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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 404-405

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Book Review

Ancient and Medieval Economic Ideas and Concepts of Social Justice

Ancient and Medieval Economic Ideas and Concepts of Social Justice. Edited by S. Todd Lowry and Barry Gordon. Leiden: Brill, 1998. 611 pp.

Economists have typically, though not universally, passed over the history of ancient and medieval economies and the ideas produced therein in silence. There are, of course, critically important exceptions. The great work of Bernard Dempsey and Raymond De Roover on medieval concepts immediately comes to mind, as do the labors of Todd Lowry and the late Barry Gordon (editors of this volume) on earlier thought. This neglect is unfortunate from a number of perspectives, not least because modern economic inquiry, like modern biology's look into human and evolutionary history, is creating new windows into those worlds. This volume, exclusively ideational (rather than historical-analytical or empirical) in orientation, is a very welcome addition to the literature.

The work of fourteen scholars in thirteen essays, the volume surveys particular eras of literature from Hellenistic times through the seventeenth century. A brief review is simply inadequate to convey the nature and significance of all of these contributions. I therefore will try, with apologies to all writers, to survey the scope of the project and to focus on some particular ideas and contributions.

The essays open with a brief but even-handed introduction by Lowry drawing together some of the diverse methods and opinions on the many strands of ancient [End Page 404] and medieval economic literature. Particular essays follow it on specific eras of ancient and medieval economic and social thought. The Greek tradition is admirably surveyed in three interesting studies. That tradition, as these essays reveal, is the most important source of Western thought on economics, political theory, and "justice." Lowry's essay, especially, contains an excellent excursion into the "political" and economic thought of both Plato and Aristotle. I was impressed by Lowry's (21-26) convincing antidote to the idea, espoused by William Campbell in his 1985 HOPE article, "The Free Market for Goods and the Free Market for Ideas in the Platonic Dialogues," that Platonic thought was a clear and convincing repository for a free market in ideas. Essays on Roman thought, Old and New Testament analyses, Talmudic literature, and Western medieval, Byzantine, Spanish, and Latin American thought follow. While of uneven quality, most provide important discussions of little-known writers and ideas.

The premier essay, in my opinion--alone well worth the price of the book--is the essay by Odd Langholm entitled "The Medieval Schoolmen (1200-1400)." Langholm, the contemporary authority on medieval economic thought, provides an exceptionally clear analytical investigation into the economic and social ideas of the Scholastics. While I do not necessarily agree with the entire analysis, and while the outlines of the essay already exist in Langholm's scholarly book-length treatments, I know of no better relatively brief treatment of this material in the literature.

I am less secure in the discussions of "social justice" contained in this volume, being unconvinced that rational, self-interested behavior has not always punctuated human activity--broadly considered. Implicit markets, theological or mythological overlay, and regulations derived therefrom cloud but do not destroy the workings of that behavior. Needed, perhaps, is the development of the interrelations between ideational developments--well explored in this volume--and the institutions that enlarged or retarded economic development. Much work remains to be done, but from the renewed interest in preclassical economies, economists are clearly interested.

Robert B. Ekelund Jr.
Auburn University



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Archived 2005
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