Hey everybody, Marcus here.
There is a trend in MGTOW that seems to encourage pursuit of money as a mechanism to fill the void left behind when a man abandons the pursuit of women. What I want to do in this video is to give a historical backdrop as it pertains to economics, capitalism, usury, and money matters in general. This video is a historical tour that has many moving parts. This video does not defend a normative claim in relation to whether or not one ought chase money. However, I think it will be a valuable source of insights into money issues that has not been expressed in this community. I hope you enjoy it.
How we reflect on the world around us. How we interpret the world around us depends a good part on the categories that are available to us. And those categories come to us in part from cultural traditions that are handed down over time. Concept are like flashlights. They call our attention to some aspect of reality and they leave other aspects of reality in shadows.
Concepts also have their own set of associations or evaluations that they are likely to call up. You can think of an intellectual tradition as a series of interrelated concepts. And as such, intellectual traditions can influence what elements of reality we see and how we evaluate those elements of reality.
To understand the views of modern European and American thinkers about capitalism, we have to keep in mind some older traditions and how they tended to view and evaluate trade, finance, and consumption. We have to keep those in mind because we want to see how more modern European and American intellectuals sometimes took issues with those traditions. Or how they reformulated those traditions under the new conditions of a more commercial society.
And we want to keep those older traditions in mind because they often form the backdrop of concepts, associations and images that many of the readers that these thinkers were writing for would have in their minds.
Two of the main traditions that European and American intellectuals had available to them were very skeptical about commerce, about money making, and about consumption. Those were the traditions of civic republicanism and Christianity. The civic republic tradition began in ancient Greece, was continued in classical Rome, and was revived during the Renaissance in Italy. It was originally formed in Greek city states that were republics. Namely, these city states were self-governing political entities. The problem for such republics and the key problem for the civic republican tradition was how to maintain themselves. How to prevent getting conquered by other city states and how to prevent their republican self-government from degenerating into some form of dictatorial rule.
This subject was explored in the work of Greek philosophy such as in Plato and Aristotle. The civic republican tradition stressed the importance of virtue where an important part of virtue was understood as personal devotion to the republic. Though the pursuit of virtue was not contained to public service, civic virtue was an important element in the pursuit of excellence.
When John F. Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” He was tapping into the classical spirit of the civic republican ideal. What you were supposed to do for your country, if you were a citizen, was two things above all. Firstly, you had to be prepared to fight for your city state. Secondly, you had to take a role in governance. You had to devote a good deal of time to public affairs in discussing how the city state should be run.
You had to be prepared to fight for it because these city states were often at war with other city states. In this situation, defeat meant the end of self-governance. The ideal of virtue applied only to citizens. And citizens made up a minority of the population. Only adult males could be citizens. Indeed, as I have said in several videos before, the root of the word virtue, namely, vir, is the Latin for man or male. So, citizenship was only open to adult males and most males in the Greek city states and in the later Roman republic were not citizens. Many of them were slaves or artisans without the status of citizens.
To be a citizen, meant to be the head of an economically self-sufficient household. That is what the word economy originally meant. It was the science of the self-sufficient household. We refer to this concept today as home economics. The free citizen was not supposed to have to devote himself to economic activity beyond managing his estate where most of the work would be done by slaves or artisans.
The virtuous citizen was also supposed to be magnanimous. Namely, large minded. But to be concerned with making a living was considered to be small minded. This meant that virtue was only possible for those who did not have to work to make a living as others were making it for them. Of course, this needs to be understood as being contained to civic virtue. Personal excellence, thought made easier by leisure, was and still is possible for those who had to work to make a living.
The great fear within the civic republican tradition was corruption. Namely, that people would use their government positions to enrich themselves as individuals rather than looking out for the welfare of the city. Such corruption could lead to the decline of the city state. So, citizens had to be economically independent. Citizens who used their votes or government positions to enrich themselves were seen as corrupt.
The civic republican tradition was very suspicious of those who actually made their livelihood from trade as opposed to farming on the land. As Aristotle puts it, “In the city that is most finely governed, citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchants way of life. For this sort of life, is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”
But why was Aristotle so suspicious of commerce? That is to say, why was Aristotle so suspicious of a life of buying and selling goods at a profit? Aristotle argued that the pursuit of money has no obvious natural end to it. It has no stopping point and it tends towards excess. If you were a farmer, or you owned an estate that was worked by slaves or artisans, then you knew what you needed to have enough to feed, clothe, and support your family and servants in the traditional manner. You would then produce enough to try and do that. In other words, in such a situation, money existed as a means to provide for a known, limited, traditional standard of living.
But, if you were a merchant who supported himself by making money through buying and selling, how would you know when you had enough? Aristotle thought that the pursuit of wealth lacks any intrinsic limit, so it is prone to excess. Aristotle believed that this applied to everyone, however, as far as merchants were concerned, they were particularly susceptible to this problem of excess. He called this problem, pleonexia, which can be translated as overreaching, or greed.
So, the civic republican tradition, which emphasized civic virtue, tended to look down on those who made a living through trade. It provided a way of looking at the world that was suspicious of the political effects of commerce. By the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers were developing this civic republican tradition in a direction that made it more compatible with commerce. But for now, it is important to remember this suspicion and disdain present in classic civic republicanism for commerce.
The other great tradition that formed the cultural backdrop for modern European thinkers was of course Christianity. And if classical Greek and Roman thought was suspicious of trade and merchants, Christianity was outright hostile; at least in the earliest forms of Christianity- as in, the gospels, and the church fathers who wrote in the early centuries after Jesus.
The gospels warn shrilly and repeatedly that riches and the pursuit of riches were a threat to salvation. “Do not lay up for thyselves treasures on earth!” Jesus said in his sermon on the mount. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also!” Or, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” And most famously, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, Paul writes that “Those who want to get rich, fall into temptation and attract many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
Closely intertwined with this disparagement of the pursuit of wealth was the suspicion of merchants and the pursuit of profit. Here it is interesting to see how Christians interpreted a story from the gospel of Mathew. The story goes: Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. Jesus said to them, it is written, my house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves. Now, it is not at all clear that in this story Jesus is in fact condemning merchants or money changers at all; only that he was condemning them for conducting their affairs in the temple.
However, this is not the way that most early Christian commentators interpreted the story. By referring to these verses, an early collection of church law, known as cannon law, declared that the profession of the merchant was scarcely ever aggregable to God. The great collection of cannon law, compiled by Gracian in the 12th century, encapsulated the church’s suspicious view of commerce. Gracian condemned trade and its profits absolutely. He writes: “The man who buys in order that he may gain by selling it again, unchanged as he bought it, that man is of the buyers and sellers who are cast forth from God’s temple.” In the prayers of the Thursday before Easter; namely, the day before good Friday, Christians traditionally recited a prayer that referred to Judas Iscariot as that most vile of merchants. This implied that other merchants were somewhat less vile.
The Church Fathers adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others. As St. Augustine put it, Augustine being considered the greatest of the Church Fathers and a basis for a lot of Christian philosophy, “If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The Church’s attitude towards commerce began to change in the later middle ages as a consequence of a certain commercial revolution that occurred in the middle ages. This revolution took place between the 12th and 14th century. During that period, there was an increase of agricultural productivity that made it possible for people to grow more than they needed to consume and to take the surplus and sell it. This agricultural surplus also meant that more people could live without growing their own food. Namely, this meant that more people could live in towns and cities. This excess of resources created a necessity for merchants; namely, for people who moved goods from the country side to the town while moving goods produced in the towns back to the country side.
The Christian theologians of that period, who were referred to as scholastics, now had to deal with this more commercial reality where there was more trade and more merchants. The scholastics could see that these merchants were providing a useful service in providing their customers with wares from various places. The scholastics recognized that merchants were entitled to some compensation for this service. As a consequence of these observations, the scholastic theologians developed the doctrine of the just price; namely, the market price – the price that was set by supply and demand in the absence of fraud. In other words, when the buyer knew what he was buying and was not being deceived by the merchant.
The scholastics formulated a less hostile view of trade. The greatest of the scholastic theologians and philosophers was St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas lived in the 13th century so he was in the middle of this commercial revolution. Aquinas defended the necessity of private property. He also valued work; including also the sorts of non-agricultural work that went on in towns. And Aquinas also had a role for merchants in all of this; but not a very large role. His view of society was one of an essentially hierarchical view, a static view. In this regard, Aquinas was typical of the mindset of the middle ages.
For Aquinas, the basis for the social order was the family; an institution that he thought arose naturally from man’s sexual desire, which could be controlled by channeling it into marriage, where it led to the propagation of the species. He also thought that it was natural and appropriate for people to form a hierarchy of occupations. People in each occupation were to organize themselves into professional associations that were known as guilds. There were guilds of shoe makers, guilds of barrel makers, silversmiths, and so on. Belonging to a guild would typically be handed down from generation to generation. So, economic life, in the conception of Aquinas, should be ordered to provide the male head of the family with enough income to support his family.
But what was enough? What was the right standard? The answer Aquinas gave, as did most medieval thinkers, was the customary standard. Namely, the standard that was traditional for people in a given position in the social hierarchy. Under this conception of society, everyone ought to know his place. People were not supposed to aspire to change their place in society. That is to say, there was no conception of upward or downward social mobility. A good society was one in which every husband could support his family in the traditional manner. It was wrong to want more. It was wrong to want to move out of the position of society into which God put you.
Though those scholastic thinkers found a place for trade and for merchants, they still remained highly mistrustful of them. The scholastics thought that merchants were more tempted than others by the sin of avarice; the desire to have more than one’s fair share. Remember, for Aquinas and other scholastic thinkers, one’s fair share, was one’s traditional share. The desire to improve one’s social status, to move up in the social ladder, was suspect.
As such, to try to get richer, was itself a sign of the sin of pride and a danger to one’s soul. Therefore, a danger to one’s eternal salvation. We find hints of this view after the reformation as well. Protestant theologians tended to be less suspicious of trade but they were no less convinced that the pursuit of riches threated salvation. We find sermons on the theme of the dangers of the pursuit of wealth among Dutch Calvanists, English Puritans, and in many Protestant churches thereafter.
If medieval Christian thinkers were suspicious of the merchant who bought and sold good in order to make a profit, they were absolutely hostile to merchants of money. Namely, people who lent out money to make a profit from it in the form of interest. This attitude seems to exist even today as can be witnessed by people’s hostility towards bankers and banks. Lending money at interest was known as usury. Usury was a sin.
Today, the term usury is used to usually mean excessive interest. But in the Christian tradition it meant any interest whatsoever. Now, what is so bad about lending out money at interest? Well, the scholastics got their hostile view towards usury from two sources. The first is a biblical source. It comes from the book of Deuteronomy where it says: “You may lend with interest to foreigners, but to your brother, you may not lend with interest.”
The Jewish understanding of this verse was that Jews were forbidden to lend money at interest to their brothers. Namely, to other Jews. This was a direct commandment to them from God. It did not have wider ramifications. The interpretation of this verse by the Catholic scholastic theologians was that the lending of money at interest was always sinful. They argued that all Christians were brothers and therefore they could not lend money at interest to anyone. These Christian theologians cited this verse from Deuteronomy but they also cited Aristotle as another source of why usury was not to be practiced.
Aristotle had argued that the lending of money for profit was unjust because it was unnatural. Money, Aristotle says, is sterile. It cannot produce more money, and therefore, someone who uses money to produce more money for himself, in the form of interest, was committing an unjust act. The medieval Catholic scholastics adopted this argument. They asserted that the prohibition of usury was part of natural law; namely, that it ought to apply to everyone.
So, the scholastic view, the Catholic view, was that lending money at interest was unnatural, unjust, and sinful. As such. usury was expressly forbidden by the second Lateran council of 1139. Now, this focus on usury was taking place at the very time when the role of commerce in European life was starting to expand. And where you have commerce, you have people who need to borrow money. Indeed, it is hard to have much commercial activity without the possibility of borrowing money. It is also hard to get people to lend out money just out of the goodness of their hearts. So, a mortal sin of theology became a mortal necessity of economic life. As one would put it. Those who engage in usury go to hell. Those who fail to engage in usury fall into poverty.
One way by which the church resolved this dilemma between the sinfulness of usury and the necessity of money lending beginning in the 12th century was to prevent the evil of Christian usury by allowing Jews to engage in that forbidden economic activity. Remember, in most of Europe in the middle ages, Jews were the only tolerated non-Christian minority. Jews were not subject to the prohibitions of cannon law. The idea was that the Jews were going to hell anyways due to their repudiation of Christ, so they might as well be allowed to engage in usury.
In this way, there began an association of money making with the Jews. An association that would further taint attitudes towards commerce among Christians. That is part of the importance of the condemnation of usury and its association with the Jews in medieval Christian culture.
Usury is not easily distinguished from merchant activity in general. If trade involves buying something with money in order to sell it for more money, then how different is that from using money to make more money by lending it out. A great deal of attention was devoted by the scholastic theologians to just this problem. What are legitimate form of commerce and what are illicit forms of commerce that smack of usury which was unnatural and sinful? Since it was hard for theologians to draw this line, it was even harder for common people to draw the line. So, the condemnation of money lending as sinful, tended to cast the shadow of suspicion over many aspects of merchant activity. Not only that, but the term usury came to be applied more broadly to other forms of economic activity that were seen as socially harmful.
Usury, then, was a stigmatized category. It was that category of economic activity that was religiously and morally abhorrent. The religious burden, or the negative connotations of usury were extended by the fact that this stigmatized activity was attached to this stigmatized minority, namely the Jews. The Jews were stigmatized, in the first sense in that they were inherently sinful and therefore hell bound. The second stigma laid on them was that of usury. That is to say, usury was something that could only be conducted by those who were outside the community of the faithful.
It was not the case that Jews were the only ones who lent out money at interest during the middle ages. Some Christians did so too including Kings and even monasteries. But, they were not supposed to. The Christians who did lend out money at interest were chastised with the worst insult that Christian theologians could think of; namely, that they were acting like Jews.
Lending out money at interest was often described as Judaising. This stigmatization of money lending, through its association with the Jews was important for another reason as well. Let us recall Aristotle’s notion that money was sterile. This association between money lending and the stigmatized concept of usury coupled with the notion that money is sterile had all sorts of connotations that continued to influence the way in which people thought about money.
Beneath the condemnation of merchants, and of money lending, was the assumption that only those people whose work produced sweat was real work. Every peasant and physical laborer in general tended to hold this idea as a belief. He has to work hard. He sweats. He works with his body and therefore he is entitled to something.
In earlier times, many people simply could not imagine that production could be increased by products of the mind. By the decision to invest resources in one place rather than another. To buy one thing, rather than another. To buy it at the right time and to sell it at the right time. All of this requires gathering information and analyzing information. The economic value of gathering and analyzing information simply was beyond the mental horizon of most of those people who worked on the land or who worked with their hands. The notion of trade, and specifically of money lending, as unproductive, was often expressed in images of parasitism. That is the way in which merchants, and money lenders in particular, were portrayed. They were portrayed as parasites who sucked the life out of the living productive, hardworking, physically sweating population.
So, the priests and those influence by them, tended to regard merchants as moral parasites. The nobles, whose way of life was based on fighting, tended to regard merchants as unmanly cowards. That then was the intellectual backdrop against which European intellectuals came to thinking about capitalism. This set of assumptions and set of images lingered on for a long time and in some version even to this very day.
Thanks for listening.