Latin and Greek Phrases in Ludwig von Mises’ “Socialism”

(This is something that has bothered me ever since I read Mises’ Socialism some thirty years ago.)

Ludwig von Mises’ epoch-making Die Gemeinwirtschaft from 1922 (2. ed. 1932) was translated into English by J. Kahane and published in 1936 under the title Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Enlarged editions have been published later; the last one by Liberty Classics in 1981. I quote from the publisher’s preface to this last edition:

This edition leaves the text as translated by Kahane in 1936 and added to by Mises in 1951 undisturbed. The present publisher has, however, undertaken to add certain features to aid the contemporary reader. Translations have been provided for all non-English expressions left untranslated in the Jonathan Cape edition. These translations appear in parentheses after the expressions or passages in question. (P. xv; emphasis added.)

Well this would certainly aid the contemporary reader, who (one has to suppose) has no knowledge whatsoever of ancient Greek and Latin. There is, however, one big problem: some of those phrases are grossly mistranslated. Here is an inventory:

P. 55: The collective view of history, which is thoroughly asocial, cannot therefore conceive that social institutions could have arisen in any way except from the intervention of a “world shaper” of the Platonic δημιουργός[1] (one who works for the people).

This is not completely wrong, since the original meaning of “δημιουργός” was ”public worker”; but it is still misleading, since what Mises refers to here is Plato’s idea of a “world shaper” or “world creator”. (See the Wikipedia article on “demiurge”.)

P. 188: The great mass of people […] regard the existing state of affairs as eternal; as it has been so shall it always be. But even if they were in a position to envision the πάντα ρεϊ[2] (everything simple or all so easy) they would be baffled by the problems to be solved.

This translation does not even come close to the meaning of the term translated. “Πάντα ρεϊ” is a phrase that is commonly attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus and means “everything flows” or “everything is in a state of flux”. (The phrase itself is not to be found in the surviving works of Heraclitus; but he has said many similar things and it is a good, concise summary of his philosophy.)

P. 259: Evolution from the human animal to the human being was made possible by and achieved by means of social cooperation and by that alone. And therein lies the interpretation of Aristotle’s dictum that man is the ζῷον πολιτικόν[3] (the living body politic).

”Ζῷον πολιτικόν” means ”political animal”! (Or possibly “social animal”; the idea is that man cannot live outside of society and that society has to be organized some way.)

P. 357: Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (let justice be done even though the world be destroyed)…

Yes, this is a correct translation. But Mises has a point, expressed a couple of pages later:

P. 360: [A man] can never reject that which has been recognized as beneficial and reasonable simply because a norm, based on some mysterious intuition, declares it to be immoral – a norm the sense and purpose of which he is not entitled even to investigate. His principle is not fiat justitia, pereat mundus, but fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus (let justice be done, but do not destroy the world).

The conjunction “ne” is the Latin equivalent of the English “lest”, so the translation should be “let justice be done, lest the world be destroyed” (or perhaps “so that the world will not be destroyed”). And this is a profound insight – but it gets completely lost, if the Latin is not correctly translated!

Why those mistranslations? After all, one does not have to be a professor in those languages to spot them. (I took four years of Latin and two years of ancient Greek in school, but that doesn’t mean I master those languages.) And those expressions are by no means obscure: both “πάντα ρεϊ” and “ζῷον πολιτικόν” are well known and often quoted expressions. Your guess is as good as mine, but I would guess they are the result of pure guesswork.


[1]) Transliterated “dēmiourgós”.

[2]) Transliterated  ”pánta rhei”.

[3]) Transliterated ”zōon politikón”.

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