Vilfredo Pareto Essay - Critical Essays

Pareto, Vilfredo


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 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 his Manuale di economica politica (1906, Manual of Political Economy), which includes the Cours d' économie politique 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

Il portezionismo in Italia ed i suoi effetti (sociology) 1891

Programme d'économie politique (economics) 1892

Théorie mathématique des changes étrangers (economics) 1895

Cours d'économie politique (economics) 1896-97

La Libertééconomique et les événements d' Italie (sociology) 1898

Les Systémes socialistes (sociology) 1901-02

Manuale di economica politica [Manual of Political Economy] (economics) 1906

La Mythe vertuiste et la littérature immorale (sociology) 1911

Trattato di sociologica generale [The Mind and Society] (sociology) 1916

I sistemi socialisti (sociology) 1917-20

Compendio di sociologica generale (sociology) 1920

Fatti e teorie (sociology) 1920

II problema dei cambi e l' industria nazionale (sociology) 1920

Transformazione della democrazia [The Transformation of Democracy] (sociology) 1921

Alcune lettere di Vilfredo Pareto (letters) 1938

Corrispondenza (letters) 1948

The Ruling Class in Italy Before 1900 (sociology) 1950

Scritti teorici (sociology) 1952

Pareto-Walras da un carteggio inedito (1891-1901) (economics) 1957

Mon journal (diary) 1958

Lettere aMaffeo Panteleoni 1890-1923, 3 vols, (letters) 1960

Carteggi paretiani 1892-1923 (economics and sociology) 1962

Oeuvres complètes (economics and sociology) 1964

Cronache italiane (sociology) 1965

Scritti sociologici [Sociological Writings] (sociology) 1966

Socialismo e democrazia nel pensiero di Vilfredo Pareto (sociology) 1966

Lettere ai P eruzzi 1872-1900, 2 vols, (letters) 1968

The Rise and Fall of the Elites (sociology) 1968

Principi fondamentali della teoria della elasticità de corpi solidi e ricerche sulla integrazione differenziali che ne definiscono Vequi-librio (economics) 1969

Lettere ad Arturo Linaker 1885-1923 (letters) 1972

Scritti politici (sociology) 1974

Battaglie liberiste: Raccolta di articoli e saggi comparsi sulla stampa italiana (sociology) 1975

Guida a Pareto: Un' antologia: Per una teoria critica della scienza della società (sociology) 1975

Lo sviluppo economico italiano (economics) 1975,

The Other Pareto (sociology) 1980


Talcott Parsons (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "General Works, Theory and Its History," in The American Economic Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1935, pp. 502-8.

[In the following essay, Parsons reviews the English-language translation of Trattato di sociologia generale.]

The final appearance, after being heralded for so many years, of the English translation of Pareto's Trattato di Sociologia Generale is surely an event of the first importance for the social sciences of the English-speaking world, though perhaps not altogether for the reasons most generally heralded. The editor, his collaborators and the publishers are to be congratulated upon the successful completion of so monumental a task.


(The entire section is 2742 words.)

Morris Ginsberg (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "The Sociology of Pareto," in Reason and Unreason in Society: Essays in Sociology and Social Philosophy, Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 84-103.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1936, Ginsberg challenges the central points of Pareto's sociological theories.]

Pareto's sociology falls naturally into two parts. The first is devoted to an analysis and classification of the elementary constituents of human nature as manifested in social life. The second is concerned with the interactions of these elementary traits and the changes which occur in their distribution in the different classes of society. The method followed is inductive and...

(The entire section is 8381 words.)

Max Lerner (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Pareto's Republic," in Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas, The Viking Press, 1939, pp. 348-55.

[In the following essay, Lerner offers a highly critical view of P areto 's sociological thought.]

Take a Machiavelli, with his amazing sense of the springs of human conduct and his cynicism about ethics; soak him in the modern worship of scientific method; hard-boil him in a hatred for democracy in all its manifestations; fill him with an intense animus against proletarian movements and Marxian theory; add a few dashes of economic fundamentalism; stir it all with a poetic feeling about the ruling élite; sprinkle thoroughly with out-ofthe-way...

(The entire section is 3135 words.)

Giovanni Demaria (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Demaria on Pareto," in The Development of Economic Thought: Great Economists in Perspective, J. Wiley, 1952, pp. 628-51.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in an Italian economic journal in 1949, Demaria examines Pareto's economic writings.]


By a consent which is nearly unanimous, Pareto has been given the honor title, "father of contemporary economic science." In order to appreciate the significance of the work of the great Italian thinker, we must pause for a moment to examine the stage at which economic science had arrived during the third quarter of the past century. At this period, economics abounded with...

(The entire section is 8730 words.)

A. J. Jaffe (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Pareto and Fascism Reconsidered," in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 4, July, 1960, pp. 399-411.

[In the following essay, Jaffe reconsiders the basis for Pareto's reputation as a fascist ideologue.]

From time to time various writers have linked the name of the Italian economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, with fascism. He has been portrayed by some as the ideological father of fascism ("Marx of the bourgeoisie"), by still others as a precursor of fascism. Accordingly, it would seem well systematically to appraise Pareto's work, especially as it relates to fascist ideology. Here we will attempt this task, singling out four...

(The entire section is 4492 words.)

Norberto Bobbio (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Introduction to Pareto's Sociology," in On Mosca and P areto, Librairie Droz, 1972, pp. 55-78.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in Italian in 1964, Bobbio examines the formal structure of Trattato di sociologia generale.]

As is known, the Trattato di sociologia generale was born after a long gestation as a work which can only be described as "monstrous," the word "monster" being used in the triple sense of "prodigy", "deformed creature" and, neutrally, "unusual event". Prodigious in the Trattato is the breadth of design and research; from an introduction to economics, the sociology, as a result of subsequent...

(The entire section is 8061 words.)

Joseph A. Schumpeter (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Vilfredo Pareto, 1848-1923," in Ten Great Economists: From Marx to Keynes, Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 110-42.

[In the following essay, which first appeared in the Quarterly Review of Economics in 1949, Schumpeter focuses on P areto 's economic theories.]

In a volume devoted to Pareto's life and work, Professor Bousquet relates that the obituary article devoted to Pareto in the socialist daily, Avanti, described him as the ' bourgeois Karl Marx. ' I do not know that a man can rightly be called ' bourgeois' who never missed an opportunity to pour contempt on la bourgeoisie ignorante et lache. But for the rest, the analogy conveys...

(The entire section is 9999 words.)

Joseph Lopreato and Robert C. Ness (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Vilfredo Pareto: Sociologist or Ideologist?," in The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1966, pp. 21-38.

[In the following essay, Lopreato and Ness dismiss the view of Pareto as a forerunner of modern fascist ideology.]

In the history of science it has often happened that a scholar's ideas are denied full recognition because ofthat scholar's real or assumed connection to some controversial ideology. The position accorded to Vilfredo Pareto is one illustration of such practice in present-day sociology. This scholar is often said to have been a "Newton of the Moral World," or altogether a fascist ideologist. So Faris informs us that "The book [The Mind...

(The entire section is 6611 words.)

R. Cirillo (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Vilfredo Pareto: His Life and His Economic Theories," in The Economics of Vilfredo Pareto, Frank Cass, 1979, pp. 7-25.

[In the following excerpt, Cirillo provides a biographical and historical perspective for an examination of Pareto's economic writings.]


Vilfredo Pareto was born in Paris on July 15, 1848 and died at Céligny, in the Canton of Geneva, on August 19, 1923. His family belonged to the Genoese nobility which governed the Republic till it was conquered by Napoleon. His father, Marchese Raffaele Pareto, typical of the youth of the Italian Risorgimento of the first half of the nineteenth century, was involved in a...

(The entire section is 6825 words.)

Renato Cirillo (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Was Vilfredo Pareto Really a ' Precursor' of Fascism?," in American Journal Of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 12, April, 1983, pp. 235-44.

[In the following essay, Cirillo investigates whether or not Pareto was in fact, as is often contended, a "precursor of fascism."]



The fact that Vilfredo Pareto embraced fascism during the last months of his life generated enough prejudice against the man that even scholars sometimes approach his works with an initial bias. Readers will recall that when Arthur Livingston published the English translation of Trattato di sociologia generale...

(The entire section is 4080 words.)

Richard Bellamy (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Vilfredo Pareto," in Modern Italian Social Theory: Ideology and Politics from Pareto to the Present, Polity Press, 1987, pp. 12-33.

[In the following essay, Bellamy takes issue with critics who perceive a significant ideological discontinuity between Pareto's earlier and later writings.]

Pareto, when studied at all, is generally interpreted in two apparently mutually exclusive ways. Economists regard him as a classical liberal, who made important contributions to the theory of rational choice underlying the defence and analysis of market mechanisms. Sociologists and political theorists, by contrast, tend to dismiss his ideas as crude and illiberal—as...

(The entire section is 9487 words.)

Further Reading

Aron, Raymond. "Vilfredo Pareto." In Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Volume II: Durkheim/Pareto/ Weber, translated by Richard Howard and Helen Weaver, pp. 99-176. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1967.

Analysis of Pareto's theories of logical and non-logical actions within the framework of western thought.

Ascoli, Max. "Society through Pareto's Mind." Social Research: An International Quarterly of Political and Social Science 3, No. 1 (February 1936): 78-89.

Critique of Pareto's theories as found in The Mind and Society. Ascoli takes exception to Pareto's loose definitions, vague terminology, pretense of objectivity, and detached use of...

(The entire section is 776 words.)