Lewis Hyde (The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World) traces the history of modern economics by recounting a history of usury in the Western world. In the Torah, Hyde argues, a boundary is drawn between the brothers within Israel and strangers; within Israel, there is no usury but Israelites were permitted to take usury from strangers. He characterizes the distinction as one between the internal gift economy and external commerce. In any case, by the Torah, brotherhood and usury are incompatible.
That, he says, is a workable solution. Problems arise with the Christian exhortation to love those outside the circle of insiders:
“What form should economic life take if the tribe has no boundary at all.” The history of usury goes this way, in Hyde’s view: “If we say that the double law of Moses describes a circle with gift circulation inside and market exchange at the edge, then the history of the usury debate is the history of our attempts to fix the radius of the circle. The Christians extended the radius infinitely under the call to universal brotherhood. For fifteen centuries, people tried to work within that assumption. The Reformation reversed it and began to shorted the radius again, bringing it, by the time of Calvin, into the heart of each private soul” (p. 116). That characterization of Calvin’s views is unfair even on Hyde’s later telling. Still the point stands: Usury could become universally acceptable by turning market exchanges into something other than brotherly gifts.
Even in those 15 centuries, Hyde shows, “brotherly love” didn’t always mean what we think it means. He cites Berardino of Siena (118-9): “Temporal goods are given to men for the worship of the true God and the Lord of the Universe. Where, therefore the worship of God does not exist, as in the case of God’s enemies, usury is lawfully exacted, because this is not done for the sake of the gain, but for the sake of the Faither; and the motive is brotherly love, namely that God’s enemies may be weakened and so return to him.” Brotherly love demands hard economic dealing, to break the sinner’s attachment to wealth, to impoverish him, so that his soul can be saved.
Luther is crucial in Hyde’s history, especially in Luther’s “two kingdom” theory. According to Luther, the medievals were wrong to try to run the world by the gospel imperative of brotherly love. Temporal government, he argued, “is necessary in order that the world may not become a desert, peace may not perish, and trade and soceity may not be utterly destroyed: all which would happen if we were to rule the world according to the Gospel and not drive and compel the wicked, by laws and the use of force, to do and suffer what is right” (126). By this turn of theology, the economy was turned over to the realm of law; the gospel per se had little or nothing to say regarding exchange.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, July 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm
Permission is given to use material on this site, provided the source is cited, blog entries are republished in full, and the author is notified in advance.