“He hath made us kings . . . ”
Roman beggars, like Roman gypsies and Roman cats, not to mention Roman prostitutes warming themselves by their little winter chestnut fires, are the bearers of an ancient tradition, peculiar to the City of the Seven Hills, the caput mundi, which even her membership in the European Union has not yet abolished. One fine mendicant in particular comes to mind, who, in the early 90’s, would plant himself at the top of the steep Salita del Grillo and ask for cinquecento lire for an espresso from the clerical students going in and out of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. If the student gave him more than the price of a coffee, he would catch him passing by the next day and, in cheerful earnest, give back the difference. “Ti do il resto” (“Here’s your change”), he would say. At slight risk of a merely material irreverence, I borrow the words of John the Divine: “And I saw these things, and heard them . . . and let him that is athirst, come” (Revelation 22:8, 17).
“So low lies Rome . . . that virtue goes begging. Blind to the meaning of virtue, man perverts wisdom by turning it to usurious gain.” So wrote a mendicant of a different kind, a Blackfriar and apocalyptic preacher by the name of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, in his poem “The Ruin of the World.” The first beggar lacked property by dire necessity; Savonarola lacked property by the free choice of a vow. The two men at both extremes of poverty, imposed and voluntary, will serve to teach us about the meaning of private property—the one, by his example; the other, by his words. Each will confirm the other’s witness, until a better beggar comes along.
In 1482, the friary of San Marco in Florence received Fra Girolamo as its appointed lecturer in logic, physics, and ethics. This monastery, its cells already then resplendent with the sacred affreschi of Beato Angelico (which can be admired there to this day), would be the scene of his prophetic vocation leading to the Florentine Republic of Christ the King—sic, the oxymoron is only apparent—up to his tragic end in the fires of the Piazza della Signoria in 1498.
The ninth book of Savonarola’s Compendium of Moral Philosophy offers an outline of his lectures on the art of economics. This art contains several subalternate arts. Those which deal with the holding of property are two: the ars possessiva, or the “art of possession”; and the ars pecuniativa, or the “art of moneymaking.” The former is natural and finite in its aim. The latter is artificial and has the former as its aim but, when abused, is infinite, having its end in itself.
The art of possession is natural, for the possessive art is the art of acquiring food and natural wealth . . . The art of possession does not will to acquire in infinitum since it obtains the riches which serve the necessity of nature and the necessities of nature are finite, since nature is content with little. Thus since it is natural and nature does not tend to infinity, it is clear that it is not infinite, nor are the means of any art infinite, either in number or in continuous quantity.
The art of moneymaking is not natural, since the pecuniary art is the art of obtaining a multitude of monies. Money, however, was invented on account of the need for an instrument of just exchange . . . as it was too much of a burden to carry about the things possessed themselves for barter, men began to exchange money for things.
The art of moneymaking is thus ordered to the art of possession, for the art of possession seeks food and natural wealth, while the art of moneymaking seeks artificial wealth. Therefore, just as artificial riches are ordered to natural, thus the art of moneymaking is ordered to the art of possession.
A disordered art of moneymaking is infinite. The art of moneymaking is disordered when it does not order the acquisition of money to the possession of natural riches as its proper end. It is called infinite since it seeks money without any limit. Were it rightly ordered it would seek as much money as suffices for having natural riches, whose acquisition has a limit, as has been said. Yet when it places its end in money, it loves money for its own sake, and since the end is that which is sought for its own sake, as it increases it is ever loved and more sought after in infinitum. Since the love of the end has no measure, thus it is that a disordered art of moneymaking seeks money without any end, and the love of money grows as much as the money itself increases.
A disordered art of moneymaking is supremely harmful to the community. First of all it harms the domestic economy, since the moneymaker gives himself to the acquisition of money as his end, and does not take care of the good life for himself or for those subject to him. Whence it happens that they do not live well together in the household, but according to their corrupt appetites . . . Money should be acquired as a just medium of exchange for real things, as it was originally invented. Thus the corruption of the art of moneymaking touches on the very common good of society, which it destroys much more even than in the household since it brings with it the abuse of offices and arts in society for the sake of the love of money, and so it is clear that a disordered art of moneymaking is most harmful.
Are these words, at best, those of one hopelessly naive, or, at worst, those of a dangerous reactionary, the last survival of a medieval sensibility faced with the new modern money economy brought in by the Florentine bankers? Perhaps. But before drawing this conclusion too hastily and adding our faggots to the pyre, let Saint Paul (1 Timothy 6:8-10) have his say:
And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
The simple truth here is that the means to an end must never be loved more than the end itself. Since arts are always instrumental, they always serve an end. A pure money economy—and the wild borrowing it encourages—is as ultimately unwholesome and irrational as the “art for art’s sake” of the Romantic aesthete. True, they both produce useful and beautiful things nonetheless, but this is an accidental by-product, a simple indication that nothing can be at all without being good in some way, not even defects and monstrosities. Yet economics is not an independent science, any more than the fine arts. It is an art flowing from ethics. It is dependent on our knowledge of what constitutes the Good for Man. It is in the light of this good that our economy is to be judged and our exercise of the arts of possession and moneymaking is to be guided.
The friar goes on to explain—in the line of his teachers Aristotle and Aquinas—that Man’s good on earth is found within a household and its analogues, such as monasteries. A household is in the care of a man (and, yes, occasionally a woman) and consists of his offspring and his workers—that is, both his family and his business. The householder’s duty is to manage his property for their good in their different relationships to him. The state is a community of households, a commonwealth (yes, wealth, in the sense of those things men need to live, and live well, in view of their earthly descendants and their heavenly destiny). These are the natural goods of which Savonarola speaks when defining the art of possession, a man’s real estate and its products: food, clothing, housing, proper instruction, honest work, wholesome entertainments, and right worship. Thus, his wealth is naturally dependent on the size of his household, and money is held to the extent it is needed to obtain these things when he does not produce them himself, and to protect against want in time of need. To the extent that our society sees the household in its extended, classical sense as the primary analogate of economics, to that extent will it have a just evaluation and respect for property. This is because only this kind of economy is finally ordered to the acquisition of natural, not artificial, wealth. That household and economy are not words felt as practically redundant, as their etymology indicates, is evidence of how far our economy is from its natural norm. At the root of this disorder is the condition that the increase of money is seen as an end in itself and not ordered to natural possession. Then is no one to be rich beyond the natural needs of his own household? Let us hear what Savonarola says:
The king should have an abundance of riches. First of all because they give more pleasure as they are acquired by his own effort and engender a greater concern for conserving them, and if he did not possess them he would have to beg them from others, and from this many disadvantages would arise . . . Secondly, he should abound in the artificial riches of money because of the just exchanges he must make, as well as the necessity of his subjects, the maintenance of defenses, and other things of this sort. Otherwise he would have to borrow, which is unfitting for a king, and quickly makes enemies for him.
Taking the king as the model for a rich man, a simple moral can be drawn for all who, like him, have an abundance of riches. First of all, the rich man neither begs nor borrows, for he has a surfeit of natural and artificial wealth, of property and money. His excess of artificial wealth, his great store of money, however, has only one justification: the common good of his neighbors in the commonwealth. The chiefest of the elements of the common good is peace, which is maintained by not being in debt (which tends to create enemies by increasing the power of one’s creditors) and by being able to serve the needs of one’s countrymen.
Taking the king as the model for the state in whatever legitimate polity it may be realized, it is clear that a government should have great natural and artificial wealth. Yet public wealth ought not to compete with the private wealth of households; in fact, it is meant to protect and secure this latter, not to replace it. Savonarola did not foresee contemporary developments, but they can easily be evaluated in the light of his description of the role of wealth in a rightly ordered state. Mid-20th-century Roman-school economists in the tradition of Savonarola, such as the great Luxembourgeois monk Joseph Gredt, who was a student of Giuseppe Pecci, Pope Leo XIII’s brother, and lectured for many years in Rome at Sant’Anselmo, taught that property taxes were contrary to the natural law. In his Ethica Specialis, he asserts, “Property taxes in which the possessors of lands must pay a tax which corresponds to the value of their parcels are against the law of nature, since such a tax in fact abolishes real private possession.”
A state that takes on itself the burden of guaranteeing the goods normally sought and found in households must take the natural wealth of its citizens outright or, more indirectly, by taxing it or borrowing. This deprives citizens of the artificial wealth they must prudently maintain. Thus, there will be constant tension with and among the state’s own subjects, as well as many civil and foreign conflicts. Since rulers themselves have families and businesses, the interests—no play on words intended—of the state may quickly become indistinguishable from those of the rulers’ households, and when the enormous entitlements originally meant to be guaranteed by taking, taxing, and borrowing begin to conflict with the interests of these ruling households, these entitlements will not be upheld. Yet the economic advantage of these families will be. Homeless beggars will also abound, perhaps to be the objects of “faith-based initiatives.”
How far Savonarola’s ideal of regal economy is from the realities of our contemporary world “economy” is only too obvious. States that take the private artificial riches of their own citizens to finance their debts to an enemy state that owns a lion’s share of their currency are hardly ones in which the household and the commonweal are the proper ends of moneymaking, nor are states that sell off their natural wealth to foreign powers by “privatizing” in return for money. In fact, these are states that are not states in any morally recognizable sense of the term, with an economy that is not an economy at all. Compared to these, Lord Acton and Pio Nono are soulmates, and the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, the Schlamperei of the Habsburgs, and the machine politics of the Mafia seem positively wholesome. Perhaps the only apt comparison is the eschatological Babylon the Great.
The present writer is an ecclesiastic who will not repeat even in his small measure the error of the apocalyptic friar by claiming that we can and must devote ourselves to reactionary revolution. What he can do is to encourage families and businesses to make money in the present system with a view to promoting the true good of their households and their neighbors; in short, to possess and to bestow with their private money true natural wealth—that is, land, food, housing, sound intellectual formation, and religious observance; in short, to be the surrogate kings of a widowed state and the fathers of orphaned households, for now, more than ever, it is true that a man’s home is his castle.
“And that no man might buy or sell, save that he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Revelation 13:17). A warning is in order here for those optimistic conservatives who say, “yes, but . . . ” and end up as apologists for the current global economy rather than its unwilling, but resourceful, subjects. Savonarola shook the foundations of Florence with his commentaries on the Apocalypse. Let us hear a contemporary exegete of the same mysterious book. The Methodist Scripture scholar Margaret Barker tells us in her intriguing collection The Great High Priest:
The present Greek text has charagma for the “mark” of the beast, but this also means the mark left by the bite of a snake. In Hebrew, this “bite” would have been neshek, which is the word used for interest paid on a loan . . . and it seems that those who wore the mark of the beast had been involved in money lending at interest to exacerbate the plight of their people. The great harlot in Revelation 17 was Jerusalem, condemned to destruction not for her idolatry, as in former times, but because of her ill-gotten wealth. As the city burned in Revelation 18, the saints rejoiced but the merchants wept.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne” (Revelation 3:20-21). Just this last December, one of the Roman theologians of my abbey, on his way to school, encountered Peter, the one-armed Bulgarian Orthodox beggar who hangs around the Circus Maximus, not far from the now (thanks to John Paul II’s gift of it) Orthodox Church of San Teodoro. He politely refused the alms of an egg-salad sandwich, because eating it, he explained, would break the Advent fast. “So high stands Rome, that virtue goes begging,” now sings Savonarola from the Jerusalem above. So much for property, real or artificial: The better beggar Peter is enthroned in the City and the World. “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb . . . And behold I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 19:9; 22:12).
Leave a Reply