Notes for "Aristotle and Finley": Making Sense of Slow Pre-Industrial Technological Advance
- Moses Finley (1965), "Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World", Economic History Review NS 18:1, pp. 29-45 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2591872
Aristotle and Finley
- Sir M.I. Finley
- Moses Israel Finkelstein
- Why did TFP growth used to be so terribly, pitifully slow?
- Aristotle of Stagira was not an idiot. For two thousand years people called him "the philosopher”—as if there was only one…
Aristotle on “Acquisition”
- “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.... There are books on these subjects by several writers...”
- “There 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…”
- The “natural art of acquisition” has “a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited...”
- Note: 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.
Aristotle on Economics
- Shepherds are '...the laziest [of men]... lead an idle life... get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals...’?
- Aristotle's story of Thales of Miletos and his corner of the olive-press-rental market on Khios: Aristotle is saying “we could get rich (or richer) with little effort, but that is not an important or proper thing to do…”
Aristotle on Slavery
- [I]f every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the catering serving carts of Hephaestus... the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves....
- But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right?... There is no difficulty in answering this question... that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule...
Ancient Ain’t Primitive, Is It?
Could we teach:
- Themistokles or Augustus much about politics?
- Homer much about writing poetry?
- Gaius Julius Caesar of Leonidas much about generalship?
- Sophokles much about drama?
- Phryne much about presentation-of-self-as-celebrity?
- Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon much about painting ceilings?
- Praxiteles much about sculpture?
- Johann Sebastian Bach much about music?
Yet technological progress and economics seem to be different—areas where we have a serious edge. Why?
What Does Finley Have to Say?
- Assertions about responsiveness to fashion and imperatives of craftsmanship…
- Lots of incremental improvements
- Little wide dissemination
- “Intellectually (or scientifically) speaking, there was a basis for more technological advance—in production—than was actually made…”
- “Archimedes' 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.”
- “it is this unanimity which justifies the argument from silence…”
- “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…”
- “It is unnecessary to examine the economic history of the later Roman Empire in detail to make the point, with which no one disagrees, that neither technique nor productivity nor economic rationalism made an advance in those final centuries of antiquity. It is, necessary, however, to ask once more why, when circumstances seemed to demand progress on those lines, the only solutions to the problems of labour and production were bureaucratic pressures, greater tax exploitation, and a general debasement of the status (and perhaps the standards) of the free elements in the productive population. The answers, I suggest, are those I pointed to earlier. 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…”
Growth Conundrums Again…
- Why was worldwide TFP growth so terribly, pitifully slow before MEG?
- Finley says “culture”
- Other possibilities:
- 7 billion heads are better than 5 million…
- Standing on the shoulders of giants…
- Incentives to innovate rather than plunder (William Gates vs. William Marshall)…
Aristotle: Stray Notes…
- 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..