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"John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed, 1883–1920", by Robert Skidelski

By chance, I came across the first part of the biography of John Maynard Keynes by Robert Skidelsky and started reading it, not quite expecting to finish. It’s very well written and much more profound than I had hoped for in a biography.

Right from the first sentence, the book shines:

“John Maynard Keynes was not just a man of establishments; but part of the elite of each establishment of which he was a member. […] This position was largely achieved by the force of his dazzling intellect and by his practical genius. But he did not start life without considerable advantages which helped him slip easily into the parts for which his talents destined him. There was no nonsense about his being in the wrong place or having the wrong accent. Of his chief advantages was being born at Cambridge, into a community of dons, the son of John Neville and Florence Ada Keynes.


When he was five his great-grandmother Jane Elizabeth Ford wrote to him, ‘You will be expected to be very clever, having lived always in Cambridge.’” (p1)

For an economics student, Keynes is worth reading about in any way, but the more I read about Keynes the more fascinating he becomes.

Skidelsky wrote this three-volume biography over almost twenty years with this first volume coming out in 1983 and the last volume in 2000. In this first part, Skidelsky covers Keynes’ upbringing in Cambridge, his education at Eton and Cambridge, his time in London with his Bloomsbury friends and his time at the Treasury during and after World War I.

How about this:

“He never did take an economics degree. In fact, his total professional training came to little more than eight weeks.” (p166)

and also

“Like most economists at the time, Keynes started teaching economics without having taken a university degree in the subject. […] Compared with today, there was little to learn, and that was not difficult. […] In this way he acquired a firm understanding of a fairly limited range of theory.” (p206)

I was surprised to read that Keynes never traveled further east than Egypt.

Skidelsky explains in length the intellectual development in Cambridge which included Keynes father John Neville Keynes who he sums up with:

“In producing one book on pure, and a second on applied, logic, Neville had circumnavigated the range of his intellectual interests. He was thirty-eight. He lived another sixty years. Apart from a few contributions […] and the odd essay, his pen was henceforth confined to revising previous work, writing his diary and letters, and drafting minutes. […] Perhaps he is to be admired, rather than pitied, for keeping silent when he had nothing to say.” (p64)

People at the time struggled with the gradual loss of theology during the transition from the Victorian to Edwardian period and searched for something to replace it. The names of the people involved are quite familiar to students of economics:

“Both [Marshall and Sidgwick] inherited the problems of collapsing theology and both engaged in essentially the same enterprise: the attempt to find authoritative theology-substitutes. […] Sidgwick was mainly a classicist; Marshall was mainly a mathematician. […] For many intellectuals brought up on Christianity still felt the need for authoritative guidance on how to conduct their lives – which they did not get from economics.” (p32)

“The difference was that Sidgwick had a need, which Keynes never had, to find a way to bring all these things into a rational, coherent, relationship with each other.” (p34)

There’s also a part on the Keynes’s family’s finances:

“The Keynes life-style was sustained by an income which was never less than comfortable, and grew more so.” (p55)

“As Maynard grew up his parents grew steadily more affluent. Capital and earnings went up, while prices went down. […] But what strikes one today is how secure his position was. He just went on getting richer without great effort on his part. That is what the Victorians meant by progress. Neville found his affluence all the more agreeable because his enjoyment of it was unclouded by any sense of guilt.” (p56)

This reminds me of Piketty’s “historical fact” \(r > g\) (with \(r\) the real return on wealth and \(g\) the growth rate of incomes). Piketty cites Jane Austen, who implicitly states that real rates are about 5% which allows for a comfortable life of existing wealth.

It is amazing, how much of Keynes’ conversation is documented and how much of his life can be reconstructed. I recently came across this article which states that we are left with 20,000 of Goethe’s letters. How many of us keep records of our emails or our Facebook and Whatsapp conversations?

I liked this part on Keynes’ mind:

“One never feels that he had a sense of a single current of history carrying the world forward to the natural order described by the classical economists, or some other kind of utopia. Rather he was always impressed, some would say over-impressed, by the fragility of the civilisation inherited from the Victorians, by the feeling that it was an exceptional episode in human history.” (p92)

And this reminds me of many people I know who are very good at what they do:

“Once again [writing an essay at Eton] he was showing his ability to get totally absorbed in a subject remote from his official interests.” (p113)

Reading about Bloomsbury I’m reminded of my time at UCL when I often passed Keynes’ house at Gordon Square. Consider these bits about the Bloomsbury Group for example:

“For it was [G. E.] Moore who tried to redefine the content of ethical discussion by insisting that the primary question was not ‘what ought I to do’ but ‘what is good’; and that the primary question could be answered only by reference to some conception of the good life. The virtues, Moore said, have no value in themselves. They are valuable only as a means to what is good, and must be rationally proportioned to it. If Bloomsbury can be defined by a common attitude of mind – as it surely can – this is it.” (p245)

“Bloomsbury, it is true, was devoid of Christian belief. […] And there is no doubt that it encouraged, thought it did not entail, political passivity.” (p246)

“Bloomsberries, as they called themselves, might be curious about outsiders. They were also frightened of them, and could be chilling to them. […] Bloomsbury was a particular expression of, and gave direction to, the ‘revolt against the Victorians’.” (p248)

I was most touched by the parts on Keynes’ and his Bloomsbury friends’ response to World War I.

“Although the Archduke […] had been assassinated on 28 June, only a month later was there a first reference [in Keynes diaries] to the worsening international situation. Characteristically it was in the context of Stock Exchange speculation. […] Next day Germany invaded Belgium. On 4 August 1914 England declared war on Germany, and Bloomsbury’s – and Maynard’s – world collapsed.” (p285)

Keynes gradually came to oppose British participation in the war and so did his Bloomsbury friends. He considered quitting his job at the Treasury, but he thought it was better to be inside the circle of knowledge. He wrote to his mother that he would resign from the Treasury only if they started

[…] “torturing my friends”. (p324)

Tyler Cowen wrote in 2005:

“Robert Skidelsky [and Sylvia Nasar] raised the bar for economic biographies some time ago.”

I cannot compare what people used to expect from biographies, but the quality of this took me by surprise and makes me update my assessment of the genre in general.

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