The Worldly Philosophers


This weekend I finished The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner. The book is at once an introduction to the history of economic thought, tracing a path from Adam Smith, through Malthus, Ricardo, Edgeworth and others, and ending with Keynes, Schumpeter and even Mankiw, as well as a look into the lives and personalities of those famous economists. I have a soft spot in my heart for tales of the eccentricities of great minds, if only because they make me proud of my own. All-in-all, an excellent read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of economics. (For a slightly more thorough introduction to Marx’s political economy, I recommend Marx’s Revenge, by Maghnad Desai.)

A characteristic passage from the book, in which the author describes Thorstein Veblen:

As might be expected, he was a mass of eccentricities. He refused to have a telephone, kept his books stacked along the wall in their original packing cases, and saw no sense in daily making up the beds; the covers were thrown back in the morning and pulled up again at night. Lazy, he allowed the dishes to accumulate until the cupboard was bare and then washed the whole messy heap by turning the hose on them.

Also, for the linguaphile, Heilbroner’s prose is pleasant and pleasantly laden with standardized-test words. A short sampling of my now-extended vocabulary:

contumacy (n): resistance to authority
defi (n): a challenge
panegyric (n): laudation

And one last thing: you can read many of these old texts online for free, via the Gutenberg Project. For example, see The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Smith).


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