Thinking About Aristotle of Stagira and Moses Finley

I'm never sure whether I should begin my economic history survey courses with Aristotle or not. As Moses Finley powerfully argues, Aristotle does not care about the economy. The fragments in his Ethics and Politics that economists like Joseph Schumpeter point to are, mostly, concerned with other things than economic analysis. Karl Polanyi thought that Aristotle's naivete was the result of the fact that a mercantile, market, commercial economy was something very new. He was surely wrong: it was not something new, but rather something that Aristotle as a Hellenic aristocrat would have been embarrassed to be caught thinking seriously about.

Still, I now wish I'd started this semester's history course with more on Aristotle. His perspective is so different from ours that it provides a useful mental shock:
On Aristotle: Consider, first, that Aristotle of Stagira was not an idiot (even if he did believe that women had fewer teeth than men). For two thousand years people--pagan Hellenes, Christian Europeans, and Islamic Arabs, Egyptians, Mesopotamians,and Iranians--called Aristotle of Stagira "the philosopher", as if there could be only one. Think of the way seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century Britons regarded Newton (or the way we regard Einstein). So we need to take Aristotle seriously.

I want you to think hard about how a very good mind, thinking very hard, in pre-industrial-revolution economic circumstances, could wind up thinking the thoughts on the economy that Aristotle does. Specifically, why does he...

  • ...believe so strongly that gross inequality--domination and slavery--is natural and inevitable?
  • ...believe that the 'natural art of acquisition'--the getting of the resources necessary to properly run one's household--has a limit: 'a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited, either in number or size, and riches may be defined as a number of instruments to be used in a household or in a state...'? (Never mind that Aristotle's "limit" is probably the full-time year-round labor of at least fifty people, at today's OECD wage levels some $3,000,000 a year: in one sense very, very few of us will ever come near to Aristotle's point of satiation; in another sense every single one of us has already gone far beyond Aristotle's limit.)
  • ...believe that shepherds are '...the laziest [of men]... lead an idle life... get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals...'?
  • ...believe that '[t]here are two sorts of wealth-getting... one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another...'?
  • ...believe that of '...the practical part [of wealth-getting] the discussion of such matters is not unworthy of philosophy, but to be engaged in them practically is illiberal and irksome'?

Note: don't miss Aristotle's story of Thales of Miletos and his corner of the olive-press-rental market on Khios...