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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 717-719

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Book Review

The Early History of Greed: The Sin of Avarice in Early Medieval Thought and Literature

The Early History of Greed: The Sin of Avarice in Early Medieval Thought and Literature. By Richard Newhauser. [Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 41.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2000. Pp. xiv, 246. $64.95.)

Professor Newhauser begins his study by setting up two principles. First, concern with avaritia was not the late medieval by-product of a burgeoning money economy, but reflected an ancient and long-lasting preoccupation, as much with "the forcefulness of yearning" as with "the object of desire" (p. xii). As the author puts it later, "the broad contours of avarice's definition" were "clearly products of late antique culture" (p. 95). Second, "the pressures of asceticism asserted a transformative power on the definition of the vice throughout the early Middle Ages" (p. xiii).

The two principles do not prove easy to reconcile; and it is the first, eventually, that comes to dominate the argument. Reaching back to Hermas, the author chronicles a broadening of concern, a shift from philargyria to pleonexia, from a delight in money to an addiction to surfeit, a shift boosted considerably by Clement's enthusiasm for the figurative, and by Origen's search for the psychological roots of vice. From the same early period, however, writers were aware of "the social consequences of sin" (p. 23). The results of that double focus are admirably unfolded. First, indignation at acquisitive greed did not always encourage radical social reform; it was more a matter of encouraging the rich to help the poor. "Thus, the seeds for a future justification of wealth were contained already in the early condemnation of greed" (p. 9). Motive began to count for more than possession--a compromise associated with the distinction between precepts and counsels. We are invited to recognize the development of a lay church, within which ascesis was tempered by pastoral demands and opportunities.

Church leaders in the fourth century, after the impact of Constantine, were affected by new anxieties. Here, Ambrose is made a key figure, deeply disturbed by the runaway destructiveness of wealth. (Neil McLynn's study of Ambrose, now more than six years old, is not, however, mentioned.) I would have contrasted him less with Basil; but Professor Newhauser documents in interesting ways Ambrose's alarm at the economic disruption of the Balkans under pressure from barbarians, and his concern that loyalty to property and inheritance was inhibiting the conversion of the élite. He and his Italian colleagues seem to have been less worried by their own impact on the economic system--as the author points out, it took a Jerome to uncover that contradiction--and I was [End Page 717] surprised to find virtually no reference to Paulinus of Nola (and, perhaps more forgivably, none to Dennis Trout's 1999 biography).

It is interesting that the attack on avarice should have been tied up with so many other theoretical preoccupations. The chief of them may have been the development of a history of avarice, which affected one's understanding of the Fall, of the prior situation in Paradise (not to mention the Golden Age), and of the changing impact of greed in all its guises throughout the chronicled past. Augustine, of course, is given greatest prominence here, although the author is astute in his assessment of Gregory of Nazianzus, and pays due attention to several earlier stages in the process of historicizing vice. It was a pity, however, to restrict the analysis of Augustine's thought to his engagement in the Pelagian controversy and with the so-called "Sicilian Briton." "Orthodox" figures also showed a characteristic readiness to link anything undesirable with error and "heresy"; and the bugbear in the fourth century was not so much material excess in general but the dangerous (and partly ascetic) notion that one need not work in order to guarantee one's material support.

All that leads one to question whether a...


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