Guido Alfani, "As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West" (Princeton UP, 2023)


This provocative and interesting book has received considerable attention. Roaring reviews and interviews include  The Financial Times (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Modem (Radio Switzerland Italian), Hufftington Post (Italy), El Diario (Spain), ABC (Australia), History Today (UK), The New Republic (USA), The New Yorker (USA), among others around the world.

During the interview, Alfani tells of the challenges of putting the book together. Also, he discusses how As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West (Princeton UP, 2023) builds on prior research and his interests in diverse fields in social sciences. About the book:

How the rich and the super-rich throughout Western history accumulated their wealth, behaved (or misbehaved) and helped (or didn't help) their communities in times of crisis.

The rich have always fascinated, sometimes in problematic ways. Medieval thinkers feared that the super-rich would act 'as gods among men'; much more recently Thomas Piketty made wealth central to discussions of inequality. In this book, Guido Alfani offers a history of the rich and super-rich in the West, examining who they were, how they accumulated their wealth and what role they played in society. Covering the last thousand years, with frequent incursions into antiquity, and integrating recent research on economic inequality, Alfani finds--despite the different paths to wealth in different eras--fundamental continuities in the behaviour of the rich and public attitudes towards wealth across Western history. His account offers a novel perspective on current debates about wealth and income disparity.

Alfani argues that the position of the rich and super-rich in Western society has always been intrinsically fragile; their very presence has inspired social unease. In the Middle Ages, an excessive accumulation of wealth was considered sinful; the rich were expected not to appear to be wealthy. Eventually, the rich were deemed useful when they used their wealth to help their communities in times of crisis. Yet in the twenty-first century, Alfani points out, the rich and the super-rich--their wealth largely preserved through the Great Recession and COVID-19--have been exceptionally reluctant to contribute to the common good in times of crisis, rejecting even such stopgap measures as temporary tax increases. History suggests that this is a troubling development--for the rich, and for everyone else.

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Bernardo Batiz-Lazo

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo is currently straddling between Newcastle and Mexico City. You can find him on twitter on issues related to business history of banking, fintech, payments and other musings. Not always in that order. @BatizLazo

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