Scholasticism Founder Definition Aquinas

Scholasticism Founder, Scholasticism Definition

What is Scholasticism, Scholastic economic doctrine is best understood in the context of its time, extending from before the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginnings of mercantilism in Western Europe. We shall discuss some of the chief characteristics of medieval society that bear on the nature and significance of scholasticism.

The Feudal Foundation of Scholastic Thought

The kind of economic activity we see today in the industrialized areas of the world did not exist to any significant degree during the Middle Ages. In particular, although the production of goods for sale in a market increased throughout the period, it did not play a dominant role in everyday life. The feudal economy consisted of subsistence agriculture in a society bound together not by a market but by tradition, custom, and authority. The society was divided into four groups: serfs, landlords, royalty, and the church. All land was fundamentally owned by the Roman Catholic church or the king. Use of the land owned by the king was given to the lords or nobles, who in exchange had certain obligations to the central authority. These obligations, based not on contracts (as in the modern market economy) but on tradition and custom, consisted of supplying services and goods. The right of land use, with its corresponding obligations, was passed by birthright from father to son. Since the secular central authority was never very strong during the Middle Ages, the lord was, for the most part, master of his domain. The relationship between lord and serf was also dictated by custom, tradition, and authority. The serf was tied to the land by tradition and paid the lord for use of the land with labor, crops, and sometimes money. In return, the lord protected the serf from outsiders during times of war. Each manor or estate was a virtually complete economic and political unit. It usually had its own church, built by the lord and partly managed under the influence of the lord, since he nominated the pastor. As the largest landholder in Western Europe, the church had significant secular influence. In general, its estates were better managed than those of the feudal lords, partly because churchmen were the only class proficient in reading and writing.

Most individuals accepted their place in feudal society without much ques­tion. There were scattered examples of serfs revolting against their lords, but these were unusual occurrences. All land belonged to God, who had put it in the custody either of a man who was king by divine right or of the church. Not to accept the authority of one's superiors was to oppose the will of God, who had given them authority, and to endanger one's salvation in the next life. In such a system, land, labor, and capital were not commodities bought and sold in a market as they are today, and there was very little production of goods for sale in the market.

Although there were strong elements in the feudal society that reinforced tradition and were hostile to change, other factors began to erode feudalism's foundations. Most economic historians regard changing technology as the major cause of the decline of feudalism. Changes in agricultural technology had disruptive influences on the manor. Manufacturing began, which was based on the replacement of human and animal power by mechanical power from water and wind. Thus, in the course of the Middle Ages and especially during the five hundred years prior to 1450, society was transformed.


The scholastic writers were educated monks who tried to provide religious guidelines to be applied to secular activities. Their aim was not so much to analyze what little economic activity was taking place as to prescribe rules of economic conduct compatible with religious dogma. The most important of the scholastic writers was St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas Aquinas Theology and Biography

Although the scholastics, in attempting to adapt to the nascent economic changes of their times, produced a somewhat diverse body of economic ideas, they essentially addressed the same core economic issues: the institution of private property and the concepts of just price and usury. With minor qualifications, it is reasonable to characterize and summarize this literature as a struggle to reconcile the religious teachings of the church with the slowly increasing economic activity of the time. Scholastic writing represents a gradual acceptance of certain aspects of economic activity as compatible with religious doctrine, achieved by subtle modifications of that doctrine to fit the economic conditions. The significance of St. Thomas Aquinas's ideas lies in his fusion of religious teaching with the writings of Aristotle, which provided scholastic economic doctrine with much of its content.

In attempting to reconcile religious doctrine with the institution of private property and with economic activity, Aquinas had to reckon with numerous biblical statements condemning private property, wealth, and the pursuit of economic gain. Based upon the New Testament, early Christian thought held that communal property accorded with natural law and that privately held property fell short of this ideal. Thus, early Christian society, modeled on the lives of Jesus Christ and his apostles, was communal. But the early scholastic writers had long struggled to establish that some ownership of private property by laymen was not incompatible with religious teaching. In the thirteenth century, after Aristotle's writings had been reintroduced into Western Europe, Thomas Aquinas, adapting Aristotelian thought to his own writing, was able to argue convincingly that private property is not contrary to natural law. Although he conceded that under natural law all property is communal, he maintained that the growth of private property was an addition, not a contradiction, to natural law. Aquinas argued that to be naked was in accordance with natural law and that clothing was an addition to natural law and devised for the benefit of man. The same reasoning applied to private property.

We might say that for man to be naked is of the natural law, because nature did not give him clothes, but art invented them. In this sense, the possession of all things . . . [is] said to be of the natural law, because, namely, the distinction of possession .. . [was] not brought in by nature, but devised by human reason for the benefit of human life.

Again following Aristotle, Aquinas approved the regulation of private prop­erty by the state and accepted an unequal distribution of private property. However, in the spirit of Plato, he still advocated poverty and communal living as the ideal for those of deep religious commitment, because the communal life enabled them to devote the greatest part of their energies to religious activities. Aquinas and other scholastics were also concerned with another aspect of greater economic activity, the price of goods. Unlike modern economists, they were not trying to analyze the formation of prices in an economy or to understand the role that prices play in the allocation of scarce resources. They focused on the ethical aspect of prices, raising issues of equity and justice. Did religious doctrine forbid merchants to sell goods for more than they paid for them? Were making profits and taking interest sinful acts? In discussing these issues, Aquinas combined religious thinking with Aristotle's views. When ex­changes take place in the market to meet the needs of the trading parties (using Aristotle's conception of need), Aquinas concluded, no ethical issues are in­volved. But when individuals produce for the market in anticipation of gain, they are acting virtuously only if their motives are charitable and their prices are just. If the merchant intends to use any profits for self-support, for charity, or to contribute to the public well-being, and if his prices are just, so that both the buyer and the seller benefit, the merchant has acted rightly.

Historians of economic theory differ in their interpretations of the scholastic notion of just price. Some hold that the scholastics, including Aquinas, considered a just price to be an equivalent in terms of labor cost. Others say that it is an equivalent in terms of utility, and still others regard it as an equivalent in terms of total cost of production. Thus, the scholastic concept of just price is seen alternatively as a forerunner of the Ricardian-Marxian labor theory of value, the marginal utility position, and the notion implicit in classical-neoclassical theory that competitive markets yield ideal just prices. Another widely held view regards the scholastic notion of just price as an integral part of the set of social and economic forces that maintained the hierarchy of feudalism. If all prices in the market were just prices, this view holds, no one would be able to change his or her social status by means of economic activity. The lack of economic analysis in scholasticism makes it difficult to judge exactly what was meant by "just price." Our interpretation is that for scholasticism in general and Aquinas in particular, just price meant simply the prevailing market price. If this is correct, however, since the scholastics had no theory with which to explain the forces that determine market price, no useful conclusion can be reached regarding the economic or even the ethical content of the concept of just price.

A corollary to the concept of just price was the scholastic notion of usury. The church's views on just price and morality in economic behavior were, for the most part, general enough not to impinge on the growing economy. But its views on usury were specific and consequential enough to create conflict between the church and the emerging business community. The meaning of the term usury has changed since the time of scholasticism. As used today, it denotes charging an excessive rate of interest, but in scholastic doctrine, it has the biblical and Aristotelian sense of any taking of interest. Scholastic usury doctrine was itself derived largely from the Bible and the writings of Aristotle. The biblical condem­nation of usury rose from the danger that the strong would take advantage of the weak. Moreover, Aristotle had argued that the taking of interest on loans was unnatural, since money is barren. The scholastic view gradually moderated from a fairly strict prohibition of interest early in the period to its acceptance—at least for business purposes—later.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a very complex and interesting thinker. On the one hand, he held back economic thinking by emphasizing ethical issues and focusing on moral philosophy; on the other hand, he advanced economics and all the social sciences by his use of abstract thinking. Stephan Worland points to the use of abstraction in St. Thomas Aquinas:

[He] largely disregards the institutional framework through which economic activity takes place and treats such activity simply as the conduct of private individuals. .. . Concentrating on questions of fundamental principle, he confines his economic investigation to a relatively high level of abstraction. . . . His conception of an economic system is that of a number of undifferentiated members of the human species held together by those basic institutions—private property, division of labor, exchange—which are "natural" to man.