Roman law was not the only influence on economic ideas in the Middle Ages. Ambivalent attitudes in the early Christian tradition also proved highly important.
Economic matters were of course scarcely central to either the Old or New Testament, and scattered economic pronouncements are contradictory or subject to ambivalent interpretation. Fulminations against excessive love of money do not necessarily imply hostility to commerce or wealth. One remarkable aspect of the Old Testament, however, is its repeated, almost pre-Calvinist, extolling of work for its own sake. In contrast to the contemptuous attitude toward labour of the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament is filled with exhortations in favour of work: from the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of Genesis to ‘Enjoy life in your toil at which you toil under the sun’ of Ecclesiastes. Oddly, these calls to labour are often accompanied by admonitions against the accumulation of wealth. Later, in the second century BC, the Hebrew scribe who wrote the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus goes so far as to extol labour as a sacred calling. Manual workers, he writes, ‘keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade’. Yet the pursuit of money is condemned, and merchants are habitually treated with deep suspicion: ‘A merchant can hardly keep from wrong doing, and a tradesman will not be declared innocent of sin’. And yet, in the same book of Ecclesiasticus, the reader is instructed not to be ashamed of profit or success in business.
The attitude of the early Christians, including Jesus and the Apostles, toward work and trade was coloured by their intense expectation of the imminent end of the world and of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Obviously, if one expects the impending end of the world, one is inclined to have little patience for such activities as investing or accumulating wealth; rather the tendency is to act as the lilies of the field, to follow Jesus, and forget about mundane matters. It was in this context that we must understand St Paul's famous ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’
By approximately 100 AD, however, the books of the New Testament written by St John make it clear that the Christian Church had abandoned the idea of the imminent end of the world. But the Hellenistic and the Gospel heritage fused to lead the early Church Fathers into a retreatist view of the world and its economic activities, combined with fulminations against wealth and merchants who tend to amass such wealth. The Church Fathers railed against mercantile activities as necessarily stamped with the sin of greed, and as almost always accompanied by deceit and fraud. Leading the parade was the mystical and apocalyptic Tertullian (160–240), a prominent Carthaginian lawyer who converted late in life to Christianity and eventually formed his own heretical sect. To Tertullian, attack on merchants and money-making was part and parcel of a general philippic against the secular world, which he expected at any moment to founder on the shoals of excess population, so that the earth would soon suffer from ‘epidemics, famines, wars, and the earth's opening to swallow whole cities’ as a grisly solution to the overpopulation problem.
Two centuries later, the fiery St Jerome (c.340–120), educated in Rome but also influenced by the eastern Fathers, took up the theme, proclaiming the fallacy that in trade, one man's gain must be achieved by means of the other man's loss: ‘All riches come from iniquity, and unless one has lost, another cannot gain. Hence that common opinion seems to me to be very true, ‘the rich man is unjust, or the heir of an unjust one”. And yet there was another, contradictory strain even in Jerome, who also declared that ‘A wise man with riches has greater glory than one who is wise only’, for he can accomplish more good things; ‘wealth is not an obstacle to the rich man who uses it well’.
Probably the most intelligent attitude toward wealth and money-making among the early Church Fathers was that of the Athenian-born eastern Father Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215). While Clement counselled that property be used for the good of the community, he endorsed private property and the accumulation of wealth. He attacked as foolish the ascetic ideal of divesting oneself of one's possessions. As Clement wisely put it, employing a natural law theme:
We must not cast away riches which can benefit our neighbor. Possessions were made to be possessed; goods are called goods because they do good, and they have been provided by God for the good of men: they are at hand and serve as the material, the instruments for a good use in the hand of him who knows how to use them.
Clement also took a hard-nosed attitude toward the rootless poor. If living without possessions was so desirable, he pointed out,
then that whole swarm of proletarians, derelicts and beggars who live from hand to mouth, all those wretched cast out upon the streets, though they live in ignorance of God and of his justice, would be the most blessed and the most religious and the only candidates for eternal life simply because they are penniless...
The early Church Fathers culminated in the great Saint Augustine (354– 430) who, living at the time of the sack of Rome in 410 and of the collapse of the Roman Empire, had to look ahead to a post-ancient world which he was greatly to influence. Born in Numidia in Africa, Aurelius Augustinus was educated in Carthage, and became a professor of rhetoric in Milan. Baptized a Christian at the age of 32, St Augustine became bishop of Hippo in his native North Africa. The Roman Empire under Constantine had embraced Christianity a century earlier, and Augustine wrote his great work, The City of God, as a rebuttal to the charge that the embrace of Christianity had resulted in the fall of Rome.
Augustine's economic views were scattered throughout The City of God and his other highly influential writings. But he definitely, and presumably independently of Aristotle, arrived at the view that people's payments for goods, the valuation they placed on them, was determined by their own needs rather than by any more objective criterion or by their rank in the order of nature. This was at least the basis of the later Austrian theory of subjective value. He also pointed out that it was the common desire of all men to buy cheap and to sell dear.
Furthermore, Augustine was the first Church Father to have a positive attitude towards the role of the merchant. Rebutting the common patristic charges against the merchants, Augustine pointed out that they perform a beneficial service by transporting goods over great distances and selling them to the consumer. Since, according to Christian principle, ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’, then the merchant too deserved compensation for his activities and labour.
To the common charge of endemic deceit and fraud in the mercantile trades, Augustine cogently replied that any such lies and perjuries were the fault not of the trade but of the trader himself. Such sins originated in the iniquity of the person, not in his occupation. After all, Augustine pointed out, shoemakers and farmers are also capable of lies and perjuries, and yet the Church Fathers had not condemned their occupations as being per se evil.
Clearing the merchants of the stain of inherent evil proved enormously influential in the following centuries, and was quoted time and again in the flowering of Christian thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
A less tangible but still important contribution to social thought was St Augustine's recasting of the ancient world's view of the human personality. To the Greek philosophers, the individual personality was to be moulded to conform to the needs and desires of the polis. Dictation by the polis meant a static society, with discouragement directed towards any innovating entrepreneurs trying to break out of the contemporary mould. But St Augustine's stress was on the individual's personality unfolding itself and therefore progressing over time. Hence Augustine's profound emphasis on the individual at least set the stage indirectly for an attitude favourable to innovation, economic growth and development. That aspect of Augustine's thought, however, was not really stressed by the thirteenth century Christian theologians and philosophers who built on Augustine's thought. It is ironic that the man who set the stage for optimism and a theory of human progress should, on his death-bed, find the barbarian hordes besieging his beloved city of Hippo.
If St Augustine looked benignly on the role of the merchant, he was also favourable, though not as warmly, towards the social role of rulers of state. On the one hand, Augustine took up and expanded Cicero's parable demonstrating that Alexander the Great was simply a pirate writ large, and that the state is nothing but a large-scale and settled robber band. In his famous City of God, Augustine asks:
And so if justice is left out, what are kingdoms except great robber bands? For what are robber bands except little kingdoms? The band also is a group of men governed by the orders of a leader, bound by a social compact, and its booty is divided according to a law agreed upon. If by repeatedly adding desperate men this plague grows to the point where it holds territory and establishes a fixed seat, seizes cities and subdues people, then it more conspicuously assumes the name of kingdom, and this name is now openly granted to it, not for any subtraction of cupidity, but by addition of impunity. For it was an elegant and true reply that was made to Alexander the Great by a certain pirate whom he had captured. When the king asked him what he was thinking of, that he should molest the sea, he said with defiant independence: ‘The same as you when you molest the world! Since I do this with a little ship I am called a pirate. You do it with a great fleet and are called emperor’.1
Yet Augustine ends by approving the role of the state, even though it is a robber band on a large scale. For while he stressed the individual rather than the polis, in pre-Calvinist fashion Augustine emphasized the wickedness and depravity of man. In this fallen, wicked and sinful world, state rule, though unpleasant and coercive, becomes necessary. Hence, Augustine supported the forcible crushing by the Christian Church in North Africa of the Donatist heresy, which indeed believed, in contrast to Augustine, that all kings were necessarily evil.
The likening of the head of state to a large-scale brigand, however, was resurrected in its original anti-state context by the great Pope Gregory VII, in the course of his struggle with the kings of Europe over his Gregorian reforms in the late eleventh century. This strain of bitter anti-statism, then, emerges from time to time in the early Christian era and in the Middle Ages.