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When knowledge was a common and free good

The Market and the Temple/15 - Theological prohibitions have been able to generate means of freedom for merchants and intellectuals such as insurance companies and universities.

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 14/02/2021

Ancient Christian culture knew that knowledge was a precious, indeed divine, good and protected it from profit. Now, with the logic of capitalism, all we really see are costs and profit.

In the Middle Ages the limit of generative capacity was very evident. The ban on lending money at interest produced a great biodiversity of financial instruments and contracts, from the commendams to the exchange letters, from limited partnership to the birth of insurance policies. Maritime trade could not develop without risk remuneration through some form of interest on the capital lent to the ship owner. Hence, the theological prohibition regarding usury led to the invention of a new contract, that of insurance, splitting the loan into two components: «On the one hand, the pure and simple repayment of a loan, on the other the promise of reward in exchange for the risk involved» (Armando Sapori, "Digressions on insurance", in Studies of economic history III, p. 144). Thus, a theological limit ended up generating a great economic and social innovation.

Another area in which theologically set limits played a decisive role was in the birth of universities. The development of teaching and student communities in the universities is a twin phenomenon of the emergence of merchant companies. The thirteenth century was the century of merchants and the century of universities, which together created Humanism. Both places of freedom, both institutions of the new European spirit. Goliards and merchants put the values ​​of the institutions of the first millennium in crisis. Both supported and animated by the new mendicant orders, who were both scholars in the universities and friends of the merchants. The students were mainly laymen, «to study and even before to live and move in the wake of the teachers, they resorted to the strangest means such as being an acrobat, a juggler or a fool and even putting some occasional small scams into practice » (Sapori, p. 366).

While referring to the holders of ancient knowledge, Pietro Abelardo defined them «the Philistines who keep their knowledge a secret only for themselves, while preventing others from taking advantage of it. Instead, we want to dig wells of living water, and so many and on all public squares, and so rich in water that they will overflow and everyone will be able to quench their thirst» (quoted in Sapori, The universities over the centuries, p. 368). European democracy was born in the government buildings of the new cities, in the companies of merchants and in the universities, where knowledge was created dialectically thereby becoming a public good, if it is indeed true that democracy is «governing by discussing» (in the words of John Stuart Mill and Amartya Sen). The role of this new, more popular knowledge was immense, infinitely greater than we could ever imagine today.

It is not surprising then that these new intellectuals encountered the same hostility already encountered by the merchants, both new groups of people, too free and different to be understood: «Oh Paris, to what extent you fascinate and deceive souls! On the contrary, a happy school is one in which one speaks only of wisdom, and without the need for courses of lessons one learns how to reach eternal life: here one does not buy books» (Pierre de Celles, quoted in Sapori, p. 369). These same detractors of the new universities and the goliards also hated the free municipalities and cities, defined as a "new Babylon", because God does not love cities, as Cain was the founder of the first one (Rupert of Deutz).

The merchant-intellectual analogy, however, does not stop there. In the first millennium, time was not the only thing that belonged to God, something that gave rise to the oldest justification for the prohibition of interest-based loans. Knowledge was also considered a gift from God and as such non-marketable, but to be given freely. Hence, we can easily see how the debates on the prohibition of interest on money were very similar and parallel to the disputes over the prohibition for scholars to be paid for their lessons. Even in the transmission of knowledge, gratuitousness, sine-merit, was the norm, and payment, pro-pretio, the anomaly.

The most authoritative medieval source of this prohibition was Bernard of Clairvaux, who in his commentary on the Song of Songs had written: «Scientia donum Dei est, unde vendi non potest» (science is a gift from God, therefore it cannot be sold). A thesis that had been adopted by the third (1179) and then by the fourth (1215) Lateran Council, then by Pope Gregory IX in 1234 (in the Liber Extra) - the papacy was a great defender of the new universities, which were pontifical institutions. A prohibition that had a great weight in the practice of medieval universities and schools; although the practice (as with usury) often moved in different directions. The canonist Roffredo da Benevento wrote: «In our days it is customary for teachers to take the students’ books as a pledge in order to pay proceeds». The reference to the authority of St. Bernard in matters of gratuity was not accidental. The gratuitous aspect of teaching was in fact a legacy of the great monastic tradition. For many centuries, monasteries were the main, if not the only, schools in Europe. These schools taught faith, but also grammar, music and mathematics, to monks as well as lay people, especially young people. This is where the practice of gratuitousness was affirmed. In a document from 888, we can read the following about the issue of schools: «Ut turpi lucro et negotiationibus non inserviant» (so that shameful profit and business will not be needed). And the Council of London in 1138 reiterated: «Ut scholas suas magistri non locent legendas pro pretio» (teachers in their schools shall not give lessons for a fee, § XVII).

Starting from the thirteenth century, the new masters began to make a distinction. Bartholomew of Brescia argued that a teacher should not teach for money, but could still accept a payment from his students as long as it is offered as a gift and not compulsory. A similar solution, one will recall, to the one that led to the lawfulness of the interest on public debt, understood as a free gift. Still others distinguished between rich and poor teachers and students: where only poor students do not have to pay and only rich teachers should teach for free. The famous canonist from Bologna, Tancredi, for example, specified: «When the teacher receives a safe and protected benefice, he must not ask for money for the education that he provides» (in Emma Montanos Ferrín, "Scientia donum Dei est"). Raimondo de Peñafort, a Dominican, instead defended and reiterated the thesis that science, being a divine gift, cannot be sold, and hence he saw even jurists and doctors, who generally were paid, as antagonists.

The gratuitous aspect of knowledge was further strengthened and relaunched, when Franciscans and Dominicans entered the new universities en masse around the middle of the thirteenth century and founded their studia, often connected with those universities. Of the 447 known masters in theology in Bologna between 1364 and 1500, 419 were Mendicants. The Dominicans were at a greater "charismatic" ease with their studies, due to their preaching charism. The issue was more complex and less linear the Franciscans. A soul of the order has never calmly accepted studies and universities: «We do not see Parisi, who has destroyed Asisi» (Jacopone da Todi, "La Laude", 92). The fact is that the Franciscans also generated scholars of great value, among the major theologians of the Middle Ages. Dominicans and Franciscans made universities privileged places for the recruitment of new vocations, and some teachers (for example, Alexander of Hales) took up the habit. It did not stop there however. Those early Mendicants were very attracted and seduced by the new universities. Before becoming the holders of theology faculties, at first they went to Paris or Oxford to learn, fascinated by that new world and that freedom of teachers and students that felt so similar to theirs. They were sons and propagators of the same spirit. The very happy encounter between these two different and similar worlds gave rise to an extraordinary and decisive process for European civilization.

The side effects of the arrival of the mendicants in the universities were many. Regarding books, for example. The pricing of books was subject to careful regulation (due to the pauper related prestige) especially among the Franciscans. This limit meant that books were no longer just illuminated sets of code, highly expensive and reserved for a few. The ancestor of manuals was born, a book oriented towards teaching and learning, and therefore less expensive and accessible to many more readers and students. Furthermore, since the Franciscan and Dominican masters were incardinated in their orders who endowed them with a prebend to live, the ancient tradition of free teaching returned, (initially lay masters were paid). Something that then continued with the creation of thousands of schools of female and male religious orders in modern and contemporary times, as well as with the public school of the twentieth century.

What about today? What remains of this great legacy? First, we must recognize that in the twentieth century something in the transition of teaching from monks-friars-nuns to lay teachers did not work. That gratuity, especially on the side of the teachers, was accompanied by institutions (orders, convents, congregations) that guaranteed them subsistence and a decent life. When teachers became laypeople, the wonderful idea of ​​free knowledge translated into salaries that were much too low, especially in elementary, middle and high schools (and in the first years of university careers), especially in countries where the Church's free educational legacy was stronger. Therefore, once again, we have not been able to politically transform an ethical heritage into a civil justice, for "lack of thought". That ancient Christian culture knew all too well that knowledge is such a precious asset as to be considered divine; and hence viewed it with great attention, removing it from the logic of shameful profit, in order to protect it. Today capitalism knows the economic value of knowledge all too well, and while leaving teachers and PhD students destitute, it is making for-profit education (pro-pretio) one of its most profitable new global industries.

Finally, we arrive at the most precious message of that ancient debate. Those canonists knew that the reason behind the gratuitousness of knowledge is not the absence of value, but rather that it is worth so much to be considered bonum dei: a good from God. A return to the ancient idea that gratuity does not correspond to a price equal to zero but rather to an infinite price. People in ancient times knew that knowledge has a "cost of production", and a very elevated one at that. Hence, making it accessible without paying a price means recognizing that the nature of knowledge is that of a common good, it is not a private market good, but a well of living water, a public square. And as in all common goods, it is the community that bears the costs of production and management, because it recognizes a strategic value in it, and does not want to possibly exclude anyone from its use, especially not the poor. We must not forget that every time a community creates a common good, it is making its poor less poor. Monks, nuns and friars have preserved the nature of knowledge as a common good for a millennium and a half. An infinite legacy, it is up to us to continue to guard the "wells of living water" of yesterday, and dig new ones today.

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