The 13th Century: The Scholastics on Commercial Activity


While all the other points apply to scholastic doctrine of all ages, the one mentioned last holds fully only for the classic period. After the thirteenth century a significant change occurred in the attitude of the scholastic doctors to commercial activity. But the thirteenth-century scholastics undoubtedly held the opinion expressed by St. Thomas, namely, that there is ‘something base’ about commerce in itself (negotiatio secundum se considerata quandam turpitudinem habet, Summa II, 2, quaest. LXXVII, art. 4), though commercial gain might be justified (a) by the necessity of making one’s living; or (b) by a wish to acquire means for charitable purposes; or (c) by a wish to serve publicam utilitatem, provided that the lucre be moderate and can be considered as a reward of work (stipendium laboris); or (d) by an improvement of the thing traded; or (e) by intertemporal or interlocal differences in its value; or (f) by risk (propter periculum). St. Thomas’ wording leaves some room for doubt about the conditions in which he was prepared to admit considerations (d)–(f), and it may be true that others, especially Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and a doctor whom I have not mentioned so far, Richard of Middleton (1249–1306), went somewhat further, especially as regards justifying the social usefulness of the practice of buying in a cheaper market and selling in a dearer one. However, even qualifications (b) and (c) go beyond Aristotle’s teaching. The emphasis all these authors place upon the element of remuneration of some socially useful activity has given rise, on the one hand, to the opinion, which may be correct, that the source of the (moral) ‘right to the produce of one’s labor’ may be found in the scholastic literature, and, on the other hand, to the error that the scholastic doctors held a (analytic) labor theory of value, that is, that they explained the phenomenon of value by the fact that (most) commodities cost labor. For the moment, the reader should only notice that there is no logical relation between mere emphasis upon the necessity, moral or economic, of remunerating labor (no matter whether we translate the Latin word by the English ‘labor’ or by ‘activity’ or ‘effort’ or ‘trouble’) and what is technically known as the labor theory of value.


1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print. 91.



Filed under History of Economic Analysis

2 responses to “The 13th Century: The Scholastics on Commercial Activity

  1. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Irrepressible Thought

  2. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Irrepressible Thought

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