A Short History of Ethics and Economics

A Short History of Ethics and Economics

The Greeks

James E. Alvey

Arising from a disenchantment with mainstream economics – a dissatisfaction that is widespread today – A Short History of Ethics and Economics sketches the emergence and decline of the ethical tradition of economics and the crisis of modern economics. In doing so, James Alvey focuses on four of the leading ancient Greek thinkers: Socrates, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle.

Chapter 4: Plato Part I: The ‘Early’ and ‘Middle’ Dialogues

James E. Alvey

Subjects: economics and finance, economic psychology, history of economic thought


Plato was a philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the Academy in Athens (the first school of higher learning in the Western world).1 Like Xenophon, he was a follower of Socrates. Unlike Xenophon, however, Plato primarily wrote dialogues,2 and these have been closely studied through to the present day. Various interpretations of each of Plato’s dialogues exist; hence, establishing Plato’s true teaching on economics (and indeed on any topic) is controversial. Nussbaum argues that Plato’s ideas developed over time and that understanding his dialogues requires careful attention to their composition date. She holds that in the ‘early’ and ‘middle’ dialogues, all that is needed for ‘living a flourishing life’ is virtue; Plato’s Socrates adopts a type of asceticism (1986 [2001], p. xiii, see pp. 151–2).3 In the ‘later’ dialogues, however, Plato expands the requirements of the good life (eudaimonia) to include the family and household (Nussbaum 1986 [2001], pp. 200–33). In the early and middle dialogues Plato says little about the household. The pyramidal structures in the core of the polis are effectively abolished. Despite the restoration of hierarchy, it is the ‘latter’ Platonic view that is more congenial to the Capabilities approach. In this chapter and the next, we will follow the generally assumed chronology of Platonic dialogues.4 Nevertheless, in order to grasp Plato’s meaning, the more important principle is to discuss each dialogue separately, as far as possible. We will attempt to do four things in this chapter and the next. First, after presenting...

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