The Market and the Temple/14 - Literature is a metaphor for the spirit of the past while also helping us to understand the mercantile ethics of the Middle Ages
by Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 07/02/2021
The moral beauty of an entrepreneur does not only depend on his skill, because wealth is and will always be tragically fleeting. Virtue continues to fight mere luck.
Literature has the ability to reveal the spirit of the past. Moreover, if the literature in question is of great quality, then the spirit it reveals will transcend time and space. However, when literature is immense, its spirit is forever and for everyone. We can - and we should - read documents, archival materials and chronicles on mercantile ethics between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to understand something. Then, one day, we reread the Divine Comedy and the Decameron, and suddenly we understand something else, something different, something that will throw a different light on all those documents and chronicles as well.
Dante was great in many things, but not in understanding the new economy in which he was living: «He is completely blind to the sense of economics» (Ernesto Sestan, "Dante and Florence", 1967, p. 290). Although very close to the Franciscan movement, he did not follow the line of Pietro di Giovanni Olivi and the other theological-economist friars who, observing the merchants in the cities, were among the first to understand that not all trading was uncivilized, that not all interest-bearing loans were usurers. Dante, on the other hand, remained linked to Aristotle (and perhaps to Thomas), and thus did not enter the fourteenth century and the new economic dimension of Humanism, where the art of trading also became an issue closely related to civilization and Christian virtue.
Instead, Dante looked at the merchants with a rather aristocratic eye, with the regret of a noble Fiorenza that did no longer exist. In Dante’s eyes, the urbanized peasants, who had become rich thanks to trade and the banks, were the first cause of the moral decadence of his city, the abandonment of all "courtesy and valor": «The new people and the immediate profits have generated pride and excess, in you, Florence, that it already has you crying» (The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Song XVI, 73-75). His Comedy is filled with praise for agricultural work, for the values of the countryside, for a social order based on the virtues of chivalry. Florence had by now been occupied by the arts, and politics was dominated by merchants. His city «brings forth and spreads abroad the cursèd flower» (Paradiso, Song IX, 131), the florin, which was corrupting customs and virtues. And with the expression "women for coin" (Inferno, Song XVIII, 66), Dante indicates prostitution or perhaps falsehood: «When one deceives another, that is called to coin» (Ottimo, Commentary on the Comedy/Commento alla Commedia, ca 1334).
Not even one single merchant can be found in his Paradise, and when Cacciaguida, his great-great-grandfather, praised Cangrande della Scala, a descendant of a family of merchants, he did so precisely because of «his virtue in not caring for silver or worries» (Paradiso XVII, 84). By now, however, his Florentines were devoted only to banking and commerce, and therefore no longer to honour and virtue: «this fact is Florentine as are trading and markets» (Paradiso XVI, 61).
Dante, as we know, puts the usurers in Hell, among the violent sinners "against God, nature and art" - the usurers add up to this triple violence: usury is a negation of God's law, it is against nature and it is a negation of ancient merchant art. He finds them sitting on the ground, as in life, but no longer on the pavement of the squares of Florence on those red carpets that characterized them, but on the fiery sand. And their hands, used incessantly in life to handle money, are now used to defend themselves from the lapilli of fire, like animals swatting away insects with their paws (Inferno XVII, 49-51). There, together with other Florentine usurers, Dante also finds Rinaldo degli Scrovegni, a famous usurer from Padua and a client who commissioned artwork from Giotto. Unlike Saint Augustine, to Dante the donations of the usurers at their moment of death were not enough to save them: in fact, they remained in hell; their gifts did not even gain them access to purgatory. A fortune earned the wrong way did not redeem a person’s life, even by donating it, at the very end, to charity.
Dante's vision of trading and wealth in relation to virtue is reiterated and further developed in the "Convivio": «Not virtue but trading» (Dante, Convivio I, 8). In it, merchants are called miserable: «How much fear is there in one who feels wealthy in himself, while walking, while staying, while not merely watching but also while sleeping, to not just lose what he has but to loose himself due to having! The miserable merchants who travel around the world know this well». The only virtue of money lies in depriving oneself of it, but during life: «Virtue... something which cannot be by possessing those [riches], but by letting go of the ones one possesses ... In which case usury is good, when, it is transmuted into others for a wider use, and it is no longer in one’s possession» (Dante, Convivio IV, XIII). This is all Boethius, but one can also discern Seneca and many of the Fathers of the Church in these words.
Dante, however, surprises us with a twist, even when it comes to economics - the greatest authors are always even greater than their own ideologies. Despised as an icon of the devil, the coin can even be found in Paradise as a metaphor for faith. The dialogue between Dante and St. Peter includes the following line: «"This coin’s weight and alloy has been well tried: but tell me if you have it in your purse.’ At which I said: ‘Yes, I have it there, so bright and round, that there is no perhaps for me in its stamp"» (Paradiso XXIV, 83-87). Here, we have a return of the medieval tradition of Christus monetarius, of Christ as an expert moneychanger capable of recognizing the true faith (money) from a false one. For some years now, we have known ("Dante's Diplomatic Code"/"Codice diplomatico dantesco", 2016), that Dante's father worked in Florence as a moneychanger and a lender, perhaps even as a usurer. Hence, perhaps, the reason behind Dante's negative view on coins and money. With Boccaccio, however, the landscape changed drastically. Unlike Dante, Boccaccio came from a family of merchants. He himself had practiced trading in Naples as a boy, and was closely acquainted with the mercantile world, its myths, its culture, its vices and its virtues (Vittore Branca, "The saga of the merchants"/"L’epopea dei mercatanti", 1956).
Dante was looking at a new world, from the outside and with clear detachment, a world that he still did not understand and feared and in which he could see its many imbalances. A few decades later, in "The Decameron", Boccaccio, was looking at a world that had already changed, something that serves as an even greater proof of all its magnificence. He looks at it from within, and sees both its vices along with its virtues. The world of the merchants became the best representation of the comedy of its time, no longer a divine comedy, but now entirely human and market-like. With Bocaccio, "Virtue beats luck", which in the Middle Ages was the motto of both kings and knights, took a decisive step into the community of the merchants as well, the protagonists of almost all of his stories. His virtues are also and above all those of the merchants. During the course of the first day, while looking at the vices of the merchants, Bocaccio does not fail to praise the Jewish usurer Melchizedek (I, 3), for how he had managed to get out of the trap in which Saladin had put him with the help of his intelligence, (which one of the three great religions is the true one?). In the second story of the first day, the merchant Giannotto di Civignì is defined as «very loyal and honest and with a great trading deal in drapery work», who had a «singular friendship with a Jewish man, called Abraham, who likewise was a merchant of rather great honesty and loyalty» (The Decameron, I, 2,4). Giannotto sent Abraham to Rome hoping that he would convert by getting to know the life of Christians more closely. However, after having seen the worst vices of the Roman Church, Abraham returned to his friend and told him: «I see your religion continually increasing and becoming more lucid and clearer, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is its foundation and support, and deservedly so. For this reason I tell you that I would not let myself not be a Christian for anything in this world (The Decameron I, 2,27). His conversion does not take place despite the sins he sees in Christians, but thanks to them.
The Novella of Messer Torello (Novella di Torello del Maestro Dino del Garbo, Anonymous, X, 9), with Saladin disguised as a merchant of Cyprus, arriving in Pavia to gather information regarding the preparation of the next crusade, also leaves us with a beautiful picture of generosity and mercantile virtues. Trading is shown as an alternative profession to the trade of arms, thus revealing a great vocation of the economy of all ages: the same ports from which weapons of war have sailed and still set sail, have seen and still see goods of peace set sail as well. And we could go on ... Boccaccio inhabits the ambivalence of his merchant time. He knows how to discover its vices, such as those of Musciatto Franzesi, «very rich and great merchant in France», who has no qualms about using the notary Ciappelletto, who «is called to help and wins so many quarrels while wrongly swearing to tell the truth in the name of his faith... He was perhaps the worst man to ever have been born» (I, 1,7-15).
However, while describing the vices of these new heroes, Boccaccio is also able to see their typical virtues. This too is greatness. With him, the classical idea, that goes back at the very least to Aristotle and was still central to Dante, comes to and end: namely that luck only affects external goods, and that therefore virtue must orient itself only to the interior goods of the soul, the only ones that are not vanitas. To Boccaccio, however, the commitment to external goods can indeed be virtuous precisely because of their vulnerability and fragility. Because committing to and being industrious about something uncertain and unsafe is more commendable than committing oneself only to unbreakable and safe things. So spending your life in the art of trading, a good thanks to its fragile nature, due to it being subject to misfortune and almost never governed by the law of merit, makes trading something worthy of praise. To depend on luck, to be aware of it, to accept this addiction and sometimes to fail because of it, is a merchant’s virtue. What we are faced with here is a veritable reversal of the classical Aristotelian ethics, of Cicero and of the first Christian century, which still have many things of importance to tell us today.
In the age of Boccaccio, the moral conscience of the Christian West transformed luck, and being exposed to it, from vice to virtue. Telling us something important: there is an ethical value in committing to fragile things. Almost all goods are, but above all those goods that we do not control, because they depend on the loyalty and honesty of our collaborators, on the fairness of our customers and suppliers, on the non-corruption of politics and on our fellow citizens, and on the infinite variables of the markets over which we have no control. This fragility, the ordinary condition of a merchant’s life, was seen as a moral quality. An entrepreneur has his own form of moral beauty precisely because he does not only depend on his skill, his wealth is and will always be tragically fleeting. Virtue continues to fight luck, but the first virtue of a merchant lies in the awareness of being radically dependent on that luck that he must contend with and which he cannot always conquer. One day in Europe, we realized that spending your life dedicated to things that we do not control and on which we depend in order to live is actually something morally precious, and that moving every day on the edge of the precipice is not only a technical skill, it is also an ethical excellence. And that the inevitable fragility of life, if we accept it, can become a civil virtue.