- Voluntarist Anthropology in Peter of John Olivi’s De contractibus
Peter of John Olivi’s (c. 1248–98) Tractatus de contractibus is nowadays regarded as an important document in the history of economic thought.1 Modern scholars have proposed various interpretations of its exact contribution. Many aspects of Olivi’s argumentation have been traced to earlier discussions concerning the Roman and Canon laws, as well as to theological and philosophical literature on economic questions, but his overall approach has also been credited for transforming the medieval framework in a profound way.2 His definition of capital, recognition of “probable profit”, qualified acceptance of receiving interest for loans, and his keen eye for understanding actual economic practices have been discussed in the literature, and although many theoretical elements in his view are familiar from his predecessors, his analytical synthesis of these elements is original in many ways.3
De contractibus was written in a particular historical, geographical, social and political setting. Olivi composed it around mid-1290s while he was working at the Franciscan studium generale of Narbonne, which was at the time one of the important commercial centers of southern Languedoc. The treatise is a theoretical analysis of various practical moral [End Page 41] issues that are related to economic activities and, as such, it is connected to the pastoral duties of Franciscan brothers working in an urban environment. However, it is primarily a work on moral philosophy in the context of economics,4 and it should be understood in relation to Olivi’s conception of absolute poverty, as well as to the medieval commentary tradition of civil and canon law and the reception of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.5 It goes without saying that in order to appreciate the originality of De contractibus, these contextual issues must be taken into consideration.
Yet, just because Olivi’s aim is to address practical moral questions from a theoretical perspective, his treatise is deeply grounded in his philosophical views. Whatever else Olivi was, he was also a clever and original philosopher.6 It should not be a surprise, then, that the result of his engagement with the social, political and economic context of late thirteenth century Narbonne can be read from a philosophical point of view. A philosophical reading of his argumentation reveals that it is deeply embedded in his anthropological views.
My self-appointed task in the present article is to analyze the ways in which Olivi’s anthropological views appear in De contractibus and to show that they influence his economic theory. I will concentrate especially on his psychological voluntarism—by which I mean both his philosophical theory of the freedom of the will, and the central role that the freedom of the will plays in his anthropology. It is well known that he is one of the first philosophers (if not the first) to suggest a radical voluntarist view, according to which the human will is superior to the intellect and the root of human personhood.7 His commitment to the centrality of the will is one of the most prominent features of his philosophical psychology, and [End Page 42] a careful examination shows that it also figures significantly as the backdrop for his economic ideas. The present article is intended to serve as a magnifying glass that highlights the traces of Olivi’s voluntarism in De contractibus, but also as a philosophical reading of the connections that his economic theory has to his philosophical psychology, his conception of property rights, and his views concerning absolute poverty.
The article begins with a brief explanation of Olivi’s theory of the metaphysical foundations of property rights, as it is spelled out in the first question of the fourth book of his Summa quaestionum super Sententiarum and in the Quaestiones de perfectione evangelica (hereafter QPI and QPE, respectively).8 By pointing out that Olivi conceptualized ownership as a form of dominion, which is ultimately based on the freedom of the will, I aim to provide a philosophical context, which is necessary for understanding the anthropological ideas behind Olivi’s economic thought. Then I will turn my attention to De contractibus, especially to the first part of the...