That infinite controversy that pits what is honest and what is useful against one another

That infinite controversy that pits what is honest and what is useful against one another

The Market and the Temple/9 - Analysis - The information held by those who deal in trading is the basis of a decisive and ambiguous ability to anticipate the future

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 03/01/2021

From the clear condemnation of mercantile speculation by ancient Roman culture and the fathers of the Church to the revaluation of the Franciscans and their commitment to the Lady of the Poor.

It is not an easy task to derive one single coherent economic ethics from biblical texts and the Gospels. The most correct word to describe the situation would perhaps be ambivalence, but those wishing to find a radical criticism of the economy and of money would certainly not be lacking pages supporting their claims. The very first Christians certainly found them, encouraged and supported by the Roman culture of late antiquity that had developed a profound distrust of trading and merchants.

The anti-mercantile controversy of the Roman world was due to many factors, including the ability of merchants to identify and exploit whatever favorable moments to their advantage, a private virtue generally understood as a public vice. The farmer knows only the past and the signs it leaves on the earth, the merchant instead scrutinizes the stars with insidious reasoning, looking for an advantage to be grasped on the fly even by reading the movements of the stars, the winds and atmospheric disturbances (Pliny the Elder, Natural History).

A merchant's first capital was - and still is - a strange skill related to the future. His greatest asset is the ability to anticipate, rendering the future present in a mysterious alchemy. Herein lies his speculation, which in essence is to see better and more. The specula or observatory located up high from which one could look into the distance. Specula, however, also represented spies and spying, explorers, always mysterious and disturbing figures because they had special access to the secrets of reality. Hence, it was the relationship with that particular good called information, especially the invisible kind, which made the merchant both fascinating and often feared.

«A very wealthy merchant had the gift of understanding the language of animals» (The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey, in One Thousand and One Nights, where the word merchant/s appears no less than 211 times). In the Italian folk tale, The Maiden and the Magician, a magician pretends to be a merchant who transforms iron rings into silver rings. And in various medieval legends, the Three Wise Men were both magicians and merchants.

This private use of information was then linked to the special relationship between merchants and the spoken word, bordering on magic. A merchant is an expert in the world of Poros (the Greek god of courtship, one of Eros' parents), a seducer always tempted to use words to trick customers, to charm them by speaking - spell and incentive (incantesimo e incentivo ), are two similar terms. Only wizards and merchants (and perhaps priests) know how to use words differently, to charm us and enchain us. A mercantile word was therefore always open to the risk of manipulating reality. Both back in the day as well as today, there is a great ongoing trade of words in the markets, somewhere between truth and lies, and words are the main commodity displayed on the shelves.

Hence, people in the ancient world in general thought that merchants, thanks to the power of their words and information, and without ever adding anything to the goods and therefore without ever creating any real added value, in fact deceived customers by abusing their lack of information. Every seller was a liar, and the market a fiction where value was being attributed to essentially nothing.

The following story by Odo of Cluny from the 10th century is emblematic of the medieval attitude towards merchants' information in general. During a journey, Count Géraud d’Aurillac was approached by some Venetian merchants struck by one of his fabrics of particular value. They asked how much he had paid for it in Rome and exclaimed: "In Constantinople it costs much more!". This information threw the count into despair, and after a few days, the seller in Rome received a sum equal to the difference with the price requested in Constantinople, from Géraud (cit. Andrea Giardina, The goods, the time, the silence/ Le merci, il tempo, il silenzio).

A thousand years earlier, in On Duties or on Obbligations/De Officiis Cicero refers to a debate between two Stoic philosophers, Diogenes and Antipater. There is a severe famine in Rhodes and a merchant exports a large quantity of wheat from Alexandria to Rhodes. He knows that other merchants have sailed from Alexandria to Rhodes in ships loaded with grain, and that the price of grain in Rhodes will therefore soon drop. The question is: should he tell his customers about the arrival of the ships or keep quiet and sell his goods at the highest possible price? According to Antipater, everything you know must be divulged, the buyer must not remain in the dark about anything the seller knows; according to Diogenes, on the other hand, the seller is obliged to disclose the defects of his goods, but everything else he can keep to himself, as long as it does "not involve fraud". Diogenes replies to Antipater: «It is one thing to hide or withhold something, and another altogether to stay silent: I am not obliged to tell you everything that would be useful to you». Cicero concludes: «My opinion is therefore that the grain merchant should not keep anything hidden in Rhodes. And that the merchant who withholds the information «is a sly, shady, cunning, malicious, deceiver and fraudster» (De Officiis Cicero, III, 49-57). For Cicero, therefore, taking advantage of withheld information is not lawful, and since the merchant is making a profit thanks to this informative speculation, his activity is in essence dishonest.

These anti-commerce theses of Cicero (and Seneca) had an enormous weight throughout the Middle Ages, thanks also to Ambrose and many Western Fathers who took them up: «Whoever you are, as a man, you cannot but hate the character of the shopkeeper» (Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Usurarios, 4th century). The classic idea, that good work is agricultural work, was also strengthened through this, while that of the merchants, traders, and even the artisans, (as sellers, selling was always morally doubtful), was essentially immoral.

Furthermore, the qualities of the traders shifted from the realms of the earth to the Kingdom of Heaven, and all the mercantile virtues were metaphorically applied to spiritual and religious life, creating a kind of conflict between the good use of mercantile logic (for heaven) and a wrong one (for worldly affairs). The true merchant is the divine merchant, Christ, who paid the price of salvation with his blood. And so throughout the first millennium this negative view of trade and the market continued to grow and radicalize.

A (partial) commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, erroneously attributed to John Chrysostom, Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum (5th century), which had a great influence throughout the Middle Ages, played an important role in this. In the commentary on the episode of the "expulsion of the merchants and money changers from the temple", we read the following: «No Christian must be a merchant or, if he wants to be, he must be expelled from the church ... Those who buy and sell cannot do so without being guilty of perjury». Then he adds: «Therefore, whoever buys something to then resell it whole and unchanged for the purpose of making a profit, is exactly like the merchants expelled from the temple». Finally, he resumes the everlasting opposition of the city versus the countryside: «And they went, some to their fields, others to their businesses», these two words hence comprehended all human activity: before God, agriculture is honest, while a mercantile activity is instead dishonest. At this point, we should probably be asking ourselves how merchant activity was able to continue at all in the Middle Ages. Perhaps because life is greater than the books of theologians, and because normal people know that without commerce the world would be poorer, sadder and uglier, but also due to something else that began with the XII-XIII century.

The name of this novelty was Francis. A decisive role was played, among the Franciscan theologians, by Frenchman Pietro di Giovanni Olivi (1248-1298). Olivi is an important author in part due to a certain tension imbued in his story and biography. He belonged to the most radical branch of Franciscanism, a great exponent of the doctrine of the highest poverty. Some of his theses were condemned, his books were burned after his death, and in 1318 the Pope ordered the destruction of his tomb. At the same time, however, Olivi was decisive for an ethical change regarding the activity of merchants. Not using wealth for himself, he found himself in the right ethical position and distance to be able to understand it. In his Treatise on purchases and sales (late 13th century, Italian edition edited by A. Spicciani et al.), the first questio (question) reads as follows: «Can things be sold, lawfully and without sin, for more than they are worth or in fact bought for less?». For Olivi the «answer would seem to be affirmative», because «otherwise almost the entire category of sellers and buyers would sin against justice, since almost everyone wants to sell for more and buy for less». An answer of disarming simplicity, but one that in reality challenges the age-old thesis on which the condemnation of trade was based.

In questio 4 he addresses the issue of information directly: «Is the seller required to tell or show the buyer all the defects of the item being sold?». In line with classical doctrine, he then immediately says that «the answer seems affirmative», Then, in the development of his reasoning, he comes to admit exceptions, however, one of which is of great importance: «In fact, deceiving is something more than merely concealing. Therefore, those who keep silent about a truth are not always deceitful». Cicero was refuted, and with him his hostility towards the trade of the merchants.

Furthermore, in questio 6 he asks: «Those who buy something to then resell it at a higher price without having either transformed or improved it, as merchants usually do, are they committing a mortal or at least a venial sin?». His answer is: «We must not necessarily think that sin is inherently included in trading, although in practice this is very rare and difficult». And then he concludes: «In business there are various opportunities and occasions to sell and buy things at an advantage; and this too derives from the order of God's Providence, like all other human goods. So if someone makes a profit, it too comes from a gift of God rather than from evil». Commercial exchange and earnings seen as a sign of the presence of Providence in the world: this kind of economy can only be seen from the specula of the highest poverty.

He then concludes his reasoning by challenging the authority of Chrysostom’s commentary on Matthew (the courage!): «There is without a doubt no need to pay attention to this statement of his». And then he ends: «Surely an argument of this kind cannot be derived from the Gospel passage that it refers to: in it Christ lashes out against all those who sell and buy in the temple in general; however, we must not necessarily think that all these people were actually merchants».

How we would need theologians and intellectuals with this freedom of spirit today! Above all, we would need to ask questions that are almost the exact opposite of Olivi's: to what point is it legitimate to speculate on withheld information? To what extent is it lawful for merchants to enchant us with their words? Are we able to distinguish fiction from reality in our global market anymore? What if by dint of anticipating the future in our present we were running out of it, thus depriving our grandchildren of their present?

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