“Bean counting” has long been an insulting term for what finance professionals and accountants do. Often it’s been used to tar CFOs as transaction processors — a role largely relegated to the back office. What’s more, people like to use the phrase to ratchet up the pedestrian aspects of finance by tagging practitioners as “mere” bean counters or “little more than” bean counters or “simply” bean counters. Such clichés get tossed around a lot.
Given how often the expression is used as a glib putdown, though, the origin of the term may come as a surprise. Let’s set the historic record straight and redeem the lot of the bean and its interpreters, since the scrutiny of beans was anything but simple or prosaic. Indeed, the expression sprung from the birthplace of democracy, ancient Greece, some 2,500 years ago. More exactly, it comes from the city-state of Athens, the site of what some historians call “radical” democracy.
Knowing that, you might guess beans were used for voting. Furthermore, you might think the advantage of using beans — say beans colored black and white — is their utter lack of ambiguity. At a glance, you know which pile to put which bean in: one bean, one vote.
The historical record, however, doesn’t corroborate that. It describes various means of voting used by the Greeks, including a show of hands, voice acclamation, voting according to roll call, voting done with pebbles placed in front of officials on a table, even preliminary balloting with olive leaves. In especially serious matters, voters were required to congregate in groups with others voting the same way. Since the Athenian assembly gathered thousands of citizens for decisions of city policy, that meant for a lot of milling about.
Using beans, on the contrary, was not one of the voting methods. The Athenians did not choose their officials using beans; rather, the beans chose the officials for them.
It turns out the Greeks selected many minor public officials — and jurors — using an elaborate system based on random drawings. That’s where they used black and white beans. Although the Greeks had a participatory democracy, it was not for everyone: the only people eligible to serve in office, or on a jury, were native-born men who owned property. To ensure impartiality among them, beans and fate were employed to make final, definitive selections. Their process was so elaborate that it was nearly impossible to rig the results. Aristotle describes the process in his Constitution of Athens, and modern archaeologists have unearthed a number of the Athenians’ bean machines.
The choice of office holders involved at least three random steps. First, two people were chosen in a random drawing to be responsible for running the bean machine. Next, candidates put their names on pieces of paper that were then randomly drawn, one by one, by the two officials. Each drawn name was inserted in a column of slots in the machine according to the order in which they were picked.
After all the candidates’ names were lined up, beans were poured into a conical opening at the top of the machine. All the beans were black, with the exception of a single white one. As the beans passed through the conical opening, they rolled into a narrow tube attached to the machine. The beans were then released one at a time from the bottom of the tube. The first bean corresponded to the first candidate whose name was drawn and had been placed in the uppermost slot; the second bean corresponded to the second candidate, and so on. Should a black bean appear when it was your turn, it meant no job for you. When the white bean appeared, the gods had spoken: politicians were known to say: “I owe my seat to the bean.”
The actual act of bean counting came before the beans were poured into the machine. If a seat in the Athenian assembly had 100 candidates vying for it, the officials presiding had to count out exactly 99 black beans to go with the 1 white bean. Thus, as all can see, bean counters were guardians of democracy. And they were divine intermediaries, helping bring forth the will of the gods.
Nevertheless, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras disliked the method — he is supposed to have said: “Have nothing to do with the bean.” Some think he was saying: “Have nothing to do with politics,” but he may also have said it because he believed beans held the souls of people waiting to be reincarnated.
Which may be another reason beans were used to choose a candidate’s lot. Not only were they cheap, plentiful, colorful, smooth, and of uniform size, but they were thought by some to be souls in transition. In the case of city office, they served to bring citizens from an embryonic state — that of mere candidate — to the actual, honorable task of representing the city for a year.
Sadly, one fateful day when Pythagoras found himself pursued by enemies, he refused to cut across a bean field to escape and was overtaken and slain: such was his ill-considered aversion to the bean. As one of history’s greatest mathematicians, how could he not have known that the shortest distance between two points is a beeline?
The use of random drawings to choose public officials made its reappearance some 2,000 years later in Renaissance Italy. The Italians distrusted the motives of those of their fellow citizens who were eager to grasp at public office, so for a time they resorted to choosing them by lot. Campaigning, vote-buying, and other political chicanery was effectively rendered pointless.
So there you have it. What the Greeks invented — democracy and clean elections — can be attributed to the bean. And to average citizens who were chosen to act as the much-respected, high-minded bean counter.