The Worldly Philosophers

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The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers is a book by Robert L. Heilbroner. The book was written in 1953 and has sold more than four million copies through seven editions. (The only other economics book to sell more copies is Paul Samuelson's textbook Economics.) Heilbroner begins chapter two by describing the paradoxical and precarious nature of human behavior. Self-centeredness, he writes, characterizes human life along with cooperation. The result is what he calls a "struggle" (p. 18). In "primitive" (p. 19) societies such as that of the Eskimos, the struggle does not pose a problem: Individuals behave under strong pressure to act in the interest of survival. He contrasts those societies with "advanced" or "modern" ones, in which "this tangible pressure of the environment, or this web of social obligation, is lacking" (p. 19). In those societies, fewer incentives exist for individuals to act for the purpose of survival. The result is that "society's existence hangs by a hair" (p. 19). Because of modern society's complexity, a small change could lead to social disarray. He cautiously uses the words "disorganized" and "breakdown", rather than stronger words like "collapse" or "fail", to describe a society that falls victim to those ills.

Heilbroner describes three ways in which societies have dealt with such precariousness: tradition, authoritarianism, and market system. The former two operate in the "old" ways, but the latter one is nothing less, according to Heilbroner, than a modern revolution. (He even goes on to say this revolution was fundamentally more profound than the American Revolution, French Revolution, and Russian revolution of 1917.)

The sixth edition finally revealed "backnotes" providing references to support the book. Some such sources were unable to be noted. The book's original research material has, according to Heilbroner, "long since disappeared". The book's prose also changed with Heilbroner's "own evolving views", though the revisions made over time are unclear and apparently "noticeable perhaps only to scholars in the field". However, Heilbroner mentions references to the "collapse of Soviet communism" which occurred at the time.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Economic Revolution
  3. The Wonderful World of Adam Smith
  4. The Gloomy Presentiments of Parson Malthus and David Ricardo
  5. The Dreams of the Utopian Socialists
  6. The Inexorable System of Karl Marx
  7. The Victorian World and the Underworld of Economics
  8. The Savage Society of Thorstein Veblen
  9. The Heresies of John Maynard Keynes
  10. The Contradictions of Joseph Schumpeter
  11. The End of the Worldly Philosophy?

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