Vilfredo Pareto was born in Paris in 1848, the year of the revolution that brought the fall of the House of Bourbon and the rise of Louis Napoleon. Pareto’s father was an Italian nobleman and political exile, and his mother was French. With the issuance of a general amnesty, the family returned to Italy in 1868. Vilfredo graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in Turin with a degree in engineering. He first worked for two Italian railways and then served as general superintendent of iron mines owned by a bank in Florence.
Pareto’s contributions to sociology were matched by his early efforts in the field of economics. He was greatly influenced by the works of Leon Walras on economic equilibrium and, in a personal meeting with the Swiss academician, succeeded in demonstrating his command of Walras’s work. In 1893 Walras resigned from the University of Lausanne, and Pareto became his successor. Five years later, he became heir to a sizable fortune and through the remainder of his life left Switzerland only rarely.
We can identify two major turning points in the intellectual life of Pareto. Over time, the engineer–economist became convinced of the limitations of narrowly drawn conceptions of economic systems and advanced the need for a general theory of society. So inspired, in 1902-1903 he published The Socialist Systems and some years later added to a long list of publications his General Treatise on Sociology (1915). A refined and reorganized version of the latter was published in 1935 under the title The Mind and Society. Throughout his writing career, the thrust of Pareto’s work was toward an equilibrium model of society. His conception of the social systems came to be highly influential at Harvard University, particularly in the work of Talcott Parsons and George Homans.
Another watershed in the life of Pareto was more clearly political and ideological. In his youth he was swayed by the democratic and humanitarian ethic. He opposed the authority of the church and the ready resort to military force that swept European history. However, Pareto’s early sentiments were to change. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, he wrote scores of articles calling for the reorganization of society along the lines of laissez-faire economics. In the current of Italian politics, the ideals of democracy came to assume a socialist face. Pareto fiercely retained his “liberal” conception of free trade, while repudiating political equality.
Before publication of The Socialist Systems
, Pareto had decided that his own prior reasoning in support of political liberty was more emotional than rational. Both this work and his later Treatise
were to contain polemical assaults on democratic structure and ideology. Pareto drew fire from his critics who labeled him variously the “Karl Marx of the bourgeoisie” and the “Marx of fascism.” One of his admirers was Benito Mussolini, who offered him a seat in the Italian senate shortly before his Pareto’s death in 1923 (Perdue, 1986, pp. 95-96).