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Harmony and the Balance: An Intellectual History of Seventeenth-Century English Economic Thought

Author(s):Finkelstein, Andrea
Reviewer(s):Harpham, Edward J.

Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Andrea Finkelstein, Harmony and the Balance: An Intellectual History of

Seventeenth-Century English Economic Thought. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press, 2000. x + 381 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11143-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edward J. Harpham, School of Social Sciences, University

of Texas at Dallas.

Historians of seventeenth-century economic thought in England find themselves

trapped in a rather curious dilemma. On the one hand, most are interested in

understanding the intellectual origins of a modern economic view of the world.

Essentially this means investigating the historical development of the tools of

modern economic analysis. Does a particular writer grasp some aspect of

marginal utility theory or the quantity theory of money? What are the limits to

a particular theorist’s view of economic problems? Following the lead of Joseph

Schumpeter, students adopting this perspective often turn the history of

economic ideas into a history of the tools of economic analysis.

On the other hand, many want to place economic ideas in the seventeenth century

in one of a variety of contexts. One context, for example, involves the

specific historical context out of which specific economic ideas emerge. How

did the economic and political events of the day such as banking or trade

crises shape the economic ideas of a particular writer? What special interests

or biases might influence the development of one set of ideas rather than

another? Here the history of economic thought is turned into one dimension of a

broader sociology of knowledge. Barry Supple’s Commercial Crisis and Change

in England, 1600-1642 (1959) is perhaps the classic example of such an

approach. A second contextual approach tries to grasp economic ideas in terms

of the general intellectual environment of the times. For example, how do the

assumptions of a modern scientific or an individualistic worldview affect the

way economic theorists conceptualize economic problems? Joyce Appleby’s

Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (1978) is a

notable contribution to this genre. Finally, there is the biographical context.

English economic writers in the seventeenth century came from a variety of

backgrounds, ranging from merchants seeking special privileges to intellectuals

committed to a particular political agenda to officials trying to justify

governmental policy. Moreover, their ideas were expressed in a number of

different genres rather than a consistent scientific literature. Biographic

context aims to help explain why certain economic ideas were developed at

particular points in time, and what their conceptual limitations might be.

Karen Vaughn’s John Locke, Economist and Social Scientist (1980) is an

excellent example of this approach.

The problem facing the historian of economic thought is how to integrate the

study of the tools and concepts of modern economic analysis with one or all of

these contextual approaches. Andrea Finkelstein’s strategy echoes that of

E.A.J. Johnson’s Predecessors of Adam Smith (1937) and William Letwin’s

The Origins of Scientific Economics (1963) in many ways. First, she

identifies a number of key contributors to the century’s economic debates. For

Johnson, these figures were Gerard de Malynes, Edward Misselden, Thomas Mun,

William Petty, and Nehemiah Grew. For Letwin, they were Josiah Child, Nicholas

Barbon, John Collins, William Petty, John Locke, and Dudley North. Finkelstein

splits the difference between the two, looking at Malynes, Misselden and Mun in

Part I, at Petty, Child and Locke in Part II, and at North, Barbon, and

Davenant in part III. She is unapologetic in her selection, noting that these

figures are generally recognized by historians of economic thought as the best

that the century had to offer.

Second, she organizes her study of each trio of theorists around a few themes.

Part I seeks to explain how the balance of trade theory articulated by Malynes,

Misselden and Mun provided a new perspective for viewing the self-interested

behavior and the market alongside a more traditional organic view of society as

a harmonious whole. Many of the tensions and contradictions in their thought

must be understood in terms of the “logical impasse” created by the attempt to

accommodate balance of trade theory into a societal model of a harmonious

universe. Part II’s analysis of Petty, Child, and Locke is held together by the

idea that new mechanical models of society based on the work of Harvey,

Descartes, and Hobbes displaced the old organic model of the body politic

sometime during the middle decades of the seventeenth century. This new

approach which stressed the uniformity of human behavior and the idea that

individuals acted from a pleasure-pain calculus became the philosophical

foundation of economic thought for two new models of economic life: a

circulatory model and a national accounting model. The central theme of part

III is balance. Essentially what Finkelstein appears to mean here is that each

theorist sought to integrate some new notion of balance into the new models of

polity and economy developed by earlier thinkers in the century.

Third, Finkelstein spends considerable time providing a biographical background

to each of the writers. Each substantive chapter begins with an overview of the

writer’s life and career and an analysis of the controversies that shaped his

economic writings. Finally, most chapters conclude with an in-depth discussion

of the key economic ideas that are found in a particular writer’s work, such as

money, demand, value, circulation and the like.

There is much to be learned from Finkelstein’s book. It is hard to argue with

her choice of figures. All but one is commonly recognized as a leading

contributor to economic thought in the century. The choice of Davenant may

surprise some, being a figure largely ignored in standard histories of modern

economic thought. His contributions to the economic and political controversies

of the day are undeniable and his inclusion may help to broaden most

economists’ understanding of early founders of their discipline.The

biographical analysis of these figures is excellent, moving beyond that of

predecessors like Johnson and Letwin. Finkelstein takes seriously the idea that

we must understand the context in which the author is writing if we are to

grasp the ideas developed by an author. Similarly her analysis of various

modern analytical ideas developed by each of the theorists is thoughtful and

creative, while not being overly critical. Finkelstein is sensitive to the idea

that these writers might have something to teach modern economists about the

way we have come to think about economic issues and problems.

The problem with the book resides in the larger themes that Finkelstein tries

to use to make the book a unified whole. Some of these themes work well. For

example, the idea that the balance of trade theory of Malynes, Misselden and

Mun may have introduced an irreconcilable tension into an organic view of the

body politic is intriguing. Finkelstein does a pretty good job arguing her case

in Part I. But the unifying themes of mechanism and balance in Part II and III

are less well developed and need a more careful elaboration. There is no doubt

that the mechanistic universe of Harvey, Descartes, and Hobbes played a major

role in shaping the intellectual climate of seventeenth-century England. But

Finkelstein’s contention that it may be a unifying feature tying together the

economic thought of Petty, Child, and Locke is suggestive at best. Her rich

discussion of each thinker’s work seems to belie the fact that they are taken

from a common cloth. Similar problems haunt the analysis of the idea of balance

in Part III. Davenant’s civic humanist concerns over balance in a commercial

society seem to be a far cry from the concerns of North or Barbon. Throughout

Part III, it is often difficult to understand what is being balanced or what is

balancing what. As in Part II, some of the grand themes of the book tend to get

in the way of the rather intriguing discussions of each individual thinker

Other problems exist with Finkelstein’s attempt to place an individual’s

economic ideas into larger intellectual contexts like Baconian

authoritarianism, millenarianism, civic humanism, natural law theory, or

theories of Aristotelian harmony. While readily using these terms to situate

the economic ideas of seventeenth-century England, Finkelstein does not always

carefully explain the complexity and mixed meanings built into these concepts.

Nor does she ever adequately explain why some authors appealed to one set of

ideas while others appealed to another. Was an economic way of thinking about

the world trapped in a variety of competing perspectives or was it integrally

connected to them?

One shouldn’t be too critical of Finkelstein’s effort to bring some order to a

myriad of economic arguments developed by thinkers in the seventeenth century.

Finkelstein’s study reminds us how complex intellectual discourse was in the

early modern era and why we should be wary of one-size-fits-all

interpretations. Faults aside, Finkelstein has presented us with an insightful

and, at times, thought-provoking book on economic ideas in seventeenth-century

England. It is a good starting point for anyone interested in gaining a deeper

insight into the controversies and ideas that shaped early modern economic


Edward J. Harpham has published numerous articles in the history of

seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political and economic thought. He is the

editor of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government: New Interpretations


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century