Mises Daily

Got Geisteswissenschaft?

Daniel Muffinburg couldn’t find something, so he asked his friend Zach the Lizard for help. (No this article isn’t a children’s story; Daniel and Zach are the usernames of two Mises Community members.)

What Daniel couldn’t find was the phrase, “Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito,” the motto of Ludwig von Mises and the Mises Institute, in an English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Zach informed Daniel that the problem was that the phrase is not always translated as it is in Austrian circles: “do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.” According to Zach, in one translation, it reads, “The more thy fortune frowns, the more oppose.”

To me, this made perfect sense, given Mises’s philosophical outlook. I wrote:

“Misfortune” would be less confusing than “evil.” The “evil” in the quote is not “evil” in the moral sense. It’s more like the definition of “evil” that runs: “something that is harmful or undesirable.”

This is Mises’s telling of it:

How one carries on in the face of unavoidable catastrophe is a matter of temperament. In high school, as was custom, I had chosen a verse by Virgil to be my motto: Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito (”Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it”). I recalled these words during the darkest hours of the war. Again and again I had met with situations from which rational deliberation found no means of escape; but then the unexpected intervened, and with it came salvation. (Memoirs, pp. 55–56)

The “evil” he was proceeding boldly against was “catastrophe,” not crime or sin. Thus his motto, interpreted rightly, is in no way at variance with his utilitarianism.

This didn’t sit well with my friend “nirgrahamuk” (aka “nir”), who responded,

If “crime” and “sin” were catastrophes then that would not oppose his utilitarianism either, in fact, that’s what commonly marks out utilitarians.

just sayin’

These opening maneuvers initiated an all-out debate between nir and me over the nature of Mises’s utilitarianism.

Then Community member “wilderness” came in on nir’s side, and the debate evolved into a more general controversy over whether Mises accepted the notions of normative science and scientific “oughts” (nir and wilderness claim he did; I insist he did not), which spilled over into a new thread, in which I became even more outnumbered as Conza88 weighed in on the Mises-as-moralist side.

It was Misesian (myself) vs. Rothbardians (nir, wilderness, and Conza), and it got rocky a few times. But tempers cooled, concessions were made, compliments were passed, common ground was discovered, and new ways of looking at the issue were found by both sides. Altogether, I think the debate was indicative of how Misesians, Rothbardians, and Hayekians (as delimited in Jeffrey Tucker’s fantastic piece “Avoiding Austro-Flamewars”) can forge new intellectual tools in the crucible of contrary opinion.

I’d like to think vigorous, but civil and productive, discussions like this can happen even with people outside of the Austrian School, and beyond. John Papola has demonstrated how it is possible to do that without compromising your position, in the way his brilliant rap video demolishes Keynes, but does so in such an evenhanded way, that even the Keynes biographer Lord Robert Skidelsky commented that the video was “absolutely fair” and “seems to be completely right.”

See the video of Papola’s speech at the Austrian Scholars Conference on the making of the video. He also has some really inspiring words about his pedagogical philosophy regarding spreading sound economics and his plans to spend the rest of his life doing so via creative projects.

Here are a few choice quotes from the speech that I’ve transcribed:

“I’m new to this community you guys have been participating in for a long time. I don’t know all the divisions. I love all you guys though, so it doesn’t matter!”

“To me I see an opportunity to bring a tone to this work, and a philosophy to this work — and this is what I’m going to be about, hopefully for the rest of my life — of putting our ideas out there in a way that’s broader, in a way that aims at the margin: the people that are undecided, the people that are interested but don’t yet have their mind made up. And the rest of us can love it as well!”

“I just got into this Austrian Economics, and the business cycle, and monetary policy; and it’s completely bizarre for me to get into that. But I did, and I love it, and I’m just going to keep working on it.”

“Lastly: the future. Like I said, this is my endeavor; it’s a vocation for me now. So we’re going to do more. We’re going to do more under the Econ Stories brand; I’m going to do more outside of that…”

$17 $14


This speech confirmed a suspicion I voiced on the Mises forum, back in January: “This guy is really cool.” And the Austrian School is so lucky to have him.

So what’s your take on our debate? Who do you think won the day? What exactly did Mises understand his motto to mean? Was Mises a utilitarian in the way that word is commonly understood today? Did Mises believe in a science of “oughts”? Sign up for a free account in the Mises Community and weigh in!

After all, in how many other communities will you find passionate discussion over the meaning of Geisteswissenschaft?

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