the end of harvest season. In my search for an answer to the problem of "Black Friday," I have found that the term is used anachronistically; the spirit of gift giving during those long winter months has long been forgotten.
     A wide array of information could (and should) be covered in our analysis of gift giving, specifically why it was traditionally done on or around the Winter Solstice. For my purposes, I will elucidate those issues which are core to my argument that America's gift giving culture is no longer rooted in the deep theological grounds that it claims to be. The whole work of acquiring goods and giving them to our loved ones no longer hearkens back to a historically rich past; our experience of the market places are no longer laden with the blood, sweat and tears of our neighbors. No, the commercial enterprises which have usurped our culture are nothing more than absurd facsimiles of stereotypes and cardboard cutouts that say nothing at all about the world I live in.
      Throughout this work, I will cover modern economics (esp. gift giving), price elasticity of demand (esp. holiday shopping economics), the history of gift giving in Christian, and Greek (esp. Olympian) culture, and the state of our current gift giving culture.
The Economics of Gift Giving
     When you look at cultures, from an economic perspective on the exchange of goods, we can break culture down into three primary groups, viz. cultures that are based on the exchange of gifts, market cultures, and mixed.  In any case, the basis for trade is a system of equivalent values; a basket of goods is exchanged for something else which has a value that is considered in some way equivalent in value. 

     According to Duran Bell, in his writing Modes of Exchange: Gift and Commodity, goods may be classified as either gifts, or commodities. In the case of commodities, the equivalent value for a basket of goods is strictly established based on the cost for the production of said goods, along with its scarcity versus demand (pg. 3). Gifts, however, he defines as a basket of goods whose equivalent value is determined posthumously at the leisure of the recipient (pg. 7).  He states that gift giving and barter can both be seen in terms of the rule of equivalent utility, because even in a ceremonial setting, an inappropriate gift may result in negative social repercussions, thus putting pressure on society towards generosity (idem). Further on, he states that barter is in fact a degraded form of gift giving because it alienates the personal traits, thus the receiver is not augmented by them (pg. 8).

    I place this little synopsis here to illustrate what I mean by gift exchange, verses some other form of exchange. In the case of commodity exchange, the characteristics of the recipient do not augment the exchange, but is based more on the blind forces of price elasticity of demand and the cost of manufacture. In the case of gift exchange, as was stated previously, albeit there is some pressure towards generosity, the reciprocal and equivalent utility in gift exchange is dependent not only upon  the value of the reciprocating gift, but upon the characteristics and time the participants share.

Generosity and Hospitality in Classical Greek Culture
     Classical Greek culture was at certain times mixed, while at others, relied primarily upon an economy that was based upon the mutual exchange of gifts of equivalent value. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus upon 'generosity' and 'magnificence,' for an Aristotelian perspective, as well as  the virtue of hospitality as is featured in such works as Homer's Odyssey.   

     In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle represents virtues as as existing in one of three forms: viz. an excess, a deficiency, and the mean of the virtue. Concerning generosity, Aristotle states that it is the mean of wealth(IV:§1), whereby "both wastefulness and ungenerosity are excesses and deficiencies about wealth"(IV:§3).   To make sense of Aristotle's reasoning, let us examine the table below:


Virtue
Wealth
Excess
Wastefulness
Mean
Generosity
Deficiency
Ungenerosity

     He claims that the the virtue of wealth is concerned with giving and taking(IV:§7). Furthermore he states that giving is the most esteemable of activities concerning wealth(idem). I the activities "giving" and "taking," he further breaks down into right and not right. So for taking, the right kind would be from a source that honors wealth, such as a person who does not engage in the excess of wealth. I derive this conclusion from the following statement:
[T]he wasteful person is meant to have the single vicious feature of ruining his property; for someone who causes his own destruction is wasteful, and ruining one's own property seems to be a sort of self destruction, on the assumption that our living depends on our property. This, then, is how we understand wastefulness. (IV:§5)
Thus, as far as I can discern, taking in the wrong way would represent accepting a gift from one who either fails in the virtue of intemperance, or is himself a wasteful person. Taking in the right way implies taking from someone who values the mean of wealth.

     Ungenerosity is broken own further into two categories, viz. those who are misers and those who take in excess. Of the former, he states, even though they do not rest upon the mean, that they are content, because they neither give nor take for fear of doing something shameful(IV:§39). I would assume that this position is not esteemable because these people aren't engaging in the right kind of giving and taking, which are the "fine" activities Aristotle is describing. furthermore, on ungenerosity, Aristotles states, "[It] is always ascribed to those who take wealth more seriously than is right"(IV:§3).   Of the latter sort, he makes the following statement:
Other people, by contrast, go to the excess of taking, by taking any think from any source—those, for instance, who work at degrading occupations, pimps and all such people, and usurers who lend small amounts at high interest; for all of these take the wrong amounts from the wrong sources. (IV:§40)
By extension, dealing with the above mention would also be unjust, for, as Aristotle states that generous people are easy partner in matters of money because they are more concerned with not spending money in the right way than he is spending money in the wrong way (ie he is more concerned with missing an opportunity for right exchanges).

     The crux of Aristotle's philosophy concerning generosity is that it is highly esteemable to give gifts to others, so long as it does not cause harm to yourself. One should be concerned about from whom one accepts a gift, lest you are abetting someone demise. To give a gift to intemperate individuals (eg one who is overly obsessed with physical pleasures) would be wasteful. I shall return to this in due course, but first, let us move on to the hospitality of the classical and archaic Greeks.

     The classic Greeks were known for their hospitality, in fact it was very much a part of their plethoric religious observances. The theology of the Greeks was an attempt to describe the phases of their culture along with the apparent rationality and immutability of nature's power. Out of the soup of chaos and darkness arises order in the for of the personified forms of nature. From a society that began as nothing more that a scattering of small, rivaling tribe of farmers arose the first tyrants, then came the rise and fall of the polais; the theology of the Greeks also evolved in kind, so as to illustrate more ordered rules of nature in the form of Olympian gods. The pneuma permeated all of man's life, from the cradle to the grave; by extension there was little of the distinctions between the sacred and the profane that we see in today's world. Those things that were undetectable by man were most assuredly under the presidency of divine forces.With this groundwork, we move on to the traveler.

     According to H.D.F. Kitto's seminal work, offenses which were outside the detection of man were under the sanction of the gods(197). Further on he states, "In primitive conditions the outlaw, the refugee, had no legal protection, and the humble person may not be able to easily obtain it. Therefore the suppliant, the guest, the beggar were regarded as the peculiar care of the gods"(idem). In particular, the god to whom the traveler was under sanction would have been Zeus xenios. Zeus, as many other gods could be called upon in particular forms, for example Zeus could be called horkios, as protector of oaths; xenios,  as protector of hospitality relations; or hikesios, as protector of suppliants ("Zeus" Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology).

     According to Ken Dowden, "Xenia is the relationship of reciprocal hospitality between persons of different states, both parties are known as xenos, regardless of who is the hos and who is the guess on any particular occasion"(Zeus, pg. 79). Zeus xenios would be that enforcer of such relationships, and we can find ample examples of this vis-a-vis Homeric myth. In Homer's Odyssey we find that, after Odysseus has crash landed near the land of the Phaiakians, Odysseus is taken in by the grace of the princess Nausikaa, who entreated Alkkinoos to allow Odysseus to rest (6.220f). Nausika clearly understands her relationship to Odysseus as she makes the following statement:
      You know Zeus metes out fortune
      to good and bad men as it pleases him.
      Hardship he has sent you, and you must bear it.
      But now that you have taken refuge here
      you shall not lack for clothing, or any other
      comfort due to a poor man in distress. (6.200f)

After several nights of festivities and athletic competitions, Odysseus was showered with a variety of gifts, including an ivory hilted silver sword,  a cauldron, a tunic and a tripod (6.430-60). The gifts given to Odysseus were the essentials he needed to survive the rest of his journey and were no extravagances despite their value. As I have stated previously, such hospitality was a matter of piety more than anything else.

Thomistic Caritas and the Three Wise Men

      Cairtas, from which we derive the word, "charity," does not, classically, bear the same meaning as it does to us today. Charity brings to mind the concepts of forbearance, alms giving and aid to the less fortunate. For Aquinas, the concept of caritas was, rather, one of communion.
     To Aquinas, and to Christendom in general, caritas is a love of man for god. In the metaphysical scheme, caritas is not created by the soul but is the spirit of God itself. As it is written in the Summa Theologica, "
The Divine Essence Itself is charity, even as It is wisdom and goodness"[1]. Caritas, thus, belongs to a chain of communion of God to the the fellowship of Christ. To wit, caritas enlivens the soul, which quickens the body, which is used in communion with others. For it is written in Corinthians, "God is faithful: by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of His Son"[2]. But its chatholicity is evident in the fact that divine love is extended even to sinners, "[W]hom, out of charity, we love for God's sake"[3]. So it seems to be an act of fellowship with god, rather than a metaphysical substance. Since caritas indwells the soul - and it is the spirit of divine love itself - then, naturally, it will radiate to our neighbors as it does ourselves.
    Charity is not an act of gift giving. In fact it says explicitly in I Corinthians, "
If I should distribute all my goods to the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing"[4]. This is so because charity is the source of all virtues, for, without the communion of the soul to God, no other divine virtues can exist. Thus, those forms of love, which the Christians might call caritas, are those acts which are a proof of the love of man towards God. To make sense of this, we need to explore the life of Christ a little.
     Often do I hear or read about the generosity of Christ; this is typically used as a foil to route the miserly opinions of certain conservative Christians. I think the debate is rather flawed, because it distracts from the soteriological tone of Christs miracles. To wit: 
26. Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw    the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.  
27. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”(John 6:26-27)
To Christ, the miracle, "[Which] Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him" was more important than the sustenance of the food itself. This was a proof that the divine love of god was indwelling his, and as thus, a communion of Christ to his followers of the divine spirit which indwelled him by the virtues of caritas. 
     Why is it, then, that Christians give gifts around the winter solstice? The answer is simple: it relates to the story of the nativity, when the three wise men gave gifts of Myrrh, Frankincense and Gold. We give gifts to this day as a celebration of the birth of Christ. I will end this section with one of my favorite quotes about the nature of gift giving:
It is not the weight of jewel or plate,
  Or the fondle of silk or fur;
    "Tis the spirit in which the gift is rich,
      As the gifts of the Wise Ones were,
        And we are not told whose gift was gold,
          Or whose was the gift of myrrh.
      - The Spirit of the Gift
Charity and Gift Giving in American Culture

     As Americans, we live in a mixed culture. Our economics is loosely based on a Keynesian economics model, where government is allowed to influence markets in order to stabilize individual income and control employment. The value of a basket of goods is determined by a few key factors: a. the necessity of the basket of goods, its scarcity, and its demand. The whole is captured in a concept called price elasticity of demand. The retail cost for a basket of goods can far exceed its cost for manufacture if it's produced only by one company (i.e. its patent hasn't expired), and it's necessity is very high (e.g. an anti-retro viral drug). Such a market is called perfectly inelastic; a similar market--as in where a generic, or a similar substitute product is available--would be subject to opportunity cost, and be called elastic. An example of an elastic market would be the restaurant business; a perfectly elastic market is one where the price cannot change(Issues of Economic Today, 3rd ed.).

     It should be noted that bartering cultures, although closely related, do not fall into the same category as a Gift-Giving Culture. In bartering, one basket of goods is arguably worth another basket of equivalent value, as is typically agreed upon before the conclusion of the exchange. An apt example of a gift giving cultural exchange would be the exchange of food between the Plymouth Settlers and the Wampanoag Indians. The incident sealed a treaty between the two cultures, but according to the story at least, the sharing of food was not contingent upon the sharing of food("Thanksgiving" Encyclopedia Britannica). We, as Americans, engage in gift-giving rituals for a variety of reasons. What distinguishes gift-giving from market transactions, as I have said above, is that the equivalent value is not established before the exchange occurs. A gift may be given to express familiarity, to bring families together, or in anticipation of reciprocating gift giving. The exchange value of a gift may be determined by a variety of criteria, such as the monetary cost of the item, its cultural or spiritual value, or the time it took to render the gift.

     What Black Friday is, and what it has to do with the economics of gift-giving, remains to be seen.  The day after thanksgiving heralds the beginning of the shopping season for Christmas. During this day, the prices for goods are artificially deflated. The rate at which people subsequently purchase those goods makes the drop in price economically viable, because companies do not have to deal with the burden of unused (un-purchased) goods. They thus receive a return on their entire investment for the corresponding fiscal year.    

     The origin of the term, "Black Friday," dates back to the 19th century and most definitely has nothing to do with the way the term is currently used in marketing. "Black Friday" refers to the near economic collapse of September, 24, 1969, when James Gould and Jay Fisk took it upon themselves to corner the gold market (Kenedy, Robert C.). When Ulysses Grant stepped into office in March of 1969, he faced a serious economic problem, the price of gold had plummeted to a record low of $130.00 / ounce(idem). Grant's administrative policy maintained low prices of gold and effectively held a clandestine grip on the market. This made it difficult for profiteers to exploit a crumbling market.  

     Fisk and Gould were essentially able to maintain the facade of being close  to Grant, while gaining inside influence with gold distributors. Worried that 'green backs,' government bonds, and American credit would depreciate in value, Grant ordered his secretary to begin selling gold to stabilize the market. Meanwhile, Gould was also selling his gold without informing Fisk. They subsequently began hording gold and the prices rose to nearly $170.00 / ounce by September, 24, 1969. It was then that the treasury dept. sold $4,000,000.00 in gold. What followed was an immediate drop in the price of gold to $133.00 / ounce. Stock prices fell by 20% and there was a tremendous amount of fallout that lasted for several months(idem).

     Although Black Friday does pertain to economics, I'm finding a hard time connecting it with the purchase of gifts for the celebration of Christmas.

Conclusions
      Unfortunately, commercial enterprise has usurped the spirit of the gift. The price for a basket of goods is artificially deflated to encourage increased consumerism, which makes the lowered prices more economically viable for businesses. The teleology of shopping season is a quest to "get in the black", as it were, so that big business can exit the fiscal year with a balanced account journal.     My problem is that the hearth fire is no longer fueled by things like community unity, the bonds of family, or the love of man to God; it is filled with the sound of tape tickers, "on sale" voice recordings, and the steel-on-steel moans of the freight trains leaving the port
     What we need is a return to the rich historical and myhtopoetic values which underpin the nature of the gift in "primitive" culture. Exchanges within the community should bridge the gap of disparity by presenting the beauty of craftsmanship handed down to us by our ancestors. The meant on the table should tell the tale of the hunter and the butcher, along with their historical relationship to the town. Most importantly, a gift should represent "the seal", if you will, of you to your own higher aspirations. This is not something that can be accomplished with the plastic steroetypisms and monetary concerns of megacorporations, it is to be done in spirit. 


Bibliography

  1. Modes of Exchange: Gift and Commodity. Bell, Duran.
  2. Odyssey. trans. Fitzgerald, Robert.
  3. Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed. trans. Irwin, Terence.
  4. The Greeks. Kitto, H.D.F.
  5. Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Gods. Roman.
  6. Zeus. Dowden, Ken
  7. New King James Bible
  8. Summa Theologica. Online version by Knight, Kevin. <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/index.html>
  9. Issues in Economics Today, 3rd ed. Guell.
  10. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  11. "On this Day" NY Times. Kenedy, Rodert C. <http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/1016.html>

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