Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

A Reassessment of Aristotle's Economic Thought

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

A Reassessment of Aristotle's Economic Thought

Article excerpt

A Reassessment of Aristotle's Economic Thought

Ricardo F. Crespo

Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2014 (145 pages)

Ricardo Crespo has impressive credentials for this kind of book: PhDs in both economics and philosophy. His close reading of the classical Greek Aristotle and his effort to succinctly survey recent adaptations of Aristotle are both informative and provocative. Yet they also strike me as somewhat ahistorical for a simple reason: As Odd Langholm observed, it was not the "classical Greek Aristotle," but rather the "medieval Aristotelians"--that is, the medieval scholastic commentaries on Aristotle's newly rediscovered works, translated into Latin--"who launched the economics of Aristotle" (Wealth and Money in the Aristotelian Tradition, 1983, 38).

As he concedes in his book's conclusion, Crespo's approach to Aristotle and his economic legacy "may seem highly eclectic" (124)--indeed sometimes too eclectic to be fully cogent. This may also explain why he brackets rather than faces head-on some of Aristotle's biggest weaknesses, such as his defense of at least some slavery as being "natural."

To the extent that Crespo's Aristotle is not quite right, I suggest that it is because he is insufficiently familiar with Aristotle's most sympathetic yet rigorous commentator, Thomas Aquinas. By devoting much more attention to Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum than to Aquinas (and none to Augustine of Hippo, by whose light Aquinas interpreted Aristotle), Crespo sometimes has difficulty explaining Aristotle clearly enough, let alone explaining his impact on modern economics.

The title, A Reassessment of Aristotle's Economic Thought, would seem to imply a clear idea of the current assessment of his thought. Unfortunately, this cannot be taken for granted, particularly because university economics departments have collectively followed the University of Chicago's decision in 1972 to abolish the previous requirement that to earn a PhD it is necessary to master the history of economic theory.

There have been three phases in the history of economics thus far, though I believe a fourth has already begun.

Scholastic economic theory began around the year 1250 when Aquinas edited his teacher Albert the Great's commentaries on Aristotle. Aquinas proceeded to combine four elements that he drew entirely from Aristotle and Augustine: Aristotle's theories of (1) production (mostly from the Politics) and (2) of justice in exchange (from the Nicomachean Ethics); (3) Augustine's theory of utility (from the City of God) that Aquinas substituted for Aristotle's sketchy remarks on chreia or need; and (4) a theory of distribution properly so-called, consisting at the personal level of Augustine's theory of personal gifts (and their opposite, crimes) and in every social community such as a family or government of Aristotle's theory of distributive justice. (Since Adam Smith, what most economists call distribution is more properly called compensation: the earning of incomes by the workers and owners of productive property for contributing to the production of goods and services.)

"Rather than isolated, virtues are part of a system, interconnected by prudence. For Aristotle, the work of prudence is personal, essentially free and variable according to circumstances," Crespo writes (56). Moreover, "men are both zoon politikon [political animals] ... and zoon oikonomikon [economic animals]." Yet Aristotle had also called humans syzygiki zoon--conjugal or marital animals. Hence, where Aristotle had bisected moral philosophy into ethics and politics, he left marriage and family to float uncertainly between the two; he made oikos mean the nuclear family household in the Nicomachean Ethics and the slave-owning Mediterranean agricultural estate in the Politics. Aquinas redivided the field in his Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:

oral philosophy is divided into three parts. … 
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