History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 649-657
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Aquinas and Aristotle’s Distinction on Wealth
João César das Neves
This brief essay focuses on a specific point of political economy, the Aristotelian distinction of two types of wealth. Such a philosophical and ethical distinction was influential and can be traced to several economic authors throughout the centuries.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the most important of medieval philosophers and founder of modern Catholic theology, is considered to be one of the greatest disciples of Aristotle. It is then natural that Aquinas, who drew much of his political economy from Aristotle, would have accepted the distinction. The discussion of this acceptance must take into account several aspects in the economic and intellectual medieval framework. But there is a decisive fact. In the Summa Theologica Aristotle’s distinction is explicitly rejected. This is one case in which Aquinas articulated a denial of one of Aristotle’s moral theories.
The Meaning of Aristotle’s Distinction
One influential aspect of Aristotle’s political economy is the distinction between “natural wealth” and “artificial wealth” in the first book of Politics (1932, I:iii). Although lateral to his economic theory better treated in the Nicomachean Ethics, this distinction is important. The Greek philosopher discriminated between commodities necessary for [End Page 649] life and other types of wealth, including money. The accumulation of the necessaries, which is morally good, is considered part of Oikonomia, “the household art.” Money and artificial wealth are the object of “wealth-getting,” or Chrematistics, which is both unlimited and morally disregarded (Lowry 1987, 231).
One kind of acquisition therefore in the order of nature is a part of the household art, in accordance with which either there must be forthcoming or else that art must procure to be forthcoming a supply of those goods, capable of accumulation, which are necessary for life and useful for the community of city or household…. But there is another kind of acquisition that is specially called wealth-getting, and that is so called with justice; and to this kind it is due that there is thought to be no limit to riches and property. (Aristotle 1932, 1256b.26–1257a.4)
The distinction of the types of wealth is related to the distinction between the Homo Oeconomicus and the Homo Chrematisticus. It played a central role in Aristotle’s economics, in particular in his theories of the polis and of money (see, e.g., Gordon 1975, 43–53; Langholm 1983, 4–5, 53; Lowry 1987, 223–36; Meikle 1995, 43–67). It was also very important in economic thought. Among other things, Aristotle’s influential moral condemnations of trade (1932, 1257b.20) and interest (1258b.2–8) are considered to have been derived from it, and this idea was to have consequences in economic policy for centuries. Economic writers as late as Karl Marx were very much influenced by this distinction (see, e.g., Gordon 1975, 37).
Recent research (Langholm 1983, 52–53; Lowry 1987, 230; 1998, 31–32) has pointed to some new aspects in Aristotle’s distinction. In particular, this wealth doctrine is seen to be rooted in “an extremely important but often ignored analytical distinction made by Aristotle. This is his theory of the ‘natural limit’… developed in greater detail in the beginning of Book VII of the Politics” (Lowry 1998, 31–32). Here, Aristotle considered three types of goods: “external goods, goods of the soul and goods of the body” (1932, 1323a.25–30), the first of which is limited. “For external goods have a limit, as has any instrument (and everything useful is useful for something), so an excessive amount of them must necessarily do harm, or do no good for its possessor” (1323b.7–8). The elimination of this natural limit for external goods is the evil distortion in Chrematistics. [End Page 650]
This interpretation allows for the famous quotes of book I of Politics to be inserted into the specific economic situation of ancient Greece. “The traditional assertion that Aristotle was hostile to commerce is based on...