February 11, 2003

On Machiavelli's "Letter to Vettori," or, The Value of the History of Economic Thought

A surprisingly-large number of people have recently asked me why I am interested in the history of economic thought. They make various points. First, we don't learn physics from Galileo's Discourse on Two New Sciences. There are other, better, more complete, more accurate ways of presenting the material. In any real body of knowledge, the more up-to-date has to be preferred to the less because we know more than they did. Second, there are the dangers of promoting dead and dry texts to the status of unquestionable authorities. Karl Marx saw misery in industrial England in the 1840s, jumped to the conclusion that market economies could never deliver persistent, sustained, significant improvements in real wages to the working class, jumped to the conclusion that markets had no place in any truly human mode of social organization, and--because his words became Holy Writ, the sacred gospel that was never to be questioned of a Millennarian World Religion--more than a billion people were doomed to even deeper poverty for more than a generation. Third, there is the danger that one will read texts one has placed high on a pedestal and discover in them a secret message, a crucial form of knowledge that is desperately important and that only you have the wit to decode as it exists in hidden form beneath the surface of the "apparent meaning" of the text.

These are indeed powerful drawbacks, ever-present dangers in any enterprise that contains any substantial intellectual history component. One may well find oneself attached to outmoded and partial knowledge, abandoning one's right mind to become the acolyte of some strange old book-based cult repugnant to reason, or transformed into a madman convinced that only one and one's own sect has been able to master the hermetic mysteries of the vitally-important true-but-hidden meaning of the text.

But there is an upside. What is the upside? Let me approach it in a roundabout fashion. Let me start by quoting a famous letter, a letter from circa-1600 Florentine politician Niccolo Machiavelli to his friend and hoped-for patron Francesco Vettori, describing what Machiavelli's life is like in the internal political exile to which he was consigned after the fall of Florentine Republican government that he had served.

The letter is best known for its description of how Machiavelli spent his evenings, found in the second paragraph below:

I am living on my farm.... I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters.... Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn.... I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach.... So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost...

In short, on the coming of evening Niccolo Machiavelli enters his personal library. There he talks to his friends--his books, or rather those who wrote the books in his library, or rather those components of their minds that are instantiated in the hardware-and-software combinations of linen, ink, and symbols of Gutenberg Information Technology that is his personal library. They are "ancient men" who receive him "with affection," and for four hours he "ask[s] them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and... I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death..."

Remember that Machiavelli lives only two generations after Gutenberg. He is thus one of the very first people in the world to have had a personal library. Before printing, libraries were the exclusive possession of kings, sovereign princes, abbots, masters of the Roman Empire (like Caesar and Cicero). The idea that a mere mortal--a disgraced ex-Assistant for Confidential Affairs to the Republic of Florence--might have a personal library would have been absurd even half a century before Machiavelli. To him, therefore, his personal library is not something he takes for granted, but something new, something he has that his predecessors did not. And so he can see clearly what his personal library does for him.

What does his personal library do for him? It does this: it enlarges his circle of friends. Especially in disgraced semi-exile--when many he would talk to are afraid to be seen in his company, and where he is afraid to be seen in the company of almost all the rest--the ability to read and reread his personal copies of Publius Ovidius Naso, Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, Titus Livius, Plutarch, and the rest makes them his friends: almost the only people who will receive him with affection, and definitely the only people who will honestly answer his questions about politics and history. And it is important to have such friends, and to pay them proper respect. Hence Machiavelli will not go to them in his clothes-of-the-day--those in which he had managed his farm, haggled over the price of firewood, gambled, and on which he had spilled beer. He will, instead, enter his library only in "garments regal and courtly."

To my mind, studying the history of economic thought has much the same effect. It is not that any of us are in Machiavelli's situation--where a single wrong sentence to the wrong person and we would find ourselves under torture in the dungeons of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. But it is very nice to add some highly intelligent, extremely witty, and very thoughtful people living far away--for the past is indeed far away, and in its strangeness provides an important element of perspective--to our circle of friends.

Moreover, people's rough edges are filed off in their books. Adam Smith found Jean-Jacques Rousseau impossible in person, but that chunk of Rousseau's mind that is instantiated in the hardware-and-software combination of Gutenberg Information Technology is very pleasant company. Nobody outside his family (save Friedrich Engels) could ever stand Karl Marx for any length of time. But that part of Marx's mind that is instantiated in his books doesn't fly into irrational rages, doesn't accuse one of being a police spy, doesn't beg for money, doesn't demand that one accept that he is very much smarter than one. Instead, Marx-in-the-book speaks passionately of his hopes and fears for the future--hope coming from the progressive destiny of humanity and the extraordinary progress of technology, and fear coming from our constant tendency to f*** up our social engineering problems--and (save when he starts raving Hegelian gibberish, or when you see that whole chunks of his argument fall away because he has confused the physical capital-output ratio with the value capital-output raio) can be very good company indeed.

And then there are those whom one really wishes one had gotten to know in person. For who would not like to be good friends with (if one were quick and witty enough to avoid becoming one of his targets) John Maynard Keynes, or David Hume, or John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith?

Letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to Francesco Vettori

10 December 1513

Magnificent Ambassador:

"Never late were favors divine." I say this because I seemed to have lost--no, rather mislaid--your good will; you had not written to me for a long time, and I was wondering what the reason could be. And of all those that came into my mind I took little account, except of one only, when I feared that you had stopped writing because somebody had written to you that I was not a good guardian of your letters, and I knew that, except Filippo and Pagolo, nobody by my doing had seen them. I have found it again through your last letter of the twenty-third of the past month, from which I learn with pleasure how regularly and quietly you carry on this public office, and I encourage you to continue so, because he who gives up his own convenience for the convenience of others, only loses his own and from them gets no gratitude. And since Fortune wants to do everything, she wishes us to let her do it, to be quiet, and not to give her trouble, and to wait for a time when she will allow something to be done by men; and then will be the time for you to work harder, to stir things up more, and for me to leave my farm and say: "Here I am." I cannot however, wishing to return equal favors, tell you in this letter anything else than what my life is; and if you judge that you would like to swap with me, I shall be glad to.

I am living on my farm, and since I had my last bad luck, I have not spent twenty days, putting them all together, in Florence. I have until now been snaring thrushes with my own hands. I got up before day, prepared birdlime, went out with a bundle of cages on my back, so that I looked like Geta when he was returning from the harbor with Amphitryon's books. I caught at least two thrushes and at most six. And so I did all September. Then this pastime, pitiful and strange as it is, gave out, to my displeasure. And of what sort my life is, I shall tell you.

I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters, who have always some bad-luck story ready, about either themselves or their neighbors. And as to this grove I could tell you a thousand fine things that have happened to me, in dealing with Frosino da Panzano and others who wanted some of this firewood. And Frosino especially sent for a number of cords without saying a thing to me, and on payment he wanted to keep back from me ten lire, which he says he should have had from me four years ago, when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini's. I raised the devil, and was going to prosecute as a thief the waggoner who came for the wood, but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and got us to agree. Batista Guicciardini, Filippo Ginori, Tommaso del Bene and some other citizens, when that north wind was blowing, each ordered a cord from me. I made promises to all and sent one to Tommaso, which at Florence changed to half a cord, because it was piled up again by himself, his wife, his servant, his children, so that he looked like Gabburra when on Thursday with all his servants he cudgels an ox. Hence, having seen for whom there was profit, I told the others I had no more wood, and all of them were angry about it, and especially Batista, who counts this along with his misfortunes at Prato.

Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost. And if ever you can find any of my fantasies pleasing, this one should not displease you; and by a prince, and especially by a new prince, it ought to be welcomed. Hence I am dedicating it to His Magnificence Giuliano. Filippo Casavecchia has seen it; he can give you some account in part of the thing in itself and of the discussions I have had with him, though I am still enlarging and revising it.

You wish, Magnificent Ambassador, that I leave this life and come to enjoy yours with you. I shall do it in any case, but what tempts me now are certain affairs that within six weeks I shall finish. What makes me doubtful is that the Soderini we know so well are in the city, whom I should be obliged, on coming there, to visit and talk with. I should fear that on my return I could not hope to dismount at my house but should dismount at the prison, because though this government has mighty foundations and great security, yet it is new and therefore suspicious, and there is no lack of wiseacres who, to make a figure, like Pagolo Bertini, would place others at the dinner table and leave the reckoning to me. I beg you to rid me of this fear, and then I shall come within the time mentioned to visit you in any case.

I have talked with Filippo about this little work of mine that I have spoken of, whether it is good to give it or not to give it; and if it is good to give it, whether it would be good to take it myself, or whether I should send it there. Not giving it would make me fear that at the least Giuliano will not read it and that this rascal Ardinghelli will get himself honor from this latest work of mine. The giving of it is forced on me by the necessity that drives me, because I am using up my money, and I cannot remain as I am a long time without becoming despised through poverty. In addition, there is my wish that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone; because then if I could not gain their favor, I should complain of myself; and through this thing, if it were read, they would see that for the fifteen years while I have been studying the art of the state, I have not slept or been playing; and well may anybody be glad to get the services of one who at the expense of others has become full of experience. And of my honesty there should be no doubt, because having always preserved my honesty, I shall hardly now learn to break it; and he who has been honest and good for forty-three years, as I have, cannot change his nature; and as a witness to my honesty and goodness I have my poverty.

I should like, then, to have you also write me what you think best on this matter, and I give you my regards. Be happy.

Niccolo Machiavelli, in Florence

Posted by DeLong at February 11, 2003 03:08 PM | TrackBack

Comments

So the Professor seems to be saying is that Marx, Smith, Keynes, etc. are just ornamentation on the great and growing edifice of economics. They are pretty and nice to look at, but ultimately economics can do without them. One might as well read Machiavelli for all you would learn about economics from Adam Smith. Of course, in Smith there is an argument for what he called the "system of natural liberty" that your average economist is unaware of because he doesn't believe that a justification is necessary, its not even worth bothering with.

Posted by: Daoud Nagitar on February 12, 2003 09:23 AM

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Daoud Nagitar comments as can bee seen above.

May I suggest to Daoud Nagitar, that he initially reads what prof. DeLong actually wrote, i.e.:

"... why I am interested in the history of economic thought."

Consequently DeLong is not writing an essay on economic thought, but explaining his reasons for being interested in them and the pleaures he finds while reading them.

"Let me approach it in a roundabout fashion.", "What does his personal library do for him? It does this: it enlarges his circle of friends." and "To my mind, studying the history of economic thought has much the same effect."

Explaining it rather well, to my mind - but then I read the text, not what my prejudices tells me it ought to express.

Regards, John Ståhle

Posted by: John Ståhle on February 15, 2003 05:22 PM

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Daoud Nagitar comments as can bee seen above.

May I suggest to Daoud Nagitar, that he initially reads what prof. DeLong actually wrote, i.e.:

"... why I am interested in the history of economic thought."

Consequently DeLong is not writing an essay on economic thought, but explaining his reasons for being interested in them and the pleaures he finds while reading them.

"Let me approach it in a roundabout fashion.", "What does his personal library do for him? It does this: it enlarges his circle of friends." and "To my mind, studying the history of economic thought has much the same effect."

Explaining it rather well, to my mind - but then I read the text, not what my prejudices tells me it ought to express.

Regards, John Ståhle

Posted by: John Ståhle on February 15, 2003 05:22 PM

____

Daoud Nagitar comments as can bee seen above.

May I suggest to Daoud Nagitar, that he initially reads what prof. DeLong actually wrote, i.e.:

"... why I am interested in the history of economic thought."

Consequently DeLong is not writing an essay on economic thought, but explaining his reasons for being interested in them and the pleaures he finds while reading them.

"Let me approach it in a roundabout fashion.", "What does his personal library do for him? It does this: it enlarges his circle of friends." and "To my mind, studying the history of economic thought has much the same effect."

Explaining it rather well, to my mind - but then I read the text, not what my prejudices tells me it ought to express.

Regards, John Ståhle

Posted by: John Ståhle on February 15, 2003 05:23 PM

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I'm glad I found this site! Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Daniel on February 17, 2003 01:04 PM

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I'm glad I found this site! Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Daniel on February 17, 2003 01:05 PM

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I'm glad I found this site! Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Daniel on February 17, 2003 01:05 PM

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Please help, I can't find any biographycal details on Francesco Vettori.

Posted by: Davor on April 11, 2003 05:42 AM

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Please help, I can't find any biographycal details on Francesco Vettori.

Posted by: Davor on April 11, 2003 05:42 AM

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Machiavelli was not this man that you think you see.

http://www.booknotes.org/Program/?ProgramID=1601

And I say, no, he did not understand his time, either.

How could he? What books on his time existed? What books on the roots of Florentine taxation was there? None? Precisely.

Posted by: Josh Narins on November 17, 2003 08:09 AM

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Very helpful, thank you Prof. DeLong.

Posted by: The Saint on November 23, 2003 08:59 PM

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The only reason i found this site is because of tupac shakur...Peace

Posted by: Lee on December 9, 2003 06:09 AM

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