Christian traditionalists have long lamented the West’s spiritual and cultural decline. And who can blame them? The signs of decay are everywhere: from widespread porn addiction to the opioid crisis, fertility decline to the collapse in church attendance across most of the developed world. But the same conservatives are almost fanatically determined to blinker themselves to the material and economic roots of this malaise. They believe that to link cultural decay to economic conditions is to give in to materialist reductionism—a Marxist sin.
Yet the very tradition conservatives revere points in a different direction. In fact, the classical and Christian tradition has long identified a nexus between law, understood to include political economy, and the moral and spiritual conditions of ordinary people. That recognition is, of course, at the heart of classical political and legal theory—and it was carried through the Middle Ages by numerous thinkers and churchmen, not least the 14th-century French bishop Nicolas Oresme.
Born in the early 1320s to a family of no renown, Nicolas Oresme became a parish priest in Rouen in his early 40s, before Pope Gregory XI tapped him for the See of Lisieux. Though a high churchman, he was also one of only a handful of theorists from his period who took a sincere interest in economics. Oresme lived through a period of revolts driven in large part by repeated currency debasements, as France struggled to raise money to fund the Hundred Years’ War. This sparked Oresme to write about the currency. In his treatise on money, De Moneta, he argued that a king who uses the mint without the consent of his subjects is a tyrant dominating slaves. In doing so, he wrote, “the prince would be at length able to draw to himself almost all the money and riches of his subjects and reduce them to slavery. And this would be tyrannical, indeed true and absolute tyranny, as it is represented by philosophers in ancient history.”
Oresme wasn’t keen on taxation, either. In his view, the king should ideally pay for the realm’s defense with rents from his own lands. Taxation and the mint might be used in a genuine emergency, but the king can’t decide what counts as an emergency unilaterally. In such situations, he must convene the nobles of the realm and ask their permission to commandeer their funds. If there is no time to convene the nobles, the king should only be permitted to borrow their money, and he ought to pay them back.
Judged solely by his treatise on money, Oresme might strike us as a “conservative” in contemporary terms: He advocated for a kind of limited monarchy, allocating to the king arguably fewer powers than the president of France enjoys today. It must be acknowledged that he completely excluded the third estate—the common people—from politics. He denied the right of rebellion to the common people and cautioned the nobility about its use, arguing that even when the king does behave tyrannically, a rebellion rarely serves the common good.
But Oresme didn’t concern himself exclusively with the politics of kings. He was also deeply worried about a growing crisis within the Catholic Church. Over the years, massive inequalities opened up within the Church. A handful of cardinals possessed enormous wealth, while many rank-and-file priests were penniless. Increasingly, many of these priests adopted the view that poverty was necessary for virtue, challenging the spiritual authority of their wealthier peers. Some of these priests drifted into heresy, denying the authority of the pope on the grounds that no true leader of the Church would acquire property or encourage others to do so.
Oresme was no heretic. He wasn’t even a Franciscan. King Charles V tasked him with translating the works of Aristotle into French, including the Stagirite’s Politics. Aristotle had argued that property is a prerequisite for virtue: Virtue could only be developed if a person had time to contemplate the virtues, to think about what it really means to be good. In short, the life of virtue required a measure of property and material security. If the ordinary person were to develop this higher life, it followed that property should be broadly and equitably distributed.
Oresme applied this thinking straightforwardly. In France, ordinary people had no role in politics, and Oresme was happy to keep it that way. But in the Church, there were already large numbers of poor priests. Many of these priests were mendicants, who quite literally begged in the street. Some were charismatic and influential. It wasn’t possible to remove these priests from the Church—not without encouraging heresy and schism. Denying these priests offices and marginalizing them wasn’t working, either. If they didn’t become virtuous, they would lead people astray, and for Oresme, they could only become virtuous if they held property and offices that could financially support them.
The bishop argued that “it is a natural part of human society that religious officials should be supported with no need of mendicancy or servile labor.” He wrote that “it is still more foreign to the ethical conceptions of Aristotle to recommend voluntary poverty, to say that the perfect estate is to have or to own nothing, either individually or in common.” Such a thing would “seem discordant with good government,” and since “the Law of Jesus Christ” is not discordant with good government, it can’t be God’s will that some priests acquire enormous amounts of wealth and power, while other priests are left in abjection. Neither the rich priests nor the poor would focus their attention where Oresme felt it belonged: on the good of all.
On Christmas Eve of 1363, Oresme even gave a sermon before the pope in Avignon, denouncing the poor distribution of wealth within the Church. But little was done. The Church’s political institutions lacked the dynamism to impose large-scale economic change. As the grotesque inequalities persisted and deepened, its legitimacy dwindled, slowly setting the stage for schism and discord, both in the Church and the temporal sphere.
Many churchmen exhorted their brethren to do better morally and spiritually, but the rhetoric was rarely backed up with redistribution. As Aristotle—and following him, Aquinas, in the Treatise on Law—had argued, moral exhortations don’t work when the hearers lack the necessary material incentives. But words are always cheaper than action, and so there is always a tendency to rationalize, to pretend we can achieve through opprobrium what can only be achieved through the hard toil of politics.
Across the West today, the market relentlessly coerces citizens to contemplate and grasp for money, subordinating every other value. They are exhausted. In their misery, they seek out every kind of coping mechanism imaginable. Instead of learning temperance, they construct their identities around their desires, around the products they consume.
Progressives in the United States who advocate for cash-transfer programs, like the expansion of the earned-income tax credit or universal basic income, overestimate the capacity of market systems to develop citizens. It isn’t enough simply to create free time. The market forces that incentivize consumption and melancholic repose need to be curbed for the moral health of the people. Meanwhile, most cultural conservatives maintain a blissful ignorance of the nexus between the material order and the spiritual, gainsaying how the capitalization of health care, housing, and education have led to the capitalization of the family and of interior life; how citizens derive no meaningful social roles and are alienated from themselves, their kin, and their communities.
Western decline will continue apace unless and until our elites show greater foresight and wisdom about political economy than did most churchmen in Oresme’s time.