A history of economic rationalism


THE ancient civilizations were anti-industrial, resting upon the practice of slavery, and consequently emphasizing the indignity of labour. A certain humanitarianism which developed in the early Empire, and the conquests of barbarians among whom slavery had never developed, did something towards reducing its worst aspects; but it was Christianity that by slow degrees did away with it altogether by the thirteenth century, though serfdom survived. The Church fostered the spirit of charity, the spirit of self-sacrifice and the sense of Christian equality, and actual manual labour derived a novel dignity from the practices of the monks themselves. But it was the impulse to seek at once wealth by commerce and political liberty, in the larger towns, that created industrial organization; and here industrialism and clericalism parted company, though at the outset they seemed likely to work in concert.

For industrialism and commerce required to hire money, and the Church forbade usury, the receiving of any 'consideration' for the loan of money. For long the Jews, outside the pale of the Church's prohibition, were the only moneylenders, till the commercial towns of Lombardy and Germany took their place--for the simple reason that to borrow was necessary, and to lend without an equivalent for the usage was not business. Yet the Church continued to denounce the practice as in the nature of robbery and as condemned by authority.

Commerce again was incompatible with the barriers which the Church interposed between the faithful and the heretics or infidels; since it required association and mutual confidence. It learnt to ignore these barriers; and the first to profit thereby were the Jews. Industrial development suffered its most severe checks in Spain from the intolerance which expelled Jews and Moors and in France from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Commerce, in short, could not be reconciled with the theological spirit.

The Hanseatic League gave a solid force to commerce: it was glorified by Venice and Florence. At the same time the revival of classical learning was renewing the long lost influence of pre-Christian ideas; the pursuit of natural science and of speculative notions among the Moors, repressed by the Church in Europe, was nevertheless penetrating the finer intellects. On the one side this effected the revival of that most potent agency of art, the drama, which the Church had long practically crushed out of existence. A desire for intellectual amusements challenged the more barbarous forms of sport; and these things were a direct product of increasing material wealth. The brief favour they won from such a Pope as Leo was countered by the Popes of the Reformation era and their successors, and by Puritanism; and while religion denounced the actor, the leaders of rationalism defended his art.

Catholic Spain in the sixteenth century might have captured and held without dispute the industrial and commercial supremacy of the world; she flung it away by her religious intolerance, her preference for gold-mines above industry and her restrictions upon commerce; and it passed to the protestant Dutch and English, whose religious zeal did not conflict with their business instincts; nor did religion affect the commercial issues, except in this instance.

The development of the science of political economy in the eighteenth century drove out of the field the almost universal doctrine of the past that manufacture is a branch of industry inferior to and less honourable than agriculture. It made the acquisition of wealth a direct incentive to effort; by the development of commerce it increased intercommunication; and above all it disproved the old belief that one country can prosper commercially only at the expense of another, demonstrating that the prosperity of each is to the advantage of all. The opposite habit of mind is so deeply ingrained that men even while they acknowledge the truth of the axiom will act in the directly contrary spirit, just as Protestants continued to persecute; but similarly the right habit of mind will become general, establishing the sense that a war of rivalry is to no one's advantage, the conquerer suffering more than he can possibly gain; and though the day be distant, enlightened self-interest, the strongest of motives with large masses of men, will also be the strongest of motives towards peace.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I