Avarice as “Human Nature”

“Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [menschliche Wesen = ‘human nature’]. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.”

– Karl Marx’s 6th Thesis in ‘Theses on Feuerbach

“The principle of utility was no discovery of Bentham. He simply reproduced in his dull way what Helvétius and other Frenchmen had said with esprit in the 18th century. To know what is useful for a dog, one must study dog-nature. This nature itself is not to be deduced from the principle of utility. Applying this to man, he that would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch.”

– Karl Marx ‘Capital’

In the final issue of The Objectivist, Ayn Rand refers to Immanuel Kant as “the most evil man in mankind’s history.” This is rooted in Kant’s belief that all human beings are selfish but that it was necessary to contain this nature to create a better society. It is from this Randian point of arrival, that is the belief that human beings are  natural selfish and thus prone to capitalism, which is the starting point for our topic at hand. Let us go back to the Ancients to see if Rand’s argument will hold any water.

Before the rise of capitalism in Europe sometime in the 15th Century, which came as a result from the collapse of agricultural production brought on by the effects of the Black Death, production in most parts of the world(including the Americas) was production based on use not exchange. Indeed during the time of Aristotle this was understood to be the norm. Aristotle defined the production of goods for use-value to be “Economics” and the production of exchange as “Chrematistics“.

Aristotle as portrayed by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael
Aristotle as portrayed by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael

In Book One of his work Politics, Aristotle provides an example of the “improper” use of a shoe:

“Of everything which we possess there are two uses: both belong to the thing as such, but not in the same manner, for one is the proper, and the other the improper or secondary use of it. For example, a shoe is used for wear, and is used for exchange; both are uses of the shoe. He who gives a shoe in exchange for money or food to him who wants one, does indeed use the shoe as a shoe, but this is not its proper or primary purpose, for a shoe is not made to be an object of barter.”

Furthermore:

“[W]e may infer that retail trade is not a natural part of the art of getting wealth; had it been so, men would have ceased to exchange when they had enough.”

In slave-owning societies such as the metropolis of Ancient Greece, but also Egypt and Rome, production by the work of slaves was primarily meant for the use of others; that is their masters, and not for exchange. In Politics we see Aristotle expressing the common sentiment of the time. That is that producing for profit was viewed as immoral and perverse, indeed the mythology of King Midas is also an allegory condemning this “unnatural” vice of “vain prayer” to gold. The Hebrew Bible has many passages which deal with this supposed perversion one of them being Psalms 15:5:

He that putteth not out his money on interest, nor taketh a bribe against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.

Similarly, in the New Testament, Luke 19:22-23:

“…Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping that I did not sow. Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury?”

Much later in the Qur’an:

And for practicing usury, which was forbidden, and for consuming the people’s money illicitly. We have prepared for the disbelievers among them painful retribution. (Al-Nisa 4:161)

Members of the Knights Templar about to be burned at the stake.
Members of the Knights Templar about to be burned at the stake.

The Catholic Church held a similar view that viewed capitalism as “unnatural”, so unnatural in fact that it condemned one of it’s early pioneers to death. The Knights Templar, a Crusader military order, began one of the earliest forms of banking, issuing credits to pilgrims making journeys to the Holy Land. The Order’s business model soon enough began to spread all over Europe and the Middle East. Eventually The Knights purchased large tracts of land, farms, and vineyards. They also began to engage in manufacturing, exporting and importing goods all over Christendom, with their own fleet of merchant vessels. At one point they even owned the entire island of Cyprus. The King of France, Phillip IV in his wars with England accrued a massive debt to the Templars, and in order to rid himself of them utilized the Papacy to crush The Order in a bloody Inquisition; branding the Templars as heretics, “idolaters” among other accusations, but primarily their accumulation of capital for profit, which was condemned as usury.

At the Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1311 the Papacy officially condemned usury as “heretical”. Thomas Aquinas one hundred years prior to this council in Summa Theologica, and basing himself on Aristotelianism, also considered usury to be unnatural because “it is in accordance with nature that money should increase from natural goods and not from money itself.” He also goes on to argue that “If someone would be greatly helped by something belonging to someone else, and the seller not similarly harmed by losing it, the seller must not sell for a higher price: because the usefulness that goes to the buyer comes not from the seller, but from the buyer’s needy condition: no one ought to sell something that doesn’t belong to him.”

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

In a reflection of the cultural norms at the time Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy also condemns Florentine and Paduan usurers (the early capitalist class) to the Seventh circle of hell.

Then, as I let my eyes move further on,

I saw another purse that was blood-red,

and it displayed a goose more white than butter.

And one who had an azure, pregnant sow

inscribed as emblem on his white pouch, said

io me: “What are you doing in this pit?

Now be off; and since you’re still alive,

remember that my neighbor Vitaliano

shall yet sit here, upon my left hand side.

Among these Florentines, I’m Paduan;

I often hear them thunder in my ears,

shouting, ‘Now let the sovereign cavalier,

The one who’ll bring the purse with three goats, come!'”

At this he slewed his mouth, and then he stuck

his tongue out, like an ox that licks his nose. (Divine Comedy “Inferno” Canto XVII)

Shylock, the character in the Shakespeare classic The Merchant of Venice as a caricature of an avaricious Jewish moneylender finds salvation in his forced conversion to Christianity, and thus his cessation of the practice of usury, which would have “surely” condemned him to eternal damnation.

If we are to believe this supposed “natural” human inclination that affirms the tenets of capitalism as many opponents of Marxism and socialism argue, then what is the explanation for these ancient and medieval proofs which argue to the contrary? The truth of the matter is human nature evolves with the society it is in. Pederasty in Ancient times was the norm in Greece, Rome, The Ottoman Empire, China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the Americas. We would refer to such a sexual relationship with a child as child sexual abuse under today’s laws, but in these societies they were perfectly acceptable. Is it in humanity’s nature to sexually abuse a child? Until very recently it was expected for the victor of a battle to engage in murder, rape, pillage and to take prisoners(although this all goes on today) as the spoils of war.  If an Army would be found to be doing this today, the perpetrators could face charges of crimes against humanity. The argument against socialism in which human nature is invoked fails to stand to the test as human nature is constantly evolving and to us Marxists it is evolving to where the majority of the population will feel that a proletarian revolution is not only possible but is deemed absolutely necessary for the survival of our species.

3 thoughts on “Avarice as “Human Nature”

  1. I enjoyed this post immensely because it connects to many of my own interests which are, admittedly, often philosophical. Specifically, I tend to work on questions about theories of the human subject and, in dealing with these questions, the need to demystify certain capitalist assumptions about human nature. After all, as you showed in this post, when you trace the concept of “human nature” back into various pre-capitalist societies you discover that there is no eternal bourgeois individual projected unto the past.

    If you ever wanted to expand this piece, you could add to the Aristotle. His concept of humans being primarily *social* and *rational* animals [despite the other problems of this analysis on the level of *rationality*] provides an even more thorough counterpoint. You cited the “Politics* but you could have also cited the *Ethics* where he would have judged a selfishness and individuality as “irrational”, and thus unethical, because it was against human nature.

    1. At some point I think this piece should indeed be expanded but to expand my focus on non-European views of usury and the nascent capitalist class. Specifically the marginal and lowly role merchants were viewed in Aztec but also Arab and Ancient Chinese society.

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