The Origins of Social Responsibility in Ancient Greece

By professor Nikos Avlonas (American College of Greece )
Executive Director /Centre for Sustainability & Excellence (CSE)

Phone/Fax :+306944831976

Social Responsibility is actually a normative theory suggesting that corporations ought to take actions which promote a role which is not only harmless, but also beneficial towards society. Corporations should not rest, unaware of and uninfluenced by the social machinations, but be a dynamic part or member if you will, of the ever changing social status. The basic reason behind this notion is the fact that since corporations exist in an dynamic environment, and therefore influence and are influenced by a number of continuously changing factors or groups of people , actions should be taken in order for the relationships existing among the corporation and these groups to be mutually beneficial. In simple words, the corporation ought to give “something” back to the society. Although the terms used may not be the same, concepts analogous to social responsibility exist for centuries. The idea that those in an advantageous position, either in terms of money or power, should conduct in a socially responsible way can be traced back to classical Athens of 500 B.C.

This view supports that from the early days of civilization it was understood, in some cases by the state or in others by wealthy individuals of the time, that it would only be fairer for the rest of society if such individuals shared a portion of their amassed wealth with their fellow citizens. This reality came into being from the realization of the fact that has it not be for the rest of society, wealth making would probably be an impossibility. Thus, bearing this realization in mind, certain laws were voted by the state which at the time reflected precisely and directly the opinion of the people. Namely these were the liturgies, “a wide range of public service paid for out of the pockets of the people owning substantial property”1. There were two different kinds of liturgies, the regular liturgies which had a religious character, and the extraordinary liturgies which had a military character.

At this point one should clearly acknowledge the fact that liturgies might appear to be similar to taxation, but in fact were very little like it, since not only were solely imposed to the extraordinary wealthy but they were considered something to be proud of and for this reason there are numerous examples of individuals that engaged into them voluntarily as well as others who exceeded the funds that were obliged to present by the state.

In classical Athens, the institution of liturgies provided many ways for the wealthy citizens to bestow their wealth and time upon the community. The most common were:
  1. The choregy
  2. The gymnasiarchy
  3. The hestiaseis
  4. The architheoria
  5. The arrephoria

In addition, wealthy citizens were expected to perform military liturgies, among which was the trierarchy, the most socially and politically important, of all liturgies.

1. The choregy
The choregy, or choregeia, was part of the festival liturgies which “involved the selection, financing and training of teams competing in the athletic, dramatic or musical contests at Athens’ many religious festivals”1. A representative example is the main festival held in order to honor God Dionysos, which included a competition of plays (tragedies) and was called The City Dionysia. A wealthy citizen, called choregus, was either appointed by the state to sponsor the production or undertook this duty voluntarily. In either case though, since being the choregus for such events was considered a huge honor, some citizens spent more than the legal minimum. In turn the choregus shared the praise and the awards won by the poet. On the street towards the entrance into the sanctuary of Dionysus in Athens, the choregoi who sponsored the best plays set up bronze tripods to commemorate their victory. The tripods were sometimes housed onto monuments. Here we see the best preserved choregic monument dedicated by wealthy Lysicrates in 335/4 BC.

2. The gymnasiarchy
“The gymnasiarchy, or charge of providing for the expense of the torch-race, celebrated in honour of the gods of fire, and some other sacred games. In later times the gymnasiarchy comprised the superintendence of the training schools, and the cost of ornamenting the arena”2

3. The hestiaseis
The hestiasis, or feasting of the tribes, was a costly obligation incurred by some wealthy member of each tribe for entertaining the whole of the tribe at public, but not very luxurious, banquets. This last expense did not often occur. The hestiasis was intended for sacred objects, connected with the rites of hospitality, and served to confirm the friendly intercourse between the members of the tribe. One of the brightest of such examples would certainly have to be Cimon. Plutarch the legendary ancient writer who among other great leaders wrote of Cimon, tells us the wealth Cimon had inherited from his family as well as the money he was credited with having won honorably from the enemy in his campaigns was spent even more honorably on his fellow citizens. In Plutarch’s words “he had all the fences on his fields taken down so that not only poor Athenians but even strangers could help themselves freely to whatever fruit was in season”1 Plutarch also states that Cimon would devote a large sum of his time to listen to the poor people’s problems while dining with them at his house in dinners he provided every day. At the same time he was keeping himself incorruptible and inaccessible to any bribe and invariably acting and was speaking with integrity and without any thought of reward.

4. The architheoria was the task of maintaining the embassy to sacred games and festivals.
5. The arrephoria was the organization of processions.
However, the most prestigious, important and costly among liturgies was the trierarchy. This can be easily concluded if one considers the immediate exclusion of a trierarch, the captain of the ship and at the same time the man responsible for fitting and maintaining a trieres for one year, from performing dramatic liturgies. In ancient Athens the theater mattered a lot, but not as much as the navy did. “The total public and private expenditure of classical Athens on military preparedness dwarfed its expenditure on choral culture”2

Liturgies would, among other important events and celebrations, also include the well known and still practiced institution of the Olympic Games. The burden of such sponsorship was so great that it was decided to be paid by the wealthiest Athenian. Since it was logical for someone to try and avoid this huge economic drawback, there were quite a few cases brought forth to the Supreme Court where “a man could pick on out another whom he believed better able to afford the expense, and challenge him to a valuation of their respective properties under the procedure called antidosis”3

Another notion which can be viewed as an ancestor of CSR is “euergetism”, a specific form of social exchange that took place in ancient Greece. This idea is based upon a general norm, which implies that people have a responsibility to help those who have helped them, or help others just because someone has helped them. In this sense, the CSR analogy suggests that corporations have a responsibility to help society. Aristotle, in his writing Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, presents the two basic types of benefactors in the Hellenistic world. The “magnificent man”, a noble figure engaging in collective undertakings for the common good of his fellow citizens, and the “great souled man”, the individual in the upper social strata of society who engaged in reciprocal interchanges of a more personal nature with equal, or near equals.1
Aristotle’s “magnificent man”, who bestows collective benefits upon his community out of his own wealth, is depicting the exact definition of “euergetism” in ancient Greece. The nobles, who because of their birth and wealth controlled access to all essential services, were expected to provide various services to their cities in exchange for the public bestowal of honor from the inhabitants. In the Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle states that true wealth consists in doing good; that is, in monetary handouts, giving of scarce and costly gifts, and helping others to maintain an existence.2

The institution of benefaction connects to Greek mythology as well. The first benefactor was Prometheus, who chose to be the first benefactor of mankind and give people the gift of fire, which proved extremely beneficial. Athena on the other hand offered the citizenry the olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity which proved to be invaluable and thus, Athena became the benefactor and the city was named after her. Examples of famous people connected with ancient Greece who are considered as benefactors are many. One of the most important and well known benefactors was Hippocrates. Hippocrates was the founder of medicine and was regarded as the greatest physician of his time. He was offering his services by providing his co-citizens with not just medicine advice. He emphasized treating the total, unique patient, and not just the disease. Hippocrates advised doctors to, "Sometimes give your services for nothing, calling to mind a previous benefaction or present satisfaction. And if there be an opportunity of serving one who is a stranger in financial straits, give full assistance to all such."

A last notion connecting CSR and ancient Greece is that of heroism. Nowadays the term “hero” has many different meanings. It addresses to people whose work is extremely risky like firemen, or to people whose work is challenging like teachers. “Hero” originates from the Greek word hęrôs. Although in ancient Greece this word was referring only to warriors, later on, was introduced for the people who have offered in favor to the local community but they are now dead. In order for someone to obtain the heroic status he should deal with local sponsorship. There were no exact rules that someone had to follow in order to attain a heroic status. Someone who was involved in the matters of public interest and his goal was the welfare of his community; could be characterized as a hero.

To conclude, the idea behind CSR is evidently existing for thousands of years in forms perhaps different from the present ones but in societies with high level of cultural and spiritual levels, a fact that suggests not only its validity but moreover its great superiority. CSR leads towards a better society, and why not towards a society similar to the Golden Age of Ancient Athens.

Nikos Avlonas Bio