Early Christians

Analysis

We do not leave the Graeco-Roman world when we now turn for a moment to the Christian thought of the first six centuries. After what has been said about the nature of our aims, it is obvious that there would be no point in looking for ‘economics’ in the sacred writings themselves. The opinions on economic subjects that we might find—such as that believers should sell what they have and give it to the poor, or that they should lend without expecting anything (possibly not even repayment) from it—are ideal imperatives that form part of a general scheme of life and express this general scheme and nothing else, least of all scientific propositions.

But neither is there anything for us to garner in the works of those great men who during these centuries laid the foundation of the Christian tradition. And this does call for a word of explanation. For we might expect that, so far as Christianity aimed at social reform, the movement should have motivated analysis in the way in which, for example, the socialist movement did in our own time. Yet there is nothing of the kind either in Clement of Alexandria (about 150–215) or in Tertullian (155–222) or in Cyprian (200– 258) to mention a few of those who did concern themselves with the moral aspects of the economic phenomena around them. They preached against wanton luxury and irresponsible wealth, they enjoined charity and restraint in the use of worldly goods, but they did not analyze at all. Moreover, it would be quite absurd to suspect mercantilist theories behind Tertullian’s advice to content oneself with the simple products of domestic agriculture and industry instead of craving for imported luxuries, or a theory of value behind his observation that abundance and rarity have something to do with price. The same is true of the Christian teachers of the subsequent period. They lacked nothing in refinement and did develop techniques of reasoning—that partly hailed from Greek philosophy and from the Roman law—for the subjects that seemed to them worth while. Yet neither Lactantius (260–340) nor Ambrosius (340–97)—who might have elaborated a little on his statement that the rich consider as their rightful property the common goods of which they have possessed themselves—nor Chrysostomus (347–407) nor St. Augustine (354–430), the accomplished author of the Civitas Dei and of the Confessiones—whose very obiter dicta reveal analytic habits of mind—ever went into economic problems though they did go into the political problems of the Christian state.

The explanation seems to be this. Whatever our sociological diagnosis of the mundane aspects of early Christianity may be, it is clear that the Christian Church did not aim at social reform in any sense other than that of moral reform of individual behavior. At no time, even before its victory, which may be roughly dated from Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313), did the Church attempt a frontal attack on the existing social system or on any of its more important institutions. It never promised economic paradise or, for that matter, any paradise this side of the grave. The How and Why of economic mechanisms were then of no interest either to its leaders or to its writers.

1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print. 71-72.

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2 responses to “Early Christians

  1. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Irrepressible Thought

  2. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Gedanken zur Geschichte

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