Appetite for economic gain not a natural force

August 26, 2012 | categories: Politics, Economy | View Comments

While reading Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom, I came across this passage from English economic historian R. H. Tawney's book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which elaborates the medieval view on economic activities:

Material riches are necessary; they have secondary importance, since without them men cannot support themselves and help one another [...] But economic motives are suspect. Because they are powerful appetites, men fear them, but they are not mean enough to applaud them [...] There is no place in medieval theory for economic activity which is not related to a moral end, and to found a science of society upon the assumption that the appetite for economic gain is a constant and measurable force, to be accepted like other natural forces, as an inevitable and self-evident datum, would have appeared to the medieval thinker as hardly less irrational and less immoral than to make the premise of social philosophy the unrestrained operation of such necessary human attributes as pugnacity and the sexual instinct [...] Riches, as St. Antonio says, exist for man, not man for riches [...] At every turn therefore, there are limits, restrictions, warnings against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs. It is right for a man to seek such wealth as is necessary for a livelihood in his station. To seek more is not enterprise, but avarice, and avarice is a deadly sin. Trade is legitimate; the different resources of different countries show that it was intended by Providence. But it is a dangerous business. A man must be sure that he carries it on for the public benefit, and that the profits which he takes are no more than the wages of his labour. Private property is a necessary institution, at least in a fallen world; men work more and dispute less when goods are private than when they are common. But it is to be tolerated as a concession to human frailty, not applauded as desirable in itself; the ideal—if only man's nature could rise to it—is communism. "Communis enim," wrote Gratian in his decretum, "usus omnium quae sunt in hoc mundo, omnibus hominibus esse debuit." [1] At best, indeed, the estate is somewhat encumbered. It must be legitimately acquired. It must be in the largest possible number of hands. It must provide for the support of the poor. Its use must as far as practicable be common. Its owners must be ready to share it with those who need, even if they are not in actual destitution.

(My emphasis)

According to Tawney, the basic medieval assumptions concerning economic life were two: "That economic interests are subordinate to the real business of life, which is salvation, and that economic conduct is one aspect of personal conduct, upon which as on other parts of it, the rules of morality are binding."

Today, it seems that people often assume that the free market is a natural force and that other apects of human life, out of necessity, have to be subordinate to it. It turns out that in the Middle Ages, the opposite was expressed in the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and in secular law.

To constantly portray the capitalist market as a natural force, as the corporate media does, is to help sustain these avaricious economic interests that threaten to destroy our planet, and that are a direct cause of immense human suffering around the world.

[1]This should translate to something like: "Common to all humans should be the use of things found on Earth."