Mises's Élan Vital
Readers of Ludwig von Mises appreciate not only the depth and breadth of his insights, but also the elegance of his language. Even writing in English, a language he adopted in middle age, Mises conveyed dense conceptual theories and big ideas with a vigorous style not normally associated with economists. Nothing in his writing is dry or technical. This is why, for example, opening Human Action to any random page can yield immediate benefits. To use an analogy from the days when music came on vinyl and compact discs, with songs in a particular order, there are no throwaway songs in Mises’s work.
Mises did not hesitate to borrow heavily from other fields in his writing, including history, sociology, and philosophy (especially epistemology and logic), always in service of presenting economics holistically. His drive to understand the broader implications of human action and reason saved him from the kind of tunnel vision we see in academia today, where “intersectionality”— far from what its trendy name suggests— serves a narrow political purpose rather than the broader cause of advancing knowledge.
In this sense he demonstrated a characteristic humility, contrasted with the hubris displayed by so many brilliant academics: he understood his chosen profession as part of a larger human experience, rather than a self-serving body of knowledge with rigid boundaries to be guarded even as they continually bump up against other disciplines.
One great example of Mises’s wonderful use of language comes at the end of Human Action, in a typically ambitious chapter titled “Economics and the Essential Problems of Human Existence.” Here he uses the wonderful term “élan vital,” originated by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, to describe the innate and noble impulse that drives us to improve our condition. It is this “ineradicable craving” that compels us to seek happiness, minimize discontent, and spend our lives “purposively struggling against the forces adverse to (us).”
As usual, Mises’s syntax and diction hardly bring to mind a boring economics text:
Civilization, it is said, makes people poorer, because it multiplies their wishes and does not soothe, but kindles, desires. All the busy doings and dealings of hard-working men, their hurrying, pushing, and bustling are nonsensical, for they provide neither happiness nor quiet. Peace of mind and serenity cannot be won by action and secular ambition, but only by renunciation and resignation. The only kind of conduct proper to the sage is escape into the inactivity of a purely contemplative existence.
Yet all such qualms, doubts, and scruples are subdued by the irresistible force of man's vital energy. True, man cannot escape death. But for the present he is alive; and life, not death, takes hold of him. Whatever the future may have in store for him, he cannot withdraw from the necessities of the actual hour. As long as a man lives, he cannot help obeying the cardinal impulse, the élan vital.
Mises certainly lived his life with a certain quiet élan, even in the face of setbacks and slights that would enrage a lesser man. Never giving up, never giving in, always turning to the next task with steady resolve, Mises stands as an inspiration to all of us in this New Year. Even his darkest moments during the Great War could not compel him to accept deterministic theories of history and human progress that so dominated the early 20th century. For Mises, human volition trumped fate. Rather than lamenting the political or economic landscape, we should press on with certainty and good will.
Let us all strive to read more Mises in 2018, and less throwaway news and commentary. His work can inspire and engage us in ways that wildly oversaturated social media outlets and editorial pages cannot—in his own inimitable fashion, so different from the maudlin self-help literature that dominates our age. Let’s face it: most articles, books, podcasts, and television shows today are not worthy of our time. Free online content is almost infinite today, but time surely is not. If you’re not sure where to start, or don’t want to tackle heavy economics and philosophy from the outset, consider Mises’s own memoirs or Dr. Guido Hülsmann’s great biography. Both will help you understand the imperfect and human side of this great thinker, while learning some economics in the bargain.