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Artillery Row

The broad influence of Aquinas

His influence has been felt in economics as well as philosophy and religion

News of the death of Thomas Aquinas, on March 7, 1274, stirred suspicions of foul play. Circumstances were suspicious. Thomas, riding through a forest, had struck his head against an overhanging branch, a collision from which he did not recover and succumbed to two weeks later. Adding grist to the rumour mill was the timing of Aquinas’s journey. He had been on his way to Rome, a cauldron with a three-way power struggle between the pope and two dynasties, the Hohenstaufen and the Anjou, German and French competitors for control of Sicily. Thomas Aquinas grew up in a family immersed in the highest levels of politics. Indeed, Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen king of Sicily, went to great lengths to pressure the young Thomas Aquinas to enter his service, having him locked up for a year to give him time to come to his senses. Thomas Aquinas however was not for turning, held out, and joined monastic orders. The body of writing he composed over the course of his career was vast and accumulated at a frenetic pace. Before he had set out on his last journey, he had nearly completed the Summa theologiae, disquisitions in 514 chapters touching on every aspect of relations between God and mankind. Prior to departing on his final journey, Thomas announced, somewhat ominously, that his writing career was now over. Was it farfetched to envisage his next career step would take him to the highest level of the Vatican?

The Aquinas family were loyalists of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick II, the king of Sicily, deputed Thomas Aquino, uncle of the theologian, to negotiate Muslim recognition of Christian rule over parts of Jerusalem with rulers in Egypt and Syria, and made him his viceregent in Sicily. If the Aquinas family had inside knowledge of Hohenstaufen diplomacy, they also knew first hand about the dark arts of Italian politics. The two confidantes Frederick II had sent to force Thomas Aquinas out of his monastic vocation were Rinaldo Aquinas, his brother, and Piero della Vigna. Both came to a violent end. Rinaldo was later executed for plotting against Frederick. Piero della Vigna too was subsequently charged with conspiracy, and ended his life, it was claimed, by suicide. It is possible that the Aquinas family, following the excommunication of Frederick II in 1245, had switched their allegiance from the Hohenstaufen to the Angevin party. In any event, when Thomas Aquinas returned to his teaching post at the University of Naples two years before he died, he did so at the behest of Charles of Anjou. The volatile and violent nature of Sicilian politics was also visited on Charles of Anjou, who ousted Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily but was toppled in the wake of the massacre of French soldiers in the Sicilian Vespers.  

Thomas Aquinas was a well-connected aristocrat with unimpeachable credentials as a theologian, and as such an obvious contender for the papacy. In this climate, it was only to be expected that the circumstances of his death raised suspicions. How likely was it that a man, not yet fifty years old, in good health, and experienced in long distance travel, could have crashed into a branch that knocked him near dead? One could well imagine there were some who might be glad to see Thomas Aquinas out of the way. Three years after his death, his reputation took a further knock when the University of Paris condemned certain of his teachings.

It took time, but Aquinas’ reputation recovered. In 1323 Thomas Aquinas was canonised. At the time, Pope John XXII was embroiled in long running altercations with the order of Franciscans over the right to own private property. Franciscans argued only a poor Christian was a true Christian. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas, John XXII made the right to own private property church doctrine.

More recently, economists have come to engage with Aquinas

By the nineteenth century the estimation of Thomas Aquinas advanced further. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church. In the twentieth century Aquinian thinking has been reaching into fields beyond the orbit of theology. One such was modernist literature and theory. Thomas Aquinas had a close reader in James Joyce. Aquinian aesthetics was the subject of a book by Umberto Eco.

More recently, economists have come to engage with Aquinas. The Summa theologiae devoted two chapters to business ethics. One of these two chapters was on usury. For a long time it was thought, but wrongly, that Aquinas equated all lending at interest with usury and therefore considered it a sin. This reading was a misunderstanding. In fact, Aquinas declared lending at interest was warranted to compensate for the risk of loss, damnum emergens. On the other hand, lending at interest was not warranted to compensate for giving up gain, lucrum cessans. Aquinas on usury accorded less with Aristotle than with the Talmud, where Rabbi bar Nachman defined usury as a “reward for waiting.” And as did the Talmudists, Aquinas expressly considered income from risk-bearing investment rightful. The other chapter on business ethics treated cheating. Prior to Aquinas, it was received opinion, of Stoics and Christians alike, that a salesman had unlimited duties to disclose product information. Aquinas overturned this consensus. It was unreasonable to blame a salesman for looking out for his own interest and it was reasonable that buyers should take responsibility for gathering information ahead of making a purchase. Thomas Aquinas’ writing on the conduct of sales has earned praise from George Akerlof, Nobel laureate in the economics of information asymmetry.

Modern readers of Aquinas do not care how medieval struggles between dynasties played out and how they involved Thomas Aquinas and his family. But the family of Thomas Aquinas’ mother, the Caracciolo, has kept its place amongst the highest levels of Italy’s elite. Gianni Agnelli, the Italian magnate who revived the fortunes of FIAT after World War II, was married to Princess Marella Caracciolo, and another member of the family, Carlo Caracciolo, was the first publisher of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica founded in 1976. 

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