An essay from In Our Time (1977),
a book by Eric Hoffer.
Posted with permission from Hopewell Publications
It seems strange we know so little of the history of the trader. The trader preceded the cultivator and the herder, and he is probably more ancient than the hunter and the warrior.
The trader and the artist are probably of equal antiquity, and the most uniquely human. There are animal hunters and warriors, and some ant species engage in activities reminiscent of cultivating and herding, but nowhere in the animal world is there anything remotely equivalent to the trader and the artist.
That early man, so naked to the elements and predators, should have survived at all seems miraculous. But the situation becomes doubly miraculous when we find that earliest man was the only lighthearted being in a deadly serious universe, given to playing and tinkering, and exerting himself more in the pursuit of superfluities than of necessities. He had ornaments before he had clothing, and clay figurines before clay pots. From his earliest beginning man was a luxury-loving animal, and the earliest trade was in luxuries. Trade in necessities was a late development.
The trader was probably the first individual. He became an individual not by choice but by circumstances. He was either a straggler left behind, or a fugitive or a sole survivor. Earliest trade was foreign trade, and the trader was a foreigner. Even at present in backward parts of the world most traders are foreigners: Indians in East Africa, Lebanese and Greeks in West Africa, Parsees in India, and Chinese in Southeast Asia. I can see the first trader, and outsider, approaching a strange human group, bearing a gift of something new and desirable, and then going from group to group exchanging gifts.
Considering the trader’s antiquity and the vital role he played in the evolution of civilization, it is difficult to understand the scorn and disdain he evoked in other human types, particularly in the warrior and the scribe. To the warrior who made history and the scribe who recorded it, the trader was the embodiment of greed, dishonesty, cowardice, dishonor, mendacity and corruption in general. Yet it was the trader who first gave weapons to the warrior and the craft of writing to the scribe. Trader’s’ tags and marks of ownership preceded clay tablets and papyrus rolls. Later, when the scribe had made writing so cumbersome and complex that one needed a lifetime to master it, the Phoenician trader moved in to simplify it by introducing the phonetic alphabet.
The age-old enmity between warrior and trader becomes particularly intriguing when seen in the light of recent events which indicate a kinship between the two so close as to make possible and interchange of roles. We have seen German and Japanese warriors become the world’s foremost traders, and Jews foremost warriors.
As to the antagonism between the trader and the scribe: Where the trader is in power, the scribe is usually kept out of the management of affairs, but is given a free hand in the cultural field. By frustrating the scribe’s craving for commanding action the trader draws upon himself the scribe’s scorn, but he also releases the scribe’s creative powers. It was not a mere accident that the Hebrew prophets, the Ionian philosophers, Zoroaster, Confucius and Buddha made their appearance at a time when the trader was in ascendance. The same is of course true of the beginning of the Renaissance, and of the cultural flowering in modern times.
Where the scribe is in power the trader is regulated and regimented off the face of the earth. In scribe-dominated communist countries the legitimate trader has been liquidated, leaving only the clandestine traders, the true revolutionaries, who undermine and frustrate totalitarian domination.
In free societies, the tug of war between trader and scribe has had beneficent effects. The trader cracked the scribe’s monopoly of learning by diffusing literacy through popular education, while the scribe has been in the forefront of every movement that set out to separate the trader from his wealth. As a result, both learning and riches have leaked out to wider sections of the population.