Austrian thought versus Roman Thought

As I said a couple blog entries ago, a friend of mine gave me the full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Great Books last year.  The editors of the series mention that they did not allow any twentieth-century works, as the works were too recent (as of the 1950s) to evaluate as “Great Books.”

Over the last year, I have often thought that several of Mises’s works could be appended to the set as some of the greatest twentieth-century work; at first glance, Mises seems to be a culmination of twenty-five centuries of great writing.  Certainly Mises knows government better than Plato or Hobbes; Mises knows economics better than Smith and Marx, and so on.

But then I started reading Dante … and it hit me how Roman Dante is.  The two pillars that Dante stands on are obviously the empire (Virgil) and the church.  Every page is filled with Roman dogma, Roman poetry, the Roman worldview.

And then I started considering some of my favorites in the entire set of the Great Books: Plutarch, Gibbon, Milton, Cervantes, … they’re all Roman!  And even some of my least favorite: Ptolemy, Augustine, Aquinas, … they’re Roman, too!  Wow: the Great Books are profoundly, fundamentally Roman; the Great Books are Roman Books, Roman Thought.

Now the point about thinking like a Roman is that your worldview is dominated by (a static) hierarchy, with its peak at the center.  You have a fixed (static!) point of authority.  The Roman system is all about hierarchy – one looks to Father God, or the Founder (Aeneas), or il Papa for solutions.  (And certainly Father God doesn’t change!)

And even some of the Greeks are Roman in that way: in Plato’s Republic, Socrates himself looks to a king for solutions.  (Of course, that king is supposed to be Socrates himself – never mind looking to the center: Socrates though of himself as the center!)

So when one starts to blame Washington or some more local government for the allegedly poor state of education in America, one needs to take a huge step back and consider that all Western education is steeped in twenty-five hundred years of centralized, hierarchical thought.  For over two millenia, all solutions have been sought from “up the hierarchy,” from some central authority.  That’s important enough to repeat: no one thinks for himself; all solutions come from authority.

I would even argue that the US doesn’t have a central bank only because JP Morgan wanted one; the US has a central bank also because all Westerners have been taught to kowtow to centralized authority for millenia.  Literally millenia!

This is also why the national monuments are Roman temples – it is the highest praise to be deemed the center of the universe.

Thus how profoundly different Austrian thought is.  Mises dares to be decentralized, dynamic in his thought.  Mises dares to blaze a different trail, to defy convention and tradition.  Mises weaves a radically new worldview of changing prices, dynamic entrepreneurs, markets full of economic agents.  Everyone makes choices.

And so I hope that as technology progresses, the twenty-first century becomes a century of decentralized, Austrian thought.  There are signs of hope: everyone now knows that computer technology has hit the central processing wall; computers are now gaining speed only by becoming ever more decentralized.  The internet is decentralized.  The major media are no longer seen as authoritative.  Millions of participants in MMORPGs are starting to grapple with (simulated) economic problems.  Private industry is getting into space.  And so forth.

And of course, the growing presence of the Mises Institute itself argues for a changing worldview.  But the change will take time – one doesn’t overturn 2500 years of great writing overnight.

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