Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Thomas Aquinas and Economics by Robert Palgrave 1894

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS and Economics by Sir Robert Harry Inglis Palgrave 1894

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Aquinas, the greatest of the schoolmen, is of the utmost importance in the history of economic thought, in that he sums up the teaching of the mediaeval church, and at the same time furnishes the point of departure for all subsequent reasoning down to the Renaissance. He would seem, indeed, to have had no special interest in the economic side of life; he was led to handle it partly because his Summa Theologica was intended to be encyclopaedic, partly because the growth of industry and trade, and the tendency to apply to them the maxims of the Civil Law (qv), rendered necessary a restatement of Christian principles. Politics and economics were not yet separated from theology; accordingly the utterances of Aquinas on political economy are to be found not in any one place, but scattered up and down his great treatise and his minor writings. It will, however, be convenient to group them under three heads— (i.) fundamental questions of social organisation; the ethics of business ; (iii.) the theory of taxation.

(i.) The early Christian Fathers had used language which might seem to deny the justice of private property; the canon law had expressly included community of goods among its examples of natural law, and had even incorporated a passage ascribed to Clement of Rome (bishop of Rome in the latter part of the 1st century), wherein it was laid down that the use of all that is in the world ought to be common to all men. Aquinas, with strong common sense. set himself to justify individual ownership without directly taking up a position of antagonism to those earlier ideals. In the first place, he explained away the significance of the generally accepted phrase as to natural law, by drawing a distinction between what was natural absolutely, and what was natural by way of consequence. In the former sense, it was true, there was no reason why a field should belong to one man rather than to another; but in the latter sense such ownership might properly be called natural, considering how necessary it was that the land should be cultivated and that its fruits should be enjoyed in peace. Moreover, argued Aquinas, the phrase did not mean that natural law forbade private property, but only that it did not introduce it; its introduction was due to positive law, the invention of human wisdom. In the second place, he fell back on the teaching of Aristotle—whose Politics he was the first of the schoolmen to incorporate with mediaeval thought —and pointed out the beneficial results of private property; and in Aristotle's maxim that property should be owned separately but used for the common good, he found a distinction which seemed to harmonise with the meaning of the Fathers.

But if the absence of private property was not suitable for society generally, might it not be a duty incumbent on such Christians as sought perfection in the religious life to divest themselves of their wealth? St. Francis had taken poverty for his bride; there was a strong party among the Franciscans who opposed even the corporate holding of property; and the question of apostolic poverty was already beginning to tear the church asunder. Accordingly Aquinas devotes to this topic a more than usually long section. Poverty, he lays down, is not an end in itself, but a means—a means towards following Christ. Riches, therefore, are wrong only so far as they are hindrances in the way of this object. And if external goods are possessed only in such moderate quantities as are necessary for men's due maintenance, they need not distract the soul. If they are the common property of a religious body, the care of them may even be regarded as a work of charity. But in this case the degree in which material goods are desirable, will depend on the character of each particular organisation.

The duty of almsgiving had been closely associated in the teaching of the Fathers with their views as to property; and it had been inculcated without much regard to possible limitations. Here again Aquinas endeavoured to state traditional principles in a more prudent form. The giving of alms was, of course, with him also, a matter of divine command, and not merely a counsel of perfection. But it was to be guided by right reason, according to which men were not bound, unless in exceptional cases, to give more than their superfluity; and superfluity was defined as that which remained after providing for a man's due maintenance, and that of those dependent on him, in the rank of life to which they belonged.

In what to Aristotle was the other great fundamental question, viz. slavery, Aquinas was clearly but little interested, doubtless owing to the changed conditions of society. He nowhere discusses at any length the justice of personal servitude, and his occasional arguments on the subject seem purely academic. He would appear to have accepted Aristotle's view of the expediency of slavery; but he differed from him in believing that by nature (in the “absolute” sense of the term) all men were equal; and he followed some of the Fathers in holding that slavery was among the consequences of the fall of Adam.

(ii.) Of wider practical importance was his teaching as to the ethics of business. He contributed but little to the development of church doctrine in this regard; but he gave it a systematic shape which greatly strengthened its hold upon men’s minds. In laying down that, in buying and selling, nothing but a JUST PRICE (gm) should ever be demanded or paid, Aquinas was quite conscious that he was enunciating a principle in direct opposition to that of the civil law; and he met the difficulty by urging that human law was necessarily limited, and that it could not, like divine law, prohibit all that was opposed to virtue. As to trade, he agreed with Aristotle that it was base, and with the Fathers that it was sinful, if carried on for the sake of gain; but it was not sinful when the merchant sought only a moderate reward for his exertions, and spent it in the maintenance of his family or the relief of the poor; still less when it was carried on for the public good, that a country might not be without the necessaries of life. Concerning usury he repeated the arguments of his predecessors Alexander of Hales and Albert the Great, laying particular stress on the distinction between Fungibles and Consumptibles (q.v): with the loan of a consumptible, such as money, passed the right to make use of it, so that to demand the return of the money and a payment for its use was to make a double charge for one thing. He allows, however, that a compensation may justly be received for a Damnum Emergens (q.v.), i.e. the loss arising from the non-restoration of a loan at the appointed time, though not for a Lucrum Cessans (q.v.) But he makes two dangerous concessions when he allows that a man may, without sin, borrow from one who is already a usurer, if it is for some good object; and that a man may, without sin, entrust his money to a usurer, if the purpose is not gain, but the safe keeping of the money.

(iii.) The treatise De Regimine Principum, the most popular manual of statecraft in the later Middle Ages, is, unfortunately, from the hand of Aquinas only as far as the middle of the second chapter of the second book. But there is extant almost interesting letter of his in reply to certain questions of the Duchess of Brabant; among others as to the justice of taxation. Aquinas replies that as princes are established by God, not that they may seek their own gain, but the common utility of the people, they should, as a general rule, content themselves with the revenues of their demesne lands. But when these will not suffice for the defence of the country or to meet other emergencies, then it is just that subjects should be called upon to give their aid. This position is identical with the demand, which appears so often in the constitutional struggles of the 14th century in England, that the king should “live of his own."

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