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A Method, Not a Subject: Liberal Economics and the Classics

Now that we have gone over Works and Days and the Estate Manager, we can discuss why reading these texts—and by extension other ancient texts—from a wealth-and-welfare perspective fails to do them justice.  The greatest indictment is that such readings are parochial.  They fail to enter into the texts and take the authors’ concerns seriously.  If the only reason we, as contemporary economists, read ancient texts is to compose a litany of what they ‘got wrong,’ then we do not have open minds.  Reading should be a conversation, one that transcends time and place.  The difference between awealth-and-welfare reading and aliberal reading is the difference between conversing and haranguing.Just look at what we have to show for our wealth-and-welfare readings of Hesiod and Xenophon.  On topics of concern to contemporary economists, the classical mind appears jejune.  There are cursory arguments for why agriculture, politics, and military pursuits are good, whereas craftsmanship and commerce …

A Wealth-and-Welfare Reading of Xenophon's Estate Manager

Our next text is Xenophon’s Estate Manager.  Xenophon (ca. 430 BC – 354 BC) was a renowned Athenian gentleman-farmer, philosopher, and soldier.  Although only briefly a student of Socrates, he evidently had enormous respect for the great philosopher, because he authored several dialogues in which Socrates is the protagonist.  Estate Manager is one such text.  (Socrates himself left no written works; our picture of him comes entirely from the writings of Plato and Xenophon.)  His admiration for Socrates and his disdain for democracy resulted in his banishment from his home polis.  He was granted an estate under Spartan protection, which enabled him to live as a leisured aristocrat.  This is probably when he turned his attention to literary pursuits.  He was eventually granted permission to return to Athens in 365 BC, where he remained until the end of his life. According to Robin Waterfield, who translates and introduces the version I use, Estate Manager is “a treatise on the activities…

Romancing the Economist

My previous contributions to this blog were about the possibility of the institutional aspects of academic economics being liberal. But there is more to philosophy, politics, and economics than liberalism. Now, I want to ask if academic economics is romantic.I want to begin this reflection with what seems to me to be an obvious observation: contemporary society has given romanticism a bad name. The diminishment of the term has come with its association with foolhardy love stories whose protagonists have lost the ability to think critically in the presence of their paramours. However, romance means much more than what we may find on the Hallmark Channel (even if its ultimate expression may indeed be a Christmas miracle).An unsatisfactory description of Romanticism is that it was a movement that emerged in the 19th century as a reaction to the perceived reductionism associated with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The Romantics sensed that Enlightenment rationalism broug…

A Wealth-and-Welfare Reading of Hesiod's Works and Days

We begin with Hesiod’s Works and Days.  Hesiod probably composed Works and Days (in addition to Theogony and Shield of Heracles, the other complete works of his that remain) at the end of the eight century BC.  This is likely contemporaneous with Homer’s famous epics.  However, Hesiod lived on the Greek mainland, whereas Homer came from Asia Minor.  According to Dorothea Wender, who translates and introduces theversion I use, whereas “the tradition in Asia Minor…produced epics designed for an upper-class audience, the tradition in Boeotia (Hesiod’s district…) produced more pedestrian works: genealogies, catalogues, handbooks on divination, astronomy, ethics, farming and mental work.”  Finally, it’s worth noting that Hesiod, as with Homer, may have been more than one person.  Scholars are divided on the question as to whether all of Hesiod’s works derive from a single author.
Works and Days is an eclectic work with an overarching theme: “The poem, a mixture of mythology, ethical maxims,…