February 20, 2003

Thinking About Aristotle of Stagira and Moses Finley

I'm never sure whether I should begin my economic history survey courses with Aristotle or not. As Moses Finley powerfully argues, Aristotle does not care about the economy. The fragments in his Ethics and Politics that economists like Joseph Schumpeter point to are, mostly, concerned with other things than economic analysis. Karl Polanyi thought that Aristotle's naivete was the result of the fact that a mercantile, market, commercial economy was something very new. He was surely wrong: it was not something new, but rather something that Aristotle as a Hellenic aristocrat would have been embarrassed to be caught thinking seriously about.

Still, I now wish I'd started this semester's history course with more on Aristotle. His perspective is so different from ours that it provides a useful mental shock:


On Aristotle: Consider, first, that Aristotle of Stagira was not an idiot (even if he did believe that women had fewer teeth than men). For two thousand years people--pagan Hellenes, Christian Europeans, and Islamic Arabs, Egyptians, Mesopotamians,and Iranians--called Aristotle of Stagira "the philosopher", as if there could be only one. Think of the way seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century Britons regarded Newton (or the way we regard Einstein). So we need to take Aristotle seriously.

I want you to think hard about how a very good mind, thinking very hard, in pre-industrial-revolution economic circumstances, could wind up thinking the thoughts on the economy that Aristotle does. Specifically, why does he...

...believe so strongly that gross inequality--domination and slavery--is natural and inevitable?

...believe that the 'natural art of acquisition'--the getting of the resources necessary to properly run one's household--has a limit: 'a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited, either in number or size, and riches may be defined as a number of instruments to be used in a household or in a state...'? (Never mind that Aristotle's "limit" is probably the full-time year-round labor of at least fifty people, at today's OECD wage levels some $3,000,000 a year: in one sense very, very few of us will ever come near to Aristotle's point of satiation; in another sense every single one of us has already gone far beyond Aristotle's limit.)

...believe that shepherds are '...the laziest [of men]... lead an idle life... get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals...'?

...believe that '[t]here are two sorts of wealth-getting... one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another...'?

...believe that of '...the practical part [of wealth-getting] the discussion of such matters is not unworthy of philosophy, but to be engaged in them practically is illiberal and irksome'?

Note: don't miss Aristotle's story of Thales of Miletos and his corner of the olive-press-rental market on Khios..."

Further reading: M. I. Finley (1970), "Aristotle and Economic Analysis" Past and Present, No. 47. (May), pp. 3-25.

Posted by DeLong at February 20, 2003 08:57 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Historical footnote: M.I. Finley was driven from Rutgers in the mid-50's as a result for taking the Fifth before Sen. Pat McCarran's notorious Internal Security Committee, and was thus one of the first academic victims of McCarthyism outside the confines of the foriegn-policy-political-scinece community.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on February 21, 2003 11:42 AM

You could always begin with Plato on the issue of class mobility, and the misery that ensues from it. That's where Aristotle learned his tricks. ;)

Posted by: nick sweeney on February 21, 2003 12:11 PM

Brad, I've been meaning to ask you: what do think of Edward Cohen's contention that Athenian trapeza were much closer to modern bankers then Finley believed?

Posted by: jimbo on February 21, 2003 12:29 PM

I think Cohen's probably right. But I don't have an informed view: I'm borrowing an informed view on this from M.I.T.'s Peter Temin...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 21, 2003 01:59 PM

People sneer at Aristotle because he never counted his wife's teeth. In the first place, I would never think of counting someone else's teeth, even if I were married to that person. Second, I would be highly annoyed if someone I was intimate with asked to count my teeth, even if I still had most of them.

But third, maybe Aristotle did in fact count his wife's teeth, and found that she had fewer than he did? It's just a small-sample problem, then.

In his lifetime Aristotle was criticized for excessive empiricism -- stuff like dissecting clams. Over the centuries he came to be thought of as a dogmatic authority and a pure rationalist, but he wasn't really.

Posted by: zizka on February 21, 2003 02:18 PM

I thought it was the horse's teeth that Aristotle never counted? Or was it that his wife was a horse?

Ouch. My head hurts.

Posted by: Anarchus on February 21, 2003 05:57 PM

Let's see, Aristotle was arguably the first scientist -- certainly the first systematic biologist. He was the first to codify a logic. He was the first philosopher to try to reduce and categorize various branches of philosophy to a systematic order. He may be said to be the father of psychology and physics, albeit his ideas were largely wrong and relatively primitive.

So he didn't do a good job at economics -- a discipline not truly developed until many centuries thereafter, and still a little shy of a real science.

Who's being provincial here, you or Aristotle?

Posted by: frankly0 on February 21, 2003 06:36 PM

First of all we should remember that we don't have Aristotle's actual writings, we have his lecture notes. I'd be interested to see how most modern professors' lecture notes compare to their public writings.

Second, yes, the ancients were weird. Remember that Pythagoras thought odd things about peoples' souls and beans, and that the famous philospher Empedocles of Akragas thought he was immortal. To prove it, he threw himself into Mount Etna. He was wrong.

Posted by: Iain Murray on February 21, 2003 06:39 PM

I think Plato is a better starting point, but my reason is different from Nick Sweeney's. Present-day economic research is Plato's dialectic in action: thesis (null hypothesis), antithesis (model), synthesis (statistical inference, acceptance/rejection of the null hypohesis, possibly modification of null hypothesis, i.e., reformulation of the thesis). A couple of other gems worth mentioning: Plato's definition of fact (a thesis not currently under investigation) and the concept of fallacy of composition. Then introduce Aristotle with his syllogistical theorem-proving, and, voila, you've had a wonderful tour of methodology...

Posted by: Nikolai Chuvakhin on February 21, 2003 06:45 PM

Oh, I agree, Nikolai, that Plato is a primer for philosophical method. But what stays with me, thematically, from reading Republic in my teens was the argument that one shouldn't get above one's place, which, as a working-class boy reading Plato, seemed saturated with irony.

Posted by: nick sweeney on February 21, 2003 08:16 PM

For coverage of Aristotle I really prefer Polanyi's chapter in his TRADE AND MARKET IN EARLY EMPIRES.

Maybe it is just me, but I don't think Finley does a good job communicating Aristotle's arguments in this paper. For instance, reading it I don't see any real mention of Aristotle's apparent belief that merchant trade was frivolous and unproductive when compared to craft and agriculture activities, for instance. Finley seems more concerned with describing how later critics like Schumpeter interpreted Aristotle than explaining what the man actually believed - rightly or (almost certainly) wrongly.

That being said, I'm probably biased because I really like Polanyi. If people are already accustomed to Aristotle's arguments, maybe this is the better piece.

Posted by: david on February 22, 2003 01:21 AM

Why does Aristotle...

> ...believe so strongly that gross inequality--domination and
> slavery--is natural and inevitable?

It is natural because populations of otherwise indistinguishable
individuals, after being subjected to time and chance, differ greatly
in fortune. Aristotle might have thought it inevitable because he
didn't have any counterexamples; I observe that in our current
counterxamples, societies work awfully hard turn gross inequality
into mere grand inequality.

> ...believe that the 'natural art of acquisition'--the getting of the
> resources necessary to properly run one's household--has a limit ...

Diminishing returns. After a certain point, any increase in one's
utility is bottlenecked by things other than material resources,
external services, etc.

> ...believe that shepherds are '...the laziest [of men]... lead an idle
> life... get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals...'?

No clue. Perhaps shepherds don't have to deal with other people,
like ranchers with their hands, or the olive grove owners who must get
their subsistence both from tame trees (with little trouble) and (with
a great deal of trouble) from untamed students?

> ...believe that '[t]here are two sorts of wealth-getting... one is a
> part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former
> necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is
> justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain
> from one another...'?

Again, diminishing returns. Once one has exhausted the set of trades
which clearly benefit both parties, what is left? We who live
with a much more complex economy recognize that the act of trading
tends to feedback, so we don't expect to ever reach that point; the
existence of corporate crises indicates that Aristotle recognized
that those who wish to speculate continue to trade even past it.
(and, like Thales, a few of the speculators make out like bandits)

> ...believe that of '...the practical part [of wealth-getting] the
> discussion of such matters is not unworthy of philosophy, but to be
> engaged in them practically is illiberal and irksome'?

Because to be engaged in them practically is often irksome, and if such
engagement is so irksome that it doesn't leave enough mental bandwidth
left over for leisure, then it's illiberal by definition.

(Discussion, as opposed to participation, is worthy of philosophy
because it's all grist for the mill. As Euclid said: "If you must
make a profit from learning, here, have a twenty")

Posted by: Dave Long on February 23, 2003 06:08 PM

We may not need to let Aristotle off the hook entirely on this issue. Athenian aristocracy had a serious aversion to wealth that was not land-based. Whatever the merits of Ari's arguments regarding wealth-getting, they served to validate the status quo. See David Tandy's "Warriors and Traders" (U of C Press) for a take on the anti-trade elements in Homeric writings, also for aristocratic consumption. Along with many other first, Aristotle may have been the first to offer an economic argument crafted to support the views of his ideological compatriots.

Posted by: K Harris on February 24, 2003 07:24 AM

K Harris, are you saying that Aristotle is the intellectual ancestor of the current White House "economic team"?

Sacre bleu!

Posted by: JRoth on February 24, 2003 09:45 AM
Post a comment