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Alejandro Chafuen: Pioneers of free-market thought

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Today is the feast day of St. Bernardine of Siena, a fifteenth-century Franciscan known as the “apostle of Italy” for his preaching and efforts to revive the faith in his time. So many flocked to hear him preach, in fact, that he had to give his sermons outside. Bernardine is also known, though, for his writings and particularly for his systematization of Scholastic economics, which built on the earlier work of St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others and helped pave the way for the later Salamanca school of thought. In honor of the saint’s feast day, Alejandro Chafuen, Acton’s Managing Director, International, here offers his thoughts on the work of Bernardine and others. This article originally appeared in the August/September 1987 issue of Reason magazine.

During the early 1400s, the city of Siena, Italy, was a leading commercial and industrial center, much like its northern neighbor Florence. And in this cradle of capitalism, the most popular figure was a Franciscan friar named Bernardine. His speeches so enraptured listeners that the town’s church could not accommodate the crowds, and listeners had to gather in Siena’s largest piazza.

The noise of the multitude swiftly faded as Bernardine commenced his homily: “Have you heard the story about the donkey of the three villages? It happened in the Valley of the Moon. There was a large shed close to the windmill. In order to take the grain to the mill, three villages agreed to buy a donkey and keep him in the shed.

“A dweller of the first town went for the donkey, took him to his home, loaded the animal’s back with a heavy bag of wheat, and led him to the mill. During the milling, he released the ass so he could graze, but the fields had become barren because of heavy treading. When the wheat was milled, he collected the flour, loaded it on the donkey, and returned home. The man unloaded the ass and brought him to the shed, muttering to himself, ‘He who used him yesterday must have given him a lot of grass. Surely, he is in no need now’ and left the donkey.

‘The following day, a villager from the second town went for the donkey. He took him to his farm, placed on him a heavier burden than the day before, and—without feeding him—led the animal to the mill. With the milling over and the flour already at home, the villager returned the donkey to the shed thinking that yesterday’s user must have treated the animal well. And, yes, he left the donkey, saying, ‘Oh, I am very busy today.’ Two days had passed, and the donkey still did not have a bite.

“On the third day, someone from the third village arrived for the donkey and burdened him with the heaviest load yet. ‘This donkey is owned by the Municipality,’ he remarked, ‘so it must be strong.’ And he took him to the mill. But on the way back, with the wheat already milled, the donkey was sluggish and often halting.The villager had to whip him, and after a strenuous effort, they arrived at the shed. The villager complained, ‘What an ass this Municipality bought to serve three towns! He is a piece of trash!’ That day also the donkey was not fed.

“Do you want to know how it ended? The fourth day, the poor beast collapsed and was torn to bits.”

When the majority of U.S. Catholic bishops voiced their disapproval of the market economy in last year’s pastoral letter, they exhibited not only a lack of understanding of how markets work but also an ignorance of their own religious heritage. For Catholic teaching includes a vital, though too often ignored, strain of free-market thought—that of late-medieval theologians like St. Bernardine.

Perhaps St. Bernardine’s religious education, with its understanding of human imperfections, explains why he never regarded the authorities or the people as angels. He saw private property as the way to ensure that, in a nonangelical community, goods would be used for the betterment of society.

Nor was he alone. During the later middle ages, many leading churchmen hailed free market principles. These were the Scholastics, or Schoolmen, “part-time” priests and full-time academicians who followed the Aristotelian, rationalist tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Most Scholastics were, like St. Bernardine, members of religious orders—Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, or Augustinians—and taught in ecclesiastical schools.

Read the entire article here.

(Homepage photo credit: public domain.)

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Joshua Gregor Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.

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