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St. Patrick and the wealth of nations


Political economy is the integration of the wealth and assets across generations. The ground of all wealth is human enterprise — the application of intelligence and hard work to the natural resources of the planet. Wise stewardship preserves and expands the capital stock, which arises out of the God-given fruitfulness of mankind.

There were few greater geniuses of political economy than “the great company of Irish saints” of late antiquity, whose faithful stewardship of the resources available to them, in the dying anarchy of the Roman order, preserved against ruin and decay the human wealth of the ancient world. These men, among whose number we include the enigmatic and beloved saint celebrated today, give to a hackneyed modern phrase new life and vitality. They were the supreme wealth managers of our ancestry. What Whittaker Chambers wrote of St. Benedict, and of his great work in southern Europe, we may also say of the Irish saints of northern Europe:

“At the touch of [their] mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages.”

What these saints demonstrate for us today is the narrowness of our notions of wealth, prosperity, and economy. The academic discipline which takes for its title the latter word has all but forgotten the foundation of its subject-matter: the fruitfulness of human beings, as they pass their resources, material, intellectual, spiritual, from generation to generation.

The nine-thousand-year lease enjoyed by the Irish brewer whose product many of us will joyfully imbibe today (perhaps under official dispensation from Lenten fasts), suggests a sounder horizon for thinking about economic prosperity: not the next quarter’s evanescent earnings report, but the true wealth of nations, unto to the next age, and the age after that.

The Celtic Church, though it ultimately submitted to the authority of the Papacy, had its own character and integrity. It had never known the secular, and was largely isolated from the ecclesiastical power of Rome — a fact that became manifest when St. Columbanus came to France and quarreled with the worldly and often decadent Frankish hierarchy. We do not know precisely how these quarrels were settled, but we can reasonably guess that the settlements, which avoided what would have been a disastrous schism, were the fruit of the holiness of Columbanus and Gregory the Great, who then sat on the Chair of St. Peter.

There is a lot of contempt, in modern thought, and in modern unthinking prejudice, for the idea of monasticism. But what is often forgotten about monasticism is how powerful an engine of political economy it was in a world where political and economic stability had vanished. In monasticism Western man at last found a way to be productive again; and in monasticism we see the early beginnings of that power over material forces, that stewardship of the riches of creation, that made us — we men of the West — masters of the earth. That this power has perhaps been the single most calamitously abused thing in all of the bloody history of mankind does not diminish the astonishing humility and piety at its roots. And I might be forgiven for the occasional fancy that all our machines and computers and efficiency are but a slow decline from the awesome achievement that the Irish monks and their students all over Europe, along with their Benedictine brothers, made visible in the gardens of the great monasteries.

So on this day when we celebrate the man who drove all the snakes from Ireland, let us also recall his Irish brethren, who so filled the world with their own “mild inspiration,” and made us who we are.

Comments (5)


Thanks for this -- I wasn't aware of the book you link by Lawrence Brown. I wonder if the more middle-brow Tom Cahill's How The Irish Saved Civilization owes Brown an intellectual debt?

Living in a city that literally dyes the main river green for the holiday, it is good to be reminded of the spiritual importance of Saint Patrick!

I believe modern monastics make use of our modern computers and efficiency as part of working with their own hands. You make excellent points here, Paul, about the contribution of the monastics to the physical and economic state and recovery of the West. One thing worth thinking about is that, while the monks may have sworn off individual wealth for themselves, they by no means failed to understand the importance of human and physical prosperity for mankind as a whole. They understood that the things of this world were not, per se, an invitation to greed. In this sense the English monks, at least, were not ascetics in the same sense that the desert fathers were ascetics. They made monasteries that managed their property well, raised crops, and had sufficient "extra" to give to the poor.

I believe that a significant share of the modern contempt for monasteries stems from the early modern perception - instantiated perfectly by Henry VIII in his theft of monastery properties - that the monasteries were an unnatural (i.e. objectionable) form of wealth-gathering.

There were, I suspect, at least 3 factors that led to this perception. One is that property - land - could be given to a monastery as a donation, a charitable act, a penance for sins, for giving glory to God, but it could NEVER come out. It was a permanent one-way street for THAT form of wealth. And in pre-industrial times, land was the primary source of wealth.

Another is that SOME monasteries ended up effectively as landlords, and potentially in competition with other land holders, but without the "normal" competitive factors. They held the rights to labor from serfs, but (just as an example) they did not hold the same obligation to defend those serfs from attack: they could and did employ soldiers, but the monks could not themselves lead a charge in battle.

The third is perhaps the most critical, though least consciously grasped: a monastery could not be a permanent economically self-sufficient organization. It could only receive as its members those who started life outside the monastery. They were inherently were dependent on an outside world to make it "go" as a successful entity. This is unlike a village or city. A monastery cannot be conceived as an "organism", only as an organ in a larger society. As such, they must bear a close relationship to the larger society, a relationship which, if it became skewed or became misunderstood, could be perceived as a parasite.

That relationship could become warped, for example, if the monastery ceased to be primarily ordered toward an ascetic ideal, an ideal that looks to a life beyond this life and to which we can only bring our souls and our character, and became focused on this life. In doing so, the potential for being seen as in competition with ordinary land holders would kick in overdrive, the rationale for their special prerogatives would cease to be meaningful. As Henry thought with their tax exemptions.

But at root, and in the ideal, a monastery was an engine for organizing a modest body of men or women toward a life of prayer, toward the contemplative life. As such, its avowed purpose could never be the common purpose of all men and women, for society needs most men and women to devote themselves to raising families. In those (relatively few) monasteries that had a sufficiency of donation - including initial grant - to manage without providing for themselves, their labor was always in part a break from prayer and in part a gift to God and to the larger community (in such forms as taking in travelers, or taking care of the sick, or production of books).

In more common situations, the monks had to work at least partly for their own upkeep, and it is in these that Paul's comments hit home the most: in these stable communities men could commit part of their labor for tomorrow's benefit and another part for next century's benefit. There is something empowering in laying bricks for a building you expect to be here in 2 centuries, devoted to the same constant purpose, rather than putting up a building you are confident will be torn down in 60 or 80 years as decrepit. And the management of human productive capacity with a view to centuries ahead rather than only weeks or seasons ahead helps teach us to view that human productive capacity for what it is, a gift from God for the betterment of many, not just for me.

There is something empowering in laying bricks for a building you expect to be here in 2 centuries, devoted to the same constant purpose, rather than putting up a building you are confident will be torn down in 60 or 80 years as decrepit. And the management of human productive capacity with a view to centuries ahead rather than only weeks or seasons ahead helps teach us to view that human productive capacity for what it is, a gift from God for the betterment of many, not just for me.

A while back, there was a discussion here about property taxes and I think the form of taxation society depends upon plays a role in this. Property taxes treat existing property as a fact and a resource that can be constantly tapped as needed by the authorities. They have little regard for human need, the natural cost of upkeep, etc. Income and excise taxes are the exact opposite in philosophy. They can only be claimed as people generate new wealth or engage in sales.

In my view, a tax model that treats property like something that can be hit up ever year is intrinsically short-sighted in its view of property. It might be not destructively short-sighted, but it's hard to argue that property taxes promote a activity except in the negative sense of scaring people into producing so the government doesn't take what they've already accumulated.

Jeff -- the Lawrence Brown book is a work of wide-ranging and eccentric genius, well worth reading if you can track down a copy. I can't imagine even a conceivable reader who agrees with every argument advanced by the author, but the challenge of his fierce independence of mind rewards the work and occasional frustration.

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