Keynes and Aristotle – Masters in their fields

December 2013

A couple of years ago at Charleston Festival in Sussex, England, despite his known anti-Keynesian views, the celebrated economic historian, Niall Ferguson, said he had been ‘communing with the master’, referring to Keynes, in whose room at the famous farmhouse he had been green-roomed before his talk. To my reading this was not an ironic or untrue remark. It was there that Keynes’s wrote his pamphlet The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which required his resignation from the government of the day because it sought less vengeful (but more realisable) reparations from Germany. 

Robert Skidelsky also describes Keynes as a master. But what does this mean? There can be little doubt that Keynes knew of and gave play to his intuitive awareness, but it is as if he, like Aristotle, was unable to see precisely what he was nevertheless well able to divine. The future came to focus in front of his retina, so to speak. For this reason, Keynes's vision of the future fell short of what it potentially portends, a future he could have well articulated had his understanding been 'tweaked' a little further. For example, though it is hard indeed for a lone individual to go against geo-political realities, he stopped short at a global economy in the sense of a universal commonwealth, staying with some kind of Anglo-American dominion. 

Another test of Keynes's mastery is his idea that economic evolution has three stages. Before Adam Smith, as it were, there was always a telos, a purpose to economic life. One did not make money for the sake of it. To do so was met with disapproval. It was usurious, meaning the charge made for money was more than necessary to compensate for its use by the borrower rather than its owner. The individualism of our times, the lack of a sense of ‘the good life’ as the aim of economics, makes making money, rather than meeting needs, an end in itself. This absence of telos is in fact uneconomic. So we need to re-establish the telos of economic life. 

A further test of mastery, or at least of meaningful use of the term beyond its attraction as a sound bite, is to link it to the heightened consciousness that masters have (or claim to have). In a word, mystery wisdom – ancient modes of understanding that became out-dated and eclipsed by modern, post Aristotelian consciousness. In essence, our modern consciousness sits midway between the clairvoyance of old and, presumably, some form of clairvoyance or expanded awareness in the future. But whereas in olden times, the laws of life were given Mosaically from outside, in the future they are to be found within. As this new awareness dawns, it sloughs off the idea that rationalism is the only, or only viable, form of awareness. Instead, rationalism becomes seen as a partial understanding, an abstract reaction to what was earlier concretely known in more pictorial, unwritten and so-called ‘pre-scientific’ ways.

This ancient wisdom became eclipsed by individualism, but that individualism in the end will stand in need of a wider understanding of life – born of individual morality rather than ‘conventionalism’, as Keynes called it. When this happens the telos of economic life will not be told or given to us from outside. We will realise it within, and for this reason we will see it as the companion rather than the adversary of freedom. Its name will be individual responsibility for the whole – meaning, in this case, the whole of economic life. 

In Keynes's sense this will not be industry only, but agriculture and the arts also. Without these, economics loses its telos, and industry becomes displaced by financialism – capital leading a life of its own. For this reason it is not enough to see the goal or merit of capitalism as lifting people out of poverty, unless by that we mean spiritual as well as material poverty. And as regards material poverty it must mean all people not just some, and not some at the expense of the others. More concretely, to what do Aristotle’s ‘fine actions’ in life and the resources that make them possible refer, if not to human beings fulfilling their initiatives on a basis of uncollateralised capital or credit?

True masters do not remain in hidden eyries, they walk among us. Modern masters, that is. From the loftiness of mastery and mystery, intuition and clairvoyance, they dive down into practicalities. This, too, is an emblem of mastery: the ability to go aloft without becoming aloof. So, too, do masters come down to earth without becoming of it. They guide human circumstances without being trapped in them. 

That said, the time of special individuals in economics is past. We can all now be masters. Indeed, a true economics would enable anyone versed in it to be a master. That is why the tag ‘masters of the universe’ given to hedge fund managers and their kind prior to the global financial crisis was as preposterous as it was pretentious, not to mention portentous.

The true future is otherwise: a universe of masters. Masters in economics.