DAY 6: LECTURE NOTES: 2.4. Slow Pace of Innovation & Discovery Before Modern Economic Growth
2.4.1. In Everything Except Economic Growth, They Were Like Us
It could have been different. The rate of growth of human technology could have been faster, back in the Agrarian Age. They were capable of astonishing feats of intellectual creativity and precision metalwork. The Anti-Kythera mechanism blows the mind of modern researchers—both the astronomy of Hipparchus that it is based on, and the instantiation of Hipparchus’s ideas in a precision-metalworked device that must have been part of a tradition of such devices.
In rhetoric, Pericles and Demosthenes. In generalship, Caesar and Alexander. In governance, Augustus and Trajan. In philosophy, Aristotle and Xeno. In sculpture, in literature—even in making a living via presenting-yourself-as-a-celebrity, Phryne—Mnesarete daughter of Epicles of Thespiae—would have had nothing to learn from Kim Kardashian. Anyone who, 2000 years after your death, people are still writing poems about you assuming that readers will know that you were thought to have been the best life model for statues of Aphrodite-Venus…
They were us. And the Anti-Kythera mechanism underscores how much they were us in mechanical ingenuity and intellectual creativity. And yet… not. No age of the commercial revolution followed the Antonine Dynasty—or Iraq’s Abbasid, or the Han, or the Athenian Empire, or… a number of other efflorescences.
The question is “why?” It is not that we are seeking an Industrial Revolution in Athens in the -300s, or in Rome in the 200s.
2.4.2. Moses Finley's Theory
The dominant theory of why pre-industrial technology-driven economic growth was so slow—of why the gap between Agrarian Age civilizational accomplishments (even if some of those are “accomplishments” in that they were the successful exertion of power, exercise of domination, and enforcement of slavery) in other areas of life and limited progress in technological advance-driven growth was so great—is that of Moses Finley. You can think of it as trying to put more flesh on the bones of this too-simple grand-narrative contrast between “developmental” and “extractive” institutions. This contrast is more than simply a contrast between a willingness to be patient, to invest for the future, and to share on the one hand, and the reverse on the other. But I am not sure that I have full control over the theory yet. So this section is, largely, a series of quotes stitched together.
Finley begins his argument with the observation that technological advance-driven growth in Agrarian-Age civilizations was small and slow:
It is a commonplace that the Greeks and Romans together added little to the world's store of technical knowledge and equipment. The Neolithic and Bronze Ages between them invented or discovered, and then developed, the essential processes of agriculture, metallurgy, pottery, and textile-making. With these the Greeks and Romans built a high civilization, full of power and intellect and beauty, but they transmitted to their successors few new inventions. The gear and the screw, the rotary mill and the water-mill, the direct screw- press, glass-blowing and concrete, hollow bronze-casting, the dioptra for surveying, the torsion catapult, the water-clock and water organ, automata (mechanical toys) driven by water and wind and steam-this short list is fairly exhaustive, and it adds up to not very much for a great civilization over fifteen hundred years...
This was not because Agrarian-Age élites did not like wealth. They loved wealth. (They loved honor and status too.) It is true that in the Agrarian Age’s last days, during the Mediæval Recovery, élites had an ambivalent attitude toward wealth on their deathbeds, at least in Christendom. But that came after the period Finley studies. In the iron, axial, classical age, wealth was a wonderful thing:
The ancient world was very unambiguous about wealth. Wealth was a good thing, a necessary condition for the good life, and that was all there was to it. There was no nonsense about wealth as a trust, no subconscious guilt feelings, no death-bed restitutions of usury…
Thus you cannot explain the absence of a focus on technology-driven growth by a civilizational unconcern with the wealth that it would have created:
Intellectually (or scientifically) speaking, there was a basis for more technical advance-in production-than was actually made. Why did productivity then not advance markedly, if the interest, the knowledge, and the necessary intellectual energy would seem to have been present? The question cannot be dismissed simply by pointing to alternative values…
The literary sources we have show a great suspicion of anyone who works too hard with their hands. To express too great an interest in the mechanics and techniques of production and transport, and of market negotiations, is to mark you as having a non-noble mind: the mind of a slave. And to avoid that sort of caste pollution was a major sociological objective of the rich:
The pejorative judgments of ancient writers about labour, and specifically about the labour of the artisan, and of anyone who works for another, are too continuous, numerous, and unanimous, too wrapped up in discussions of every aspect of ancient life, to be dismissed as empty rhetoric.... Tocqueville['s]... notebooks... are filled with the theme that 'slavery is even more prejudicial to the masters than to the slaves', because, as a leading Louisville merchant said to him, 'it deprives us of the energy and spirit of enterprise that characterizes the States that have no slaves'. Greek and Roman slavery functioned in a different context, to be sure, both internally and externally, and comparisons must be made with caution and reserve. But this particular one seems to me to be valid and necessary...
Is this just that literary intellectuals—rich landlords, and their clients who sought to please their patrons—were the writers, and that if we had the writings of merchants and manufacturers we would see a very different set of values applied to work and enterprise? Finley says “no”. Finley appeals to the fact that those in charge of society had very much the same view:
From the second century on, the emperors were faced with continuing difficulties and crises in supplies and revenues. They had good reason to think of more production. That, instead, they thought of more regimentation, of a bigger bite out of the old pie, seems to me explicable largely in terms of attitudes, of thought-processes...
It was not that there was a lack of interest in progress and invention, even. Inventions and innovations in military technology, in public works—roads, buildings, baths, utilities—were greatly valued. But not things that raised the productivity of the average worker:
Archimedes’s practical inventions, I hasten to add, were military and were made only under the extraordinary and irresistible stimulus of the siege of his native Syracuse by the Romans…. Why did neither the Ptolemies nor the Sicilian tyrants nor the Roman emperors systematically (or even spasmodically) turn their engineers to the search for higher productivity, at least in those sectors of the economy which produced the royal revenues? Whatever the answer, it was not lack of capital (or lack of authority). Funds, manpower and technical skills were made available (and wasted) in vast and ever increasing amounts for roads, public buildings, water supply, drainage and other amenities, but not for production. Of course, the effort to increase productivity might have proved unsuccessful—but it was never even attempted…
And he caps off an argument with an appeal to Aristotle’s attitude towards the “poor taste” or “crudity” of knowing too much about market conditions and production processes. You had to know something: you had to effectively boss your slaves and supervise your foremen, and since you could not produce everything on your own estates, you did have to trade, and so you needed to figure out what you needed your slaves to produce so that you could sell it to best advantage, and avoid getting cheated in market exchanges with your counterparties:
At the end of the first section of the Politics (I 258b 33ff.), [Aristotle] wrote as follows (in Barker's translation): “A general account has now been given of the various forms of acquisition: to consider them minutely, and in detail, might be useful for practical purposes; but to dwell long upon them would be in poor taste…”. Aristotle was the greatest polymath of antiquity, a tireless researcher, and the founder of any number of new disciplines in science and philosophy. His curiosity was unbounded, but 'good taste', a moral category, interposed to put beyond the pale knowledge in its practical applications except when the application was ethical or political... Impossible as it is to lump the whole of ancient society into one generalization, it would not be far wrong to say that from the Homeric world to Justinian great wealth was landed wealth, that new wealth came from war and politics (including such by-products as tax-farming), not from enterprise, and that whatever was available for investment found its way into the land as quickly as it could…. The magnates drew large rents and profits from their estates… [and often] left the management and operation of their estates either to tenants or to slaves and slave bailiffs. In either case their psychology was that of the rentier, and hence neither their material circumstances nor their attitudes were favourable to innovation. They were not so stupid or so hide-bound that they could not abandon grain production for olive and vine cultivation or pasture when circumstances pressed them, or that they could not (sometimes) tell a better landed investment from a poorer one. But essentially their energies went into spending their wealth, not making it, and they spent it on politics and the good life...
The key for Finley lies in the fact that what the Agrarian Age, or at least Classical Antiquity, established and developed was a slave society. Any society in which your working class is slaves is going to be one in which work is systematically degraded and scorned. Why? Because if the slaves are not degraded and scorned, then it is very hard for the slaveholders to psychologically justify what they are doing to themselves. They must think that they are tyrants seated on the throne of skulls—cruel and inhuman masters.
Only if those who do the work are dirty and degraded and deserve to be treated poorly can such an élite live easily with itself.
Finley’s conclusion is that an exploitative-landlord orientation dominated Agrarian-Age thinking, and directed society’s energy and attention elsewhere. He closes with an appeal to David Hume’s observation that ancient cities were centers of control, domination, and consumption, and not of production and enterprise. History was not made of élites using social power to develop and evolve modes of production, but rather modes of domination:
On the larger issue David Hume saw the picture exactly, when he wrote: “I do not remember a passage in any ancient author, where the growth of a city is ascribed to the establishment of a manu- facture. The commerce, which is said to flourish, is chiefly the exchange of those commodities, for which different soils and climates were suited…”. Servile and other forms of dependent labour were very profitable. Such changes as occurred in the Roman Empire in the position of the wealthy were political, not economic, and therefore they had no significant incentive to alter the productive arrangements. In the end, it was the military and political breakdown of the Empire which drove the western aristocracy back onto their estates and to the beginnings of a manorial system…
All these from: Moses Finley: Technical Progress and Economic Innovation in the Ancient World https://delong.typepad.com/finley-technical.pdf:
Is this right? Or is what Moses Finley sees as the Agrarian-Age élite mentalité simply the particular ideological position of a landlord-intellectual group, one that sees the growing mercantile and commercial prosperity of Athens in the -300s, and seeks to counter its influence as (a) philosophically bad in focusing people not on how to live life but how to become superrich, and (b) politically bad in undermining the authority of the landlords who ought to have great influence in running the city-state? That is definitely a question. I do not think I know enough to even semi-definitively answer it.
2.4.3. Might Finley Be Wrong? Seneca vs. Posidonius on Whether Technology Is Philosophy
Let me add a coda here, about the attitude of the Græco-Roman elite. Here we have Stoic philosopher and the childhood tutor of Nero Claudius Cæsar—the Roman Emperor Nero—Lucius Annius Seneca. Seneca says that philosophy is not the source of technology—and should not be expected to be. Seneca says that… well, this becomes weird: he is a Roman Senator, a member of a privileged class each one of whom was richer than any previous king save for the Seleukids, Ptolemaids, and Haxamanishya, a class who competed with one another in luxury-display, saying that technology is the fruit of luxury and the luxury that I and my class partake of is a bad thing.
Seneca goes on, and he names his target. He is debating a man who in Seneca’s day had been dead for a hundred years and more, the earlier Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Rhodes. Posidonius had said that men of wisdom invented tools and found resources. Seneca said not: that tools and resources were discovered by someone “whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted… [with] a bent body and… gaze is upon the ground…”
And Seneca winds up with the Stoic commonplace: happiness is attained by limiting your desires, not by fulfilling them, and if all listened to sages humanity would be wise and “the cook [would be] as superfluous as the soldier”…
How seriously to take Seneca here is an interesting question. Here is the relevant passage:
Lucius Annaeus Seneca Minor (64): Moral Letters to Lucilius 90: On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man: ‘That philosophy discovered the arts of which life makes use in its daily round I refuse to admit…. I, for my part, do not hold that philosophy devised these shrewdly-contrived dwellings of ours which rise story upon story, where city crowds against city, any more than that she invented the fish-preserves, which are enclosed for the purpose of saving men’s gluttony from having to run the risk of storms….
Was it philosophy that taught the use of keys and bolts? Nay, what was that except giving a hint to avarice?… All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born…
On another point also I differ from Posidonius, when he holds that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men…. Nay, the sort of men who discover such things are the sort of men who are busied with them…. The hammer [and] the tongs… were both invented by some man whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted; and the same holds true of any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground….
Which man, pray, do you deem the wiser—the one who invents a process for spraying saffron perfumes to a tremendous height from hidden pipes, who fills or empties canals by a sudden rush of waters, who so cleverly constructs a dining-room with a ceiling of movable panels that it presents one pattern after another, the roof changing as often as the courses,—or the one who proves to others, as well as to himself, that nature has laid upon us no stern and difficult law when she tells us that we can live without the marble-cutter and the engineer, that we can clothe ourselves without traffic in silk fabrics, that we can have everything that is indispensable to our use, provided only that we are content with what the earth has placed on its surface? If mankind were willing to listen to this sage, they would know that the cook is as superfluous to them as the soldier….
Posidonius then passes on to the farmer…. This trade also, he declares, is the creation of the wise,—just as if cultivators of the soil were not even at the present day discovering countless new methods of increasing the soil’s fertility!… He even degrades the wise man by sending him to the mill…. Posidonius came very near declaring that even the cobbler’s trade was the discovery of the wise man….
Not so; these early inventions were thought out by no other class of men than those who have them in charge to-day. We know that certain devices have come to light only within our own memory… windows which admit the clear light through transparent tiles,.. baths with pipes let into their walls for the purpose of diffusing the heat… marble… rounded and polished masses of stone…. Or our signs for whole words, which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand?
All this sort of thing has been devised by the lowest grade of slaves…
More interesting, perhaps, is that there is here a debate.
Who was Posidonius of Rhodes? How many people agreed with him, agreed that philosophy should focus substantially on technology?
All 50 or so of his books are lost.
There is a story that when Pompey—Gnæus Pompeius Magnus, one of the two men on whom the historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus blames the Roman Civil War that destroyed the Roman Republic and created the Roman Empire (for Pompey would never accept that anyone could be his equal, while Cæsar would never accept that anyone could be his superior)—when Pompey came to Rhodes, he went to Posidonius’s house and there he lowered his fasces.
The fasces were the preeminent symbol of authority in the Roman Republic. It’s a bundle of sticks (and, for a military commander, axes too) tied together with leather thongs. The idea was that each individual stick is weak, as each individual Roman is weak, but if the sticks are tied together with leather thongs they are strong, just as the united Roman Republic is a very strong. Each Roman magistrate with authority to issue commands, with imperium, had attendants who carried their fasces as a visual reminder that it was Romans’ willingness to unite and obey the constitutional authority of magistrates that lay at the foundation of things.
(By the way, if you look at proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives? You can see two enormous fasces on the back wall, flanking Nancy Pelosi. And, yes, this was where Benito Mussolini got the idea for the name of his Fascist Party.)
At any event, when Pompey came through Rhodes, he visited Posidonius, and gave Posidonius the salute that a more minor magistrate gives to a superior magistrate with the maior imperium, with the greater power to command.
Posidonius’s estimate of the circumference of the earth was one off by 4%. Posidonius’s estimate of the distance to the sun was, unfortunately, off by a power of 2.
Moses Finley’s take on the life-world and intellectual orientation of the resource-controlling elites who would have had to fund and reward a technological push may well be correct. But what he sees as the dominant view was not the universal view, as the existence of Posidonius of Rhodes demonstrates.
2.4.4. Other Theories
Moses Finley’s theory of slow technological progress, however, is not universally accepted. And the debate over why Agrarian-Age technological progress was so slow—why the gap between other civilizational and technological-progress accomplishments was so great—gets tied up with the argument over why there was a Late-Antiquity Pause.
From Peter Temin’s perspective, there is no puzzle in the slow growth of technology back in the Agrarian Age. Over 1870 to 2010, an average population of 3.5 billion saw ideas grow at a 2% per year rate. Over 1770 to 1870, an average population of 900 million saw ideas grow at a 0.5% per year rate. Over 1500 to 1770, an average population of 600 million so ideas grow at an 0.15% per year rate. Over year 1 to year 1500, an average population of 250 million saw ideas grow at an 0.05% per year rate. For Temin, people slowly become increasingly effective at generating new technologies: for each billion people on the globe, we generate 0.2%/year of technology growth in the 1-1500 Late Agrarian Age, 0.25%/year in the 1500-1770 Imperial-Commercial Age, 0.5%/year in the British Industrial Revolution Age, 1770-1870, and 0.6%/year in the post-1870 Modern Economic Growth Age.
Thus, for Temin, the big jump up comes with the British Industrial Revolution—coal and steam and textiles and iron—and those required the peculiar resources and factor price situation of Britain in the 1700s to trigger.
Peter Temin tends to take the first possibility that technological progress is really hard, that there weren't all that many of them and they could not communicate all that well. And perhaps more important, it is that there is something unique about coal. Had things politically and biologically had broken differently, perhaps we would have had a 1500-1770 Imperial-Commercial Age rate of growth in the late Roman Empire and for a ways beyond. But the key breakthrough to our rate of technological advance lies in the path taken through England in the 1700s.
For Temin, also, the Late-Antiquity Pause is easy to understand: the collapse of law-and-order, and the consequent collapse in investment and in the ability to organize things and trade are all that you need to generate a Dark Age: “The decline of the Roman Empire led to a decline of both land taxes and land ownership. The growing chaos Wickham described precluded both activities. A better frame would have been to say that the society changed from one based on taxes to one based on personal service. What does it mean to own land if taxes on the land no longer sustain a government? Feudalism was the way out of this chaos. It is best seen as a way to organize defense in a violent world. There was not enough security for a central government to collect taxes and field a military force, and all action had to be local…”
We have Josiah Ober, who wants to critique Finley and say that the view that Finley takes on is the view of a certain group of Athenian aristocrats who were fearful of the expanding commercial economy of the Agean in the minus four hundreds and minus three hundreds, not just because a commercial mode of thought was hostile to philosophy and the properly understanding what the good things in life were. But because it gave social power to all kinds of people who really did not deserve to have social power, people who had made their money not by being aristocrats with a lineage of landholding lineage behind them, but by being clever and commercial. Once again, I do not have answers. Once again, I simply hand point out that here is a problem and an issue that they were after all, as smart as we are as sophisticated in so many of the areas of life as we are, and yet their rate of technological advance was absolute. glacial compared to ours their economy did not work for economic growth
2.4.5. Institutions & Classes in the Agrarian-Age
On the other hand, there is an awful lot more going on here. This right graph is from a paper that my freshman roommate, Andrei Shleifer and I wrote back when we became professors at the end of the 19 eighties. And we were looking at economic prosperity as modeled by the growth of city sites in Europe between the year ten hundred and eighteen hundred before the Industrial Revolution took on. This graph is a residual scatter from a regression analysis. On the bottom, if we have how authoritarian, dominant absolutist in control of the society. The king or the prince is r. That is given what era it is, given what region you're in. What is thing, how surprised to see that the government is as absolutist. And it says concerned with power and weapons as it is. With the other end of the spectrum being a government with its concern with the rule of law, with checks on governmental power and with commerce. And on the vertical axis we have once again, given what's going on, on average in that region, given what's going on in that era. I was surprised. Are You at the change in the number of large cities that happens over that 15-year period. And what we see here, since what determines what's on this axis is a matter of political history and military luck. That, you know. If the king's acquire more power, your city's die. If the kings are constrained than if the government is much more interested in commerce. The thing, absolutely. Breweries. These are not the kind of big changes we would see if Malthus were completely right, if there were not a lot more going on there. And indeed there is a lot more going on here.
And it cannot all be modeled by these Malthusian terms, the inverse of the taste of luxury, the ratio of savings to depreciation, knowledge, sharing knowledge. There's a bunch else involving class struggle of class conflict than Flask hour going on, some of which we'll look at next.
Karl Polanyi: Aristotle Discovers the Economy
Karl Polanyi: Aristotle Discovers the Economy https://delong.typepad.com/aristotlediscovers.pdf:
In the philosophy of Aristotle the three prizes of fortune were: honor and prestige; security of life and limb; wealth. The first stands for privilege and homage, rank and precedence; the second ensures safety from open and secret enemies, treason and rebellion, the revolt of the slave, the overbearing of the strong, and even protection from the arm of the law; the third, wealth, is the bliss of proprietorship, mainly of heirloom or famed treasure. True, utilitarian goods, food and materials, accrue as a rule to the possessor of honor and security, but the glory outshines the goods. Poverty, on the other hand, goes with an inferior status; it involves working for one’s living, often at the bid- ding of others. The les^s restricted the bidding, the more abject the condition. Not so much manual labor—as the farmer’s ever respected position shows—but dependence upon another man’s personal whim and command causes the serving man to be despised. Again, the bare economic fact of a lower income is screened from view...
We must refer back to the texts.... Some of his key terms, notably kapeJike, metadosis and chrematistike, were misinterpreted in translation. Sometimes the error becomes subtle. Kapelike was rendered as the art of retail trade instead of the art of "commercial trade,” chrematistike as the art of money-making instead of that of supply, i.e., the procuring of the necessaries of life in kind. In another instance, the distortion is manifest: metadosis was taken to be exchange or barter, while patently meaning its opposite, namely, "giving one's share"....
Kapelike, grammatically denotes the art of the kapelos. The meaning of kapelos as used by Herodotus in the middle of the fifth century, is broadly established as some kind of retailer, especially of food.... The invention of coined money was linked by Herodotus with the fact that the Lydians had turned kapeloi. Herodotus also recounts that Darius was nicknamed kapelos. Indeed, under him military stores may have begun the practice of retailing food. Eventually kapelos became synonymous with “trickster, fraud, cheat”.... Kapelike... was not in use; the dictionary mentions only one instance (apart from Aristotle).... Aristotle was using kapelike with an ironical overtone. Commercial trade was of course, not huckstering; nor was it retail trading; and whatever it was, it deserved to be called some form or variant of emporia which was the regular name for seafaring trade, together with any other form of large-scale or wholesale trade. When Aristotle referred specifically to the various kinds of maritime trade, he fell back on emporia, in the usual sense. Why, then, did he not do so in the main theoretical analysis of the subject but use instead a newfangled word of pejorative connotation? Aristotle enjoyed inventing words, and his humor, if any, was Shavian. The figure of the kapelos was an unfailing hit of the comic stage.... Commercial trade was no mystery. When all is said, it was but huckstering written large....
Chrematistike was deliberately employed by Aristotle in the literal sense of providing for the necessaries of life, instead of its usual meaning of “money-making.” Laistner rendered it correctly as “the art of supply,” and Ernest Barker in his commentary recalled the original sense of chremata, which, he warned, was not money, but the necessaries themselves....
The signal error in rendering metadosis as "exchange" in the three crucial passages of the Politics and the Ethics cut deeper.... In an archaic society of common feasts, raiding parties, and other acts of mutual help and practical reciprocity the term metadosis possessed a specific operational connotation—it signified "giving a share" especially to the common pool of food, whether a religious festivity, a ceremonial meal, or other public venture was in question.... Yet we are faced with the astonishing fact that in the translation of these passages in which Aristotle insisted on the derivation of exchange from metadosis... they rendered metadosis by "exchange," and thus turned Aristotle's statement into an empty truism.... his derivation of exchange from "giving one's share"... provided a logical link between his theory of the economy in general and the practical questions at issue. Commercial trade, we recall, he regarded as an unnatural form of trade; natural trade was gainless since it merely maintained self-sufficiency.... Thus the derivation of exchange from contributing one's share to the common pool of food was the linchpin that held together a theory of the economy based on the postulate of self-sufEciency of the community and the distinction between natural and unnatural trade...
Note to Self: Re: Aristotle and Polanyi: Karl Polanyi thought Aristotle's economic naivete was because the commercial economy was new. He was surely wrong: it was rather something that Aristotle as a Hellenic aristocrat would have been embarrassed to be caught thinking seriously about...
Aristotle: Politics https://delong.typepad.com/aristotle-politics-selections.pdf: Book I Excerpts:
Keynote: Aristotle and Finley https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0ZlslVp11hMCkX7-KbOniyOiA
Note to Self: Polanyi: Aristotle Discovers the Economy: Hoisted from the Archives: A whole bunch of this article is simply wrong: the claims that "in the fourth century... Greeks initiated the gainful business practices that in much later days developed into the dynamo of market comnpetition" are false. This means that Polanyi is wrong when he says that Aristotle is examining a new phenomenon when he looks at the economy. Aristotle is examining an old phenomenon from the point of view of an Athenian aristocrat. But there is much of value in Polanyi's exposition of what Aristotle says:
Trade is "natural" when it serves the survival of the community by maintaining its self-sufficiency...
The operation of giving a share... from one's surplus.
The rate... follows from the requirement of philia, i.e., that the goodwill among the members persist.... The just price, then, derives from the demands of philia... [and] conform[s] to the standing of the participants in the community, thereby strenghening the goodwill on which community rests.... In such exchange no gain is involved, goods have their known prices, fixed beforehand. If exceptionally gainful retailing there must be for the sake of a convenient distribution of goods in the marketplace, let it be done by noncitizens...
Commercial trade..... How should the phenomenon be classified?... Aristotle... call[s]... commercial trade kapelike... hucksterism writ large...
An obvious place for us humans to have gotten something like Britain 1600-1800 before is Rome: the Roman Empire in the years after 1 or 150. There are, of course, other candidates. But Rome is the one I know most about, hence the one I want to focus on.
We have the Axial-Age—from -1000 to the year 1—acceleration in ideas growth: a doubling of the ideas growth rate from 0.03 to 0.06% per year—note how ludicrously low those are: 6% a century! Just enough technological progress to hold standards of living constant with a 12% increase in population and a 12% reduction in average farm size! Over a century! And at the century’s end comes the rise of the Pax Romana in the Mediterranean—and beyond, to Scotland, Roumania, Austria, Armenia. The largest empire the world had ever seen; one whose elite was interested in public works for urbanization and transport in a way not found in any previous empire, and one—most important—not solely interested in exploiting the empire for the benefit of a ruling city or a ruling cases. Don’t get me wrong: they were interested in exploiting the empire for the benefit of the senatorial and knightly classes. But they were also interested into turning people, at least people with social power, in the empire into _Romans_ So we get this mammoth expansion in trade, this mammoth expansion in investment, this simultaneous rise in population but also in standards of living in the sense of comfortable conveniences throughout the empire (and luxruies too).
And. Then. It. All. Goes. Away. Mediterranean shipping. Rhine River-valley construction. Lead atoms from smelters carried into the atmosphere and dropped onto the Greenland ice. All gone. And the Pax Romana with it. And trade. And comfort. And the rule of law. And the ability of low-class people, as citizens, to have their property and their rights protected by magistrates.
As human population grew between -6000 and 1500, and as information technologies increased with literacy and natural philosophy, somehow the greater human capability to invent did not show up in a faster pace of relative invention. The rate of ideas discovery and deployment between 800 and 1500 was roughly the same 0.035% per year than it had been in the days between -3000 and -1000, in the days of Gilgamesh, Abraham, Hagar and Sarah, Hatshepsut, and the Bronze Age Odysseus of Ithaka and Helen of Troy.
No breakthroughs: not after the Egyptian New Kingdom of the Amenhoteps and the Ramseses; not after the classical Athens of Perikles; not after the Roman, Han, Abbasid, or Tang-Sung efforescences.
Appendix. Aristotle on the Economy
Who Aristotle Was
Let me remind you about Aristoteles son of Nikomakhos of Stageira. sometime tutor of Alexandros III Argeádai of Macedon, called “The Great”.
Aristotle lived from -384 to -322, in the Greek-speaking communities around the Aegean Sea. He spent most of his time in Athens. For the two millennia following his death, he would be, for a large chunk of the world, THE Philosopher: capital “P” and capital “THE”. 1650 years after his death, poet Dante Alighieri would call him “the Master… of those who know”, “il Maestro di color che sanno”. Aristotle’s was, even at so long a distance in time, the most powerful intellectual name that one could conjure with.
I have assigned the beginning of Aristotle’s Politics <https://delong.typepad.com/files/aristotle-politics-book-i.pdf>.
Aristotle was a deep thinker—perhaps the deepest thinker for millennia. Aristotle was trying hard to get it right. As a result, Aristotle is the most respected intellectual landmark from his day at least up to the day of Isaac Newton. But you are going to read Aristotle, and you are going too hit a wall and think: “this is weird”—and a lot of it is weird, and even repugnant.
Yet we read him. For how could we learn if we only read people who we found not-weird? We read him as a mighty, flawed thinker whom we can learn from. And we can learn from him for two reasons:
First, his thought is mighty, therefore we should pay attention to his arguments and his conclusions.
Second, many have taken his thought—even where it is flawed—to be mighty. That fact means that his thought and its reception has a lot to tell us not just about Aristotle the intellectual and his doctrines, but about what those who received Aristotle so favorably were thinking as well.
Thus we have a lot to learn from reading Aristotle—even if often what we have to learn is not what he set out to teach.
Yet we don’t read Aristotle to learn about the economy, just as we would not read Aristotle to learn about physics, or chemistry, or astronomy. We read Aristotle to learn how intelligent ancient observers saw the economy, taking their observation both as a social fact worth study in itself, and as a window into the pre-industrial economy.
The Beginning of Aristotle’s Politics
Aristotle’s Politics is about how Greek men do order and ought to order and must order their households and city-states. And a Greek man to have a functional household, and for Greek men to have a functional city-state, they need resources. Politics Book I is the preliminary chapter in which Aristotle talks about those necessary resources. It contains what Aristotle believes people thinking about politics—the ordering and the right ordering by Greek men of their households and their city-states—need to know about acquiring, maintaining, and managing resources. It is thus what Aristotle has to say about what we would call the economy. That make it an excellent place to start our history of economic growth, for it sheds enormous light on the question: What was and what did smart people think of the economy in the distant past—2.5 millennia ago?
Moreover, the answer to that question ramifies, and suggests answers to related questions, like: What light can be shed on what Aristotle thought about economic growth? What were the broader intellectual currents both generated by and the result of people’s reflections on the economy of their day in which Aristotle was then swimming? What light can be shed on the structure and functioning of the economy in which Aristotle was embedded. And what can we say about its process of growth—or of not-growth?