Schools of Thought in Economics
Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz
Chapter 2: Antiquity
We attribute to the ancient Greeks the origin of the major disciplines in the natural sciences, such as physics or biology, of medicine, and also of disciplines in the humanities such as philosophy, rhetoric, and grammar. Among the social sciences, politics could be mentioned but not economics, although many single ideas of modern economics can be traced back to first formulations in the writings of ancient authors. However, this is little known because the mercantilists, such as Petty (Schefold 2011a: 13–40) and even Adam Smith (on Smith and antiquity, see the important study by Vivenza 2001), admitted only sparingly their debt to humanist and scholastic writers and to their invariably extensive readings of the ancients (Roover 1955: 161–90). When Antonio Serra discovered economics, he did not name it, but he was fully aware that its origin, as a discipline, was not in antiquity, in the sense of Aristotle neither part of politics nor of ethics (Schefold 1994: 5–27). Economic insights were thus found in ancient writings as part of historiography (Tukydides, Polybios, and Livius) and ethnology (Herodotos), as generalisations in writings about special economic activities, such as agriculture (Varro, Columella), as views on economic policy expressed by the orators, as regulations in Greek and especially Roman law, and as ethical judgements and rules in philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). The historical school would read all these sources and occasionally use them to illustrate specific economic problems (for example, Roscher 1861: 353, on the role of credit during economic crises), but more often and systematically would use them to illustrate the historicity of economics, contrasting stages of ancient and modern economics (Hildebrand 1864: 1–24, 1869: 1–25, 130–55) and discussing changing ethical norms as a contribution to the emergence of sociology. A leading member of the youngest historical school, Karl Bücher (Schefold 1988: 239–67), launched a debate which is still topical among ancient historians and in historical sociology, by comparing a “primitivist” interpretation of antiquity with a “modernist” interpretation. The former emphasises the specificity of ancient institutions, patriarchal households, the striving for autarchy, gift giving in exchange and other remnants of the pre-monetary economy which were thought to be still relevant to the classical Athenian economy, while the modernists regarded the integration of the Mediterranean world through trade with the emergence of the Hellenistic and, later, the Roman empires, as evidence of economic growth and capitalist forces which suggested analogies between the economy of imperial Rome and the economic development reached in the early mercantilist period (Finley 1979). To reach a balanced view of the history of economic thought in antiquity, taking account of the real economic life behind it, remains a difficult task, but it is comparatively easy to follow the main texts, where economic considerations come up as simple illustrations of a more sophisticated ethical discourse. The gap between the modern and ancient conceptions can be bridged by recognising that both are concerned with action. Modern economists ask which actions produce efficient outcomes; the ancient philosopher asked which action was good. The Stoic philosophers prepared for the link: the creator has made the world harmonious so that the good is achieved by pursuing one’s true selfinterest (Kraus 2000).
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