Caritas vs. Cupiditas: Two Ways Cultures Understand Themselves
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), an important early Christian theologian, distinguished Christians' love for each other as "caritas," building upon Aristotle's doctrine of friendship's disinterested love of others (philia) to contrast with the self-aggrandizing love of others and things that we desire to possess (cupiditas) (De doctrina Christiana [On Christian Doctrine] 3.10.16). A community united by the love of friendship instead of the acquisitive love of greed was supposed to take care of its members more zealously and with greater economy because all of its decisions would be governed by whatever was best for one's neighbors, rather than by whatever was best for one's self, alone. Selves in competition for scarce resources, so the doctrine went, would damage each other in their quest to amass riches in excess of what each one needed, whereas selves united for the common good would conserve and distribute community resources to the best benefit of all. Augustine's caritas doctrine also derives from Paul the Apostle's use of the term, especially in his epistle to the Christian community of Corinth in Greece, where he urged them to "be of one mind, have peace; and the God of peace and of love [caritas] shall be with you" (2 Corinthians 13.11). The medieval Church built its massive charitable systems upon this doctrine, authorizing public collection of charitable tithes and instruction of the laity in Christian doctrine by monks of the monastic orders (Augustinians, Benedictines, Bridgettines, Carmelites, Carthusians, etc.) and friars of the fraternal orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.). The tasks of teaching and money-gathering pose obvious potential contradictions, even today (!), because what one teaches may be good or bad for bringing in cash, but that may have no bearing on whether the teaching saves souls or makes a better community. Quite the reverse, sometimes, it seems to be.
Meanwhile, as the great mendicant (begging) orders grew rich on the proceeds of their Church-authorized trade, Anglo-European cultures developed new technologies and trade relations that encouraged cupiditas as a competing ethic for social organization. After the first millenium, merchants' guilds, and early commercial bankers like the Bardi and Peruzzi families, began to grow powerful by inventing what we now call "capitalist economy," a market-driven system that exchanges goods for capital and encourages individual profits as the highest motive for action. We see this conflict clearly in the Canterbury tales told by Chaucer's Shipman, Friar, and Summoner, and the Pardoner's Prologue. Eventually, C15-16 reformers in the Church like Erasmus, Melancthon, and Luther argued that the blurring of distinctions between cash and belief were too dangerous and that the Church must purge itself of the mendicant orders, with their vast and expensive superstructures of monasteries, friaries, and the lands which supported them. Meanwhile, the craft guilds in England and on the Continent grew ever more powerful, becoming rich enough to loan money to their kings, and to rise to positions of power within the government, itself. In England, Protestant guildsmen in the House of Commons began to use their control of the king's purse to change Parliament's relationship to the Crown, until combined religious, political, and economic forces brought the nation to civil war in 1642-9. The forces set loose by these events eventually insured the end of the medieval supremacy of caritas over commercial interest. Nevertheless, the caritas tradition remained strongly ingrained in English thought, and charitable institutions grew up even within the craft guilds which had helped to change the cultural ethos. Slowly, however, "charity" grew to mean extraordinary occasional gifts to the poor rather than a constant state of loving attention to one's neighbors' needs.
Is there a "date certain" for the end of "caritas" culture in England? Stephen Pearlstein, one of The Washington Post's business columnists, wrote a very interesting column on the Congress's "negotiations" about the federal budget ("A Budget Process Hijacked by Selfish Interests", 27 February 2009, D01). In it, he lamented the persistence of a process in which all special interests (farmers, bankers, doctors, college professors) fought relentlessly for measures insuring their own group's profit (i.e., cupiditas) even if that damaged the nation as a community. For historical perspective, Pearlstein cited Adam Smith's famous explanation of "the invisible hand" of the market which was supposed to regulate all of society's business as well as it could possibly work, for the good of all:
“It's hard not to see the parallel between the magic of this political marketplace and the ‘invisible hand’ of the economic marketplace as described centuries ago by Adam Smith. ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,’ he wrote famously in An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. ‘By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it,’ he wrote” (D01).
The quotes are from Book I, Chapter 2, paragraph 2 and Book IV, Chapter 2, paragraph 9, of this immense tome. Smith published the book popularly called The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Is that coincidental, or cosmically important, for our American struggle to understand the works Chaucer and his contemporaries?