Paulo Roberto de Almeida
Istvan Hont (1947-2013)
Society for the History of Economics
Istvan was born in Hungary. He was educated in Budapest at the King Stephen I Gymnasium and then at the University of Budapest. First he studied Engineering, moving then to History and Philosophy. In 1974 he finished his MA and PhD (with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps his early engagement with mathematics and physics contributed to his rigorous or almost scientific standard for research). His PhD thesis, supervised by Professor Eva Balázs, was entitled “David Hume and Scotland”. Since his PhD dissertation, he could not leave this fascinating period of our history. In fact, David Hume, Adam Smith and their context became the passion and motive of his life. Immediately after completing his PhD, Istvan was appointed Research Officer in the Institute of History in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. One of his early jobs consisted on making summaries of papers for a journal. As a voracious reader, besides devouring plenty of books, that early job also helped to broaden his vast knowledge.
In 1975, with the help of Sir Michael Moissey Postan (1899-1981), by then Professor of Economic History at the University of Cambridge, Istvan and his wife Anna left Hungary to start an academic life in the UK. They went to Oxford University. He continued with his interest on David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, but got interested in political economy. At Oxford University, under the supervision of Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), Regius Professor of Modern History, he obtained another PhD. He was immediately appointed, in 1977, to the Research Fellowship in Intellectual History at Wolfson College, Oxford. A year later, he moved to Cambridge as a Fellow of King’s College where he directed, along with Michael Ignatieff, the newly established Research Centre project on “Political Economy and Society 1750-1850.” During the six years of this project (1978-1984), he organized a series of groundbreaking conferences. One of this conferences resulted in the seminal collection on eighteenth-century political economy essays gathered in Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1983), which he co-edited and introduced with Michael Ignatieff. Istvan contributed to this book with two influential papers: his “The ‘rich country – poor country’ debate in Scottish classical political economy” and, with Ignatieff, “Needs and Justice in the Wealth of Nations”. The economic limits to national politics, Hume’s treatment of credit, the nation-state and nationalism in 18th century, the language of the debate and its context, remained his intellectual motivations. Istvan began his academic career at Cambridge University. He became Lecturer in the Faculty of History and then he was appointed Reader in Political Thought.
Between 1986 and 1989 Istvan and Anna moved to Columbia, where he was appointed Assistant Professor. After this experience in the US, they returned to King’s College, Cambridge. Except for one failed attempt to move to Harvard, and short visiting appointments at Princeton, Chicago, Harvard, Göttingen, Budapest, among others, Cambridge and King’s College became and remained their home. The attempt to move to Harvard, or better said, the attempt to move Istvan Hont to Harvard, became famous. I vividly remember this episode as I was member at King’s College. Early in 2002, the Faculty of Government at Harvard University, normally divided over appointments, had reached a unanimous consensus to appoint Istvan Hont. The Faculty had discussed about the candidate for nearly a year and requested around 20 evaluations from outside experts. Lawrence Summers was then President of Harvard. And Summers, as an economist, had regularly promoted younger candidates who would produce more. When he heard about this appointment, he was concerned with Hont’s research productivity. Finally Summers vetoed Istvan’s unanimously approved appointment. This created a hot debate in Harvard and also in Cambridge. Istvan, who was 54 years old at the time, declared to the WSJ: "I don't feel old… I feel I'm in the full swing of my research activities. I was originally a refugee in Hungary and I got all my appointments 10 years later than anybody else. It took me a long time to get to England and establish myself." At the end, he was happy to remain at King’s College, Cambridge. And as a young Smith scholar, I celebrated Summers’ decision.
After this experience, Istvan began to work on his Jealousy of Trade. International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Harvard, 2005). It is a collection of his essays, but it contains a carefully written long introduction that summarizes his life research. Actually this long introduction can be read as a new book. Perhaps Summers was right: Istvan was not productive with his research. But in Istvan’s case there was definitely a trade-off between quality and quantity: what he wrote and published is seminal and fundamental.
Istvan would attend some History of Economics Society Meetings, and was enthusiastic with the development of the Society. In 2007 Istvan Hont received the Joseph J. Spengler Prize for the best book. Cristina Marcuzzo, chair of the Spengler Committee, stated:
“We found Hont's book to be monumental in the detail and breadth of its scholarship. His understanding of both the primary texts he utilizes and the broader political-economic-historical contexts of that work is indeed masterful. The ground of international trade in that era has certainly been ploughed before, but not often with the depth and skill Hont brings to the work. This is both an outstanding work in the history of economic and political ideas and a work that is relevant to ongoing discussions today about globalization and the nation-state. Its contemporary relevance is but one more reason to honor it with this year's Spengler Prize.”
His Jealousy of Trade (2005), using the title of Hume’s famous essay, concentrated and expanded his idea that eighteenth century political economy, mainly represented by Hume and Smith, established the framework of our modern conception about international politics. After publishing this celebrated book, the corruption/luxury debate led him to explore the intellectual extent of the relationship between Rousseau and Smith. This was the subject of his Carlyle Lectures (Oxford University, 2009) and Benedict Lecture (Boston University, 2010). (*)
Istvan was an enthusiastic and fervent member of the so-called Cambridge School, a tradition that owes much to Peter Laslett, Quentin Skinner, J. A. G. Pocock and John Dunn, among others. His influential legacy is the best proof that he was an important representative of this approach to intellectual history.
I remember the first time I met Istvan as a PhD student. We used to have lunch at King’s College dining hall. After some conversations, I finally dared to ask him to read a paper on the Adam Smith Problem. He invited me for lunch. And I asked Istvan “what do you think about it?” He immediately replied, with his Hungarian accent, “it is rubbish”. One would first feel threatened, but he had his way. And at the end, he would be very helpful. As my PhD dissertation developed, he became a great and inspiring company. Gradually we became acquainted, had dinner together with Anna, and had regular lunches at King’s where our conversation went beyond Adam Smith and David Hume.
As a scholar Istvan knew almost everything about the Scottish Enlightenment. Besides his encyclopedic knowledge, he studied and he chewed each idea. And he thought carefully about every word he wrote. His undergraduate students, I remember, thought he was extremely demanding, but he was respected as a very good teacher. I imagine that writing a paper with him was a challenge, but also an intellectual experience. He was certainly terrifying and at times awkward, but he was immensely generous with his time and knowledge. I still remember his smile which was a sign of approval. And I still remember, after we became acquainted, that whenever we would talk about Adam Smith, I would call for his opinion paraphrasing Adam Smith’s definition of the virtue of self-command: “what does the awesome and respectable Istvan Hont think about this idea”. He liked that, as he realized a student would need some self-command with him. But he also was inspiringly helpful.
Istvan certainly liked what he did in his life. I imagine him at his bed, happily reading Lucretius, as David Hume did. I also imagine that he might have asked Anna to burn some of his unpolished manuscripts, as Adam Smith did. He passed away on Friday, 29 March 2013, aged 65.
(*) Istvan develops his thesis in a conversation at Harvard University (see “Rousseau and Smith: A Conversation with Istvan Hont”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v83Zh2IenM4
Dean School of Government, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez
About Jealousy of Trade (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005)
This book connects the commercial politics of nationalism and globalization in the 18th century to theories of commercial society and Enlightenment ideas of the economic limits of politics. It considers British neo-Machiavellian political economy after the Glorious Revolution and explores eighteenth-century theories of international market competition that continue to be relevant for the twenty-first century. 'Jealousy of Trade' refers to a particular conjunction between politics and the economy that emerged when success in international trade became a matter of the military and political survival of nations. Today, it would be called 'economic nationalism', and in this book Istvan Hont connects the commercial politics of nationalism and globalization in the eighteenth century to theories of commercial society and Enlightenment ideas of the economic limits of politics. The book begins with an analysis of how the notion of 'commerce' was added to Hobbes' 'state of nature' by Samuel Pufendorf. Hont then considers British neo-Machiavellian political economy after the Glorious Revolution. From there he moves to a novel interpretation of the political economy of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly of David Hume and Adam Smith, concluding with a conceptual history of nation-state and nationalism in the French Revolution."Jealousy of Trade" combines political theory with intellectual history, illuminating the past but also considering the challenges of today.