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Leonard Lessius and the Prehistory of Economics

Stephen J. Grabill


The work of the seventeenth-century moral theologian Leonard Lessius, S.J. (15541623), the author of our scholia translation, makes the twentieth century severing of economic ideas from their original historical and, often ecclesiastical/ institutional contexts, an increasingly difficult proposition to sustain. In the vigorous contemporary debate over the prehistory of economics, most mainstream economic historians identify the birth of modern economics to be in Adam Smith, and, to a lesser extent, in his immediate predecessors the mercantilists and the physiocrats. Often commentators are emphatic that the prehistory of economics must begin with the seventeenth-century mercantilists and not with the ancient Greeks, the eleventh-century Benedictine monks, or the thirteenthcentury scholastics. The standard argument is that the mercantilists and Adam Smith broke with the so-called canonical concept of market behavior as a moral problem and, as a result, developed the working abstraction of economic man (homo economicus), which eventually became a reified fixture in the theory of the neoclassical mainstream.

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