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Tuesday, August 1, 1989

A Reviewers Notebook: Religious Thought and Economic Society

When Jacob Viner of the University of Chicago and Princeton University died, he left four chapters of an unfinished work called Religious Thought and Economic Society. Two scholars, Jacques Melitz and Donald Winch, have pieced together the Viner work for publication by the Duke University Press of Durham, North Carolina (211 pages, $21.95).

What strikes one at once in reading the Vin-er text is the essential worldliness of the early church fathers. Though they often counseled perfection, they had no illusions about the average man’s capacity for martyrdom. Saint Augustine had been a sinner himself. Besides, there was a paradox involved. It was all very well for an occasional individual to sell all he had to feed the poor, but what if everybody were to do the same? Production would cease, and there would soon be nothing to give away. The poor would really be reduced to scratching to keep alive.

So the early Christian fathers, being practical men, counseled sharing. They did not seek to make the sharing compulsory—that would dry up incentives, and there would be less to share. What they wanted was a system that would yield a maximum of voluntary alms.

This naturally opened the doors to capitalist thinkers, though the word “capitalism” was not used. The rich merchant was to be encouraged as the best possible source of alms. In the Renaissance the rich merchant came into his own. The patricians of the Renaissance paid tribute to the excellence of man instead of stressing the degradation resulting from original sin.

Says Viner, the merchant class “maintained that the life of virtue was within the reach of the ordinary run of mankind and was a pleasurable one . . . virtue was to be pursued for its own sake or for its benefit to others, independently of its contribution to religious salvation or for its obligatoriness as a religious duty.” Material things, sacred and profane art, fine craftsmanship, the embellishment of palaces, churches, and cities were more to be admired than the ascetic life of “passive contemplation or pious resignation.”

Thomas Aquinas was against usury, but it is one thing to frown upon charging interest on cash loans and another to condemn selling for credit at a higher price. Since most buyers are unable to pay cash, if wholesalers were to refuse to sell at credit their sales would shrink. Soon there would be no business at all.

Viner devotes many pages to the quarrels in France between “rigorists” and “laxists.” But just who were the rigorists and who were the laxists is not always clear. The Jansenists professed to believe in a strict condemnation of usury; the Jesuits did not. But the two opposing schools of thought were equally casuistic about loans to merchants to help them do business.

Since Viner was obviously convinced that capitalist practices were fairly well defined even in the Middle Ages, he tangles with the theory promulgated by Max Weber and R. H. Tawney that it was Calvinism that set the spirit of capitalism going. When Venetians and Genoans began adventuring on the Mediterranean after the Saracen enemies of Christianity had been pushed back, the spirit of trade quickly moved over the passes from Italy to South Germany. Banking was elaborated in South Germany. All of this happened before the time of the Protestant Reformation.

To believe that the “geist” of capitalism originated in Calvin’s Geneva or John Knox’s Scotland ignores some palpable geographic facts. As Viner says:

the prosperity of Holland in the seventeenth century aroused the interest of writers in other countries, and various explanations were offered. Sir William Temple singled out for emphasis the industry and thrift of the Dutch, but attributed most “national customs” to “unseen, or unobserved natural causes or necessities.” The only characteristics of this kind which he identified in the Dutch case were poverty in natural resources and density of population. He makes no mention of a religious factor. Some time before 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh singled out Holland, together with the Hanse towns and Denmark, as countries which surpassed England in commerce. He does not mention that all these countries were Protestant . . . .

Sir Josiah Child attributed the superiority of the Dutch in trade to a wide range of customs, institutions, and patterns of economic behavior and laws. His only reference to a religious factor is his inclusion of “toleration of different opinions in matters of religion” as contributing to Dutch prosperity by attracting to Holland industrious and rich dissenters from other countries.

There is only an incidental reason to connect religion with the rise of capitalism in anything Sir William Temple and Sir Walter Raleigh or Josiah Child noticed in Holland. What stands out is the fact that the Dutch government was willing to leave people alone. In short, laissez faire.

A better title to the incomplete Viner book would have been Human Nature and Economic Society. The church fathers and scholastics quoted by Viner were reasonable men who knew that alms would be forthcoming out of a plenty that would still allow scope for individual pleasure. We are less generous in our understanding of human nature today than was the case before we began to legislate welfare by compulsion. No compulsion was necessary to provide education in Britain or America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Schools were built and maintained by churches and private associations. More hospitals were built in England before the days of compulsory health services.

After the common sense of Viner’s early chapters about the church fathers, I had looked forward to reading the fourth chapter on Max Weber and the thesis that capitalism had been particularly fostered by the “Puritan ethic.” But the chapter is so clogged with unfamiliar names (Bishop Herbert Thorndike, Sir Peter Pett, Robert Robinson, Charles Davenant, C. Weiss, Israel Worsley, to cite a few) that it is almost impossible to follow the tangential arguments. One has to hold fast to the proposition that Weber’s thesis applies only to “the ascetic types of Protestantism.” Weber’s “silent” omission of Geneva (Calvin’s city) and Scotland (John Knox’s territory) from the list of the “ascetics” was, says Viner, “not inadvertent.” The spirit of capitalism was not equally present in all Calvinist countries. Contrariwise, it was often present in Catholic countries. Things depended on human nature acting on local traditions. Neither Weber in Germany nor R. H. Tawney in England had a “lock” on any all-inclusive law.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.