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.

“A Multitude of Servants”: Aquinas’s critique of communism

Thomas Aquinas was the youngest son of a wealthy, powerful, highly connected family and was sent as an oblate at the age of five or six to the influential Benedictine Abbey at Monte Casino (where his uncle was abbot, a position some speculate Thomas was destined for). Yet he decisively turned his back on a life of pomp and affluence when he decided (against his families opposition) to join the recently formed Dominicans, an order of mendicant friars committed, in part, to individual poverty. What did this man, who once said that he would willingly trade the city of Paris for Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, think about communism as a universal form for society? In Summa Theologiae 2-2.66.2, “Whether it is lawful for anyone to possess something as his own,” Thomas gives three reasons why it “is necessary to human life” that a man, in general, should indeed possess property:

First, because everyone is more diligent in procuring something for himself than something which is to belong to all or many; for each one, avoiding labour, would leave to someone else [the procuring of] that which was to belong to all in common, which is what happens where there is a multitude of servants. Second, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly manner if each man is responsible for the care of something which is his own, whereas there would be confusion if everyone were responsible for everything in general. Third, because a more peaceful state of things is preserved for mankind if each is contented with his own. Hence we see that quarrels arise more frequently between those who hold property in common and where there is no division of the things possessed.

Indolence, confusion, and quarrelsomeness–Thomas’s threefold indictment of communism. His illustration of a property-less community is also telling–“a multitude of servants.” When it comes, however, to the question, not of the possession of property, but as to its use, Thomas, citing 1 Timothy 6:17 (“Charge them that are rich in this world that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate”), says that a “man ought to hold external things not as his own, but as common: that is, in such a way that he is ready to share them with others in the event of need.”