Economics is a Wisdom

I’m teaching a philosophical theology elective this fall, with Aquinas (surprise, surprise) serving as the backbone of the course (though with a good measure of Anselm and Tolkien thrown in as well). One of the central themes of the class, moreover, is what I refer to as Aquinas’s “grammar and logic of divine action”: the way in which he draws from the fundamental principles of human action–including such concepts as ends, goods, intellect, will, choice, power, etc.–in order to articulate what we can know (albeit analogically and negatively) about God’s own being and action; but also the way in which, in doing so, Aquinas effectively establishes God as the first, ideal or paradigmatic actor against which all human action, including specifically economic action, is ultimately to be compared and understood. For Aquinas, in sum, our theology of divine action is both informed by and informative of the grammar and logic of human action.

The Aquinas readings in the course begin where Aquinas himself commences his two great works of theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. In the opening passages of these works I identify at least four distinct levels or respects in which I think economics might be seen to be not only relevant but integral to Aquinas’s overall theological and philosophical project. The first (I’ll address the other three in subsequent posts) has to do with the fact that, as Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1 (see passage below), the most universal and encompassing mode of all human inquiry and knowledge is philosophy, or “wisdom,” which he characterizes as the knowledge of things in their ordering towards their end. Thus, a particular branch of philosophy or wisdom, such as architecture, he says, consists in the knowledge of particular things as they are ordered to a particular end, while a more universal wisdom, such as theology, is that which understands a more universal order of things as they are ordered to a more universal end. But if so, then economics, which I define, in a certain Thomistic revision of Lionel Robbin’s well-known and influential definition, as the science of action in its use of scarce means as they are ordered to a desired end, is to be properly classified as a branch or sub-discipline within philosophy or wisdom. Economics, in short, is a wisdom. 

SCG 1.1: “The Office of the Wise Man”

The usage of the multitude, which according to the Philosopher is to be followed in giving names to things, has commonly held that they are to be called wise who order things rightly and govern them well. Hence, among other things that men have conceived about the wise man, the Philosopher includes the notion that “it belongs to the wise man to order.” Now, the rule of government and order for all things directed to an end must be taken from the end. For, since the end of each thing is its good, a thing is then best disposed when it is fittingly ordered to its end. And so we see among the arts that one functions as the governor and the ruler of another because it controls its end. Thus, the art of medicine rules and orders the art of the chemist because health, with which medicine is concerned, is the end of all the medications prepared by the art of the chemist. A similar situation obtains in the art of ship navigation in relation to shipbuilding, and in the military art with respect to the equestrian art and the equipment of war. The arts that rule other arts are called architectonic, as being the ruling arts. That is why the artisans devoted to these arts, who are called master artisans, appropriate to themselves the name of wise men. But, since these artisans are concerned, in each case, with the ends of certain particular things, they do not reach to the universal end of all things. They are therefore said to be wise with respect to this or that thing; in which sense it is said that “as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.