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Sergio Cremaschi, David Ricardo. An Intellectual Biography

Heinz D. Kurz
p. 125-132
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Sergio Cremaschi, David Ricardo. An Intellectual Biography, London and New York: Routledge, 2022, xiv + 192 pages, 978-036775345-0

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1In the preface, Sergio Cremaschi calls his book “a contextual reconstruction of an economist’s intellectual biography”; its purpose is “to look where others did not, due to such factors as inapt modernization, proneness to accept received views, constraints created by boundaries between disciplines and historiographic mythology” (xi). Since Piero Sraffa’s edition of Ricardo’s works and correspondence is “still the starting point”, one of the tasks of the book is to “try to cover blanks in Sraffa’s reconstruction” (ibid.).

2This overall enterprise involves a laudable task and by tracking down sources that up until now have escaped interpreters’ attention, Cremaschi succeeds in a number of respects and enriches our view of Ricardo and the intellectual influences to which he was exposed and which shaped his thinking in one way or another. At the same time the above formulation already alludes to the fact that much of the material displayed is silent regarding its impact on Ricardo and speaks to us only via the interpretation provided by Cremaschi. As we shall see, in several cases interpreting implies a fair amount of speculating.

3The main part of the book consists of seven chapters and a short conclusion entitled “A man from another planet”. Then there is an appendix that contains, first, two petitions by Christians, including Ricardo, originally published in The Christian Reformer. They speak out inter alia in favour of freedom of speech and publication and against the prosecution of nonbelievers. Secondly, there are altogether five obituaries of Ricardo, one by James Mill, that express the high esteem Ricardo enjoyed in England. The book has a name and subject index.

4Chapter 1 deals with Ricardo’s life until he reached the age of 21, that is, his life in a Sephardi family and community in London. Cremaschi is able to add a little to what is already known about Ricardo’s formative years. He stresses that “Modesty about one’s skills ... together with a constant attempt not to look too smart” (2), was advisable amongst Sephardi Jews. Ricardo’s education was better than is often maintained; it was non-standard and intellectual excellence was highly valued. The intellectual climate in Sephardi communities was reflected in “a tendency to heterodoxy” (11). Cremaschi opines that from some Talmudic instruction Ricardo may have adopted the practice “of asking questions and looking for logical contradictions” (14). Ricardo, he concludes, was “a citizen of two worlds”—the Jewish world of his family and the Christian world outside it.

5Chapter 2 turns to Ricardo’s contacts with the Quaker milieus and his marriage with Priscilla Wilkinson, which was disapproved by both families and made his father deprive him from his share of the business. The author of an obituary of Ricardo states that the event proves “that judgement which was the leading feature of his character” (23): Ricardo went the way he wanted to go and not the way other people wanted him to go. He married Priscilla and became a Christian. The fact that he attached himself to the Unitarian Church is telling. Unitarians believe in radical equality between all human beings, follow simplicity in their lifestyles, are opposed to any human hierarchy and seek truthfulness. Entering the community of Quakers in all probability shaped Ricardo’s interests in the natural sciences, especially geology, and then political economy, and his philanthropy.

6Ricardo’s encounter with the Unitarian congregation is dealt with in greater detail in Chapter 3. The Unitarians, a dissenting group that rejected salient Christian dogmas such as Trinitarianism, the divinity of Jesus’s nature, inherited sin, vicarious atonement and eternal punishment, was a response to the Enlightenment from within Christianity—according to Cremaschi “the most consistent kind of ‘rational religion’ available and a step involving a less traumatic break with Judaism in terms of doctrine” (41). Cremaschi rejects the derogatory contention that Ricardo’s economics was “Semitic” in character and stresses instead in full accordance with Ricardo’s brother Moses, author of a Memoir of David Ricardo, that David was perhaps challenging his father’s “strong prejudices” in terms of “that freedom and independence of thought for which he was so remarkable” (42). Ricardo was indeed “a man from another planet”, as a contemporary, Henry Brougham, called him in a parliamentary debate about agricultural distress, but not because of his alleged unworldliness, as Brougham insinuated, but because of his detached perspective and impartiality. Ricardo did not think highly of Brougham’s knowledge in political economy, quite the contrary. In a letter to Hutches Trower of 20th February 1822 he wrote: “What say you to Brougham’s speech? What a falling off was there! I have not heard for a long time from any man who pretends to know anything of Political Economy so many absurd opinions as were delivered by him on Monday sen’night,—they will be a standing dish for the remainder of the Session” (Ricardo, 1951-1973, vol. IX, 167).

7Chapter 4 informs about Ricardo’s interest in geology and the natural sciences, more generally. As Sraffa had insisted in his “Addenda to the Memoir” (ibid., vol. X, 53), this had a “more decisive influence on Ricardo’s characteristic cast of mind than the teaching of his later mentors, James Mill and Bentham” (46). Cremaschi deplores the fact that Sraffa had left it at that and thus had forgone the opportunity to explore the issue in greater depth. He wishes to fill this lacuna by providing relevant evidence on the state of the art and on controversies in geology and chemistry and the great importance to Ricardo of being a member of the Geological Society of London. His harvest is interesting, but perhaps something more could have been said about the social metabolism and especially how it may affect the values of commodities. Ricardo had stressed that the “difficulty of production” of commodities regulates prices; he had defined this difficulty in terms of the commodities (means of subsistence of workers and means of production) necessarily used up in their production. Interestingly, in numerical examples (ibid., vol. I, 50; 64-66) he portrayed systems of production for the economy as a whole exclusively in physical real terms. Taking such a purely physicalist, input-output point of view, and assuming special conditions, he could directly ascertain the general rate of profits and relative prices. (Sraffa, 1960, 3’s observation that in some such conditions “values spring directly from the methods of production”, comes quickly to one’s mind.) There was no need whatsoever to bring in labour values, which in Ricardo, who lacked a fully worked out theory of value in the general case, performed the role of a makeshift solution to render heterogeneous commodities commensurable. I am convinced that Ricardo’s early interest in the natural sciences did not only play a role in what Cremaschi calls “the model farm in Ricardo’s argument on rent, profit and wages” (63), that is, the so-called “corn model”, but also in his general outlook on economic phenomena and especially in his approach to the theory of relative prices and income distribution (Kurz, 2023). Seen from this vantage point, the question of how Marx’s work relates to Ricardo’s is a great deal more difficult than is commonly assumed.

8Chapter 5 turns to “Ricardo’s encounter with philosophers and political economists” from his mid-thirties onwards. Ricardo is said to have “established lasting relationships with authors on topics of logic, ethics, government and political economy, or—to use the language of the time—‘philosophers’” (66). The authors dealt with include, amongst others, Francis Horner, Dugald Stewart, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Thomas Robert Malthus, Thomas Belsham (the Unitarian minister, whose chapel Ricardo attended, and the Hartley-Priestley philosophy) and Jean-Baptiste Say. Again, one learns a great deal about the intellectual climate and competing currents in philosophy, theology, and political economy at the time when Ricardo lived. But with the exception of his relationship with especially Malthus and Say, on which there is textual evidence available, Cremaschi cannot avoid indulging frequently in speculations: “Ricardo may have read about …”, he “may have heard from …” (85) and the like. This is unavoidable and does not render the material displayed useless, since it throws light on the larger intellectual background against which Ricardo wrote. It cannot, however, disclose the origin of his ideas and propositions in political economy. In some cases, things are less clouded by uncertainty. Cremaschi rightly debunks the myth of Ricardo’s Utilitarianism, forged by Élie Halévy—to Cremaschi “the most severe clinical case” of misinterpretation (69). He also argues that Malthus was more important than James Mill in influencing Ricardo. He even writes that, “with the commendable exception of Samuel Hollander, commentators disregard the fact that Ricardo’s most important teacher was precisely his opponent Malthus” (89). Malthus—Ricardo’s teacher? In my view this judgement cannot be sustained. Chronologically, Ricardo’s Principles were published first, and Malthus’s only subsequently, explicitly designed as a response to the former. And did Malthus in the preface of his book not famously refer “to the high authority of the writer”, that is, Ricardo? As is also well known, Ricardo and Malthus hardly agreed on any economic issue they discussed, and Ricardo repeatedly showed that Malthus did not reason correctly (Kurz, 2021). What in my view can at most be said is that in their discussions Malthus variously prompted Ricardo to formulate his point of view more precisely, thereby improving upon his theory. I am not claiming that the relationship between the two authors was the opposite of what Cremaschi maintains, but there is no doubt to me that Ricardo’s intellectual capabilities were far superior to Malthus’s, and while benefiting from Malthus’s criticisms, he was not influenced by him, nor did Malthus’s political economy benefit from Ricardo’s (which, however, was hardly Ricardo’s fault).

9There is one further remark by Cremaschi, which I find hard to accept. He writes: “Sraffa, who rediscovered the existence of Belsham, did not bother to look at his philosophical book because the author was a priest, and the book was philosophical” (89). I wonder on which evidence this contention can possibly rest. And if Sraffa allegedly refused to read the works of priests, could he ever have read meticulously Malthus’s works? This touches upon a general issue, which is perhaps best approached with reference to Sraffa’s papers that are kept in Trinity College, Cambridge. In one of his notes, probably composed in the period from May to July 1928, Sraffa excerpted from and commented on a paper by William Cunningham (1892) titled “A Plea for Pure Theory”. In it the author confronted the different views of William Petty and Alfred Marshall. The relevant passage reads: “‘Prof. Marshall describes economics as the science of measurable motives (Present Position, 31). This ... seems to me to be the very gist of the difference in treatment’ C[unningham] is opposed to this and agrees with W. Petty. He wants to deal with ‘external phenomena’ ‘laying a solid foundation of fact.’ ‘But when we start from motives, we lose all this advantage. What actually weighs with a man and determines him in any course of conduct, is not a thing we can observe ... Motives are not obvious and we are likely to be mistaken about them’” (Sraffa Papers D3/12/9: 18; second emphasis added).

10Chapter 6 addresses “Ricardo on logic and political economy” and is for economists perhaps the most interesting one in the book. In it, Cremaschi manages to do away with a number of untenable views in the literature on Ricardo and specifies in some detail salient features of Ricardo’s way of arguing and writing. He expounds inter alia the reasons of Ricardo’s opposition to Bentham’s view that value is based on utility and the relationship between Ricardo’s theory and his policy advice. I find Cremaschi’s claim that one of the “main innovations carried out by Ricardo’s programme [is] the choice of a labour theory of value” (97) dubitable, not least because the quantity-of-labour-embodied principle in explaining exchange values, was a makeshift solution of a problem, for which a proper theory had yet to be elaborated. There are a few further statements by Cremaschi about which my view differs from his.

11Chapter 7 turns to “Ricardo on ethics and political economy” and contains little known (though easily knowable) and highly fascinating observations on Ricardo’s personality and moral and political stance. Ricardo rejected the Calvinist view of human nature as stained by an inherited sin and insisted that theodicy is impossible. He also rejected Bentham’s moral judgement based on sentiments of pleasure and pain because it ignored important features of human nature such as sympathy and benevolence. Similar to Adam Smith he was convinced that morality could evolve independently of religion and that moral principles emerged from moral impressions, which reason then confirmed. He was a staunch advocate of the freedom of opinion and speech of both believers and nonbelievers and denied that human beings could be possessed of the truth. Like Adam Smith, Ricardo also “sided with the poor, believing that poverty is a social evil to be cancelled” (167). This was in stark contrast to Malthus, who believed that the poverty of the majority of people served a greater good and had to be accepted as expressing God’s will. Ricardo strongly disputed this view: society, and not only the upper classes, could be led out of misery and hardship by applying the right principles of political economy and benefiting from increases in labour productivity due to improved machinery and technological change.

12Cremaschi’s intellectual biography is a valuable contribution to the literature on a master political economist, possessed of a remarkable economic intuition and a huge power of abstract reasoning. Ricardo was arguably one of the greatest economists ever. While in some respects my view of his political economy differs from Cremaschi’s, I welcome the host of material he has collected, philosophical, religious, theological, economic, and other. The book provides us with a rich picture of the intellectual milieu in which Ricardo grew up and which he enriched with his path-breaking insights. As far as I can see, while leaving fundamentally unscathed the interpretation given by Piero Sraffa in his masterly edition of Ricardo’s works and correspondence, Cremaschi’s study fills gaps here and there regarding Ricardo’s formative years and his rise as a political economist and it illuminates aspects of his education and exposure to multifarious intellectual traditions that are typically not in the centre of attention. The reader must not expect, however, that the material displayed changes what we already knew (or could have known) about Ricardo’s political economy.

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Cunningham, William. 1892. A Plea for Pure Theory. Economic Review, 2(1): 25-41.

Kurz, Heinz D. 2021. Malthus and the Classics (Not Walras and the Marginalists) as the Major Inspiring Source of the History of Economic Thought. The Theory of Effective Demand and Classical Economics. In Enrico Bellino and Sebastiano Nerozzi (eds), Pasinetti and the Classical Keynesians. Nine Methodological Issues. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 50-78.

Kurz, Heinz D. 2023. On Physical Real Cost, Labour and Metaphysics: Sraffa on Alternative Theories of Value and Distribution and on Pareto’s Distinction between “Literary” and “Mathematical Economists”. In John Eatwell, Pasquale Commendatore, and Neri Salvadori (eds), Classical Economics, Keynes and Money. Essays in Honour of Carlo Panico. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 15-40.

Ricardo, David. 1951-1973. The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo. Edited by Piero Sraffa with the collaboration of Maurice H. Dobb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sraffa, Piero. 1960. Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Heinz D. Kurz, « Sergio Cremaschi, David Ricardo. An Intellectual Biography »Œconomia, 13-1 | 2023, 125-132.

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Heinz D. Kurz, « Sergio Cremaschi, David Ricardo. An Intellectual Biography »Œconomia [En ligne], 13-1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Heinz D. Kurz

Department of Economics and Graz Schumpeter Centre, University of Graz.

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