Wednesday, July 27, 2022

"How much is enough?" is the wrong question

My eyes landed on the opening page of Simkhovitch's wonderful essay "Rome's Fall Reconsidered". Ha! You thought we were done with Simkhovitch. No such luck.

From page 201:

"Seneca himself was one of the richest land owners of Rome, but as a statesman he gave warning, in public, of what the wealthy landowners did not care to hear in private. Seneca asks: "How far will you extend the bounds of your possessions? A large tract of land, sufficient heretofore for a whole nation, is scarce wide enough for a single lord."

The quote is from Seneca's Letter 89, item #20.

Note that Seneca asks his wealthy bretheren "How far will you extend the bounds of your possessions?" How far will you extend those bounds? 

Seneca is asking How much is enough? It wasn't that long ago people were asking the same question about the wealth of the wealthy of our own time.

It was the wrong question, wrong for our time and wrong for Seneca's time. The answer, as we should know by now, is: They already have more than "enough". They are not doing it to get "enough". The are doing it for personal satisfaction. It is a kind of game, like poker except that our lives depend on the outcome. And, except that the survival of civilization requires that the game be halted.

In the late stage of that game, you only have "enough" when you are the only player left. But by that time the rest of us are all serfs, and civilization is one cold memory.


Later in the Simkhovitch essay, where he is talking about reasons for the concentrated ownership of land, he mentions not only the obvious (the debts of small landholders, and the fact that raising cattle  requires more land than growing crops) but also the pleasure wealthy Romans got from accumulating as much as they could:

Wealthy men acquired and accumulated vast domains rather for the pleasure of possession than as a paying investment. [p.219]

It's not just an assertion, either. Simkhovitch has already quoted Pliny the Younger, who was considering the purchase of an "enormous" estate neighboring his own:

I feel tempted to purchase, first, because the conveniences resulting therefrom would be as great as the pleasures it would give me... [p.218]

Pleasures and conveniences; these are his reasons to buy. Remarkably, in the same quote, Pliny expresses hesitation to purchase because "the fertility of the land is overtaxed by the lack of capital of the tenants." Note that the low income expected from this "overtaxed" property makes Pliny hesitate, but it is not enough to turn him against the purchase. Even the additional cost of providing slaves for the tenants is not enough to make him decide against the purchase. It is not only the quest for wealth that influenced Pliny's decision, but also the quest for pleasure and personal satisfaction. Perhaps he was asking himself: How will I look in the eyes of my fellow wealth-holders? It could be a smart move to sacrifice a little income if the purchase moved Pliny's status up a few notches in the eyes of his wealthy friends.

Pliny's letter is available online. I read it, and found this extra bit on the pleasure of purchasing, instead, an estate at greater distance from his own:

Again, there is something exceedingly pleasant in changing one's air and place, and in the travelling from one estate to another.

Pliny the Younger was a sentimental fool. But then, he could afford to be.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Latouche (a second fragment from the Introduction)

Robert Latouche (1961): The Birth of Western Economy. Online editions:

  1. the 2005 edition as a Google Book with 42 preview pages (of 376 pages); and
  2. the 2013 edition as a Google Book with 58 preview pages.

I prefer the first of those two links.

Vladimir Simkhovitch (1916): "Rome's Fall Reconsidered". Open access at JSTOR.

Latouche, most of one paragraph, from page xiv of the Introduction:

We shall have to explain our attitude to the dangerous illusion fostered by those who differentiate sharply between a natural economy (Naturalwirtschaft), regarded as the typical economic system of the Early Middle Ages, and a money economy (Geldwirtschaft), believed to have prevailed in the ancient world and to have made a diffident reappearance at the end of the eleventh century.

A "diffident" reappearance -- I like that.

We shall also come up against other traditional ideas, which will have to be less rigidly interpreted, as for instance that of a closed economy, for many years the classical definition of the Carolingian economic system. Without wishing to anticipate a controversy which will be dealt with at some length later, need we also continue to accept as axiomatic the predominance of the great landed estate during Merovingian and Carolingian times?

Oh, that is important. The predominance of the great landed estate defines the economy of ancient Rome. And according to Vladimir Simkhovitch's translation of Pliny, "The large estates, the latifundia, were ruining Rome as well as its provinces." So how did we get from the unsustainable great estates of Rome to great estates that were not only sustainable but formed the basis of economic society under feudalism? This is why Latouche's book fascinates me. I think he may have the answer I'm looking for.

If for almost a century the great domain has been considered as the basic framework of rural life under the Carolingians, the unanimity with which scholars have accepted the idea must be attributed to Charlemagne, the author of a detailed Capitulary on the organization of his villae, and also to several wealthy abbots of the eighth and ninth centuries, to those of Saint-Remi of Rheims, of Prüm, and in particular of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, who have left us in the form of polyptyques minutely detailed inventories of the property owned by their monasteries. It is, however, all too readily forgotten that side by side with the great landowners whose numbers and whose power are not in question, there existed a host of small, illiterate landowners who kept no archives and of whose way of life we know little.

I like this book! "All too readily forgotten" are the poor, who once were called the middle class: those who do not publish books describing life from their own point of view. Many of them do not even have their own point of view but simply repeat what they hear from their favorite media. Simkhovitch, too, reminds us that history and literature preserve not the "ruts of a muddy country road" but the "mountain-climbing expedition":

The story of the plain farmer we can expect to find in neither literature nor history. [p.205]

The "polyptyques" --  "minutely detailed inventories of the property owned" -- remind me of Michael Wood's Domesday book about William the Conqueror's survey of wealth and property in all of England as of 1086. Apparently, William was not first to create such a list.


polyptyques: "In medieval history, the Polyptych (or Polyptyque) was a document detailing the lands that a noble owned." - Wikipedia

Capitulary: "A capitulary was a series of legislative or administrative acts emanating from the Frankish court of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, especially that of Charlemagne..." - Wikipedia

diffident: "modest or shy because of a lack of self-confidence." - Oxford Languages via Google

Friday, July 22, 2022

Toynbee and Latouche

Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History. The complete abridgement: 1960.

Robert Latouche (1961): The Birth of Western Economy. Online I find the 2005 edition as a Google Book with 42 preview pages (of 376 pages); but page xiii (from which I quote below) is not one of them. Also online I find the 2013 edition as a Google Book with 58 preview pages, including the text that I quoted -- but the pages are not numbered. The relevant page is the first page of the Introduction, with text that begins "ANY ATTEMPT TO TRAGE the origins ..."

If I was Latouche I'd be ouTRAGEd.

From the Introduction of Robert Latouche's The Birth of Western Economy (page xiii in the 1961 edition):

Any attempt to trace the origins of medieval economic life in the West must inevitably raise in its most material form the problem, often debated but never solved, of the transition from the ancient world to the Middle Ages...

The whole conception of a middle age is gradually breaking down, or at least is in process of changing. The idea of inserting this vast period between the ancient world and modern times sprang first from the imagination of seventeenth-century scholars, and it was not until 1838 that its chronological limits were officially laid down...

Latouche goes on to say that the purpose of his book is "to trace the gradual development of economic life in Western Europe during the period ending with the eleventh century". The book's subtitle, by the way, is "Economic Aspects of the Dark Ages". And in the Foreword Philip Grierson mentions "those centuries of European history which are usefully if now somewhat unfashionably known as the Dark Ages." 

The Dark Ages: "often debated but never solved", Latouche says. And now we mostly just bicker about what to call that era. 

There can be little doubt we are experiencing the decline of our own civilization.

The Toynbee quote below begins on page 38 in the introductory chapter of the abridgement.

The illusion of progress as something which proceeds in a straight line is an example of that tendency to over-simplification which the human mind displays in all its activities. In their 'periodizations' our historians dispose their periods in a single series end to end, like the sections of a bamboo stem between joint and joint or the sections of the patent extensible handle on the end of which an up-to-date modern chimney-sweep pokes his brush up the flue. On the brush-handle which our modern historians have inherited there were originally two joints only -- 'ancient' and 'modern', roughly though not exactly corresponding to the Old Testament and the New Testament and to the dual back-to-back reckoning of dates B.C. and A.D. ... 
As time has gone on, our historians have found it convenient to extend their telescopic brush-handle by adding a third section, which they have called 'medieval' because they have inserted it between the other two...

That's just what Latouche was talking about.

But we have strayed from the point, which is that an equation of Hellenic and Western history with History itself -- 'ancient and modern' if you like -- is mere parochialism and impertinence.

I can't say for sure whether by "impertinence" Toynbee means rudeness or irrelevance.

I found it interesting that both Toynbee and Latouche found the parceling-out of historical time interesting enough to bring it up in their opening thoughts.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Similarities: Average Men

Simkhovitch, "Rome's Fall Reconsidered", p220-221:

The owners of the rundown farms are impoverished, and when a farmer is economically sinking he is not in a position to improve his land. Only one with sufficient resources can improve his land... 

The exceptional man might pull himself up under adverse conditions, but on the other hand a man of such exceptional resourcefulness and ability will not permit such deterioration of his farm. But whatever the exceptional man may or may not do, here we are dealing with the average men, the habitual victims of circumstance.


Keynes, the General Theory, chapter 24:

Hitherto the increment of the world’s wealth has fallen short of the aggregate of positive individual savings; and the difference has been made up by the losses of those whose courage and initiative have not been supplemented by exceptional skill or unusual good fortune. But if effective demand is adequate, average skill and average good fortune will be enough.

Simkhovitch identifies a problem. Keynes offers a solution.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Similarities: Down on the Farm

Owen is optimistic about the farm. He needs Luke for only one more year.
Luke is realistic. He doesn't have high hopes for the farm. Luke wants out:

LUKE: And if these new droids do work out, I want to transmit my application to the Academy this year.

Owen's face becomes a scowl, although he tries to suppress it.

OWEN: You mean the next semester before harvest?

LUKE: Sure, there're more than enough droids.

OWEN: Harvest is when I need you the most. Only one more season. This year we'll make enough on the harvest so I'll be able to hire some more hands. And then you can go to the Academy next year.

As you know, things don't work out as Owen predicts.

"If the farmer is borrowing to meet the exigencies of a so-called bad year, his distress is temporary, and he is likely to square himself during the next good year; but if his distress is due to the progressive deterioration of his farm, he will be unable to extricate himself. Such indebtedness is hopeless. The increasing weight of accumulated interest on the loan and the decreasing productivity of the land seal the fate of the landowner.
 - "Rome's Fall Reconsidered", by Vladimir G. Simkhovitch

As you know, things didn't work out well for ancient Rome.

Monday, July 18, 2022

When ancient Rome was young

A multi-faceted remembrance of Rome: 

In her early days Italy was famous for her wheat, which provided not only her own population but also that of Greece. The fertility of Italian soil was probably the reason for the establishment of Greek colonies in southern Italy. The importation of Italian wheat into Greece in Sophocles's time is still famous. But in Cato's time Italy was already dependent upon Sicily, which Rome's great old man called the provider for the Roman people. In all probability this dependence upon Sicily as its granary was the paramount reason for Rome's conflict with Carthage. Province after province was turned by Rome into a desert, for Rome's exactions naturally compelled greater exploitation of the conquered soil and its more rapid exhaustion.

From "Rome's Fall Reconsidered" by Vladimir Simkhovitch (page 223).


Greek colonies established in Italy: from the 8th to 5th centuries BC. Italy was fertile then.

Sophocles's time: 496-406 BC, or almost all of the fifth century BC. Sophocles was born just at the end of the Greek colonization of Italy. And 496 BC is, what, 13 years after the Roman Republic was established in 509 BC on the entrails of the Roman Kingdom.

Cato's [the elder] time: 234-149 BC. Suppose we count from 200 BC and say Cato had 50 years, the whole first half of the second century BC, to be Rome's "great old man". 

Greece colonized various fertile areas of Italy between 800 and 500 BC. And Italy was still considered fertile in Sophocles's time, that is, for the next hundred years after 500 BC. But then, three hundred years later, around 200 BC (in Cato's time) fertility on the Italian peninsula was wearing thin.


I'm still thinking about how Simkhovitch's exhaustion-of-the-soil argument stands up to Ellsworth Huntington's climate-change argument.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

"Who Invented What, and When Did They Invent It?"

At First Monday:

The Internet Society hosts a monograph called called "A Brief History of the Internet." (See The authors include some of the designers of the essential components of how the Internet works today: Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, and Stephen Wolff. The paper notes these key milestones in Internet history:

  • 1961: Leonard Kleinrock writes the first paper on packet switched networks. 
  • 1962: J.C.R. Licklider of MIT writes a paper describing a globally connected "Galactic Network" of computers.
  • 1966: Larry Roberts proposes the ARPANET to the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
  • 1968: ARPA issues Request for Quotations for the Interface Message Processors (IMPs), which became the first routers.
  • 1969: First IMP is installed at UCLA.
  • Early 1970s: Universities and defense agencies and contractors begin to connect to ARPANET.
  • 1973: Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf begin research into what eventually becomes IP - the Internet Protocol and its companion, TCP - the Transmission Control Protocol.
  • 1973: Bob Metcalfe develops Ethernet, which had been the subject of his PhD thesis, while working at Xerox.
  • Early 1980s: The Personal Computer revolution begins.
  • Mid 1980s: Local Area Networks (LANs) begin to flourish in business and university environments. Campus area networks soon follow.
  • January 1, 1983: All "old-style" traffic on the ARPANET ceases, as TCP/IP becomes the only protocol used. [Arguably, this is the date of the birth of the Internet as a functioning, practical, production network.]
  • 1985: Dennis Jennings chooses TCP/IP as the protocol for the planned National Science Foundation Network (NSFnet).
  • 1988: NSF sponsors a series of workshops at Harvard on the commercialization and privatization of the Internet.
  • 1988: Kahn et al. write a paper "Towards a National Research Network." According to the Brief History, "This report was influential on then Senator Al Gore, and ushered in high speed networks that laid the networking foundation for the future information superhighway."

From Al Gore and the Creation of the Internet by Richard Wiggins

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Civilization, edited: "The unit of historical study"

Toynbee, Arnold J.  A Study of History. Volume One at The complete multi-volume abridgement at If you read it, read it like you don't have television and social media to occupy your time.

John Maynard Keynes waited till chapter four to make clear his choice of units:

It is my belief that much unnecessary perplexity can be avoided if we limit ourselves strictly to the two units, money and labour, when we are dealing with the behaviour of the economic system as a whole; ...

In the Somerville abridgement, Arnold J. Toynbee does units first, before anything else. He considers "the unit of historical study" in the Introduction. Here, slightly shortened, his first two sentences:

... the development in the last few centuries, and more particularly in the last few generations, of the would-be self-sufficient national sovereign state has led historians to choose nations as the normal fields of historical study. But no single nation or national state of Europe can show a history which is in itself self-explanatory.
The first sentence describes historians' standard practice[1]; the second describes the problem with that practice. The task Toynbee sets himself is to offer an alternative to standard practice.

He takes as an example Great Britain and lists the "principal chapters" of its history. These chapters take us from the industrial system "(since the last quarter of the eighteenth century)", back to the conversion of the English to Western Christianity in the sixth century. On page 2 Toynbee writes:

This glance backwards from the present day over the general course of English history would appear to show that the farther back we look the less evidence do we find of self-sufficiency or isolation. The conversion, which was really the beginning of all things in English history, was the direct antithesis of that; it was an act which merged half a dozen isolated communities of barbarians in the common weal of a nascent Western Society.

English history is not self-contained or self-explanatory, he says. It begins with the formation of a larger community, a larger society. Then, over time, differences emerge and we end up with a large society that contains several smaller ones: a civilization containing several nation-states. Toynbee writes:

With reference to the parliamentary system Lord Acton says: ‘General history naturally depends on the action of forces which are not national but proceed from wider causes. The rise of modern kingship in France is part of a similar movement in England. Bourbons and Stuarts obeyed the same law though with different results.’ In other words the Parliamentary System, which was the local result in England, was the product of a force which was not peculiar to England but was operating simultaneously in England and France.

This stuff floored me when I first read it. It still does. On page 3, Toynbee summarizes:

The chapters which caught our eye in our glance backward over the course of English history were real chapters in some story or other, but that story was the history of some society of which Great Britain was only a part, and the experiences were experiences in which other nations besides Great Britain were participants. The ‘intelligible field of study’, in fact, appears to be a society containing a number of communities of the species represented by Great Britain — not only Great Britain herself but also France and Spain, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and so on — and the passage quoted from Acton indicates the relation between these parts and that whole. 

The forces in action are not national but proceed from wider causes, which operate upon each of the parts and are not intelligible in their partial operation unless a comprehensive view is taken of their operation throughout the society. Different parts are differently affected by an identical general cause, because they each react, and each contribute, in a different way to the forces which that same cause sets in motion.


I'm leaving out a lot, but I turn now to the unabridged Volume One of Toynbee's Study of History, to the section titled Some Provisional Conclusions which begins on page 44. Here he begins to flesh out the concept of civilization and how a civilization differs from the "political communities" it contains.

The first stage of our inquiry has now reached its term, and it may be convenient to sum up our provisional conclusions. They can be stated as follows:
(a) The ‘intelligible fields of historical study’, whose limits we have roughly established by working outwards and backwards from the standpoint of our own country in our own day, are societies which have a greater extension, in both Space and Time, than national states or city-states, or any other political communities.
(b) Such political communities (national states, city-states, and the like) are not only narrower in their spatial extension and shorter-lived in their Time-extension than the respective societies to which they belong, but their relation to these societies is that of inseparable parts to indivisible wholes. They are simply articulations of the true social entities and are not independent entities in themselves. Societies, not states, are ‘the social atoms’ with which students of history have to deal.
(c) The societies of which national states like Great Britain or city-states like Athens are parts, while they are (unlike their parts) independent entities in the sense that each of them constitutes, by itself, an ‘intelligible field of historical study’, are at the same time related to one another in the sense that they are all representatives of a single species of society.
(d) No one of the particular societies which we have been studying embraces the whole of Mankind or extends spatially over the whole habitable and navigable surface of the Planet or is coeval with the species of which it is one representative. Our Western Society, for example, which is still alive, was not conceived until the Hellenic Society had passed its maturity, while the Hellenic Society — even if (as is not the case) it proved, on being traced back, to be one of the original representatives of the species — has been extinct for twelve and a half centuries, so that in any case its complete life-span would fall short of the still uncompleted lifespan of the species by that much already.
(e) While the continuity between the histories of one society and another is very much slighter in degree than the continuity between different chapters in the history of any single society (indeed, so much slighter as virtually to differ in kind), yet in the Time-relation between two particular societies of different age — namely, the Western and the Hellenic — we have observed features which we may describe metaphorically as ‘apparentation’ and ‘affiliation’.

Toynbee continues:

In the light of these conclusions on matters of historical fact, we can draw certain other conclusions regarding History as a humane study. Its true concern is with the lives of societies in both their internal and their external aspects...

This view of history may be supported by a further quotation from Lord Acton, one of the greatest minds among modern Western historians...

After another page of text I'm omitting, Toynbee gets to this second quote from Lord Acton:

In his letter to the contributors to The Cambridge Modern History, dated the 12th March 1898, Acton gave this glimpse of the vision that was in him: 

‘By Universal History I understand that which is distinct from the combined history of all countries, which is not a rope of sand, but a continuous development, and is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul. It moves in a succession to which the nations are subsidiary. Their story will be told, not for their own sake, but in reference and subordination to a higher series, according to the time and degree in which they contribute to the common fortunes of Mankind.'

Toynbee shares that vision with Acton, and since I first read the abridgement in the 1990s I have shared it as well.


NOTE [1]: Volume One of Toynbee's Study was published in 1934. The "standard practice" was, let's say, standard at that time -- or earlier, when Toynbee observed it and perhaps made a mental note. The omitted words that start the first sentence may be considered insulting to historians who kept to standard practice; this may explain why the Study may not have been generally well received among historians.

Friday, July 1, 2022

John Lounsbury's diagram

From Lounsbury's Book Review of The New Economics, A Manifesto by Steve Keen

The "more correct" view, on the right, shows the economy at the center of things.

That's it, yeah.

I'd put it into words like this:

If the economy is not sustainable, the society cannot be sustained.
If the society is not sustainable, the environment cannot be sustained.

But I want to change the word "society" to "civilization". Because civilization follows the economy up, and civilization follows the economy down.