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Why Adam's economy is not Cain's economy

The market and the temple/16 - The great Duns Scotus interpreted the version of the "golden rule" of the Gospels as a rule of economic sociality.

By Luigino Bruni

Published 21/02/2021 in Avvenire.

Private property is fair when it is about preserving peace, safeguarding Abel, that is, defending what is "yours" before what is "mine", especially that which belongs to the poor.

The main protagonists of the great change that the European economic "spirit" underwent between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were the Franciscans and Dominicans, who transformed the image of the merchant from an enemy of the common good to its first builder. From the heart of the cities, the Mendicants saw things differently from what could be seen from the green valleys of the abbeys. They saw that good work was not only what was performed in the monasteries and holy time was not only the liturgical one, because there was also a holiness in the time and hours of all, and the lay bell of the municipal towers was no less noble and Christian than the sundial of the monks. Observing the hours and days of artisans, artists and merchants, they discovered another ora et labora, different but not inferior to that of the monasteries. Hence, the concept of "brother work" ("fratello lavoro") was born. Humanism and the Renaissance flourished from this continuous dialogue-dialectic between a very important heaven and an equally important earth, between a very present life-beyond and an equally present life-on-this-side, between the expectation of the not-yet and the commitment to the already here.

Vocation-work did not just come out of the monasteries with the Protestant Reformation; it had already emerged in the thirteenth century thanks to the work of the mendicant orders. These were not important for the birth of the new economy merely as confessors, preachers and pastors of merchants and artisans, but also and perhaps above all, as theologians. Among the greatest of them, we find Duns Scotus, the great Scottish Franciscan, a magister in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and Cologne. A genius of absolute value, one of the greatest talents that has ever moved across theology and philosophy. Scotus (1265/1266-1308) also dealt with economics - this was the Middle Ages: the very great were interested in the Trinity and money, because they knew that after the Word made flesh a quaestio on the right price had the same theological dignity as one on the redemption.

His Commentary on the Sentences of Pietro Lombardo, known as Ordinatio (1303-1304), states the following: «The forms of exchange are practically based on the laws of nature: do to others what you would have them do to you» (quoted in Leonardo Sileo, Elements of economic ethics in Duns Scotus/Elementi di etica economica in Duns Scoto, p.6). Here Scotus interprets the version of the "golden rule" of the Gospels (Matthew 7,12 and Luke 6,31) as a rule of economic sociality. Reciprocity in commercial exchange is seen as a way in which evangelical reciprocity is expressed. To those first qualified observers, the market did not appear only as a new form of civil relations, but also as a new concretization of the law of mutual love. In fact, in essence, market exchange can be seen as a form of "mutual assistance", as Antonio Genovesi would go on to repeat in the eighteenth century, where people satisfy each other's needs through goods. If we were able to look from above and with a non-ideological gaze at what happens in the markets of the world, as those first theologians in fact did in part, we would see an immense, highly dense network of relationships that allow men and women to get the things they need. Things that without the existence of markets they could only obtain by gift or robbery, the former too scarce and the latter thoroughly uncivilized.

While they kept "pauper prestige" to themselves and observed the absolute prohibition on handling money, those Franciscans found themselves at the right spiritual distance from the markets and wealth to understand and explain them both in their essence. The positive and generous gaze on their world did not ignore the sad fate of those who were excluded from that network of reciprocal exchange, and for whom the Mendicants worked very hard, giving life to thousands of assistance initiatives. However, they were also able to view market exchange not as an enemy of the poor, but as an opportunity for everyone. So much so, that Scotus even advises the princes of cities with few merchants to do everything to attract them: «In a poor country of merchants, a good legislator should attract merchants; even by paying them handsomely, and finding the necessary sustenance for their families as well» (Ordinatio, IV).

The theological esteem of the impoverished Franciscans and Dominicans for the merchants arises from their life in the heart of the cities and adheres to the idea on ​​the limit of private property

​Catalan Franciscan Francesc Eiximenis (1330-1409), scholar and follower of Duns Scotus, thought along the same lines. The Twelfth book (El Dotzè) of his Summary of Theology (Summa Theologica), The Christian (Lo Crestià, in his language), written between 1385 and 1392, contains a broad and original treatment on political economy and money, in which he develops and strengthens the civilizing aspect and function of the market - civilitas. It contains several highly important and original concepts. One of these touches the pillar of every civil economic ethics, namely the conflict between revenues and profits: «It must be forbidden for all those who can carry out commercial activities to buy perpetual and life annuities», since revenues destroy the good and civil earnings of merchants, which are essential for the community. The competence that merchants have with «words and contracts», their discursive and relational art and skill favours «every kind of qualified and friendly relationship» (I,1). This is why Barcelona (which he saw as a civitas perfecta) must not «excessively promote honorific office», but rather encourage the development of the merchant class. On the opposite side to that of the merchant, we find the "miser", the main enemy of a city, because he prevents currency from circulating thereby spreading development and civilization: «He must not have the right to live in the city, nor to no reason should he be allowed to hold a position or an office in the community, since he is a dissipator of civilitas, an integral enemy of the truth, a falsifier of friendship» (I,1). It is interesting to note that avarice here is seen as a vice of those who earn a revenue, not as a merchant's disease.

Picking up on a thesis by Ugo di San Vittore, Eiximenis affirms that merchants must be rewarded, because they are «the life of the earth, the treasure of public affairs. Without merchants, communities fall, princes become tyrants. Merchants alone are great almsgivers, fathers and brothers of public affairs and God shows great wonders through them» (Regiment de la cosa pública, quoted in the Introduction to the critical edition of the work, edited by Paolo Evangelisti). His many pages dealing with the issue of money are also highly interesting, a precious public good and "good of the community", the first sign of public trust and essential for all social pacts, symbol of communitas, of commutatio (exchange) and communicatio (communication) between citizens. His arguments on credit and the role played by public debt are also important - unfortunately stained by an anti-Jewish controversy, which was common among many Franciscans of the time (and not only them). He emphasizes the urgency of setting up civil credit institutions, in particular a "casa de la comunitat", a forerunner of the Monti di Pietà of the following century and of the rural and cooperative banks of the twentieth century. An institution destined to impoverished young people who, thanks to credit, could then start a productive life, or to girls without a dowry, anticipating the "Monte of the dowries" (Monte delle doti) of Florence in 1425. However, it was also destined «for the redemption of prisoners, for the recovery of men who have fallen into ruin, to prisoners in conditions of poverty" (F. Eiximenis, El Dotzè, I, 1).

While we are struck and enchanted by the esteem and admiration that these theologians of the highest poverty had for the civil role of merchants, money and credit, once again we are also taken by surprise by other theses developed by these same authors, which complicate the discourse and bring us back into the generative ambivalence of the Middle Ages. One such theses, a very important one, concerns the origin and nature of private property. The following words can be found in Duns Scotus: «When did the property of things begin to be distinguished so that this was called "mine" and that was "yours" and how did this distinction come about? By the laws of nature, it is by no means established that the possession of things includes such distinction, since in our state of innocence there was no such distinction at all regarding the possession and ownership of things, but everything common to all» (Reportata parisiensia, quoted in Francesco Bottin’s, Giovanni Duns Scotus on the origin of property).

While just leaving the times and the world of the merchants that built and crated civilitas and Christian charity, we now come across a line of thought that viewed the private ownership of goods, the pillar of that market economy, as the fruit of sin. According to Scotus, in line with much medieval theology on the subject, the rule in primordial innocence, that is, in the Adamic condition, was the communion of goods, "mine" and "yours" did not exist. The only "ours" coincided with that of all humanity, which in any case did not see itself as the owner of goods but only as their user. We must not interpret the Adamic condition in a historical or chronological sense (it would not make much sense to speak of communion in an Eden with only Adam, and without Eve), but in a theological and anthropological sense. Always keeping in mind that in the biblical vision, what comes first is truer and deeper than what comes later, because it expresses vocation and destiny, and thereby indicates what one day will or could be. Hence, when Scotus states that private property arises after or following sin, he is telling us something important, namely that the private appropriation of goods was not in God's original plan for humanity. It was a deviation, a corruption, a decay, a mistake. «From the beginning it was not so». Because the communion of goods is part of the image and likeness with God. The economy of what is "mine" and "yours" was not the economy of Adam, but it became the economy of Cain. Then what will the economy of the new Adam be like?

Finally, the function that Scotus attributes to private property is very interesting, once men have fallen in sin they can no longer do without it: «This became necessary in order to maintain peaceful coexistence among men since after their sins the wicked would have demanded things for themselves not only for their own indispensable use but also to satisfy their greed for possession». Private property is in fact a safeguarding of peace, it is a guarantee for Abel against the abuses of Cain, and it has its reason in protecting the weak from the strength of the powerful, who would have a tendency to increase their "mine" without acknowledging what is "yours". In this case, private property is fair if it defends above all what is "yours", especially that which "belongs" to the poor.

Private property is fair if it protects the peace, safeguarding Abel, that is defending "yours" before what is "mine", especially that which belongs to the poor

The thesis that we find in Fratelli tutti is therefore largely Franciscan: «The right to private property can be considered only as a secondary natural right derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods» (n.120). The great medieval theologians remind us that our destiny, even in economic terms, is communion. We fail to live up to our vocation, and are satisfied with the economy of "mine" and "yours". However, it is that Adam, he who came first reaching much deeper into us than Cain, who continues to give us no peace, and to feed that infinite nostalgia for a different economy.

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