Vilfredo Pareto

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Vilfredo Pareto 1848-1923

Italian sociologist, economist, and political theorist.

One of the preeminent figures of modern social science, Pareto was among the first to unite the discipline of mathematics with the sciences of sociology and political economics. Throughout his career, Pareto strove to develop an inductive sociological system based upon "logico-experimental reason." The most enduring example of his efforts, his four-volume treatise Trattato di sociologica generale (1916, The Mind and Society), contains Pareto's controversial contributions to the field, including his theories of nonrational motivation and of the circulation of elites. The former theory schematizes the interior and exterior forces that influence human behavior. According to the latter theory, the rulers of society attempt to legitimize their authority by masking imbalances of power with a veneer of reason; when the deception is revealed a new elite takes power, displacing the old. In the view of many early commentators, Pareto's political beliefs—which favored absolutism and opposed democracy—allied him with fascism. Critics have since acknowledged that Pareto, rather than laying the groundwork for fascism, outlined a thoroughly individual and iconoclastic theory of social behavior. A prominent economist as well as a sociologist, Pareto is also remembered for his ideal model of economic efficiency and for his law of the distribution of wealth, which notes the invariability of income inequality in all economic systems.

Biographical Information

Pareto was born in Paris, France, on August 15, 1848. His father was an Italian aristocrat whose sympathies with the democratic movement in Italy forced him to flee his homeland and live in exile for more than two decades. In 1858 Pareto returned with his parents to Italy. There he was educated in mathematics and classical literature. Graduating from the Polytechnic Institute of Turin in 1870, Pareto embarked on an engineering career, and eventually rose to the position of Director of National Railways in Rome in 1874. Later, he served as the superintendent of Florence's iron mines, and in the 1880s undertook an ill-fated political career. Meanwhile, he accepted the position of lecturer in mathematics and engineering at Florence and Fiesole, and in 1889 married Alessandra Bakunin, daughter of the renowned Russian political theorist. In 1893 Pareto was selected by the economist Leon Walras to fill his vacated post as professor of political economy at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He moved with his wife to nearby Céligny.

Several years later Pareto published the Cours d' économiepolitique (1896-97), his first significant work on the subject of economics. In 1900, after inheriting a large sum of money from an uncle, Pareto limited his teaching activities and withdrew to his villa at Céligny in order to write. In 1907 he retired from his professorship and, now separated from his wife and largely reclusive, devoted himself to his sociological studies, which culminated in his Trattato di sociologica generale. In 1922, during the rise of fascism in Italy, Pareto was appointed a senator by Benito Mussolini, who considered the aging sociologist the father of fascist ideology. Pareto reluctantly accepted the post but died shortly after the appointment, on August 19, 1923, of heart disease.

Major Works

Trattato de sociologica generale contains most of the salient elements of Pareto s sociological thought. In it he constructed a general theory of social behavior based upon what he called sentiments, residues, and derivations. According to Pareto's definitions, most human behavior is determined by nonrational and typically unobservable qualities of the mind called sentiments, though vestiges of these sentiments can be observed in a more concrete manifestation as residues. In light of what Pareto observed as the nonlogical basis of social behavior, human beings have...

(This entire section contains 848 words.)

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developed a tendency to rationalize their actions whenever possible, employing a variety of rhetorical structures, or derivations, to do so. Elsewhere in his treatise, Pareto elucidated his theory of the circulation of elites. Beginning with the observation that all advanced cultures in history have demonstrated some form of social hierarchy in which an elite group wields authority, Pareto argued that the elite class justifies its non-rational authority over the lower classes by employing rationalizing derivations. The process is continued into perpetuity as one group of elites is expelled when its derivations are exposed and a new elite class takes its place. As a political economist, Pareto's priniciples are contained in hisManuale di economica politica (1906, Manual of Political Economy), which includes the Cours d' économiepolitique and his article "Economie mathématique," pub lished in the Encyclopédie des sciences mathématique.

Critical Reception

Commentators on Pareto's Trattato di sociologica generale have noted that the chaotic style of this massive work has made it difficult to understand, and have criticized its sometimes imprecise vocabulary. Also, his sociological writings have been interpreted as proto-fascist, though most scholars now agree that this is not the case. Additionally, many of his works have not been translated, and consequently his overall influence outside of France and Italy has been relatively limited. Still, his methods, economic ideas, and theories on nonrational behavior have enjoyed considerable critical attention in Europe and America, leading many to place him next to Max Weber and Émile Durkheim as one of the fathers of modern sociological thought.


Principal Works