New ideas on wealth and goods in the fifteenth century

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The harsh persecution of the Franciscans, begun by John XXII, had crushed radical pauperism, forcing it into clandestinity. However, it had not been able to bring back the Patristic and Tomistic balance on the values of poverty and wealth. This traditional equilibrium no longer responded to the needs of a society undergoing rapid transformation. In the mid fourteenth century the fledgling humanist movement therefore found itself with no reference points on this issue; and it went to look in the ancient authors. Here the humanists found various messages. The first condemned riches and praised poverty (Socrates, the Stoics, Seneca); another approved of riches, but only those already existing (Aristotle, Cicero); lastly, Epicurus and Lucretius did not condemn the desire to get rich, as long as it remained moderate.

Baron has stated that from the second half of the thirteenth century, the humanists were influenced on this issue by the Franciscan view, and that they consequently accepted the Stoic condemnation of wealth. As a young man, Petrarch came out in favour of the Stoics. In his maturity he was more appreciative of the Aristotelian view of the rightness of enjoying material goods and took up the idea of the mediocritas (the golden mean). But Boccaccio took the praise of decorous, active poverty from the Latin authors. Followed by Coluccio Salutati, he was the first to create the historical-literary canon of the Roman republic that won thanks to its poverty and sobriety. However, Salutati interpreted Jacob's wealth as a blessing.4

At the beginning of the fifteenth century Guarino da Verona and Cino Rinuccini criticized wealth again. But in 1415 the noble Venetian Francesco Barbaro repeated the traditional Aristotelian argument justifying the moderate possession of wealth. Giannozzo Manetti did likewise, as did Leonardo Bruni in commenting on Aristotle (he translated Politics, Nicomachean Ethics and, in 1420—21, Oeconomica, erroneously attributed to Aristotle). For Brum the city is made up of industrious activities and of wealth. And money is an essential element in city life. Bruni accepted Aristotle's thesis that riches are a way of practising virtue, and criticized the Stoics' sterile asceticism. But Bruni also justified the getting of wealth.5

In 1428—29 Poggio Bracciolini, the formidable discoverer of ancient texts in monasteries all over Europe, wrote De avaricia (On avarice), which at first sight seems to be a dramatic break with the past. In this dialogue one speaker (Bartolomeo da Montepulciano) repeats the traditional condemnation of avarice, while another (Antonio Loschi) criticizes it.6 Antonio's speech contains praise for the desire to make money; this seems to be the first time since the cautious, limited defence of earning made by the Epicureans. The arguments are new and surprising. Antonio (obviously thinking of merchants) describes misers as 'strong, prudent, industrious, severe, temperate, magnanimous and very wise'. And adds: 'if all those who have a strong desire for money are really to be called misers, then nearly all men deserve the name . . . Who in fact would do anything unless he hoped to profit from it? And the greater this profit, the more willingly we devote ourselves to an activity' (p. 261). Antonio immediately rejects the age-old idea of necessity being the only measure of our legitimate desires along with the ancient and Christian idea that 'nature is happy with little', and lastly the idea that one must give up the superfluous. In fact he says: 'you will find nobody that does not want more than mere essentials, nobody that does not want to have much more' (265).

He makes a virulent attack on the begging friars, which would later be repeated in Contra hypocritas: 'And don't talk to me about certain hypocritical buffoons, rough and vulgar, who get enough to live on without effort and without sweat, with the excuse of religion, preaching to others poverty and disdain for possessions while they themselves make generous earnings' (267). Bracciolini's contempt for the mendicant orders was not at all isolated in the fifteenth century. It is sad to see that the passion for poverty — impellent and obsessive — of Francis of Assisi and the other medieval figures had produced these results.7

But the fundamental argument put forward by Bracciolini, of a clear Man-devillean flavour, was this: if those that you call misers did not exist, if each person really neglected everything beyond his essential needs, then civilized life would die; there would be no cities, no activity, no trade. 'What can those who have nothing extra give to others?. . . All splendour will vanish from cities, all beauty and ornament will vanish'. And also: 'What are cities . . . and kingdoms, if you look closely, but the forge of public avarice? And since this is practised by common decision, its right to exist comes from public agreement' (267). When the city needs help, 'shall we turn to the poor labourers and to those who despise wealth, or to the rich, in other words to the misers, since one can rarely become rich without avarice? Who should best fill the city? The rich, who with their wealth provide for themselves and for others, or the poor who have not enough either for themselves or for others?' (271). Finally the ethic of deprivation is dealt the death blow: 'and don't tell me that one must put the common good before one's own interests'. So far 'I have met no-one who could afford to do so'. It is just what philosophers say, but in actual fact everyone has always done the opposite; and this 'is a habit accepted by common usage' (275).

This part of the dialogue was a cry of liberation after thousands of years of moralistic repression. It was a violent vindication of real life and of an economy based on self-interest. However, Antonio's arguments were part of a dialogue in which the other speakers had different views. The dialogue was a literary model typical of the humanists. Its very structure showed that the Middle Age's 'Manichean' contrast between true and false, good and bad, was crude and misleading. The dialogue taught that truth is complex, and that parts of it can be found on both sides of the opposing arguments. In short, the humanist dialogue fosters tolerance and a healthy relativism. But when interest in civil and cultural progress waned, it was easy to move from pluralism to scepticism and to a caution dictated by opportunism, until the two opposing arguments came to be seen simply as an opportunity to show off one's dialectic skills.

The lead-up to this degeneration could already be made out in Bracciolini. He put the concluding argument in De avaricia into the mouth of the Dominican Andrea, who began by distinguishing between desire (controlled) and avarice (uncontrolled, limitless desire). The first was legitimate, the second was not. This distinction gave Andrea the chance to trot out the usual tirades against avarice (277—301). For proof of how tenacious the old prejudices were, remember that in 1440 Francesco Filelfo wrote an aggressive text attacking Bracciolini and his defence of wealth.8 The work was a concentration of old clichés: wealth does not give happiness because of the fickleness of fortune; happiness should not be sought in external things but within ourselves (p. 495); wealth is good only for generous hospitality. 'He who lacks for nothing is rich enough . . . The more one gets the more one wants' (497), etc.

For a few decades the new ideas in favour of the enjoyment of earthly goods prevailed. Salutati and Manetti criticized asceticism and attacked the mendicant orders. Bracciolini himself, when writing to Niccoli, attacked the solitude of monks, and stated that without wealth, and without a homeland, all our virtue would remain solitary and sterile. In Momus, Alberti confirmed the humanistic contempt for poverty and the accusation that beggars were parasites. Platina did the same. On this subject the humanists were equally remote both from the medieval idea of the pauper as the image of perfection and from the mercantilist idea of the poor as a potential workforce. Criticism of the mendicant orders did not prevent the Franciscan St Bernardino of Siena from maintaining the value of wealth and of plenty. According to him, rather than hoarding money, it was better to make it bear fruit in trade. Bernardino secretly used Peter Olivi's works (see page 84). But he was also an indirect disciple of Coluccio Salutati, and agreed with his views on wealth. The idea of the wealth in moderation was taken up by a great many humanists, including Manetti, Alberti, Pontano and Ficino. It was also espoused by Acciaioli (who translated Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics), who, however, added the criticism of insatiable desires.9

The issue under debate was not only wealth as an abstract concept, but also the enjoyment of possessions. In 1418 Bracciolini had rediscovered De rerum natura by Lucretius, and this led to the emergence of a pro-Epicurean set, which besides Valla included Cosimo Raimondi, from Cremona, and the Roman materialist group of Pomponio Leto and Callimaco Esperiente (Filippo Bonaccorsi). Bruni, Lorenzo Valla and Cristoforo Landino rejected the crude traditional idea of Epicurus as the defender of coarse pleasure. They correctly interpreted Epicureanism as the moderate acceptance of earthly goods. Bruni actually preferred Aristotle, because Epicurus was believed not to consider wealth as a good. In 1431 Lorenzo Valla, in De Voluptate, again criticized the asceticism of the Stoics and that of the monks, and praised labour and the various crafts. Using arguments that were both Epicurean and Christian, he vindicated the unity of man, praised earthly happiness and saw virtue as the balance and moderation of pleasures.10

Matteo Palmieri also praised temperance and stated that many virtues require wealth and comfort in order to exist. It is in Palmieri that we find the earliest elements of an ethic of business and profit, starting from the explicit defence of the effort of wealth-getting. But even more important is the positive link he established between self-interest and the common good. He wrote that honesty cannot be separated from profit. Those who get wealth without harming others deserve praise. Work and the industrious spirit that brought about man's progress advantage others also; they create a relationship of solidarity.11

The ideas of L. B. Alberti, complex, multi-faceted and often ambiguous, in some respects anticipated the crisis of the mid 1400s, i.e. the transition from civic humanism to the progressive involution of humanist culture. In I libri della famiglia he closely followed the classical writers, Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca. Wealth, he wrote, serves only to be respected by others. Wealth is necessary in order not to be forced to serve and submit to others. We must therefore control our greed and live freely in plenty. In the third book, dedicated to the economica (in the ancient sense of family economy), Alberti condemned both extravagance and avarice, and praised the careful conservation of possessions which make people independent. He contrasted land to money: land secures a more reliable product, and unlike money, this product satisfies our needs. However, mixed with this 'classical' Alberti, there was another quite different one, who said that the riches accumulated should be used and made productive, and who praised the merchant, with his complex activity and the work he gives the poor.12

Alberti's ethic was based on reaching higher and higher levels through work and ability ('virtue') which triumphed over fortune. In this sense Alberti was in harmony with the culture of the business economy. Pontano too maintained that wealth should be used and not hoarded. But his treatises on the traditional virtues that are involved in the use of wealth (generosity, charity, magnificence, splendour), published in 1498, are insignificant in terms of theory. They are dominated by the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean and of moderation.13

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