Eros and economy

ErosEverybody loves a good story. Especially this time of year.

In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima recounts the story of Eros. She tells us that on the day of Aphrodite’s birth, the gods had a banquet. Penia—that is, “Poverty”— came begging at the end of the meal.

There she espied Poros — that is, “Wealth” — drunk on nectar and asleep in Zeus’ garden. As a way out of her destitution, Penia decided to have a child by Poros, so she lay with him while he slept, and conceived Eros.

Dirt poor

We may fantasize that Eros was delicate and refined, but Diotima tells us that he was, in reality, always poor, rough, dirty and barefoot. For a person concerned about his soul cares not about appearance, dress or comfort. Such a person cares about freedom.

In Greek, the word eros means “to bind together.” So, we have the archetype of Eros, who valued freedom above all else, following his destiny “to bind together.”

From his father’s side, he got his clever, inventive mind. From his mother, he inherited the condition of a poverty-stricken beggar.

He was seeking freedom in the reconciliation between Poverty and Wealth.

Eros hits the target

The story has implications for our current socio-predicament. We are currently entrenched in a bifurcated social fabric in which the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The rift between the two groups is increasingly dramatic.

Never before in American history has so much wealth been concentrated in the hands of so few. American children used to be taught that America was the land of opportunity where one could make it if they worked really hard. But today the system is designed so that wealth flows into the pockets of the rich as the rest of the people struggle feverishly to simply stay above water.

A survey from the Pew Research Center says that concerns about wealth inequality tops race, age and immigration. Denting claims that the US has a classless society, about 62 per cent of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths. Similarly, 65 per cent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

According to the United Nations, the United States now has the highest level of income inequality of all of the highly industrialized nations. In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1.  Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.

Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009. Conversely, over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.  Not only that, more Americans filed for bankruptcy in March 2010 than during any month since U.S. bankruptcy law was tightened in October 2005.

The bottom 40 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth. In the United States today, the wealthiest one percent of all Americans have a greater net worth than the bottom 90 percent combined.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1979 and 2007 income growth for the top 1 percent of all U.S. income earners was an astounding 390 percent. For the bottom 90 percent, income growth was only 5 percent over that same time period.

The top 0.01% of all Americans make an average of $27,342,212. The bottom 90% make an average of $31,244.

The myth of Eros and meaning for today

So, where is Eros in all of this?

If freedom lies in the reconciliation between Poverty and Wealth, are we, then, becoming less free? In the Platonic sense, an erosic society would be one in which there is a balance between having and not having. This would be conceived of as a striving for inclusive completeness. Our freedom, that is, our completeness, would not be attainable individually. It would only be accessible at the collective level. Hence, our freedom would be contingent upon our willingness and ability to create an economic environment in which there was a commingling of “having and not-having” in regard to all individual constituents.

This means that our erosic society would create models that redistribute wealth, opportunity, resources and incentives across the board. Entitlement, on both ends of the spectrum, would need to be addressed in a manner that provided alternative counter-measures.

This, of course, challenges the concept of the American Dream as a right of passage. The idea of class mobility would be negated as, instead, we all simply became “Americans” working together to develop a society that provided for all. We would be people who not only cared about, but had cultivated, a certain degree of freedom.

We have been taught that our freedom is an inalienable, individual right. In order for this to be actualized, in practical terms, our freedom has to be available within a collective context. In an erosic society, we would be parts of a cooperative whole, instead of alienated individuals competing with one another. Our individual good would be contingent upon the good of the whole.

It’s interesting how much resistance there can be to this type of idea. And, yet, it is exactly the vision that our Founding Fathers put forth—“one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

When, as in current conditions, there is an ever-widening divide between the “haves” and the “have nots,” there is certainly no manifestation of “liberty and justice for all.” Nor is there “one Nation, indivisible.”

These are sobering realizations.

In our culture, Eros is always, as Diotima taught, poor, rough, dirty and barefoot — wandering — seeking freedom in a dreamed of reconciliation of Wealth and Poverty. He is tired and weary. He beckons us to forego “rugged individualism” and to, instead, embrace our erosic nature — and, with him, to become free.

–Sherry L. Ackerman, PhD., Transition Voice

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  1. says

    I have been looking at cooperative models as practiced on a smaller scale than the very successful Mondragon, Spain. I have found myself moving from resistance to cultivation. It is indeed, time for a paradigm shift.

    • says

      Hi Kathryn. We’ve been trying to do a smaller-scale cooperative model for six years now. I’m not sure North America is ready for that. There are no end of resourceless people who want to take part, but the resourceful are still energy-fat with illusions of independence.

      So we could use some help!

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