The Divine Comedy: VII. Usury

“nature follows-as she takes her course-
the Divine Intellect and Divine Art;…
when it can, your art would follow nature,
just as a pupil imitates his master;
so that your art is almost God’s grandchild.
From these two, art and nature, it is fitting,…
for men to make their way, to gain their living;
and since the usurer prefers another
pathway, he scorns both nature in herself
and art, her follower; his hope is elsewhere.”

Greyon by Gustave Doré

Dante quotes both Aristotle and the Bible to praise creativity and condemn usury, i.e. lending money at an interest (not only exorbitant interest, but interest in general). He made me rethink interest and profit, and I have to admit, I’m absolutely perplexed. Economics is not my strong suit. Perhaps I should leave Dante and read Keynes instead.

Usury is condemned in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36, Deuteronomy 23:19-20), the Book of Ezekiel and a few other places in the OT.

I think the idea is that usury is a type of unnatural and false increase and a means of defrauding your neighbor. It does not create value but extorts value from the victim. If this is true, it behooves all devout Jews and Christians to refrain from charging or receiving interest. Needless to say that’s not the norm today.

While discussing this in our group, people have come up with a few arguments supporting interest. I’ll list them below and present my counter-arguments.

1. Borrowing money is just like renting a car or a house, you pay for the use of the thing.

From a classical economics pov, money is the token of value created by labor, and introduced for the purpose of exchange.

When you rent an apartment, you pay money for the usage of the apartment. As Aristotle wrote, wealth consists in usage not ownership. So if we use it, we should pay for it. There is an equal exchange of value.

Money is different. In and of itself, money is completely useless. It cannot feed us, clothe us, nor shelter us. It’s a token, nothing more. It has to be exchanged for something else to be useful. When we borrow money, we are not getting any direct usage out of it. Why then are we paying extra in interest? The usurer gives less but receives more in return by charging interest. That is not an equal exchange.

2. There are people who borrow money but don’t pay back. So the banker lends money at a risk. Charging interest is a way to cover the risk.

People who don’t pay back the principal are not paying the interest either, so the interest will fall on those who do pay back the money in the course of time. Essentially this is forcing some honest people to pay for others’ delinquencies. It doesn’t seem fair to me at all.

3.The Parable of the Talents in the New Testament implicitly endorses usury.

Understood in context, the parable is a lesson on how to attain spiritual growth. Things that don’t have life in them, such as money, don’t grow by themselves, if you bury them (in your own backyard, or in a bank’s vault), they will remain the same; OTOH, living things do grow and multiply. God gives life to all, and it is “God who gives the increase”. So to “deposit your money with the bankers” really means to sow to the Spirit, receive increase from God, and reap everlasting life.


6 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy: VII. Usury

  1. This relates to the ongoing series I have been working on, exploring the concepts of work, labor, profit and property. I haven’t had time to study Catholic thinking on this, but St. Thomas is on my reading list. This was one of the theological shifts that Calvinism introduced. In the Middle Ages, it was understood that it was always a sin to loan money at interest—-to someone of your own faith. Judaism did not condemn loaning at interest to Gentiles, nor did Christianity condemn loaning at interest to Jews. Of course, there were so few Jews that you couldn’t make a living as a banker to only loaned to Jews; but a Jewish moneylender had a good supply of Gentile nobles and merchants needing extra cash. I have an historical wargame called “A Mighty Fortress,” simulating the 30 Years’ War; in that game, Catholic powers are only allowed to borrow money from the Pope. I don’t know where that idea arose, but since the game strives for historical accuracy I take it as true that by 1500 A.D. Catholic noble houses could borrow money from the Pope, assuming he was interested in financing their project. Otherwise, you had to borrow from a rich Jewish family; and since Catholic Europe did not allow Jews to own farms or other tangible property, the only way they could support themselves was through commercial activity such as banking. Thus medieval Catholics forced Jews to become their bankers, and then resented the Jews for being bankers.

    I’ve also read that St. Thomas’ “Summa Theologiae” argues that private property is not part of God’s original design. That is, it is not “natural law;” it is only “positive law.” The notion of private property, and the laws governing it are human contrivances. Private property is not a sin, but it is merely something that humans invented to make their lives together easier. Since it is not from God but is only a human contrivance, God’s law can override human desires; God (or natural law) can limit how one uses property, how much profit one takes and for what, or whether one can choose to keep one’s property when another needs it.

    John Calvin was the Protestant theologian most known for breaking with the Medieval world and attending to the new world that was dawning. He recognized that business was becoming more important than agriculture, and that for business to flourish there had to be a decent banking system. He therefore taught that moneylending at interest was not in itself a sin; the sin was when the lending became exploitive or the interest exhorbitant.

    American thinking about property is shaped more by Calvin than by St. Thomas. The British colonists were mostly Protestant, and accepted Protestant teachings about the “priesthood of all believers” and the concomitant claim that all work, not just “religious” work, is in fact a calling from God and service to God. They also accepted the idea that business and mercantile activity was not a sin, and that included the lending of money and taking fair interest. But more important to the American intellectual world was John Locke. From Locke we get the idea that everyone has a natural, and one could say God-given right to the private property he earns from his work (though Locke’s notion of God was rather liberal by the standards of today, leading eventually do Deism).

    So to the average American, even the average American Catholic I would wager, the idea of laws restricting how you could loan out your own money, or your right to agree to pay interest on a loan seem rather quaint. Aside from “loansharking,” we let banks and borrowers work that out for themselves; and the financial sector is in fact one of the major driving forces of our economy. But to Dante, all private property is simply a human law, and thus ad hoc compared to God’s law as expressed both through God’s commands and through the structure of Creation. Since Christ has laid down some pretty strict rules (for example, you can’t go into a poor man’s house to search for something you say he owes you; you have to wait outside for him to bring it; you can’t take his last shirt, etc.) there are quite a few things that we would accept as “normal” and good and natural that Dante would consider unbiblical, unnatural and damnable.

    1. I’ve never considered lending at an interest as a corollary of private property. For instance, the Mosaic Law protected private property while condemning lending at interest (to your brethren). So one might argue that private property is divinely ordained. However, the Scripture also made it clear that all things belong to God, the Creator and rightful Owner of all things. So strictly speaking, what man really has is not ownership of his property, but stewardship, and as a steward, he must give an account of his conduct to the owner, as suggested in the Parable of the Talents, the divine stockholder meeting.

      No Greek philosophers, AFAIK, endorsed lending at interest. Plato and Aristotle certainly did not, though the latter defended private property. The notion of “natural law” was articulated by the Stoics, which was embraced by Cicero, who wrote, “private property has been endowed not by nature, but by long-standing occupancy…; or by victory in the case of those who gained it in war; or by law or bargain or contract or lot”. In short, finders, keepers. There is no “God-given” right to private property.

      I’m curious how Calvin taught that moneylending at interest was not in itself a sin, given the many Scriptural references condemning it.

  2. Jct: The main reason the mort-gage death-gamble contract is condemned is that everyone borrows 10 and everyone owes 11 with the 11th token never created, so just like musical chairs, someone is always left short and foreclosed resulting in economic death (real death from lack of life-support tickets often ensues.) So inflicting the death-gamble on your suckered bretheren is the reason Jesus said : If you have money, do not lend it out at interest.” Pretty clear. Makes all the preachers putting their money at usury look pretty bad. That’s why it was removed from the Bible.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I didn’t know that.”mortgage” came from the French word meaning “dead wager”. It does put the whole thing in a much different light.

      1. It’s actually a perfect description of any elimination musical-chairs style game. A gamble with death! A gamble to the death! With the death of the gamble introduced by the usurer’s demand for the impossible, that money have babies. Adelard Turmel’s Axiom #1: Money has no babies. #2: Interest is theft!

  3. I’m curious how Calvin taught that moneylending at interest was not in itself a sin, given the many Scriptural references condemning it.
    Jct: And I’d lay odds he’s not sitting at the same banquet table as Jesus and Luther.

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