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Irish Jesuit Province

Saint Thomas and Ourselves Author(s): Alfred O'Rahilly Source: The Irish Monthly, Vol. 67, No. 798 (Dec., 1939), pp. 805-813 Published by: Irish Jesuit Province Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20514628 . Accessed: 16/11/2013 07:36
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and Ourselves*

By PROF. ALFRED O'RAHILLY. WI LEN I was a student, there was in vogue a way of teach ing science called " the heuristic method ". The idea was that you were to start with a blank mind and dis cover everything for yourself-as it were to recapitulate in your

own laboratory-career the whole history of science, taking

nothing for granted. The idea was, of course, absurd; for indi vidual life is too short, and most people are too stupid or lazy to

investigate everything for themselves. We must accept a tremendous lot on faith without personal verification. The
trouble is that wve are inclined to take entirely too much for granted. We succumb to the prestige of fashionable opinions, we are victims of the propaganda and advertisements which sur round us, we unthinkingly absorb current jargon. One of the most difficult mental operations is to query the seemingly obvious, to find the fallacy in accepted platitudes, to react against that pervasive unformulated philosophy of the world into which we are born. Consider the pre-1914 mentality, that pre-war world of dominant words and ideas which the cynical young people of It was an era of progress and to-day can hardly visualise. and liberalism with an immense belief in human rationality Wells in his perfectibility-typified by H. G. youthful heyday. to be bringing Transport facilities were supposed peoples international together, narrow nationalism was dying; trade,
* A Radio-Talk
of Radio

(the first of the series

Eireann and the


This Set Me Thinking

") reproduced by



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slowly divesting itself of the last shackles, was unifying mankind

and showing men their common interests. War was to be ousted, if not by the medieval Truce of God, at least by the modern truce of trade. Machinery was ushering in the age of plenty; workers and capitalists were destined to achieve a common

progress withouit diversity of



system called

democracy " was the final stage in the evolution of political organisation, a reversal of which was considered unthinkable. Having put out the lights of heaven and turned on the neon illumination of earth, men would never again indulge in religious or racial persecution. Such, in brief outline, was the creed of that brave old world. Now that it has collapsed, it reads like a caricature especially in these grim days. But those of us who were brought up in it absorbed a great deal more of it than we find it pleasant now to admit. It was the last world-war which set many of us thinking, for our house of cards came tumbling about our ears and we were brought face to face with stark realities.


from the fundamental sanity provided by the

Catholic Faith-I was the victim of many of these up-to-date notions which were in the very air one breathed. had Having the misfortune to pass an examination I thought in economics, I was entitled to bestow a tolerant smile on ancients like Aristotle and medievals like Saint Thomas-who lived before Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. But the war, with its social and economic consequences, was a staggering blow to our optimism. I began to see that I had been guilty of a false historical perspective, that I had been duped by principles erected on the very unsure founda tion of what was merely a short-lived epoch in human history, which, with the disappearance of certain ephemeral factors and accidental circumstances, was noxv coming to an end. And this led me back again to the great Scholastic thinkers in an attempt

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to disengage their permanent principles, coeval with human nature, from the external accidents of their particular time. All this sounds very vague; for it is difficult to be detailed
in a short talk. But I would like to try to convey to you some

of the impressionswhich a study of theMedievals, particularly

Saint Thomas, made faith in the Moderns. upon me just at the time when I had lost A great many people still have the idea

that Aquinas is amusty old writer who was exclusively engaged in abstractmetaphysics and theology. I want to show you that
he was not only alive to the practical me problems of his own time

but laid down principles peculiarly appropriate to ours. Allow

therefore to select a few topics by way of illustration. I will begin with a quotation which I myself used as a preface to a pamphlet on " Flour, Wheat and Tariffs " in 1928: of men to live where c It is not possible for a multitude . . . There there is not a sufficient supply of foodstuffs. are two ways in which sufficient goods may be secured for a One way is through the fertility of the country which State.

produces in plenty whatever human needs require.


other way is through trade whereby the necessaries of life But it can be clearly are imported from different regions. is better. For a thing ismore shown that the first method excellent the more it is self-sufficient, since what depends on Now the State whose land another is obviously deficient. suffices for the necessaries of life ismore fully self-sufficient is dependent on trade with others. than the State which if it draws its supplies Hence the State is more excellent from its own land than if it gets them through importers. A.nd this method also appears to provide greater security, inasmuch as the transport of food may be prevented by war and thus the State might be and various vicissitudes,

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IRISH MONTHLY Regimine Principum

destroyed by a shortage of food. "-De

ii, 3.

Is it not rather astonishing-especially to one who has been rea-dingmodem economists-to find Thomas Aquinas boldly advocating a policy of national self-sufficiency? He does not indulge in all these complicated arguments so familiar to us from the free-trade controversy. He gets down to human funda
mentals. If we want an independent State, we must not be too

dependent on outsiders. Especially let us remember-how apposite is this remark written close on 600 years ago !-that transport of essentials may be prevented by war. So when I re-read Saint Thomas I began to think of home-grown wheat and beet-sugar and even of afforestation. What a respectable lineage some of our ideas have, in spite of the recently acquired authority of those who call themselves economists. And what a shock to anyone bred in the pseudo-world of internationalism!
Saint Thomas wisdom I myself gives some further arguments have become convinced. Here in favour of self iswhat he says:

sufficiency, which moderns have come to despise, but of whose

"A State which needs much foreign trade for its support must put up with the continual presence of foreigners, inter . . . course with whom is subversive of national customs.


if the citizens themselves are devoted to trade,

the way will be open to many vices. For, since the object of traders tends especially to profit, greed is induced in the in the country becomes citizens' hearts; so that everything

valued inmoney
without State cities. seeking

. . . each is intent on his own advantage

the public good . . . and honour, virtue's

reward, will be bestowed on the rich.

is more peaceful whose . . . It is therefore better

. . Finally, that

inhabitants live less in that a State should receive

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its food supplies from its own land than that it should be altogether dependent on trade." From this it can be inferred that Saint Thomas is opposed to financialpenetration by foreigners, that he advocates independent home-producers, that he is against large urban centres. It is at first sight rather surprising to find the Saint somewhat lukewarm-to express itmildly-in defence of what we call busi
ness and trade. So let us turn to another work of his where he

professedly treats the matter:

" It is the business of traders to attend to the exchange

of goods. But, as the Philosopher says, there are two kinds of exchange:
(1) The first kind is as-it-were natural and necessary,

namely, the exchange of goods for goods or of goods and money on account of the needs of life. Such exchange is properly the business not of traders but of householders
or statesmen who have to provide what in. household or State. is necessary for life

for is that of money (2) The second kind of exchange not on account of what is money or of goods for money, necessary for life but in pursuit of gain. And, according to this kind of exchange is properly the busi the Philosopher,

ness of traders.
Now the first kind of exchange is praiseworthy, for it

ministers to natural needs. But the second kind is rightly

regarded as blameworthy, for in itself it ministers to the lust

for gain which knows no limit but tends to infinity. Hence

trade considered in itself has a kind of turpitude, in so far as in its own nature it does not imply an honourable or neces the gain which is the object of trade, sary end. However,

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though in its own nature it does not imply anything honour able or necessary, does not in its nature imply any thing vicious or contrary to virtue. So nothing prevents gain from being directed to a necessary or even honourable end, and thus trade will be made lawful. For example, when anyone directs the moderate gain he seeks in trade towards the support of his household or also towards helping those in want; or when anyone engages in trade on account of the public utility-i.e., so that the country may not lack what is necessary for life; and when he seeks gain not as if it were an end but only as a recompense for his labour." Summa Theologica, 2.2, q. 77, a. 4. This is a very illuminating quotation. According to Saint T'homas, just as the householder has to provide for the family, so the Government But trading has to provide for the community. for profit or gain he will admit to be lawful only when, profiteer ing being excluded, it is directed to the good of the community. T'he moderate gain thus accruing is to be regarded not as an end

in itself but only as stipendium labo7is, a recompense for useful service. It requires little reflection to realise how pregnant in practical consequences is this functional view of business enter
prise and profit. It is at the basis of the medieval ideas of private

ownership and responsible partnership, gild organisation, prohi

Saint Thomas's approach to the problem is so bition of usury. different from that currently in vogue that it certainly set me if we took it seriously enough, it would set us thinking. And, then acting. all thinking-and than on Nowhere is Saint Thomas more thought-provoking of to their absorption in the practical the subject money. Owing and clipping of coins, later writers problems of debasement such as Bishop Nicholas Oresme and the Jesuit Mariana-came

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to confound money with themetallic commodity inwhich it was then embodied. Saint Thomas distinguishes clearly between
what he calls the primary use of money as a means of quantita tively exchanging goods and services, and the secondary use of money, i.e., metal or coin, as a pledge, an ornament or so much

commodity. In his Commentary on Aristotle's Ethics he gives an example. Five beds, he says, are exchanged for one house. This could occur without any intervention of money. Suppose
the house is sold for ?200 and five beds are bought for

this amount. Then, according to Saint Thomas, the ?200 (qufa money) is not an intermediate commodity at all; it is merely
the means for effecting the barter of five beds for a house. In

other words, money is debt, it is a claim on the community.

Just as a signed I.O.U. is a claim on a particular signatory, so money is an X.O.U., a claim on any individual X of the com

munity. If this simple idea is grasped, one becomes immune from a lot of monetary nonsense, both orthodox and heterodox. St. T'homas himself drew practical conclusions from this view. For instance, the sterility or barrenness of money-an idea so unjustly derided by most economists since Bentham. But
if money as such is not a physical but only a moral entity-a It is only the right or a claim-the conclusion is self-evident. bounty of nature, aided by human industry, which is ultimately fruitful. Hence what we call " money "-i.e., making piling not a physical operation up claims on the industry of others-is so far from constituting real shoes. like, say, making And, wealth, money on the contrary is debt, i.e., claims on or sub

traction from existing or potential wealth.

cannot be lent Again, Saint Thomas concluded that money a while hired use its in the sense of having (like house) retaining For money ismerely a claim and a claim requires its ownership.

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a claimant. You


of this claim and

can retain your ownership

authorise its effectuation or exercise in the form of goods, of which you are the owner or co-owner. You must then accept the responsibility and risk and you co-operate in business enter prise. But, without other serious extrinsic grounds for recom
pense, you have no right to lend money in the sense of trans

ferring your claim to another to be owned and exercised by him -and then, in addition to the subsequent return of an equivalent claim, to demand to share in the results of thatworker's industry and enterprise. Such, in a nutshell, is Saint Thomas's view of usury. It is quite coherent with the already quoted view that
business-gains are justified only as the " stipend for labour ". Trhe whole idea of usury has been laughed out of court by

economists; it has come to be regarded as an outworn supersti

tion. It is therefore rather a shock when one reads Saint Thomas

for oneself and discovers the solid moral and social arguments he adduces.
At least it was a great shock to me, forever shattering any traces of that smug up-to-date complacency which is so much I mention this not at all associated with academic economics. are of any because I think my own biographical reminiscences interest to my listeners, not even to explain why I appear so

frightfully out-of-date and retrograde to so many intellectuals.

No. want But don't you see that there is a lesson for all of us? to set you as well as myself thinking. I

Saint Thomas is to us an example of practical Christianity. I have tried to show you this on a few points selected almost at

random-I could indeed have fruitfully spent the whole time in

But I hope I have said enough discussing his views on a just war. did not merely write to show you that this great friar-theologian

hymns and seminary-textbooks. He carried his principles into

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the workaday world around him. He did not confine his activities to puremental speculation or to pious exhortations. He boldly entered the arena of lay-life. He refused to shut up his message in the sacristy and the cloister. We want men of that spirit to-day. The world is crumbling
around us. As never before in our history we are up against bed

rock realities: provision for the essential needs of our people, the subordination of themonetary mechanism to the primary end of civil life, the necessity for securing the conformity of the indivi
dual's activities to the common good, our duty as a people to

proclaim the spiritual ideals for which we stand. These are problems which we canmeet, not if our creed is timorous, partial
and vague, disaster, establish but only if, in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, we

boldly reject the false philosophy which has led merely

if we get back again to first principles and strive a social organisation based upon peace and justice.


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