A History of the Economic Institutions of Modern Europe: An Introduction of der Moderne Kapitalismus of Werner Sombart

By Frederick L. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
THE TRANSFORMATION OF ECONOMIC MOTIVE AND OF ECONOMIC FORMS

THE EPOCH OF EARLY CAPITALISM

THE definition of epochs in history is a difficult problem. As a matter of fact, they are fictions--necessary fictions, evolved out of the minds of the historians as a means of expressing the past --rather than consciously felt experiences on the part of the people who were contemporary with their beginnings. On the other hand, it is quite inevitable for persons with any intelligence, read­ ing about, say, William the Conqueror or Periclean Athens, to realize that there is a distinct individuality in the conditions of that time, in other words, that it is a distinct epoch. It is when the attempt is made to mark the beginning or the end of an epoch that this inevitability disappears and disagreement and un­ certainty enter. Any given date on the rather wide margin be­ longs to the earlier or later epoch according to the principle or principles in the mind of the person looking at it.

It is then necessary to have in mind the principle being used in this reconstruction of the past, embodied in summary fashion in our definition of capitalism. This gives us two conditions which have to be met before it can be said that capitalism exists. The first condition is that the wills of strangers, through the com­ pulsion of money, shall have made economically active persons serviceable to a profit purpose; the second condition is that there shall be a disposition to reorganize economic activity, rationaliz­ ing it with a view to the highest possible profits. From this point of view, the beginning of the capitalistic period cannot be set very far back. We should guard against the notion that the com-

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