Impressions and Sketches of Another Age

While dusting and spring-cleaning my father’s bookshelves at home in Goa, I happened to discover a book I had never seen before in his collection. When I opened it, I was even more surprised to see his inscription: Daryaganj pavement, Delhi, 1999. He did visit me in Delhi around then and we might have wandered a bit in Old Delhi.

It is Essays and Sketches in Biography by John Maynard Keynes, which I hadn’t read before, in an edition that also includes Two Memoirs, published posthumously. Having only recently ordered The Economic Consequences of The Peace which also included The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money from Amazon and having read the first and re-read the second, this book of biography was quite a discovery. Like many books that I seem to be reading these days, this too comes with the usual rider that I cannot vouch for its authenticity. Sadly, that is what has become of the world of reading, both books and the news media in general.

I am not much of a biography reader, though I have read a few in my life. In Essays and Sketches in Biography, he shares biographical sketches of several economists, from well-known ones such as Thomas Malthus and Alfred Marshall to lesser-known figures like Edgeworth, Ramsey and Jevons. He also offers sketches of politicians such as Churchill, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Lord Oxford and Edwin Montagu.

What made an impression on the young Thomas Malthus, was his father who in turn was hugely influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume. Keynes writes:

“Daniel Malthus’s passionate declarations of devotion to Jean-Jacques were, probably, the only occasions in his life in which his reserves were fully broken down. I think they met three times only – when Malthus paid a tourist’s visit to Môtiers in the spring of 1764, when Hume brought Rousseau to The Rookery in March 1766, and when Malthus travelled up to see him at Wootton in June of the same year. But to judge from thirteen letters from Malthus to Rousseau, which have been preserved, and one from Rousseau to Malthus, the meetings were a great success.”

Keynes says that Malthus was also deeply influenced by the intellectual company he kept at Jesus College, Cambridge, where his tutor, William Frend was a student of William Paley and an intimate friend of JB Priestly. Keynes writes that as Malthus was finishing college, Coleridge was entering it.

However, Keynes informs us that the other great influence in his life was David Ricardo, about whom Malthus is believed to have said:

“I never loved anybody out of my own family so much. Our interchange of opinions was so unreserved, and the object after which we were both enquiring was so entirely the truth, and nothing else, that I cannot but think we sooner or later must have agreed.”

Keynes goes on to write that ‘the friendship between Malthus and Ricardo began in June 1811, when Malthus “took the liberty of introducing himself” in the hope “that as we are on the same side of the question, we might supersede the necessity of a long controversy in print respecting the points in which we differ, by an amicable discussion in private”’ Keynes says that it is evident that they had the deepest affection and respect for one another.

“The contrasts between the intellectual gifts of the two were obvious and delightful. In economic discussions, Ricardo was the abstract and a priori theorist, Malthus the inductive and intuitive investigator who hated to stray too far from what he could test by reference to the facts and his own intuitions.”

In Keynes’s opinion, Malthus was one of the earliest economic thinkers to suggest a theory of demand.

Clockwise, from top left: Thomas Robert Malthus and his essay on population, Alfred Marshall’s book, Economics of Industry which was initially co-written with his wife, Mary Paley Marshall, and the man himself. Images: Wikimedia Commons

About Alfred Marshall, Keynes writes of his huge influence in the field of economics. He tells us that Marshall gave away so much of his knowledge and his thoughts, without ever writing or publishing them as papers or books until much later in life. Keynes therefore thinks that Marshall was never given the recognition he deserved, since most of his thoughts were freely imparted in the form of lectures and discussions with his students. Little wonder, Keynes says, that Alfred Marshall is best known as a teacher of economics than as an original thinker or theorist, though he certainly was one.

In Keynes’s assessment, Alfred Marshall’s three greatest contributions were: 1) Creating an economic association, 2) His views on women in higher education, controversial as they were, and 3) Setting up the Cambridge Economics department.

Strangely, though, Keynes doesn’t discuss much about Marshall’s wife, Mary Paley Marshall, an economist in her own right, in the chapter on Marshall. He leaves that to a separate chapter dedicated to her life, but comes up terribly short. For even in that chapter on Mary Marshall, he writes about her life only through references to her book, What I Remember, and sadly, these are only about her water colour paintings, her dinner parties and the time she and Alfred Marshall spent in Palermo, when Marshall was recuperating from an illness. You don’t get a full measure of Mary Paley Marshall as a person, let alone her life as an economist. He does write in both chapters about the one book that they co-wrote after a trip to America, The Economics of Industry, but tells us no more, except that Alfred Marshall was never happy with it. In fact, Marshall went on to change the contents of the book, after which it became more his book than hers. This, when Mary Paley Marshall was one of the first women to ever study economics and even teach it at Cambridge.

In Essays and Sketches in Biography, Keynes also writes about lesser-known economists such as Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, Frank Ramsey and William Stanley Jevons, the first and third more Marshall’s contemporaries than Ramsey who, tragically, lived a very short life. Edgeworth was greatly influenced by Jevons, whom he got to know in London as they lived close to each other, according to Keynes. He got to know Marshall, when the latter reviewed his Mathematical Psychics, and the two of them went on to develop a lifelong personal and intellectual friendship, though Keynes believes that their conversational methods could not have been more different. He writes:

“To judge from his published works, Edgeworth reached Economics, as Marshall had before him, through Mathematics and Ethics. But here the resemblance ceases. Marshall’s interest was intellectual and moral, Edgeworth’s intellectual and aesthetic. Edgeworth wished to establish theorems of intellectual and aesthetic interest, Marshall to establish maxims of practical and moral importance.” (Italics are the author’s)

These were years of great ferment and thought in the intellectual sphere, and Edgeworth as well as others had to make their way from the Frequency Study of Probability to the Statistical, Utilitarian and the Marginal theories of Economics.

In the short chapter on Frank Ramsey, who himself died at the young age of 26, Keynes offers excerpts of some of Ramsey’s writings to give us a “peculiar flavour of his mind” as he puts it. Born in the year Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics was published, Ramsey grew up influenced by and engaged with the thinking of both Russell and Wittgenstein, even helping with the English version of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

A brief quote, then, from one of the excerpts that Keynes shares with us to give us a “peculiar flavour of Ramsey’s mind. This, from an excerpt titled Is There Anything to Discuss?

“If I was to write a Weltanschauung I should call it not “What I believe” but “What I feel”. This is connected with Wittgenstein’s view that philosophy does not give us beliefs, but merely relieves feelings of intellectual discomfort. Also, if I were to quarrel with Russell’s lecture (What I Believe), it would not be with what he believed but with the indications it gave as to what he felt. Not that one can quarrel with a man’s feelings; one can only have different feelings oneself, and perhaps also regard one’s own as more admirable or more conducive to a happy life.”     

In his chapter on William Stanley Jevons, Keynes tells us about this economist and statistician who was famous for developing his Coal Question, similar to the one on corn. He is believed to have studied seasonal fluctuations and to have developed the theory of solar variation to explain the trade cycle. Jevons published his Theory of Political Economy in 1871, when Marshall had been developing his theories of diagrammatic economics, as Keynes tells us in the chapter on Marshall.

“In that year there appeared, as the result of independent work, Jevons’ Theory of Political Economy. The publication of this book must have been an occasion of some disappointment and annoyance to Marshall. It took the cream of novelty off the new ideas which Marshall was slowly working up without giving them – in Marshall’s judgement – adequate or accurate treatment.”

While Keynes gives us a fairly good glimpse into the lives of these economists and their work, when he comes to politicians, he writes about his impressions of them. The politicians he has written about are people with whom Keynes has interacted and worked, and perhaps that is why he has relied merely on his impressions. Interestingly, he calls them “Sketches of Politicians”, while his chapters on the economists are “Lives of Economists”.

The four leaders at the Paris Peace Conference (left to right): Lloyd George of Britain, Orlando of Italy, Clemenceau of France and Wilson of America; Image: Wikimedia Commons

Merely a couple of examples of these sketches will suffice. In his sketch of Winston Churchill, Keynes is actually reviewing his books, The World Crisis 1916-1918 and World Crisis – The Aftermath, books that I am not familiar with. In the course of writing about these books, Keynes gives us a glimpse into Churchill’s thinking on World War I and how it might have been handled better. Not only do we get an impression of Churchill’s strategic prowess and his thoughts on leadership, we are also constantly reminded of what a great communicator he was and how well he wrote.

For example, Keynes tells us of a passage in the book, where Churchill quotes from a letter from Robertson to Haig, in which the former proposes to stick to offensives in the West “more because my instinct prompts me to stick to it, than because of any good argument by which I can support it.” Churchill comments: “These are terrible words when used to sustain the sacrifice of nearly four hundred thousand men.”

Keynes also tells us of Churchill’s summing up of America’s involvement in the War. And he quotes:

“The influence of mighty, detached and well-meaning America upon the European settlement was a precious agency of hope. It was largely squandered in sterile conflicts and half-instructed and half-pursued interferences. If President Wilson had set himself from the beginning to make common cause with Lloyd George and Clemenceau, the whole force of these three great men, the heads of the dominant nations, might have played with plenary and beneficent power over the wide scene of European tragedy. He consumed his own strength and theirs in a conflict in which he was always worsted…

However, as Captain he went down with his own ship.”

The sketch of Lloyd George is where Keynes outdoes himself. Having read The Economic Consequences of The Peace, I became aware of the long, painstaking negotiations between the powers and the long-protracted arrival at an armistice agreement, and the many missteps along the way.

But here, Keynes pulls off a fantastically allegorical tale, to describe his impressions of Lloyd George at the Peace Conference in Paris. In fact, Keynes admits that he wrote this, but did not include it in The Economic Consequences of The Peace because he was influenced by a certain compunction: that “he and Lloyd George were very close at certain phases of the Conference” and that “like everything that could be said about Lloyd George, this too was only partial.”

That said, this is his description of the Paris Peace Conference after World War I and of Lloyd George:

“The President, the Tiger and the Welsh witch were shut up in a room together for six months and the Treaty was what came out. Yes, the Welsh witch – for the British Prime Minister contributed the female element to this triangular intrigue. I have called Mr Wilson a non-conformist clergyman. Let the reader figure Mr Lloyd George as a femme fatale. An old man of the world, a femme fatale, and a non-conformist clergyman – these are the characters of our drama. Even though the lady was very religious, the Fourteen Commandments could hardly expect to emerge perfectly intact.

I must try to silhouette the broomstick as it sped through the twilit air of Paris.”

Further ahead, Keynes writes:

“How can I convey to the reader who does not know him, any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this siren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age, from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity? One catches in his company that flavour of final purposelessness, inner irresponsibility, existence outside or away from our Saxon good and evil, mixed with cunning, remorselessness, love of power, that lend fascination, enthrallment and terror to fair-seeming magicians of North-European folklore.”

Even if many of the pieces are not biographical sketches in the real sense of the word, one is certainly convinced of John Maynard Keynes’s wide canvas of experience in economics, politics – and realpolitik – as well as the world of history, literature, science and the arts. One chapter in particular throws even more light on his involvement with the Bloomsbury Group, of which he was a member.

Picture 1 (left to right): Bertrand Russell, Keynes and Lytton Strachey; Picture 2 (left to right): Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys (Aldous Huxley’s wife) – neither of whom were Bloomsbury members – Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell; Images: Wikimedia Commons

In My Early Beliefs, Keynes writes about his meetings with people like Bertie (Russell), David Garnett, Moore, Strachey, Woolf and many others. The Bloomsbury Group of which Keynes too was a part was a lively, animated club of intellectuals comprising writers, economists, mathematicians, philosophers that furthered rationalism and free thought and helped publish many new and radical ideas. In this piece he also shares how he first came to meet DH Lawrence through a common friend, David Garnett, though the meeting took an unlikely turn because Lawrence took an instant and pretty violent dislike to Keynes and all that the Group itself stood for. He also discusses how his beliefs were shaped by many of these interactions and as much by Moore’s Principia Ethica as Russell’s Principia Mathematica.

There we have it. Impressions and sketches of another age, that haven’t fully disappeared from our view. In fact, they are probably still large enough in the rear-view mirror to be relevant in the 21st century, as we navigate the world of pandemics, populist nationalism and digital technology. 

The caricature of John Maynard Keynes in the featured image at the start of this post is by David Low, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, and the image of the cover leaf of Essays in Biography is from

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