On this date, July 30, 1857, Thorstein Veblen was born on a farm in Valders, Wisconsin. Veblen conducted his undergrad studies at Carleton College, did post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins, and earned his PhD at Yale in 1884.
He taught at a variety of schools, including the University of Chicago, Stanford, and University of Wisconsin. His book,The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899, was the most famous of the nine he wrote.
Many progressives, ranging from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Margaret Sanger, were strongly influenced by it. In it, Veblen introduced the term “conspicuous consumption.” Veblen also studied the place of science in civilisation. While an evolutionist, he repudiated the unscientific application of evolution known as “social Darwinism.”
Raised Lutheran, he was often denounced for his atheism, and was rejected when he applied for a post at the religious St. Olaf University.
“The administration personally liked him, but his religious views prevented his appointment,” reported his controversial biographer Joseph Doffman, in Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934).
It has been averred that Veblen’s sole political act was to sign a petition urging Robert La Follette of the Progressive Party to run for president.
A letter from Th. N Mohn to the Rev. Pastor J Olsen, dated July 30, 1890, explained why Veblen’s views made him objectionable to St. Olaf College:
“Dr. Veblen has answered my letter concerning his attitude toward Christianity. He was asked to express himself with reference to the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, redemption, and the interpretation of the Scriptures by the Lutheran church.
“He answers about as follows: The historical content of the Bible must naturally submit to the same criticism as all other historical material, without prejudice to scholarship. No one could be more interested in this than the student of social life. With reference to the divinity of Jesus, he agrees with what Jesus himself has said in the so-called synoptical gospels, and all later theories should go back to them for proof.
“Concerning redemption, he cannot believe that Jesus has atoned for the world, nor that the theory to the effect that Christ is the world’s proxy is correct, and he believes that these gospels can be interpreted in a more liberal fashion.”
Veblen died in 1929.