Greek/Christian Condemnations of Profit/Usury

September 12, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 4:29 pm   Category: Ethics,Life,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices,Politics

(This is the second in a series of posts dedicated to the relationship between Mormonism and capitalism.)

Last post I proposed to frame the history of capitalism around the tensions between self-interested exchange and reciprocal charity – two very different and mutually incompatible ways of organizing social relations.  This tension is best illustrated by a father who will not provide for his family unless somebody can answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”  To be sure, some classical liberals have sought to actually answer this question, but I think most of us think the very act of asking the question (let alone trying to answer it) is, at best, morally problematic.

The question that capitalism forces upon us is the extent to which we want to model social relations on familial reciprocity or on contractual exchange?  Which is the rule and which is the exception, and when is it the exception?  Muller’s second lecture, “The Greek and Christian Traditions,” is aimed at describing how medieval society insisted that we organize economic relations around household relations as both the Civic Republican and Christian traditions dictated. It is against this moral background that the modern advocacy of capitalism and the radical trans-valuation of morals that it entailed should be understood.  The questions which we Mormons ought to ask ourselves are: 1) To what extent do our scriptures and revelations presuppose the traditional condemnations of profit and usury? and 2) To what extent do our scriptures and revelations support the radical trans-valuation by which these condemnations were overthrown? 

The Greek Tradition of Civic Republicanism

An understanding of the relationship between economics and politics as advocated by the Greeks and those influenced by them is extremely helpful to understanding the perceived moral threats of capitalism.  For starters, the word economics comes from the Greek word oikos, which means household.  The extent to which we moderns think of home economics as something entirely separate from “regular” economics is itself a sign of how much capitalism has restructured our way of thinking and speaking from that of the more subsistence-oriented modes of life.  Within the Greek mind, the primary distinction lay not between “home” and “market” economics, but between the oikos (economics) and the polis (politics).

The virtues of Civic Republicanism were centered around two perceived threats: Invasion from without and dictatorships from within.  These two threats were mitigated by two, corresponding virtues that every citizen must display: a willingness to take up arms in defense of the polis and active participation in political government.  The very nature of these two virtues inevitably limited citizenship to a very small number of people who had both the leisure and the training to engage in either of these activities.  In other words, a citizen must, as a matter of practical necessity, be the economically self-sufficient head of some household.  It is in this way that polis was the representation, integration and unification of various oikoi within one city state.

The self-sufficiency of the citizen’s household is worth elaborating upon.  This self-sufficiency is not merely limited to “staying out of debt”, “staying out of the red” or some such euphemism for maximizing net assets.  Rather, this self-sufficiency included a practical independence from the market in general.  To be sure, oikoi were allowed to trade their surplus on the market, but they were not allowed to be dependent for their own sustenance upon such market transactions.  Each oikos was to produce its own subsistence, a practice which is very much at odds with any thorough going division of labor.  The reason for this was that practical dependence on others is the primary source of corruption.

For the Greeks, the vice of corruption included far more than we moderns include under that term.  For them, corruption and self-interest were almost one and the same thing.  Citizenship requires the virtue of magnanimity or broad-mindedness: placing the interests of others ahead of one’s own.  It was thus thought that peasants, artisans and traders who had to work for a living should all be denied citizenship because they were, by very definition, narrow-minded.  Practical necessity simply did not allow such people the opportunity to places the needs of others ahead of their own.

Narrow-mindedness, self-interest, vulgarity and corruption were almost synonymous terms and all of which disqualified one for the status of citizen.  It was impossible to be virtuous if one was not free from economic interests.  It is in this conceptual context that Aristotle claimed that,

“In the city that is most finely governed, the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of [way of] life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”

Before continuing to the Christian tradition, we should note how these Civic virtues have strongly influenced most modern criticisms of capitalism: Aristocratic heads of household were protected from economic necessity so as to make them as other-oriented and virtuous as possible.  Socialists, broadly speaking, want to free as many people from economic necessity as possible in order to make everybody virtuous, while classical liberals, by contrast, want to subject as many people as possible to the pressures of economic necessity and self-interest, thus corrupting as much virtue as possible.

The Christian Tradition

The New Testament condemnations of and warnings against both the love of money and rich people in general are quite well known and hardly worth elaborating on at length.  The point that Muller wants to emphasize in his lecture is that the early Christians took such passages VERY literally.  Consider the case in which Jesus drove the traders and money-changers out of the temple with a whip.  The early Christians did not take Jesus to be opposing the location in which such activities were taking place, but as a condemnation of trading and money-changing as such.  They took Jesus to be saying that such activities were sins, regardless of where they took place.

An influential 12th Century theologian (Gratian) declared:

“… 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.”

Thomas Aquinas – the great theologian who was to synthesize Christian doctrine and Aristotelian philosophy agreed whole-heartedly with this general outlook.  Aquinas thought all human society was one large chain of being where each person was born into a particular place within a family that was not structured according to self-interested exchange; each family was situated within some guild (carpenters, shoemakers, etc.) that was non organized according to self-interested exchange; and each guild was situated within a larger, political hierarchy that was not organized according to self-interested exchange.  (When one notes that Aquinas absolutely endorsed private property, his vision starts to sound a lot like the united order!)

What is most important to understand about this social hierarchy is that it was a great chain of being, not a ladder.  Social stratification was not only see as being unproblematic, but was actively prescribed.  The great moral danger which economic relations in general present, within this view of society, was not economic or social inequality but social mobility.  To seek to improve one’s place within this social chain of being just was the sin of pride.

The sin of pride thus included seeking to be unequal with those to which we are supposed to be equal as well as seeking to be equal with those above us to which we are supposed to be unequal.  If we were thus to import Aquinas’ understanding of the relationship between wealth and pride into the Mormon understanding of the pride cycle we get a somewhat different picture than we moderns are accustomed to: The material prosperity of a community leads individuals to seek to improve their own station relative to others within the community, which just is the sin of pride, which then leads to collapse.  Such a reading would constitute a strong condemnation of capitalist thinking.  Of course, the extent to which Aquinas’ understanding is identical, or even compatible with that found in the BoM itself is a question that I will leave for another time.

Outsourcing Morally Despised Sources of Utility

The Medieval mindset held that only sweaty, manual labor produced value.  As such, any attempt to profit without having to sweat was considered a sin.  This would include selling something at a higher price than one had bought it or the closely related sin of making somebody pay back a loan at interest.  The wealth in the world was thus not totally fixed, but the idea that we could create more or better wealth simply by loans and trading was totally rejected.  As St. Augustine insisted, “If one does not lose, the other does not gain.” The only way that a trader could gain was by giving the people from which they bought and/or the people to which they sold less.  This relationship is made quite explicit in the practice of usury where a lender will only help another if they get money without having to sweat.

The condemnation of usury was wide spread, of ancient origin and very deeply-seated. It was against the law in continental Europe all the way up until the French Revolution after which Napoleon restructured the laws of the rest of Europe at gun point.  In order for capitalism to gain wide-spread acceptance, a drastic inversion of moral values had been necessary.  Philosophers and rhetoricians had to convince the larger public that gaining massive profits without any sweat at all, but only by buying as cheaply as possible and selling as dearly as possible was either 1) not condemned by scripture, and/or 2) somehow in everybody’s interest.  Both of these points were extremely difficult sells.

The topic of usury brings us to a point which Muller draws a great deal of attention to: the association between capitalism and the Jews.  The Jews, when they were tolerated, were the only tolerated religious minority in Medieval Europe.  This toleration did not, however, include allowing them to own property, farm land or participate in artisanal guilds – to say nothing of citizenship.  These constraints inevitably led them into the professions of trade and money-lending.

Indeed, the Jews’ participation in (money) trade was actively encouraged by many Christians who had nothing but their own interests in mind.  Consider the following passage in Deuteronomy:

“You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest” (Deut. 23:20)

The problem for Christian merchants and would-be bankers was that the New Testament makes it clear that, for a Christian living in a Christian society, there were no foreigners since every person was (supposed to be) his/her brother.  Consequently, medieval Jews were actively encouraged by Christian merchants to lend them money at interest since 1) the Jewish religion did not forbid it, and 2) the Jews were going to hell anyways.  It is in this sense that the history of European anti-Semitism has very much been one of forcing the Jews to engage in a historically disreputable profession, and them hating them for doing so… Especially when this relationship began to work to the Jews’ advantage.

It was for reasons like these that anti-capitalist thinking on both the political left and (especially) the political right became tightly inter-connected with anti-Semitism.  The problem, however, is that this economic exploitation of a morally despised source of utility was part of an ongoing process exploitative dehumanization that was not at all native or limited to the Jewish minority.  The transatlantic slave trade provides just as perfect an example of how European merchants would outsource a morally repugnant practice overseas, thus allowing themselves the luxury to morally condemn the practice while at the same time profiting from and economically supporting it.  The question of how much this tendency for people to economically support that which they morally despise is native and/or limited to capitalism will be an ongoing theme in this series.


  1. A few thoughts.

    First I think the way you’re framing capitalism while common is wrong. There’s nothing inherent to capitalism that says we have to ask “what’s in it for me.” Indeed for capitalism to function there has to be a certain moral component for the masses. It’s just that capitalism can show how the immoral may still improve peoples lives. This is why going as far back as Adam Smith one has to read “Wealth of Nations” alongside “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” I think that fundamentally Smith saw economics as a type of moral philosophy.

    That said I think capitalism is about exchange of values. Time and effort have value. So to talk about me serving my family is inherently to inject economics into it simply due to what I’m sacrificing to make that service.

    Second, the very meaning of profit becomes more complex than it appears at first glance because of this notion. We can talk about profit in terms of money/wealth. However if I value my family and those values require exchanges I can therefore monetize, it seems to me that we can talk about being a profitable servant relative to our families or any other ethical good. I know people don’t normally like to think that way, but there’s a strong sense in which it is true. (And interestingly quasi-economic parables are common in the New Testament)

    A common way of thinking of the problem you raise of the love of money is in terms of goods of first or second intent. That is goods we want because we want the good and goods we want in order to exchange for the goods we want. Money is a medium. It shouldn’t be something sought on its own because on its own its worthless. (Nibley harps on this point but you find it in Aquinas or the other medievals influenced by Aristotle)

    Fundamentally the issue isn’t capitalism but how we value the goods we value.

    Comment by Clark — September 13, 2016 @ 10:21 am

  2. Okay, but did I get the Greek or Christian views wrong? Yes, I (rather safely) presupposed some things about capitalism (division of labor and exchange), but this post wasn’t really about capitalism as such. Rather, it was setting the historical stage in order to show what value system capitalism had to overcome and transvaluate.

    “Money is a medium. It shouldn’t be something sought on its own because on its own its worthless.”

    The Christians and Greeks fully agreed. The problem is that capitalism does not.

    The whole point that both Marx and Weber try to analyze is how the west went from the subsistence mentality of “C -> M -> C`” were we make a commodity, sell it for money and then use that money to buy a different, more preferred commodity to the mentality of “M -> C -> M`” where a capitalist has money, invents it in the production of some, indeed, any commodity, which is then sold for more money. This second mentality is the exact mentality of merchants, bankers and capitalism in general. Framing things in terms of maximizing utility is merely a rather transparent euphemism for the maximization of some quantifiable entity (can you think of any such quantifiable entity other than money?).

    Aristotle was very sensitive to these two different mentalities and how they are totally different from one another. It was precisely because this second mentality, aimed at it is toward maximization, has no natural limit that it did not lend itself to moderation, temperance or virtue, but instead cultivated “pleonexia” (overreaching, greediness or even ambition). The owner of a self-sufficient oikos, by contrast, knew exactly how much he needed to feed and clothe his family and servants – thus making it very obvious when a person was seeking more than “sufficient for their needs” as us Mormons would put it.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 13, 2016 @ 10:52 am

  3. To continue a bit, Weber was at pains to distinguish the subsistence “C -> M -> C`” where C` is a consumed commodity from “M -> C -> M`” where M` is money that gets reinvested.

    The claimed that by people accuse capitalists of gluttonous, over-consumption but this was a fundamental mistake arrived at by assuming that capitalists were using money as a mere means to consumption. But this is exactly what they are NOT doing.

    The Protestant ethic was aimed at maximizing profits as a sign of chosen-ness, while also insisting that those profits were not for consumption. This was merely the transition (the only such transition in history) from the subsistence “money as a means”, to the capitalist “money as an end toward which commodities are mere means”.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 13, 2016 @ 11:16 am

  4. Very interesting history which I wasn’t aware of. I can’t help reading the New Testament through the eyes of a capitalist, particularly the parable of the talents, the tower, the pearl of great price, and the unjust steward, all of which use “wise” economic behaviour as a metaphor for wise spiritual behaviour. Didn’t any of the ancient Christians pick up on these parables as examples of acceptable economic practice, particularly the man who takes his talents “to the market” and makes a profit. Is he doing “sweaty labor” or cunning exchange? The unjust stewart parable could even be read as a kind of ancient bankruptcy.

    Another thought: the early apostles belonged to a small Christian sect within a much larger Roman world, and they didn’t really think their goal was to conquer the world for Christ (correct me if I’m wrong). They were content to have all things in common among their small little community, within the larger community, which was not condemned, “for the powers that be are ordained of God…render unto Cesar…etc.”

    It was only after Constantine that Christians begin to think about imposing their Christian values on everyone (except Jews). But by then, the church is already clearly in apostasy, and whatever Aquinas might have to say about economics has nothing to do with the authorised Christianity of the early apostles and the way in which they operated within the broader Roman world.

    Ultimately, whatever the masses do, whether capitalism, communism, feudalism, true Christianity has nothing to say about that. Only apostate Christianity has something to say. I would even imagine that Paul didn’t care much about what his own Christian brethren did economically, since he had very laisez faire attitudes about commandments in general, since that was all “the law” and the law was dead.

    I think Christ’s parables are similar. He talks about the unjust steward, not as a “child of light,” but as a “child of the world,” and He offers no condemnation of the steward, but uses him as a metaphor for spiritual shrewdness. Christ could care less whether what the unjust steward is ethical or not, because the unjust steward is a “child of the world,” a Gentile dog.

    Our attitudes towards capitalism are distorted by centuries of apostate Christianity, which has tried to impose psudeo-Christian values on mankind in general, instead of just being a minority community among Gentiles. Should we even judge anything Gentiles do, since they are not under the law?

    Our tiny little Christian community lives in the world, but not of the world.

    Comment by Nate — September 13, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

  5. I actually don’t have too much to object to in your comment. Here’s were I start pushing back:

    1) I totally deny the claim that religion has nothing to do with economics. The entire OT and D&C say far too much on the issue to think any such thing.

    2) I worry that you pretty much equate “economics” with “capitalism”. The Chinese were economically superior to Europe throughout almost the entire middle ages but were not capitalists by any definition. Nor is using a market the defining feature of capitalism. The subsistence economy of a household would regularly use the market to sell or trade their surplus for other commodities that meant for consumption. There is nothing capitalist about this, and since capitalism wasn’t invented until 1500 years after the NT, I would be very hesitant to import it into the scriptures.

    Increasing productivity wasn’t a sin, neither was trading surplus on the market as such. What was a sin was 1) trying to maximize one’s profit in the market by 1a) selling for more than the traditional price, or 1b) buying for less than the traditional price, 2) charging interest on a loan, or 3) trying to compete with the productivity of other households.

    I’m not sure that the NT advocates any of these things.

    That said, I absolutely agree that we Mormons have free reign to dismiss much of medieval thought. I do have strong reservations in thinking that the apostasy set in as early as the 2nd century, however. I just think that a dead prophets isn’t much more binding than any other dead person.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 13, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

  6. If I had to guess, the early Christian probably used a bunch of mental gymnastic when interpreting the parable of the talents in the same way that we use mental gymnastic when we read Jesus’ claim that rich men cannot get into heaven.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 13, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

  7. Jeff (2) Yeah, I just don’t think Capitalism treats money as an ends in itself. I know people (usually critics of capitalism) say this, but capitalism itself sees prices are merely signifying desires for particular goods by people. That is inherent to capitalism is money as a medium with no inherent value.

    The typical view is that people who treat it as a thing in itself are really either confused (the classical pre-capitalist view of goods of first and second intent) or else are valuing signaling. i.e. conspicuous consumption not just of money but any visual goods to signify their social position. But in that case then money still is a medium (as are expensive goods like supercars, huge homes, etc.) with the real item being the value of this signaling which is the good of first intent.

    Nate (3) I agree with how many parables use wise economic acts as guides to spiritual acts, strongly suggesting one can to a degree treat spirituality economically. (Again recognizing the important of morality in economics as I mentioned relative to Adam Smith)

    That said I agree with Jeff that you’re equating economics with capitalism. While capitalism as typically used in public discussions is a muddled term, I think in general it means markets where trades are private with limited state control of trades. Profit in capitalism means trading for something you want with something you want less.

    Jeff (5) Where do you see as a sin in the NT the idea of selling for a price different from the “traditional price.” I agree that culturally in Europe that was seen as a sin. We can see that with things like bread prices.

    With regards to ursury I know many read the parable of the talents as condemning ursury but I confess that seems a weak reading IMO. It seems to be saying the opposite since the master says the unwise servant should have at least earned interest on the talent. The question of interpretation is whether the master is a tyrant or a type of God. If it’s a tyrant not God (what most scholars assume but not how most Mormons read it) then the unwise servant is actually the hero of the parable because he stands up to the master and refuses to collect interest. Of course there are condemnations in the OT – at least by the Deuteronomist and Priestly traditions. But it’s interesting that the way Mormons read the NT here it’s really condemning the unwise servant for refusing to collect interest.

    I should note that by your hermeneutic principles since this is the way living authorities read the passage you are condemned to accept this reading for capitalism. LOL.

    Comment by Clark — September 14, 2016 @ 8:04 am

  8. “capitalism itself sees prices are merely signifying desires for particular goods by people.”

    Economists interpret prices that way. That capitalists do as well seems highly improbable to me. Either way, the main point is that premodern economies were oriented toward production for the sake of consumption, while capitalism is not.

    “Where do you see as a sin in the NT the idea of selling for a price different from the “traditional price.” I agree that culturally in Europe that was seen as a sin”

    Then we pretty much agree. I wasn’t trying to say the NT actually says – but if I were a guessing man, I’d definitely say that the NT authors presupposed it. Either way, the main point is that the early through medieval Christians believed it, which is all I’m going for. To be a bit clearer, they thought that buying or selling at anything other than the “just price” (a technical term) was a sin, and the just price was almost always the traditional price.

    “the master says the unwise servant should have at least earned interest on the talent”

    I’m not sure that it says any such thing. The master wanted to servant to “increase” the talents, but this has nothing to do with interest or buying low and selling high. Again, higher productivity is not itself a sin, and this is all the parable seems to praise.

    “I should note that by your hermeneutic principles since this is the way living authorities read the passage you are condemned to accept this reading for capitalism. LOL.”

    :) Somewhat. The problem is that I am not trying to say that we ought to do or believe X because the NT says so. This would be theology and theology is a sin. :) Rather, I am trying to bring as much coherence to the medieval view of economics as I can in order to contrast it with capitalism for the sake of getting a better bearing on the latter.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 14, 2016 @ 8:34 am

  9. You are right that I need to think about how far I’m willing to take my hermeneutic principle. A part of me wants to say that I using other people’s acceptance of scripture against them… but I’m not sure this is good enough. At this point I think I just endorse the principle, but fail to live up to it myself…. like so many other commandments.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 14, 2016 @ 8:45 am

  10. Jeff (8) I just don’t think I can agree with that formulation. It’s true there was far less trade in premodern societies and far less specialization. But I see this as a matter of degree because of course there were trade goods. People typically made their own food but didn’t always make their own tools. The blacksmith in a premodern society had an important place, but it seems it was inherently tied to trade for items they didn’t have.

    Comment by Clark — September 14, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

  11. Of course there were blacksmiths who traded, but 1) they were denied citizenship under civic republicanism, and 2) they were, by law, members of a guild that 2a) tightly regulated availability, quality and prices, 2b) people were usually born into the guild it being part of their inherited status, and 2c) legally bound guilds men together such that if a blacksmith died, the other blacksmith in the guild were legally required to care for his family.

    All of these things are very foreign to capitalism.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 14, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

  12. Perhaps we should go back to the last posts tripartite definition of capitalism:

    1) Private property
    2) Formal freedom of individuals
    3) Production aimed primarily at the market.

    1-The private and public sphere were merged into one during the middle ages (the King was thought to own cities, which is why he eventually sided with them against the landed aristocracy).
    2-There was no formal freedom. People were legally tied to land or guild.
    3-Production was not primarily aimed at the market. Yet, there was a market in which people traded, but it was not the primary means of distribution. As I’ve said elsewhere, since 90% of what a household consumed came from within that same household, that would mean that only 10% of produced goods were distributed through the market.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 14, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

  13. The point Jeff is that there was trade. There were guilds just as within capitalism there are unions and regulations and frequently social safety nets.

    Markets definitely weren’t great until relatively recently in history. But they were there. My point is that this is much more a matter of degree than kind. Now relatively to medieval European feudalism you have a much stronger point. But of course that’s not the only type of pre-modern culture.

    Comment by Clark — September 14, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

  14. Okay, but a small degree of trade does not equal capitalism by a long shot. Almost every major civilization has had merchants. What sets capitalism apart from the rest is that it – to use Adam Smith’s phrase – turns EVERYBODY into a merchant.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 14, 2016 @ 10:08 pm

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