The Jewish Scholastic

Scholasticism: is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics (“scholastics,” or “schoolmen”) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context.

I have just completed reading the 2 volume Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought by the Jewish/Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard. This is a magisterial (the edition sold by the Mises Institute is 1084 pages (2006, originally published in 1995)) survey of economic thought from antiquity up to the modern era in volume 1 and British classical economics, the French school of classical liberalism, and Marxism in volume 2. Somewhat surprising to me, a key realization pervasive throughout this text is that Rothbard was a Jewish Scholastic. This is not a contradiction in terms; indeed, at one point Rothbard states “The term, ‘Protestant scholastic’ has been coined for such writers as John Locke, and indeed the phrase is a coherent one, since one does not have to be Catholic to use the rational scholastic method or arrive at scholastic conclusions.” In practice, the most important concept for Rothbard is the recognition of Natural Law. David Gordon has written that Murray Rothbard rested much of his Ethics of Liberty on the foundation of Thomistic natural law.

For Rothbard, the natural law can be discerned through reason by anyone; i.e., it is not necessarily a religious concept. Roberta Modugno has compiled some of Rothbard’s private reports for the Volker Fund in Rothbard vs. the Philosophers. In a report on a conference held in 1960 Rothbard favors the objective values of Leo Strauss against the subjective values of his mentor Ludwig von Mises.

Time to buy old US gold coins

The absolutist believes that man’s mind, employing reason . . . is capable of discovering and knowing truth: including the truth about reality, and the truth about what is best for man and best for himself as an individual. The relativist denies this, denies that man’s reason is capable of knowing truth, and does so by claiming that rather than being absolute, truth is relative to something else. . . . Philosophically, I believe that libertarianism—and the wider creed of sound individualism of which libertarianism is a part—must rest on absolutism and deny relativism

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The truth about what is best for man and best for himself as an individual is certainly as controversial today as it has ever been. For example, the overall project of Jordan Peterson to address what is best for man (and women, and all other genders) based on psychology, neurophysiology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and philosophy. In other words, Peterson attempts to provide objective truths about the human condition.

As explained in the Introduction to volume 2, Rothbard was heavily influenced by Emil Kauder to realize:

 that the scholastics were not simply ‘medieval’, but began in the thirteenth century and expanded and flourished through the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century. Far from being cost-of-production moralists, the scholastics believed that the just price was whatever price was established on the ‘common estimate’ of the free market. Not only that: far from being naive labour or cost-of-production value theorists, the scholastics may be considered ‘proto-Austrians’, with a sophisticated subjective utility theory of value and price. Furthermore, some of the scholastics were far superior to current formalist microeconomics in developing a ‘proto-Austrian’ dynamic theory of entrepreneurship. Moreover, in ‘macro’, the scholastics, beginning with Buridan and culminating in the sixteenth century Spanish scholastics, worked out an ‘Austrian’ rather than monetarist supply and demand theory of money and prices, including interregional money flows, and even a purchasing power parity theory of exchange rates.

But if it is inconceivable that Rothbard’s appreciation for scholastic Catholic economics (not those of today’s Pope!) would take a religious turn, following Kauder he did come to recognize the important role of religion in general and the Roman Catholic church in particular.

Also fascinating if more speculative was Kauder’s estimate of the essential cause of a curious asymmetry in the course of economic thought in different countries. Why is it, for example, that the subjective utility tradition flourished on the Continent, especially in France and Italy, and then revived particularly in Austria, whereas the labour and cost of production theories developed especially in Great Britain? Kauder attributed the difference to the profound influence of religion: the scholastics, and then France, Italy and Austria were Catholic countries, and Catholicism emphasized consumption as the goal of production and consumer utility and enjoyment as, at least in moderation, valuable activities and goals. The British tradition, on the contrary, beginning with Smith himself, was Calvinist, and reflected the Calvinist emphasis on hard work and labour toil as not only good but a great good in itself, whereas consumer enjoyment is at best a necessary evil, a mere requisite to continuing labour and production.

The result of these researches was my growing conviction that leaving out religious outlook, as well as social and political philosophy, would disastrously skew any picture of the history of economic thought. This is fairly obvious for the centuries before the nineteenth, but it is true for that century as well, even as the technical apparatus takes on more of a life of its own.

If Scholasticism was the apogee of Catholic thought, not just on economics but also political theory, what shall we make of the Protestant Reformation or the modern period in general? Recently the Bionic Mosquito has battled on this question in libertarian debate.  In particular, his observation of pre-reformation Europe is especially relevant.

The period in Europe, before the Reformation, offers what I view as the longest-lasting and closest example of a decentralized, libertarian order we have seen in the west…ever.  What has come since has not come close, certainly in terms of longevity – no matter what one believes about the value of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, or Liberalism.  For this, the period is worth examining for anyone interested in libertarianism in this world.

Rothbard has a fascinating discussion on the Reformation, quotes from which are liberally appended to the end of this post below. He is very precise in placing blame going so far as to say “Niccolò Machiavelli, therefore, was both the founder of modern political science and a notable preacher of evil”; the fundamental sin being the rejection of natural law.

The early Jesuit theorists clearly recognized the pivotal point at which the political theories of Luther and Machiavelli may be said to converge: both of them were equally concerned, for their own very different reasons, to reject the idea of the law of nature as an appropriate moral basis for political life. It is in consequence in the works of the early Jesuits that we first encounter the familiar coupling of Luther and Machiavelli as the two founding fathers of the impious modern State.

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My observations of Rothbard are not new. For example, David Gordon discusses Mises’s Criticisms of Rothbard on Natural Law at the 2003 Austrian Scholars Conference. Gordon explained how Mises thought reason could not be used to determined ends (ethics), only means. Ethics are objectively possible to determine is another dead end to Mises,values are only subjective. But the relevance of noting this philosophical observation is especially poignant during today’s culture wars and can be discerned in the recent speech to the Property and Freedom Society by Hans Hoppe on his interaction with the so called Alt Right.

But the libertarian doctrine does not imply much if anything concerning these questions: First, how to maintain a libertarian order once achieved. And second, how to attain a libertarian order from a non-libertarian starting point, which requires a) that one must correctly describe this starting point and b) correctly identify the obstacles posed in the way of one’s libertarian ends by this very starting point. To answer these questions, in addition to theory, you also need some knowledge of human psychology and sociology or at least a modicum of common sense. Yet many libertarians and fake libertarians are plain ignorant of human psychology and sociology or even devoid of any common sense. They blindly accept, against all empirical evidence, an egalitarian, blank-slate view of human nature, of all people and all societies and cultures being essentially equal and interchangeable.

So in thinking about Hoppe’s questions, it makes me wonder that if we desire to move closer to the libertarian goal of a free society, maybe we need to look to and think about the old religion that formed the roots of Western/European civilization.

Appendix of Rothbard Quotes from an Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought that give a sense of the pervasive coverage of religion and the natural law.

The deadly assault on scholasticism came from two contrasting but allied camps. One was the rising groups of Protestants without, and crypto-Calvinists within, the Church who denounced it for its alleged decadence and moral laxity. Protestantism, after all, was in large part a drive to cast off the sophisticated trappings and the refined doctrine of the Church, and to go back to the alleged simplicity and moral purity of early Christianity. Made the very emblem of this hostility was the Jesuit Order, the devoted spearhead of the Counter-Reformation, that order which had taken up from the faltering Dominicans the torch of Thomism and scholasticism. The second camp of enemies of scholasticism was the rising group of secularists and rationalists, men who might be Catholics or Protestants in their private lives but who mainly wanted to get rid of such alleged excrescences on modern life as the political application of religious principles or the prohibition of usury. Consequently, the crypto-Calvinists attacked the Jesuits for weakening the prohibition of usury, while the secularists attacked them for keeping it.

The two-pronged alliance against scholasticism outside and within the Catholic Church cut far deeper than the quarrel over usury. At the root of Catholicism as a religion is that God can be approached or apprehended through all the faculties of man, not simply through faith but through reason and the senses. Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, sternly put God outside man’s faculties, considering, for example, sensate embodiments of man’s love for God in painting or sculpture as blasphemous idolatry to be destroyed in order to clear the path for the only proper communication with God: pure faith in revelation. The Thomist stress on reason as a means of apprehending God’s natural law and even aspects of divine law was reviled by a sole Protestant emphasis on faith in God’s arbitrary will. While some Protestants adopted natural law theories, the basic Protestant thrust was opposition to any natural law attempts to derive ethics or political philosophy from the use of man’s reason. For Protestants, man was too inherently sinful and corrupt for his reason or his senses to be anything but an embodiment of corruption; only pure faith in God’s arbitrary and revealed commands was permissible as a groundwork for human ethics. But this meant that for Protestants there was also very little natural law groundwork from which to criticize actions of the state. Calvinism and even Lutheranism provided little or no defences against the absolutist state which burgeoned throughout Europe during the sixteenth century and triumphed in the seventeenth century.

If Protestantism opened the way for the absolute state, the secularists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries embraced it. Shorn of natural law critiques of the state, new secularists such as the Frenchman Jean Bodin embraced the state’s positive law as the only possible criterion for politics. Just as the anti-scholastic Protestants extolled God’s arbitrary will as the foundation for ethics, so the new secularists raised the state’s arbitrary will to the status of unchallengeable and absolute ‘sovereign’. On the deeper level of the question of how we know what we know, or ‘epistemology’, Thomism and scholasticism suffered from the contrasting but allied assaults by the champions of ‘reason’ and ‘empiricism’. In Thomist thought, reason and empiricism are not separated but allied and interwoven. Truth is built up by reason on a solid groundwork in empirically known reality. The rational and empirical were integrated into one coherent whole. But in the first part of the seventeenth century, two contrasting philosophers managed between them the fatal sundering of the rational and the empirical that continues to plague the scientific method until the present day. These were the Englishman Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and the Frenchman Rene Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes was the champion of a dessicated mathematical and absolutely certain ‘reason’ divorced from empirical reality, while Bacon was the advocate of sifting endlessly and almost mindlessly through the empirical data. Both the distinguished English lawyer who rose to become Lord Chancellor (Lord Verulam), Viscount of the Realm, and corrupt judge, and the shy and wandering French aristocrat, agreed on one crucial and destructive point: the severing of reason and thought from empirical data. Hence, from Bacon there stemmed the English ‘empiricist’ tradition, steeped mindlessly in incoherent data, and from Descartes the purely deductive and sometimes mathematical tradition of continental ‘rationalism’. All this was of course an assault on natural law, which had long integrated the rational and the empirical. As a corollary to, and intermingled with, this basic and systematic change in European thought in the ‘early modern’ period (the sixteenth and especially seventeenth centuries) was a radical shift in the locus of intellectual activity away from the universities. The theologians and philosophers who wrote and thought on economics, law, and other disciplines of human action during the medieval and Renaissance periods were university professors. Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, Rome, and many other universities were the milieu and arena for intellectual output and combat during these centuries. And even the Protestant universities in the early modern period continued to be centres of natural law teaching.

But the major theorists and writers of the seventeenth and then the eighteenth centuries were almost none of them professors. They were pamphleteers, businessmen, wandering aristocrats such as Descartes, minor public officials such as John Locke, churchmen such as Bishop George Berkeley. This shift of focus was greatly facilitated by the invention of printing, which made the publication of books and writings far less costly and created a much wider market for intellectual output. Printing was invented in the mid-fifteenth century, and by the early sixteenth century it became possible, for the first time, to make a living as an independent writer, selling one’s books to a commercial market. This shift from university professors to private lay citizens meant, at least for that era, a move away from traditional modes of learning and thought towards a more diverse spectrum of idiosyncratic individual views. In a sense, this acceleration of diversity went hand in hand with one of the most important impacts of the Protestant Reformation on social and religious thought. For, in the long run, far more important than such theological disputes as over free will vs predestination and over the significance of communion was the shattering of the unity of Christendom. Luther and even Calvin had no intention of fragmenting Christendom; on the contrary, each set out to reform a unified Christian Church. But the consequences of their revolution was to open Pandora’s box. Whereas frictions and heresies had before been either stamped out or accommodated within the Church, now Christianity split apart in literally hundreds of different sects, some quite bizarre, each propounding different theologies, ethics, and prescriptions for social life. While the variegated strains of social thought stemming from this break within Christianity included rationalists and individualist groups such as the Levellers as well as absolutists, the value of the resulting diversity must be offset by the unfortunate fading away of scholasticism and Thomism from Western thought.

And so a new political theory was needed by the oligarchs of the Italian city-states. Such a theory would assert the claims of the secular state – whether republic or monarchy made little difference – to rule at will, unchecked by the age-old moral and often concrete authority of the Catholic Church to limit state invasions of natural law and human rights. In short, the Italian oligarchs needed a theory of state absolutism, of secular power untrammelled. The Church was to be impatiently relegated to the purely theological and ‘religious’ area while secular affairs would be in the entirely separate hands of the state and its temporal power. This amounted to the politique doctrine, as it would come to prevail in late sixteenth century France.

Niccolò Machiavelli, therefore, was both the founder of modern political science and a notable preacher of evil. In casting out Christian or natural law morality, however, he did not presume to claim to be ‘value-free’ as do his modern followers; he knew full well that he was advocating the new morality of subordinating all other considerations to power and to the reasons of state. Machiavelli was the philosopher and apologist par excellence for the untrammelled, unchecked power of the absolute state.

It is a favourite conceit of modern, twentieth century liberals that scepticism, the attitude that nothing can really be known as the truth, is the best groundwork for individual liberty. The fanatic, convinced of the certainty of his views, will trample on the rights of others; the sceptic, convinced of nothing, will not. But the truth is precisely the opposite: the sceptic has no ground on which to stand to defend his or others’ liberty against assault. Since there will always be men willing to aggress against others for the sake of power or pelf, the triumph of scepticism means that the victims of aggression will be rendered defenceless against assault. Furthermore, the sceptic being unable to find any principle for rights or for any social organization, will probably cave in, albeit with a resigned sigh, to any existing regime of tyranny. Faute de mieux, he has little else to say or do.

Francis Bacon was the prophet of primitive and naive empiricism, the guru of fact-grubbing. Look at ‘the facts’, all ‘the facts’, long enough, he opined, and knowledge, including theoretical knowledge, will rise phoenix-like, self-supporting and self-sustained, out of the mountainous heap of data. Although he talked impressively

Once in a while, social scientists get misled by Baconian notions into thinking that their knowledge is ‘purely factual’, without presuppositions and therefore ‘scientific’, when what this really means is that their presuppositions and assumptions remain hidden from view.

‘Moderns’ like Locke or perhaps even Hobbes may have been individualists and ‘right-thinkers’, but they were also steeped in scholasticism and natural law. Locke may have been and indeed was an ardent Protestant, but he was also a Protestant scholastic, heavily influenced by the founder of Protestant scholasticism, the Dutchman Hugo Grotius, who in turn was heavily influenced by the late Spanish Catholic scholastics. As we have already seen, such great late sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit scholastics as Suarez and Mariana were contractual natural rights thinkers, with Mariana being positively ‘pre-Lockean’ in his insistence on the right of the people to resume the rights of sovereignty they had previously delegated to the king. While Locke developed libertarian natural rights thought more fully than his predecessors, it was still squarely embedded in the scholastic natural law tradition.8

The deep affinity between Locke and scholastic thought has been obscured by the undeniable fact that to Locke, Shaftesbury and the Whigs, the real enemy of civil and religious liberty, the great advocate of monarchical absolutism, during the late seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, was the Catholic Church. For by the mid-seventeenth century, Catholicism, or ‘popery’, was identified not with the natural rights and the checks on royal despotism as of yore, but with the absolutism of Louis XIV of France, the leading absolutist state in Europe, and earlier with absolutist Spain. For the Reformation, after a century, had succeeded in taking the wraps off monarchical tyranny in the Catholic as well as Protestant countries. Ever since the turn of the seventeenth century, indeed, the Catholic Church in France, Jansenist and royalist in spirit, had been more a creature of royal absolutism than a check on its excesses. In fact, by the seventeenth century, the case could be made that the most prosperous country in Europe which was also the freest – in economics, in civil liberties, in a decentralized polity and in abstinence from imperial adventures – was Protestant Holland.12 Thus it was easy for the English Whigs and classical liberals to identify the absolutism, the arbitrary taxes, the controls, and the incessant wars of the Stuarts with the Catholicism towards which the Stuarts were not so secretly moving, as well as with the spectre of Louis XIV, towards whom the Stuarts were moving as well. As a result, the English and American colonial tradition, even the libertarian tradition, became imbued with a fanatical anti-Catholicism; the idea of including evil Catholics in the rubric of religious toleration was rarely entertained. One common confusion about Locke’s systematic theory of property needs to be cleared up: Locke’s theory of labour.

‘There is not any moral Duty which is not of a Commercial nature. Freedom of Trade is nothing more than a freedom to be moral Agents’. This latter sentence expresses the crucial libertarian insight of the unity between free moral agency and freedom to act, produce, and exchange property.

Grotius clearly pushed natural law to its logical and rationalist conclusion: even if God did not exist, natural law would still be eternal and absolute; such law is discoverable by unaided human reason; and even God could not negate – even if He wanted to – such natural law insights as 2 + 2 = 4. Natural law required the rights of property to be secure in order to enjoy social cooperation, and under Grotius’s influence, the idea of the rights of property became expanded to the economic sphere.

While scholasticism was compatible with an emphasis on natural law and natural rights, it was generally discarded and reviled as ignorant ‘superstition’, along with revealed religion. In religion, therefore, Enlightenment thinkers tended to discard Christianity, attack the Christian Church, and adopt scepticism, deism, or even atheism.