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Quotation of the Day…

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… is from page 574 of the 2000 Modern Library edition of Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant 1847 novel, Jane Eyre [2]; here – in chapter 33 – Jane has just learned that she unexpectedly inherited, from her uncle John, a fortune of £20,000:

One does not jump, and spring, and shout hurrah! at hearing one has got a fortune; one begins to consider responsibilities, and to ponder business; on a base of steady satisfaction rise certain grave cares, and we contain ourselves, and brood over our bliss with a solemn brow.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty cites several 19th-century novels to help drive home his point about the idleness of the rich and of the dangers of economic inequalities.  While I share Piketty’s belief that literature contains a great deal of useful scientific information – or, put differently, literature offers treasures of information and insight that are useful for science – that information, like all information, must be used with care and good judgment.  Steve Horwitz and Sarah Skwire show that Piketty’s use of literature is neither careful nor done with good judgment [3].  The above quotation from Jane Eyre similarly offers evidence, from classic 19th-century literature, that conveys an impression about reality quite the opposite of the impression that Piketty attempts to convey.

Piketty does not, in his book, cite Jane Eyre.  Yet the passage quoted above is obviously relevant to Piketty’s point.  One may debate the economic- or policy- relevance of the sorts of responsibilities that Jane then brooded over.  But at least the passage reveals that even aristocratic wealth of the sort that was still common in mid-19th-century Britain carried with it some greater obligation to “ponder business”: even landed wealth – certainly during that era when the economy was undergoing such vast, foundational changes – did not automatically reproduce itself independently of human agency and cares.

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