Scholasticism and Canon Law

Scholasticism and Canon Law, Medieval Economic Thought

Neither Christianity nor the Church, but part of each, with an admixture of the philos­ophy of Aristotle, was scholasticism. It was the system of thought which came to dominate ecclesiastics during medieval times; it was the scholarship of the Middle Ages. In it the theo­logical element was dominant, and no advance in knowledge was considered established until the new idea was fitted into its niche in the structure whose foundation was religious. It cannot be called a science, for it did not seek to explain phe­nomena so much as to apply certain absolute rules of conduct to existing conditions. The last word was said with a citation from the Bible, one from the Church fathers, and now and then one from profane history.

It is not improbable that the progress made by medieval scholars in economic thought has often been underestimated, largely, no doubt, because their methods and conclusions were so different from those now dominant. It was Roscher's opinion that the scholastics, and above all Scotus, made more progress than is commonly believed, though only in certain special forms. Most valuable is that part of their work devoted to the sacra­ment, especially the sacrament of confession. Here were investi­gated the conditions which must precede the absolution of the penitent sinner and how far he must make good his wrong; and that led, in the case of sins which involved economy, to an in­quiry into the nature of economic institutions. The conclusions reached will be discussed in a moment. The difficulty was that economics was not made a distinct line of thought. The monks knew little outside of Aristotle's writings, and Aristotle wrote no books on political economy.

Thomas Aquinas has been called the prince of scholastics. He it was who with infinite pains and ingenuity strove to weld the teachings of the Bible and of Aristotle into a harmonious body of thought. And, in the uncritical judgment of his con­temporaries, he succeeded. One result of his attempt was the celebrated classification of laws into eternal, natural, human, and divine. The first is the controlling plan of the universe as conceived by God; that part of it which can be grasped by man and which enables him to distinguish good and evil is natural law; while human or customary law consists of the enactments of earthly powers. Divine law is that part of the eternal law revealed in the holy writings. Human law should be based upon natural law. It fell into two parts: civil law (Roman) and canon law (Church). Canon law, or the Corpus Juris Canonici, was coordinated and given a systematic form about the middle of the twelfth century by the monk Gratian of Bologna. It was drawn from a mass of ecclesiastical legislation and decisions, thus containing elements of Christian doctrine, Aristotelian philosophy, and Roman law. It expressed the judgment of orthodox churchmen concerning human relations, and so contained economic ideas.

The tendency of scholasticism was on the whole opposed both to individualism and to the emphasis of the human per­sonality as the basis for economic decisions. It tended to sub­ordinate the individual to the institution, and to consider man as subject to "natural" laws. Thus, on the one hand, it tended to limit that reference to individual choices which was to become the basis of economic science; while, on the other hand, it kept alive and emphasized the concept of social uniformities and the dominance of abstract "laws" which later contributed to the idea of that science.