Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

R.H. Tawney

Preview: Issue 1 of 30

Chapter 1 - The Medieval Background

La miséricorde de Dieu est infinie: elle sauvera même un riche.

ANATOLE FRANCE, Le Puits de Sainte Claire

I must begin these lectures with an apology. Their subject is historical. It is the attitude of religious thought in England towards social organization and economic issues in the period immediately preceding the Reformation and in the two centuries which follow it. Canon Scott Holland was at once a prophet and a theologian. The most suitable beginning for a foundation established to commemorate him would have been either an examination of the spiritual problems concealed behind the economic mechanism of our society, or a philosophical discussion of the contribution which religion can make to their solution. Discretion compels one who is competent neither to inspire to action nor to expound a system, to refrain from meddling with these high matters. I have therefore chosen the humbler task of trying to give an account of the history of opinion during one critical period. But I do so with the consciousness that the choice is due, less to any special appropriateness on the part of the subject, than to the inability of the lecturer to attempt any other.

I would not, however, excuse the selection merely by my own incapacity to do justice to a topic of more immediate moment. Thanks largely to Canon Scott Holland, and to those who worked with him, the conception of the scope and content of Christian ethics which was generally, though not universally, accepted in the nineteenth century, is undergoing a revision; and in that revision the appeal to the experience of mankind, which is history, has played some part, and will play a larger one. There have been periods in which a tacit agreement, accepted in practice if not stated in theory, excluded economic activities and social institutions from examination or criticism in the light of religion. A statesman of the early nineteenth century, whose conception of the relations of Church and State appears to have been modelled on those of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is said to have crushed a clerical reformer with the protest, 'Things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to interfere with private life'; and a more recent occupant of his office has explained the catastrophe which must follow, if the Church crosses the Rubicon which divides the outlying provinces of the spirit from the secular capital of public affairs.

Whatever the merit of these aphorisms, it is evident today that the line of division between the spheres of religion and secular business, which they assume as self-evident, is shifting. By common consent the treaty of partition has lapsed and the boundaries are once more in motion. The age of which Froude, no romantic admirer of ecclesiastical pretensions, could write, with perhaps exaggerated severity, that the spokesmen of religion 'leave the present world to the men of business and the devil', shows some signs of drawing to a close. Rightly or wrongly, with wisdom or with its opposite, not only in England but on the Continent and in America, not only in one denomination but among Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Nonconformists, an attempt is being made to restate the practical implications of the social ethics of the Christian faith, in a form sufficiently comprehensive to provide a standard by which to judge the collective actions and institutions of mankind, in the sphere both of international politics and of social organization. It is being made today. It has been made in the past. Whether it will result in any new synthesis, whether in the future at some point pushed farther into the tough world of practical affairs men will say,

Here nature first begins

Her farthest verge, and chaos to retire

As from her outmost works, a broken foe,

will not be known by this generation. What is certain is that, as in the analogous problem of the relations between Church and State, issues which were thought to have been buried by the discretion of centuries have shown in our own day that they were not dead, but sleeping. To examine the forms which they have assumed and the phases through which they have passed, even in the narrow field of a single country and a limited period, is not mere antiquarianism. It is to summon the living, not to invoke a corpse, and to see from a new angle the problems of our own age, by widening the experience brought to their consideration.

In such an examination the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are obviously a critical period. Dr Figgis3 has described the secularization of political theory as the most momentous of the intellectual changes which ushered in the modern world. It was not the less revolutionary because it was only gradually that its full consequences became apparent, so that seeds which were sown before the Reformation yielded their fruit in England only after the Civil War. The political aspects of the transformation are familiar. The theological mould which shaped political theory from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century is broken; politics becomes a science, ultimately a group of sciences, and theology at best one science among others. Reason takes the place of revelation, and the criterion of political institutions is expediency, not religious authority. Religion, ceasing to be the master-interest of mankind, dwindles into a department of life with boundaries which it is extravagant to overstep.

The ground which it vacates is occupied by a new institution, armed with a novel doctrine. If the Church of the Middle Ages was a kind of State, the State of the Tudors had some of the characteristics of a Church; and it was precisely the impossibility, for all but a handful of sectaries, of conceiving a society which treated religion as a thing privately vital but publicly indifferent, which in England made irreconcilable the quarrel between Puritanism and the monarchy. When the mass had been heated in the furnace of the Civil War, its component parts were ready to be disengaged from each other. By the end of the seventeenth century the secular State, separate from the Churches, which are subordinate to it, has emerged from the theory which had regarded both as dual aspects of a single society. The former pays a shadowy deference to religion; the latter do not meddle with the external fabric of the political and social system, which is the concern of the former. The age of religious struggles virtually ends with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The age of the wars of economic nationalism virtually begins with the war between England and Holland under the Commonwealth and Charles II. The State, first in England, then in France and America, finds its sanction, not in religion, but in nature, in a presumed contract to establish it, in the necessity for mutual protection and the convenience of mutual assistance. It appeals to no supernatural commission, but exists to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature. 'The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.'

While the political significance of this development has often been described, the analogous changes in social and economic thought have received less attention. These were, however, momentous, and deserve consideration. The emer gence of an objective and passionless economic science took place more slowly than the corresponding movement in the theory of the State, because the issues were less absorbing, and, while one marched in the high lights of the open stage, the other lurked on the back stairs and in the wings. It was not till a century after Machiavelli had emancipated the State from religion, that the doctrine of the self-contained department with laws of its own begins generally to be applied to the world of business relations, and, even in the England of the early seventeenth century, to discuss questions of economic organization purely in terms of pecuniary profit and loss still wears an air of not quite reputable cynicism. When the sixteenth century opens, not only political but social theory is saturated with doctrines drawn from the sphere of ethics and religion, and economic phenomena are expressed in terms of personal conduct, as naturally and inevitably as the nineteenth century expressed them in terms of mechanism.

Not the least fundamental of divisions among theories of society is between those which regard the world of human affairs as self-contained, and those which appeal to a supernatural criterion. Modern social theory, like modern political theory, developed only when society was given a naturalistic instead of a religious explanation, and the rise of both was largely due to a changed conception of the nature and functions of a Church. The crucial period is the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most important arena (apart from Holland) is England, because it is in England, with its new geographical position as the entrepot between Europe and America, its achievement of internal economic unity two centuries before France and two and a half centuries before Germany, its constitutional revolution, and its powerful bourgeoisie of bankers, ship-owners, and merchants, that the transformation of the structure of society is earliest, swiftest, and most complete. Its essence is the secularization of social and economic philosophy. The synthesis is resolved into its elements – politics, business, and spiritual exercises; each assumes a separate and independent vitality and obeys the laws of its own being. The social functions matured within the Church, and long identified with it, are transferred to the State, which in turn is idolized as the dispenser of prosperity and the guardian of civilization. The theory of a hierarchy of values, embracing all human interests and activities in a system of which the apex is religion, is replaced by the conception of separate and parallel compartments between which a due balance should be maintained, but which have no vital connexion with each other.

The intellectual movement is, of course, very gradual, and is compatible with both throw-backs and precocities which seem to refute its general character. It is easy to detect premonitions of the coming philosophy in the later Middle Ages, and reversions to an earlier manner at the very end of the seventeenth century. Oresme in the fourteenth century can anticipate the monetary theory associated with the name of Gresham; in the fifteenth century Laurentius de Rudolfis can distinguish between trade bills and finance bills, and St Antonino describe the significance of capital; while Baxter in 1673 can write a Christian Directory in the style of a medieval Summa , and Bunyan in 1680 can dissect the economic iniquities of Mr Badman, who ground the poor with high prices and usury, in the manner of a medieval friar. But the distance traversed in the two centuries between 1500 and 1700 is, nevertheless, immense. At the earlier date, though economic rationalism has proceeded far in Italy, the typical economic systems are those of the Schoolmen; the typical popular teaching is that of the sermon, or of manuals such as Dives et Pauper ; the typical appeal in difficult cases of conscience is to the Bible, the Fathers, the canon law and its interpreters; the typical controversy is carried on in terms of morality and religion as regularly and inevitably as two centuries later it is conducted in terms of economic expediency.

It is not necessary to point out that the age of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell had nothing to learn from the twentieth century as to the niceties of political intrigue or commercial sharp practice. But a cynical unscrupulousness in high places is not incompatible with a general belief in the validity of moral standards which are contradicted by it. No one can read the discussions which took place between 1500 and 1550 on three burning issues – the rise in prices, capital and interest, and the land question in England – without being struck by the constant appeal from the new and clamorous economic interests of the day to the traditional Christian morality, which in social organization, as in the relations of individuals, is still conceived to be the final authority. It is because it is regarded as the final authority that the officers of the Church claim to be heard on questions of social policy, and that, however Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists may differ on doctrine or ecclesiastical government, Luther and Calvin, Latimer and Laud, John Knox and the Pilgrim Fathers are agreed that social morality is the province of the Church, and are prepared both to teach it, and to enforce it, when necessary, by suitable discipline.

By the middle of the seventeenth century all that is altered. After the Restoration, we are in a new world of economic, as well as of political, thought. The claim of religion, at best a shadowy claim, to maintain rules of good conscience in economic affairs finally vanished with the destruction of Laud's experiment in a confessional State, and with the failure of the work of the Westminster Assembly. After the Civil War, the attempt to maintain the theory that there was a Christian standard of economic conduct was impossible, not only because of lay opposition, but because the division of the Churches made it evident that no common standard existed which could be enforced by ecclesiastical machinery. The doctrine of the Restoration economists, that, as proved by the experience of Holland, trade and tolerance flourished together, had its practical significance in the fact that neither could prosper without large concessions to individualism.

The ground which is vacated by the Christian moralist is quickly occupied by theorists of another order. The future for the next two hundred years is not with the attempt to reaffirm, with due allowance for altered circumstances, the conception that a moral rule is binding on Christians in their economic transactions, but with the new science of Political Arithmetic, which asserts, at first with hesitation and then with confidence, that no moral rule beyond the letter of the law exists. Influenced in its method by the contemporary progress of mathematics and physics, it handles economic phenomena, not as a casuist, concerned to distinguish right from wrong, but as a scientist, applying a new calculus to impersonal economic forces. Its method, temper, and assumptions are accepted by all educated men, including the clergy, even though its particular conclusions continue for long to be disputed. Its greatest English exponent, before the days of Adam Smith, is the Reverend Dr Tucker, Dean of Gloucester.

Some of the particular stages in this transition will be discussed later. But that there was a transition, and that the intellectual and moral conversion which it produced was not less momentous than the effect of some more familiar intellectual revolutions, is undeniable. Nor is it to be refuted by insisting that economic motives and economic needs are as old as history, or that the appeal to religion is often a decorous drapery for a triumphant materialism. A medieval cynic, in expounding the canon law as to usury, remarked that 'he who takes it goes to hell, and he who does not goes to the workhouse'. Mr Coulton does well to remind us that, even in the Age of Faith, resounding principles were compatible with very sordid practice. In a discussion which has as its subject social thought, not the history of business organization, it is not necessary to elaborate that truism. Only the credulous or the disillusioned will contrast successive periods as light with darkness or darkness with light, or yield to the temper which finds romantic virtues in every age except its own. To appraise the merits of different theories of social organization must be left to those who feel confident that they possess an adequate criterion. All that can be attempted in these pages is to endeavour to understand a few among them.

For, after all, because doctrine and conduct diverge, it does not follow that to examine the former is to hunt abstractions. That men should have thought as they did is sometimes as significant as that they should have acted as they did, and not least significant when thought and practice are at variance. It may be true that 'theory is a criticism of life only in the same sense as a good man is a criticism of a bad one'. But the emphasis of the theorist on certain aspects and values is not arbitrary, but is itself significant, and, if his answers are to be discounted, his questions are none the less evidence as to the assumptions of the period in which they were asked. It would be paradoxical to dismiss Machiavelli and Locke and Smith and Bentham as irrelevant to the political practice of their age, merely on the ground that mankind has still to wait for the ideal Prince or Whig or Individualist or Utilitarian. It is not less paradoxical to dismiss those who formulated economic and social theories in the Middle Ages or in the sixteenth century merely because, behind canon law and summae and sermons, behind the good ordinances of borough and gild, behind statutes and proclamations and prerogative courts, there lurked the immutable appetites of the economic man.

There is an evolution of ideas, as well as of organisms, and the quality of civilization depends, as Professor Wallas has so convincingly shown, on the transmission, less of physical qualities, than of a complex structure of habits, knowledge, and beliefs, the destruction of which would be followed within a year by the death of half the human race. Granted that the groundwork of inherited dispositions with which the individual is born has altered little in recorded history, the interests and values which compose his world have undergone a succession of revolutions. The conventional statement that human nature does not change is plausible only so long as attention is focused on those aspects of it which are least distinctively human. The wolf is today what he was when he was hunted by Nimrod. But, while men are born with many of the characteristics of wolves, man is a wolf domesticated, who both transmits the arts by which he has been partially tamed and improves upon them. He steps into a social inheritance, to which each generation adds its own contribution of good and evil, before it bequeaths it to its successors.

There is a moral and religious, as well as a material, environment, which sets its stamp on the individual, even when he is least conscious of it. And the effect of changes in this environment is not less profound. The economic categories of modern society, such as property, freedom of contract, and competition, are as much a part of its intellectual furniture as its political conceptions, and, together with religion, have probably been the most potent force in giving it its character. Between the conception of society as a community of unequal classes with varying functions, organized for a common end, and that which regards it as a mechanism adjusting itself through the play of economic motives to the supply of economic needs; between the idea that a man must not take advantage of his neighbour's necessity, and the doctrine that 'man's self-love is God's providence'; between the attitude which appeals to a religious standard to repress economic appetites, and that which regards expediency as the final criterion – there is a chasm which no theory of the permanence and ubiquity of economic interests can bridge, and which deserves at least to be explored. To examine how the latter grew out of the former; to trace the change, from a view of economic activity which regarded it as one among other kinds of moral conduct, to the view of it as dependent upon impersonal and almost automatic forces; to observe the struggle of individualism, in the face of restrictions imposed in the name of religion by the Church and of public policy by the State, first denounced, then palliated, then triumphantly justified in the name of economic liberty; to watch how ecclesiastical authority strives to maintain its hold upon the spheres it had claimed and finally abdicates them – to do this is not to indulge a vain curiosity, but to stand at the sources of rivulets which are now a flood.

Has religious opinion in the past regarded questions of social organization and economic conduct as irrelevant to the life of the spirit, or has it endeavoured not only to christianize the individual but to make a Christian civilization? Can religion admit the existence of a sharp antithesis between personal morality and the practices which are permissible in business? Does the idea of a Church involve the acceptance of any particular standard of social ethics, and, if so, ought a Church to endeavour to enforce it as among the obligations incumbent on its members? Such are a few of the questions which men are asking today, and on which a more competent examination of history than I can hope to offer might throw at any rate an oblique and wavering light.

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