Lionel Robbins Discusses "History"

I didn't have a book to bring to the gym at work today, so I scanned the shelves of my (shared) office and plucked from them Lionel Robbins' A History of Economic Thought. Now mind you, I have no axe to grind with Robbins, and the remarks of his I will highlight below have little bearing on any practical current debate. I only note them to show how very wrong even major thinkers often are when they wander outside their area of expertise.

I started with Robbins' second lecture, on Plato and Aristotle. The first sign of trouble was when Robbins says that in The Laws, Plato has a "fascist conception" of the best society, rather than a communist one as in The Republic. So Robbins is trying to line thinkers of 2400 years ago with the political parties of his day, a completely hopeless task that falsifies the past.

Next up: "Before the Renaissance Plato was not at all well know, whereas "the Philosopher" (Aristotle) was appealed to by most of the writers on moral philosophy from Thomas Aquinas downward." This is a mangled version of something Robbins heard as an undergrad. In fact, for centuries, it was Aristotle who was not well known. It is true that when his works were recovered from Islamic sources, he eclipsed Plato in importance, and that only changed with Renaissance NeoPlatonism. But there was no period in which Plato was "not at all well known."

Robbins then goes on to offer the near-mandatory disclaimer that he doesn't agree with Aristotle on slavery. He says that "There were enlightened people...who were beginning to question the institution of slavery, and Aristotle... thought that as a moral philosopher he ought to give some justification thereof." Note that Robbins doesn't list any of these "enlightened people." I suspect that is because he doesn't actually know of any. And I suspect that is because there weren't any. And I have been told this by Garrett Fagan, who is a real historian of this period.

Further, for Robbins, this whole discussion is "all very lame and dull stuff," so he doesn't even bother with what Aristotle's argument actually is. If he had, he would have found Aristotle arguing that certain people naturally work well self-guided, while others need to take orders. Thus, Aristotle would have looked at the factory workers of Robbins' day and said, "Oh, I see you've devised a new form of slavery!"

Robbins continues by reciting the much-discredited idea that Medieval thinkers were enslaved to Aristotle and didn't think for themselves, a bit of nonsense refuted as easily as by glancing at the long lists of propositions from Aristotle that were condemned in the Middle Ages.

Our final flub comes when Robbins accuses Aristotle of having "a value judgment creeping in" to his economic analysis. So Aristotle, who would reject that whole fact / value dichotomy and hold that one certainly can derive an ought from an is, was just accidentally letting value judgments "creep in"!

This is only the first five pages of this chapter, and basically we have found one truly awful historical error per page.

Moral: Read real historians! Dabblers in history from other fields, and pop historians, tend to produce rubbish. (There are, of course, many exceptions, but they are in the minority.)


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