Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Before it became a science of supply and demand and the circulation of commodities, economics was originally understood as the wisdom of household management. The Greek word oikonomia derives from oikos (household) and nomos (the governing ordering of a place). The term originates with Plato and Xenophon (perhaps going back to Socrates), but it was Aristotle who gave it the precise meaning it maintained intact for nearly two millennia.

To understand the original meaning of economic philosophy, we must resist our impulse to think of the household as the “private sphere,” as if it were part of a system of artificial demarcations drawn between public and private domains. That way of thinking is a result of already having lost any understanding of classical oikonomia. Oikos has the more concrete meaning of dwelling-place, estate, household goods – that which makes up the site and the concrete form of the life of a family.

In Aristotle’s terms, there are ordering principles natural to the household, because the household itself is the concrete form of community of a family. The family has its own nature as a distinct form of community of persons ordered toward a good life. Thus oikonomia concerns the principles and practices that order and sustain the well-being of a family and its members in the place where they live out their shared life.

For Aristotle then, oikonomia can only be understood as a distinct and integral part of practical philosophy. Practical philosophy has three parts: Ethics, concerned with the right formation of character and the capacity to choose and act; Politics, concerned with the right formation and conduct of the city or community united by laws; and Œconomy, concerned with the right formation and conduct of the household as a place in accord with its nature.

These three parts of practical philosophy are distinct, but not separable, since they all take their bearings by the human good and shed slightly different lights on it. They inform one another, but are also sometimes in tension with one another. For example, the good order of the city may impose demands on the household that are somewhat at odds with the good of the household viewed on its own level.

On the whole, however, Aristotle sees each higher level as opening possibilities for fulfillment that are not available to the lower level left to its own confines. To give one example, he argues that the proper relationship between husband and wife is best understood as republican in character, an image of the relationship of fellow-citizens (rather than in terms of the monarchical king-subject model or the despotic master-slave model), and that one of the distinctive features of the Greek city-civilization is that it makes it possible to understand the relationship in these terms.

Oikonomia is necessarily, then, concerned with wealth, and the proper understanding of what constitutes wealth. Aristotle is at pains to distinguish the art of household management from the art of acquisition. Oikonomia looks to obtaining, preserving and using “those goods a store of which is both necessary for life and useful for partnership in a city or a household.” The acquisitive art, on the other hand, seeks to discern “what and how to exchange in order to make the greatest profit.”

Accordingly, oikonomia recognizes limits to acquisition, since it takes its measure by the standard of self-sufficiency with a view to a good life, which means a life embodying virtue and friendship. Those intent on profit, on the other hand, encounter no natural limit to their pursuit, since

they are serious about living, but not about living well; and since that desire of theirs is without limit, they also desire what is productive of unlimited things.

One of the principal functions of classical œconomics, then, is to warn us of the dangers of conceiving wealth in terms of money. First we must understand what constitutes the good life of a household, and construe as wealth only what contributes to that good life. A primary aim of the household will be productive self-sufficiency, and “self-sufficiency in possessions of this sort with a view to a good life is not limitless.” Barter exists “in order to support natural self-sufficiency.” The introduction of money as the medium of barter leads eventually to fixation on “what and how to exchange in order to make the greatest profit,” and “the wealth deriving from this sort of business expertise is indeed without limit.”

Thus, it is in accord with the nature of human life that we recognize limits to wealth, limits deriving from the shape of a life that is good and whole, that is shared in a healthy family and its well-ordered household. By changing the focus to mere life and its wish for limitless self-preservation, we lose any sense of natural limit on acquisition. Aristotle concludes from this discussion that “expertise in business relative to crops and animals is thus natural for all,” whereas making money from money through the charging of interest is “the most contrary to nature.”

This use of the word oikonomia that I’ve sketched out, which is explicitly restated by thinkers like Avicenna, Maimonides, Aquinas and Bonaventure, persists essentially unchanged for approximately 2000 years, until about 1650. The first occurrence in English of the word “economy” in reference to the regulation of the larger system of wealth of a nation is found in that classic of modern political philosophy, Hobbes’ Leviathan, published in 1651.

In chapter 23, on public ministers, Hobbes notes that some offices are concerned with the “economy of a commonwealth,” such as those that administer the public revenues. A word formerly used to denote the judicious management of the goods proper to a household here gets metaphorically extended to the management of the more abstract goods, especially monies, upon which the more abstract political association of the state nourishes itself. This metaphorical use eventually usurps the place of the original sense of the term, so that for us today economics concerns the market, and is emptied of the normative character that it can only derive from being concerned with what is good for a household. (In Hobbes’ nominalistic philosophy, only the individual has reality. Forms of community are entirely artificial, or “constructs” as we would say. Thus the family has no significant role in his political philosophy.)

In Hobbes the “economy” of the commonwealth does not yet refer to exchange in what we would call “civil society,” but specifically to the accumulation of money by the state itself. It is tempting to say, however, that the deformation of the domestic economy results from a kind of trickle-down dys-oikonomia. This results in part from what Adam Smith points out as a distinctive feature of the modern dynamics of history. Whereas formerly wealth and luxury led to national softness, and so vulnerability to hardier barbarians, after the invention of firearms and artillery the generation of wealth leads to strength rather than to weakness in relation to less luxurious nations. Smith thus provides the strongest case for Locke’s argument that the

Prince who shall be so wise and godlike as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and incouragement to the honest industry of Mankind against the oppression of power and the narrownesse of Party will quickly be too hard for his neighbours.

The modern acquisitive individual, considered in abstraction from the household and family and viewed as an interchangeable part in the vast division of labor, has proven to be a convenient and efficient motor of public industry and revenue for the military-industrial state. Is the unfettered, freely contracting, self-interested individual who serves as the libertarian’s archetype of the free human being really just the creature and instrument of the self-aggrandizing state? So suggest Locke and Smith.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest that this conceptual and linguistic change is the primary causal engine of our social ills, but rather something like the following. What for a while was distinguished by the name political oeconomy, but has now entirely usurped the name of economics, is by no means a neutral player in human moral life and in how we understand ourselves as human beings. On the contrary, “economics” is complicit from the start in the state’s reconceptualization of the person, because it neutralizes the distinctive claims that the life of the household makes on the moral shape of our lives.

In fact, its very semblance of methodological neutrality makes it complicit, because it recasts our imagination of the life of production and consumption in the image of the unlimited acquisition of money rather than in the image of choices about goods that contribute to a good life. It swears off any judgments about relative goodness, and so by default has to measure and compare in terms of value, which ultimately means by the medium of money. And by linguistically usurping the place of the original moral science of oeconomics, it cuts off one means of access to that alternative vision.

(The above has been excerpted and adapted from my contribution to The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, due out in 2010 from ISI Books.)

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Mark Shiffman
Mark Shiffman was born in north Florida to the son of expatriated New York secular Jews and the daughter of small town, pillar of the community southern Presbyterians. After spending much of his childhood in Alaska and California, he discovered in his Tennessee adolescence, first reluctantly and then gratefully, that more than half his heart belonged to the South. He occasionally rediscovers this viscerally when his body descends below the Mason-Dixon line from his northern exile in Philadelphia, where he has also brought his wife into exile from her lifelong home of Chicago. They live in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia with their two sons, having moved from one of the more successfully racially integrated neighborhoods in America (Hyde Park) to one of the most. Mark received his education from the McCallie School in Chattanooga and the surrounding mountains and trees, St. John’s College in Annapolis and the Santa Fe desert, Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia and the woods around Crum Creek, the University of Chicago and the icy prairie winds, and the Catholic Worker House and grimy streets of New York City. He is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions and affiliate faculty member in Classical Studies at Villanova University. He has also taught at Brooklyn College, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. His current projects include books on the political philosophy of Plutarch and on the meaning of modern individualism, as well as a translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul (Focus Press).


  1. In this last boom, when Debt was identified as a commodity and the home selected as the seedbed to grow that commodity, the home was finally demolished in the historic sense. It was no longer the crucible of a society, it was an investment vehicle and inasmuch as investment was now simply speculation, it was a foregone conclusion that the family would suffer and their liege lord the State would find themselves in a bonanza of consolidating power. After all, before the age of television and radio, there was a moat of sorts between the occupants of the home and the larger world. The occupant could easily manage how much of the outside world penetrated that moat. Now, if there is a moat remaining, it is a reverse moat …a barrier between the interactive and individually centered family and the intruding mass media and entertainment hordes that capitalize the family conversation. In effect, the family is easy prey for the speculative nature of the Modern State. That the State is intemperately Speculative in everything but military hardware is ably demonstrated by the crumbling civic infrastructure of the last several decades. Henry Clay would be aghast that such a powerful Federal Edifice invested so little in his notion of “internal improvements”. Even now, when the charade is revealed, investment in infrastructure takes a back seat to securing or easing the debt of those parties…a kind of Anti-Fiduciary Priesthood of sorts….. who led the Securitization Orgy.

    There are some who have compared the Revolutionary Rhetoric of the Framers against their personal correspondence within which they excoriated the merchants of Great Britain for enslaving them and violating the liberty of their home. “My home is my Rock of Independence” is a memorable phrase of this record. Not a little of the Declaration of independence stems directly from correspondence between colonials and their British Factors who took in agricultural commodity from the New World and returned manufactured goods to the colonist with a mounting debt enumerated and compounding with each return shipment. We have been and it would appear always to be, a Republic of Debt.

    Whether or not a reprise of this indulgent trend will provide spark for a new generation of Proactive Revolutionary remains to be seen. The fact that the castle walls are breached and noisy agents of the occupier are dominating the conversation makes it a slim prospect but there is little doubt that frustrations are growing. The goods bought on time are wearing and their charms would seem to be abating. The False Idols of the Priesthood of Debt are looking a tad louche but in the background, one hears that the printing press clanks away in a chorus of lament.

  2. Dirk, The home somewhat lost it “economic” character when it ceased to be a center of production. It was but a small step from making it a domicle to making it an investment.

    Aristotle was, in fact, a pretty good economist, even by the most rigorous of modern standards. And he would have some words of wisdom on regulating financial transactions, since he provided a standard for it. See

  3. John,

    Thanks for the link to your insightful article. I had thought about clarifying the sense of “natural” in Aristotle’s distinction between agrarian and usurious acquisition, but you’ve done some of that job for me. One could extend your argument to all public trading of stocks as well: it ends up inhibiting a business from pursuing its proper good as a business.

  4. Thanks, Mark. The distinction serves as a good basis for regulation, which has always lacked an organizing and rationalizing principle. As Karl Polanyi pointed out, “Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.” Planning always grew up as spontaneous and ad hoc reactions to the failures of the market. Hence it had the potential to do more harm than good. Regulation of this kind serves mainly as a barrier to market entry and the protection of large businesses. After all, regulatory requirements are a big concern to small businesses, but a small part of big businesses.

  5. “In fact, its very semblance of methodological neutrality makes it complicit, because it recasts our imagination of the life of production and consumption in the image of the unlimited acquisition of money rather than in the image of choices about goods that contribute to a good life. It swears off any judgments about relative goodness, and so by default has to measure and compare in terms of value, which ultimately means by the medium of money. And by linguistically usurping the place of the original moral science of oeconomics, it cuts off one means of access to that alternative vision.”

    Indeed, it seems as if this is truly what separates conservatism from libertarianism. I think the insight, Mr. Medaille, in your article, that something can only be understood in the context of everything and that disciplines have been separated to the detriment of students, is of paramount importance. Mr. Shiffman’s excellent elucidation of Aristotle demonstrates that teleology must always be at the forefront of all discussions about human life, and therefore ethics, politics, and economics cannot be truly separated into wholly distinct parts.

  6. If I may quote Heraclitus in response to Empedocles:

    “Though the logos is common, the many live as if they have their own personal wisdom.”

    “Rational utility maximization” is a bogus teleology, because the utility of anything depends upon a presupposed understanding of the ends of human living. Just like Hobbes, such “economists” presuppose that what counts as “good” is merely what people happen to prefer for whatever reason (or lack of reason). Teleology in the proper sense proceeds on the hypothesis that we can meaningfully distinguish true goods from false, better lives from worse, and thus sketch out a vision of the more important human ends that the political order ought to respect. So while Hobbes and the “economists” may provide a fairly accurate description of what most people do on a very abstract level, it is a description whose abstract and non-committal character derives from the methodological character I’ve described above.

    For Aristotle, the practical disciplines of knowledge require developing the virtue of practical wisdom, which does not deal in such reductive abstractions but rather in the concrete particularities of practical life, the qualitative differences between objects of choice and preference and their implications for the whole character of one’s life.

  7. Medaille……The great Milky Way of Think Tanks and NGO’s swirling within the Washington Beltway where:

    “Prominent Thinkers are paid to stop thinking and start producing propaganda”…beautiful.

    You know, the “Natural ” vs. ” Unnatural” classifications are so much more descriptive than conventionally accepted classifications and they have the chief virtue of avoiding the partisan propagandizing of “liberal” and ‘Conservative”.

    We’ve seen through zoning law that the regulations may actually work at times but generally, they create even greater disfunction and “unnatural” outcome. One wonders exactly why the Economists…or zoners… might not discern this ancient fact…aside from the fact that anything ancient must mean it’s of no relevancy… particularly whence not underwritten by the Great Think Tank .

    “Practical Wisdom”…….how refreshing.

  8. Empedocles: No, I couldn’t imagine you would want to defend that view. But you gave me an opening to criticize it, so I took it.

  9. Dirk, You cut me to the quick. I was a city councilman for 10 years in a medium sized city (170,000). I was a big believer in zoning. In fact, I was a first class pain-in-the-ass. But I kept getting re-elected. Then I read Jane Jacobs on The Life and Death of the Great American City. Ten years of hard work, down the toilet. It just goes to show that ignorance is bliss.

  10. Teleology is certainly at the forefront of economics, because it is at the forefront of all human action. Utility maximization is not, mainly because he can never know what is useful. Maximized self-interest cannot sum to a public good because it cannot sum to a private good. We can never know in advance what is good for us; that has to be discovered and is usually known only after the fact. How often has the good come to us in the guise of a disaster? How often has disaster come in the guise of the good? These are universal human experiences.

    What is known (more or less) is not what is useful, but what is loved. Love alone makes anything useful. We buy a CD because we love the music. We work 80 hours because we (think) we love the money. When the only love present is self-love, then the assumptions of methodological individualism hold. But when self-love rules, whether in the person, the family, the firm, or the nation, we generally call that person, family, firm, or nation, “dysfunctional.” Hence, we have an economics and politics of dysfunction, a perfect dystopia.

  11. John, I put my years in on Wetland , Planning and Conservation Commissions as well. I did a good job of keeping the agenda rolling but really tired of the crusaders on all sides. All Regulation starts out with the finest of intentions, often appended with some form of language filling pockets somewhere in order to grease the skids of promulgation and then, in the fullness of time, the Regulation becomes the end itself…the underlying fundamental purpose for the Regulation becomes secondary and by that time, the unanticipated consequences are institutionalized to an extent that everyone generally forgets exactly why the Regulation was written in the first place. There is a bureaucracy to run and if the Regulation justifies the existence of the Bureaucracy, who cares what its purpose is?

    This is an almost universal trend.

    Its current Best Demonstration is the “No Child Left Behind” Act. This law, designed to standardize educational progress so as not to let the disadvantaged fall further behind essentially guts the pedagogical process and in particular, any kind of Socratic exchange and as a result, No child shall indeed be Left Behind because No child shall Go Forward. With this trajectory, an incurious public could almost be led into some kind of Organized Russian Roulette if there was a Regulation that said it must be made so.

    Interesting, but because there seems to be no unifying moral basis in the culture, we Regulate to approximate the moral imperative but with the built in reductionism and relativity of Regulation, it can have no moral force and so the civic body is reduced to worshipping the Regulation alone. This is not a call for the integration of religion into government or erosions of the First Amendment, it is simply a recognition of the fits and starts with which we impede our way through accreting Regulation without a constant assessment….through an employment of the Socratic Method….. of the efficacy of the moral basis for the regulation and whether or not said Regulation is continuing to be relevant or even consistent with the original moral intent.

    Funny how things given to our cookbook of Teleology 2400 years ago….not to mention 2009 years ago remain stunningly relevant and when we think we can create a better Telos through Regulation, these essential building blocks of the urge are the first to go…..creating a civic edifice that would shock an OSHA Administrator properly attuned.

  12. I found your post very interesting – too few know about this important shift in the use of the word “economics,” which indicates an important conceptual shift. This is something I’ve been tracing a bit as an intellectual historian, so please forgive my tendency to pedantry.

    I think locating the decisive change with Hobbes in 1650 is just about a century too early. Hobbes’s use of the term is straightforwardly ancient – in keeping, I think, with the various treatises on Oeconomics from the ancient world (whether Aristotle/Theophrastus’s, or Xenophon’s, or the fragments we have of Stoic and Epicurean treatments of the subject). It conceives an oikonomia at the level of the polis. But that was old hat in antiquity. Oikonomia is about managing the affairs of some enterprise, and it’s possible to think of the state on that model in antiquity or – as Hobbes did – in early modernity.

    The decisive shift comes a century later, when a new concept appeared – “the market” – in which households were subsumed but precisely not (as on Aristotle’s account) into a political community or polis. This idea of the market is missing from the ancient world – there were markets a plenty – but not imagined as cohering into an abstract allocative mechanism that sat above households and communities but outside the control of politics (that is, the state). It is this conceptual move that allows modern “economics” to begin, and we can place the change in the term rather precisely. It comes sometime between Frances Hutcheson’s use of “oeconomica politica” which is the standard antique usage and Adam Smith’s use of it in the “Wealth of Nations.” The innovator here is not Hobbes – however innovative he was, he did not have a separate conception of the market outside politics, except as a problem to be handled. Who gives us this idea of “economics”? I think it’s a combination of David Hume (Smith’s teacher) and some of the most important of the French “oeconomistes” who begin to conceive the market economy as a self-sufficient, self-equilibrating sphere apart from politics.

    There are a couple of good sources here in case anyone’s interested – on the “ancient economy,” see Moses Finley’s still classic contribution “The Ancient Economy,” and on Aristotle, check out Scott Meikle’s “Aristotle’s Economic Thought.” Both of them expressly deal with the change in the term “oikonomia” and discuss how it functioned differently in antiquity.

    And, of course, if you want a vision of an embedded – not disembedded – economics, which would be based on an ancient model, but adapted to the conditions of modernity, check out Karl Polanyi’s famous work (especially “The Great Transformation,” which is a critique of economic liberalism along just these lines.)

  13. David,

    Thanks for adding some refinement to a story I’ve oversimplified. Allow me to refine the refinement a bit further.

    First, in Xenophon, oikonomia means only estate management, and this is the basic and enduring meaning in antiquity.

    In Aristotle’s Politics, it emphatically refers to household management in Book one, in explicit contrast both to other kinds of ruling and to acquisition of wealth and profit per se. In Book three, he extends it analogously to a particular kind of kingship that enters into all aspects of ruling its kingdom, but he is quite careful to point out that this is an analogy with household management. Then at the end of Book three he applies this analogous use more broadly to a not-well-specified form of aristocratic rule as well. Thus, in accord with his general philosophy of language, the word has a primary reference that grounds its meaning, but can also be used analogously of what resembles or derives from this primary reference.

    I do not find support in either author for your broad claim that oikonomia means “management of some enterprise” except in cases where the enterprise in question bears a significant analogy to the household.

    As you note, in Epicurean and Stoic sources the word is not used with the same caution for maintaining the distinctiveness of its primary referent. This is because Epicurean and Stoic metaphysics do not respect the integrity of distinct substantial forms of beings in the same way, and so do not require the same care in tethering linguistic reference to an order based on substantial forms. The distinct natures of distinct beings does not carry the same metaphysical weight in these philosophies that it does for Aristotle (or Plato).

    Aristotelian philosophy becomes a central element of mainstream medieval thought, especially in the thinkers I mentioned who treat of oikonomia explicitly. Hobbesian philosophy, on the other hand, draws more on Epicurean physics filtered through Galileo, and Stoic epistemology filtered through Descartes, and rejects Aristotelian realism in favor of nominalism. Thus Hobbes’ philosophy of language allows him to play more loosely with words and their referents, and does not require him to keep the word “economy” tethered to the notion of properly ordering the household. Hobbes can use it to refer to the revenue-management of the state without being concerned about whether this usage bears any relation to household management.

    Your helpful observation about the concept of “the market” is, I think, consistent with my observation that in Hobbes we are not yet talking about the transactions of civil society but about the revenues of the state (and so still about management, and to that extent he is consistent with classical usage).

    Given that, as I see it, the pervasive nominalism that the Scottish and french-economistic thinkers share with Hobbes removes the impediments that would prevent an Aristotelian from altering the primary referent of the term “economics”, and that Hobbes does so first among the moderns, it seems to me permissable to recognize his conceptual and linguistic shifts as continuous with theirs. The question of how radical he is in the transformation of “economic” thought depends ultimately on the question of what the real roots of the conceptual transformations involved are.

  14. At the risk of boring folks with a somewhat technical issue, to my knowledge, the only English-language study of the use of “oikonomia” in antiquity – which was, of course, a widespread concept beyond Xenophon and the Peripatetics – is a translation of an essay by Carlo Natali (the Italian classical historian), which I recommend.* (Natali has a few good treatments of the subject in Italian if you read it.) Natali explains that “oikonomia is used to mean, in a figurative sense, any environment in which the capacity to manage a complex structure (big or small) well can be applied with success.” Oikonomia can thus refer to “the general organization of one’s life and actions” or “the general handling of political affairs in a city or region, of alliances, or religious festivals.” (p. 98)

    This requires, of course, imagining the social structure in question as roughly comparable to the oikos (household), and therefore supposing that the management strategies for non-household structures can be the same (as Socrates’s interlocutor Ischomachus does in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus) or else specifying how the management of a polis necessarily differs from that of an oikos (as Aristotle does in the Politics). As for the use of the term to describe management of states (oikonomia politike), see the Pseudo-Aristotelian Oeconomica (1345b) where, oikonomia politike describes strategies for public financing; note also that Strabo uses oikonomia to describe the management of Roman Egypt and the administration of the Persian empire in his Geography, XVII.I.13; XVII.I.24.

    It is in this sense that I think Hobbes is exactly following a (perhaps non-Aristotelian) but completely conventional antique usage.

    As for nominalism – well, we can’t pin that on Hobbes alone if that’s the deeper point you want to raise!

    All this makes me want to argue that the real innovation here is an eighteenth not a seventeenth-century modification. The reason this matters, as you’ve probably surmised, is that I want to exempt modern notions of the ‘state’ from the same logic that produced modern notions of the ‘market.’ So, the more we can disambiguate what happened between c. 1650 and c. 1750, the better!

    Again, forgive the arcana –

    Sincerely yours,
    David Grewal

    * Carlo Natali, “Oikonomia in Hellenistic Political Thought,” in: Justice and Generosity: Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy, pp 95-128.

  15. David,

    I appreciate the arcana myself, though we may want to take that part of the discussion offline. I’ll just comment on a couple of the broader principles at issue here.

    Nominalism is in fact the deeper point I want to raise (and I do that more explicitly in the essay in the Berry collection). I would contend that nominalism is central to the logic behind both the notion of the state as it appears in Hobbes and the science of economics that develops in his wake. Nominalism supports the disintegration of substantive intermediate institutions that stand between the state and individual subjects (because, for example, it cannot recognize the household as a natural entity with a normative force).

    I wonder whether we do not have different notions of the relationship between philosophy and intellectual history. I think the logic behind the new conception of the state draws along with it consequences in all other domains, so that the modern notion of “the economy” is a delayed effect. Perhaps you will provide us convincing evidence to the contrary, but I think it will have to show that the modern notions of the market economy do not depend on the nominalist understanding of the individual that pervades European (and especially British and French) thinking, all the more intensely after Hobbes. I for one would appreciate any clarification you have to offer on these questions.

    As for the question of the ancients, ultimately this involves us in a distinct realm of hermeneutical problems. In Xenophon, for example, it seems to me that Socrates is trying to argue for an understanding of oikonomia like that of Aristotle. Ischomachus thinks that anything that makes him richer rightly belongs to oikonomia; he thus represents precisely the position Aristotle is concerned to demystify. Socrates challenges him with the same question Aristotle raises: What really constitutes wealth? Ischomachus thinks of wealth in terms of money, so that naturally his usage of “oikonomia” will creep beyond a necessary grounding in the good of the household.

    The two points are fundamentally related. The shift from an agrarian and guild-based economic system to a system fundamentally oriented around money and profit supports and is supported by a nominalistic vision of reality.

  16. Dear Mark,

    Yes, let’s take it offline but a few quick points: I agree entirely on the Socratic and Aristotelian critiques of what would later be called ‘exchange value’ – and the distinction that it leads to between oikonomia and mere “money-making” (chremastike), say, in the Politics. The ancient view of oikonomia is very interesting – and gets picked up, of course, by fans of Aristotle and critics of the market economy in later centuries (e.g. Marx).

    I am not sure, however, that it’s nominalism that’s responsible for the rise of the modern economy in the way you suggest, at least not without a bit of amendment. You say: “I think the logic behind the new conception of the state draws along with it consequences in all other domains, so that the modern notion of “the economy” is a delayed effect.” I think that may be right, but it is as a reaction to not a continuation of the possibility of the modern state, even if both run along similarly nominalist lines. That is, the modern state and modern economy may be in some significant tension, even if the quarrel is a family quarrel among moderns. Perhaps I’m more interested in the substance of that quarrel than you are – because I see interesting political possibilities there – even if both sides in that debate reflect the deeper problem that you wish to diagnose.

    So in response to your comment: “Perhaps you will provide us convincing evidence to the contrary, but I think it will have to show that the modern notions of the market economy do not depend on the nominalist understanding of the individual,” I want to agree with you that perhaps they do, but to suggest that along many important dimensions we should nevertheless distinguish the understanding that conceived the subject of the new political orders of the seventeenth century from that which conceived the subject of the new economic order of the eighteenth. I accept that Aristotle is nowhere to be found on either side of that argument, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t distinguish these two episodes of modern thought and the distinct subjectivities they helped to engender.

    Again, many thanks for your interesting post – more on all this offline.

    Sincerely yours,
    David Grewal

  17. I appreciate this article and the conversations it has inspired–thank you! My research this semester has been on the history of schooling (some of the history of education too, but the history of schooling is more pertinent for homeschooling parents to know what they are trying to avoid). I have read John Gatto’s Underground History of American Education plus several other books from both sides of the issue–we are indeed training a society to consider only material gain as the good in life, and only a regimented lifestyle as the means of obtaining that good.

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