Click here to load reader

Recent Literature on Ancient Greek Economic Thought

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)

Text of Recent Literature on Ancient Greek Economic Thought

American Economic Association

Recent Literature on Ancient Greek Economic Thought Author(s): S. Todd Lowry Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Mar., 1979), pp. 65-86 Published by: American Economic Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 15/09/2012 08:11Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]


American Economic Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Economic Literature.

Journal of Economic Literature Vol. XVII (March 1979), pp. 65-86


Literature Economic


Ancient Thought


ByS. TODD LoWRY*Washington and Lee University


have smiledat the remark

attributed to Keynes that "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." We delude ourselves if we do not recognize a similar bondage to the ancient Greeks. Theodor Gomperz wrote: "Even those who have no acquaintance with the doctrines and writings of the great masters of antiquity, and who have not even heard the names of Plato and Aristotle, are, nevertheless under the spell of their authority. It is not only that their influence is often transmitted to us by their followers, ancient and modern: our whole mode of thinking, the categories in which our ideas move, the forms of language in which we express them, and which therefore govern our ideas,-all these are to no small extent the products of art, in large measure the art of the great thinkers of antiquity." "A thorough comprehension of these origins," he warned, "is indispensable if we are to escape from the overpowering despotism of their influence" [49, Gomperz, 1896, pp. 528-29]. Although it is frequently contended that the science of economics began with* An earlier draftof this paper was read at a session of the History of Economics Society, affiliatedwith the Allied SocialSciences Associationmeetings, New York, New York,29 December 1977.

Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations or, at the earliest, with the writings of the French Physiocratsduring the eighteenth century, we should not forget the remarkable fact that the name for the discipline of economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomia [108, Kurt Singer, 1958].1 The Greeks used the word for a formal discipline that dealt with an abstract subject matter (estate management and public administration), a usage that maintained some continuity for more than two thousand years before the discipline became known as political economy.2 In PlaI Cassiodorus listed economics among Aristotle's classification of the sciences. It was also listed in Boethius' basic Aristotelian classification.(See Marshall Clagett [14, 1955].) 2 Andreas Andreades traced the term political loeeconomyto Antoine de Montchretien's TraitMde conomie politique published in 1615 [88]. He wrote: "A study of this work has convinced me first that the writer knew Greek thoroughly and that apart from other writerswhom he cites (e.g. Thales,Archytas of Tarentum) he had carefully read Xenophon and in particular Aristotle, from whom he quotes no less than six definitions;second, that he used the term political economy not in ignorance of its real meaning but because as a mercantilist he expected everything of the state, even matters in the domain of economics. The misconception is due then to later writers, who, though not sharing the views of Montchrestien as to the necessity of the continual intervention of the state in matters of social economy, nevertheless applied to this the title which he had given it" [2, Andreades, 1933, pp. 81-82]. For biographical information on de Montchretien (as well as Xenophon and Aristotle), see Jacques Wolf [122, 1973]. No one seems to have noticed the fact that what Protagoras,the leading teacher of the Periclean age,



Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. XVII (March 1979)a continual reseeding of classical ideas in successive generations for the past seven hundred years as well as some cumulative lines of formal analysis, which built on ancient foundations in their early stages. It will be remembered that Adam Smith's inaugural lecture for his chair in logic and metaphysics at the University of Glasgow was an extended exposition on Plato's theory of the ideas, later published as "The History of the Ancient Logic" [109, 1795]. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments he compared the ancient doctrines favorably with "the desponding, plaintive, and whining tone of some modern systems" [110, 1759, Part VII, Sec. II, chap. I]. Schumpeter's Distinction between Economic Analysis and Economic Thought Any treatment of the appraisal of economic ideas during the last generation must begin with a discussion of the writings of Joseph A. Schumpeter, who specifically recognized ancient Greek contributions as initiating economic analysis [104, 1954, pp. 40, 57]. Schumpeter accepted the existence of economies or economic systems of various types in earlier times, but asserted that neither descriptions of such economic systems nor thought on economic topics in ancient times are, strictly speaking, part of the history of economic analysis.He defined economic analysis as the development of a technical mental procedure or an intellectual apparatuscapable of elucidating economic problems. In his view, such analysis is not only separate from the validity of the conclusions but is also independent of the importance of the specific subject matter to which it is applied. For these reasons, he dismissed Xenophon, author of the Oeconomicus,in a footnote and took only passing notice of the economic aspects of Plato's political utopia and his justification of the division of labor as being based upon differences in human capaci-

to's dialogue, the Statesman, the point is made that the administration of either a small-sized city or a large household requires the same science. It is immaterial, it was said, whether the science is called "royalscience, political science, or science of household management" [94, Plato, 1961]. It is not possible here to review in detail the well-known influence of the classical heritage on Western thought. Its persistent vitality is in large part a result of the role played by classical Greek literature in European education from the time of Thomas Aquinas with little interruption to the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 We have had bothclaimed to teach sounds very much like political economy: "If Hippocratescomes to me," Protagoras is quoted as saying, "he will not experience the sort of drudgery with which other Sophists are in the habit of insulting their pupils;who, when they have just escaped from the arts,are taken and driven back into them by these teachers,and made to learn calculation, and astronomy,and geometry, and music . . . but if he comes to me, he will learn that which he comes to learn. And this is prudence in affairsprivate as well as public;he will learn to order his own house in the best manner, and he will be best able to speak and act in the affairs of the state" (Protagoras 318d-e) [92, Plato (Benjamin Jowett's translation), 1871]. Other translations of this passagedo not differ significantlyfrom Jowett's. W. K. C. Guthrie'stranslation has Protagorasteaching "the proper care of . . . personal affairs, so that he may best manage his own household,and also of the state's affairs. . " [91, Plato (edited by Edith Hamiltonand Huntington Cairns), 1961]. The most recent translation,that of C. C. W. Taylor [93, 1976], reads: "What I teach is the proper management of one's own affairs, how best to run one's household, and the management of public affairs...." For a discussionof the relationship between politics and economics, which includes an analysis of the managerial perspective in Plato, see William Campbell [11, 1976-77]. See also Joseph J. Spengler [115, 1969; 113, 1955]. For a discussion of public policy in support of the arts, see William Baumol [4, 1971]. 3 As an illustrationof the importance of Greek economic writingsin the middle ages,Josef Soudek [112, 1969] notes that no fewer than 219 fifteenth-century hand-written copies and 15 printed editions of Bruni's translation of the (pseudo-) Aristotelian Economics still survive. He states that it was nearly as popular as Sir John Mandeville's travelogue written in 1356 and Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Lowry: New Literature on Ancient Greek Economicsties. He also noted Plato's specific recognition of a "cartal"or fiat system of money. These observations,of course, were reflections of economic systems and thoughts on economic subjects with no analytical content, according to Schumpeter's definition. In Aristotle, however, particularly in Book I of the Politics and Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics,4 Schumpeter found the beginnings of formal analytic techniques applied to economic subjects, despite his general appraisal of Aristotle as4 Book I of Aristotle's Politics develops an evolutionary analysisof the essence of politico-economic society based upon the physiologicaland psychological characteristicsof individuals who are motivated to aggregate into variousgroupings or affinities.The distinction between use value and exchange value is developed along with the advantagesof specialization and division of labor.

Search related