The Market and the Temple

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Time is a common good, even if we have forgotten it

The Market and the Temple/4 - Analysis - In biblical humanism there is the «Sabbath» and yet all days belong to God, then «mixed time» came and today...

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  29/11/2020

"Time is a child playing. The kingdom belongs to a child".
Heraclitus, Fragments

We began to sell and buy time when Purgatory entered the religious discourse and with it the bargaining on the time of the dead and therefore also of the living. We can clearly see the effects of the destruction of time in the environmental issue, where the destruction of the future takes place in an economy entirely focused on the present.

Time belongs to God. So the usurer, who sells time, profits from a good that is not really his in the first place. This was also one of the oldest arguments against interest-bearing loans. However, in this divine nature of time there is something else that is very important in order to understand the birth of capitalism: «The usurer acts against the universal natural law, because he sells time, which is a common good of all creatures. Hence, since the usurer sells what actually belongs to all creatures, he harms all creatures in general; even rocks and stones, whence it appears that even if men stayed silent in front of the usurers, stones would cry out». In his "Summa Aurea", William of Auxerre (1160-1229) adds an important dimension to this, an expression of biblical humanism. Time really belongs to God, and so it is «common to all creatures». It is a common good, and as such, it cannot be traded for profit. It would be private appropriation of a common good. Time, would hence not only be a divine good, but also a global and cosmic common good («the stones»).

Biblical humanity learned of the nature of time especially during the Babylonian exile. That is where the concept of the Sabbath really matured, a day with a time of a different quality that with its mere presence makes all time not appropriable. Because if there is a day of the week not available to man, as it finds itself outside his domain and empire, then there is also a chrism of gratuitousness on all time that firmly places it outside any acquisitive and commercial area. This is also the reason why the ban on interest-bearing loans matured in Israel during that same exile. Biblical time is a gift and the whole earth is a never reached promised land. Perhaps the most important biblical legacy is this non-predatory relationship with time and the earth. Furthermore, biblical time carries the sign of sin inscribed in it. The exit from the cyclic time of Eden and the entry into historical time is the result of a disorder in the relationship between humans, between humans and creation (the snake) and between creation and God. The time of men was born wounded, even if that wound generated the blessing of the Covenant and a different salvation. Biblical humanism also invented historical and linear time, because history moves towards an end, it has a beginning and constantly looks forward. In short, the Bible invented the future, and therefore the past. Its time is not cyclical, mythical or circular. The Covenant and the expectation of the Messiah have given time a direction, effectively placing an arrow, a sense, at the tip of the time line. Then Christianity further strengthened and radicalized this linear nature of time, through the incarnation and resurrection.

However, there is a necessary tension between linear time and the idea of time as a common good. As long as the world remained static and intrinsically slow, the Church managed to keep them both together, with the help of different tools. First of all in the monasteries, with the organization of liturgy. Liturgical time is a mechanism that traps the linear flow of time within a circular rhythm, where ritual time overcomes historical time. Time-quantity flows and passes, but time-quality, marked by the liturgy, gives human time a divine and therefore eternal stamp. Monasteries enchanted people because they promised eternal life, to defeat death. In the life of the laity, calendars, feasts, bells, the rhythm of life and seasons, the cyclical times of the liturgical year, then tried to bend linear time to contain it within the constant and perennial cycle of religion. Space was marked and underlined by images and sacred signs, shrines, tabernacles, and distances measured in "Ave Maria". Hence, time continued to pass, yet on a deep level it remained the same. It was as if time had two levels: a more superficial one that flowed linearly, and a deeper one that remained unchanged because it was divine. In this humanism, therefore, there were no cultural and concrete pre-conditions to make loans at interest legitimate. Therefore, whoever asked for compensation for a time that did not change in depth, was committing an act against nature - against the very nature of time.

When did all this go awry? When it began to change the world. As in the case of art, and the first attempts, back in the days of Giotto, to introduce depth and real space within frescoes, producing a perspective where time and movement entered the paintings. The days of William of Auxerre were also those of Joachim of Fiore and his theology of the near advent of the "age of the Spirit", which would follow that of the Father (the Old Testament) and that of the Son (the New Testament ). His was a qualitative vision of time, guided by a dynamic mechanism. The end of Joachim's life (1202) intersects with the beginning of that of Francis. The Franciscans left the walls of the monasteries and went back to being nomads and beggars in the streets. Pilgrimages also picked up again during those same years. And with this movement, the sense of time began to change.

The merchants were yet another group of great walkers and crossers of space: «All humans must aspire to the purchase of Virtues, from which Glory is born; and among the many paths which lead to it, three in particular are the most common. One, weapons, the other, letters, and the third, shops. The first is dangerous, the second is quiet and the third is tiring» (Giovanni Domenico Peri, "The Merchant"/"Il Negoziante", 1672). The advent of the merchants was in fact decisive for the revolution of the concept of time. Merchants travel across cities and regions, organize complex operations, and create a new relationship with time. They lives on time: they have to foresee market fluctuations, inflation, wars, and famines. They must speculate (word that comes from specula, specere: look far) on the differentials of the prices of coins, which at that time were many indeed, including the "imaginary currency" present on European markets between Charlemagne and the French revolution. The merchants invented new contracts (exchange letters, commenda), they created the first forms of insurance, learning to live with risk. Even farmers depended on time and risk, but time in the countryside and of the seasons was once something that was merely "suffered", unmanageable, free and master of itself. Not so for the merchants: they anticipate time, control it, and enslave it, making it the first element of their business. Becoming time experts. In their profession, the present becomes the future (bills of exchange) and the future becomes the present (discount). For a farmer, time is a constraint, for a merchant it is his first opportunity. The farmer will continue to measure distances in "Ave Marias", the merchant with the help of maps and astrolabes. The farmer lives in a place, the merchant inhabits space.

The merchant hence trades with time, and thus economic time ceases to be the time of the Church. It was the Church itself, however, that made time trading lawful, or at least possible. It did so with the creation of Purgatory. In this same period, in fact, the reality of Purgatory exploded in Europe (already present in the early Christian centuries), which played a central role in changing the notion of time (Jacques Le Goff). With Purgatory, the binary structure that had dominated the first millennium - hell/heaven, city of God/city of man, virtue/vice... - evolves into a ternary one. Before time began to be sold by merchants and bankers with the legitimacy of the interest rate, time had already began being sold with the concept of Purgatory. Because, seen from this perspective, Purgatory is nothing more than the possibility of buying time on earth for the benefit of the dead. Praying and paying indulgences for the dead means making time an object of exchange. In a binary and polar vision of heaven/hell, time cannot ever be for sale, because there is no way on earth to influence the heavens. With the introduction of the "third way" of Purgatory, actions on earth began to change the time of the dead. And if we can haggle the time of the dead, we can trade with that of the living as well.

The transition from a world "of two" to a world "of three" then developed, within Christianity itself, a space for imperfection, of intermediate realities, of a middle ground, of compromises, of amnesties, of the orange colour in traffic lights; mediations between prohibition and lawfulness, and between divine time and mercantile time. Cases, distinctions, and differences sprang up or amplified further: those between emerging damage and loss of profit, between interest-profit and interest-annuities. Time left the exclusive domain of God and religion. At first, it became a shared and contested domain between God and man. The ancient divine and common good nature of the time did not disappear; it became partial but remained alive and operative, and allowed during many centuries to distinguish between licit and illicit use of time, between good interests and usurious interests, between virtuous and dishonest merchants, between entrepreneurs and speculators. The merchants had gotten hold of a few threads of the rope of time but at the other end the hand of God and therefore of the community remained firm. This time with mixed ownership has allowed the development of the European economy, and, at the same time, has kept it anchored to the communities.

And with this form of "mixed time" we have hence reached the threshold of modernity, when time has become a mere human affair, and therefore completely and only a commodity. By losing its link with the divine, time has also lost its nature as a common good. And by erasing time as a common good, we have also effectively lost the sense of the common Good itself. Nevertheless, even if we treat it as a private commodity, time remains a common good and therefore subject to the "tragedy of the commons": by using it with a privatist logic, we are destroying it, without realizing it. We can clearly see the destruction of time through the issue of the environment, where the destruction of time is becoming the destruction of the future in an economy entirely focused on the present. A time that was not yet entirely a commodity and still a common good, helped to bind generations together, giving children time to become better than their fathers and mothers. We must immediately reinvent a non-predatory relationship with time and space together. Young people must help us, without them we will not make it, because our generation has forgotten what a good relationship with time and with the earth truly is. We can ask this of the young, we must ask it of the children.

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