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Banausos (Ancient Greek βάναυσος, plural βάναυσοι, banausoi) is an epithet of the class of manual laborers or artisans in Ancient Greece. The related abstract noun βαναυσία – banausia is defined by Hesychius as "every craft (τέχνη) [conducted] by means of fire", reflecting the folk etymology of the word as coming from βαῦνος (baunos) "furnace" and αὔω (auō) "to dry". The actual etymology of the words is unknown; they are not attested outside Attic-Ionic or before the 5th Century B.C.. The epic heroes call their smiths δημιουργοί – dēmiourgoi.

Athenian usage

The use of banausos follows an economic transition in Greece: the use of coinage, the invention of the trireme and of hoplite armor, the prevalence of chattel slavery permitted the rise of a new hoplite class, who used the term to divide themselves from the artisans.

Banausos was used as a term of invective, meaning "cramped in body" (Politics 1341 a 7) and "vulgar in taste" (1337 b 7), by the extreme oligarchs in Athens in the 5th century BC, who were led by Critias. These were the Laconophiles who yearned for the good old times when there was none of this "equality" nonsense, and you could beat your neighbor's slave in the street (see Ps.-Xenophon: Constitution of Athens). In this usage, it refers to the laboring class as a whole; i.e. the artisans, such as potters, stone masons, carpenters, etc; professional singers; artists; musicians; and all persons engaged in trade or retail. It makes no distinction between slave or free.

These extreme oligarchs were opposed both to the moderate oligarchs, such as Theramenes; and to the democrats, such as Pericles, Cleon, and Thrasybulus. They held power at Athens for less than a year, with the assistance of a Spartan army; and, because of their use of exile, purges, midnight arrests, and judicial murder, are remembered as the Thirty Tyrants. But while they vanished from the political scene, the word remained.


Plato, the philosopher, was Critias's nephew, and used banausos in much the same sense; although in the Republic he preferred the installation of philosophers, such as himself, above the hoplites, who were in turn above the artisan. It was also current among the first generation of his pupils, such as Aristotle, who writes, "Those who provide necessaries for an individual are slaves, and those who provide them for society are handicraftsmen and day-laborers."

Plato further held that commerce had a corrupting influence in communities and acquisition of wealth destroyed their ὁμόνοια – homonoia (like-mindedness) and was the principal cause of στάσις – stasis (faction). He also held that "merchants and craftsmen would be less willing to defend the civic territory than farmers would" and commerce and mercantilism had a morally corrupting influence.

Plato was concerned with the "best" state, which requires citizens who are the best and because they possess arete. This is in contrast to the attitude, cited by Heraclitus: "We will have none best among us; if any among us would be the best, let him be so elsewhere and among others."

He argued, and Aristotle follows him is this, although not in other things, that the pursuit of arete required leisure. Technical education was necessary but did not make good citizens. Leisure was a necessity of good citizenship something the banausoi do not have. Banausia deforms the body rendering it useless for military and political duties. Those occupations tire out the body and therefore the mind preventing self education by reading and conversing with others. "It accustoms a man's mind to low ideas, and absorbs him in the pursuit of the mere means of life."

Plato and Aristotle teach that the highest thing in man is reason and therefore, the purpose of human perfection lies with the activity of reason; i.e. the 'theoretic' or contemplative life. Trade, industry and mechanical labour prevent this idea. These activities are necessary for a good human condition of life but when these activities are merely regarded as means to making money and not as acts of service to truth, service to others and arete, then these, occupations become base.

After the time of Alexander the Great, however, philosophers largely avoided practical politics. Thereafter banausos mostly appears in glossaries to Plato and Aristotle.

Later philosophic schools had different politics. For example Cassius Dio defined democracy:(dēmocrateía) thus: "when every man gets the honor that is his due."


It has been conjectured that the Elizabethan use of "mechanical" (as in e.g. Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream) is a translation of banausos. This is certainly possible — the earliest recorded usage (OED s.v.) is from John Lyly, who knew more Greek than was good for his style.

Banausos (or rather βαναυσικός – banausikos) has also been adapted into English, as the rare word banausic; both as a term of abuse, and to represent Greek usage. "Banausic" is not found before 1845, with the Victorian revival of classical learning.

One of the contributions of classical philology to the Kultur-movement in Wilhelmine and post-Wilhelmine Germany was the use of banausisch as an insult — along with the myths that the German Soul is essentially Greek, that the ancient Greeks were blond, and that the modern Greeks are not descended from them. Today in German Banause is used to mean an uncouth person indifferent to high culture, like English philistine.

These ideas have become less accepted since about 1945, but they were occasionally reflected in the English-speaking world. For example, Edith Hamilton ingenuously accepted them as the best scholarship of her schooldays. Again, a junior colleague of Sir Gilbert Murray permitted himself (in 1935) the following, which goes well beyond Greek usage:

The aim of a journalist may either be to enlarge the circulation of a paper or to give his readers a true and intelligent picture of the world; of a lawyer either to extend his practice or to help justice be done; of a business man either to grow rich or to play his part as a 'nurse' of the community. These alternatives are not exclusive. But where the former predominates, the amount of arete generated will be small, and journalists, lawyers and industrialists will be banausoi rather than men.


Commentary Works

"Humanism in Politics and Economics", Greek Ideals and Modern Life, Sir R. W. Livingstone, Martin Classical Lectures, Vol. V, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., 1935.


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