XIV. THEOLOGY AND POLITICAL ECONOMY.
By ANDREW DICKSON WHITE, LL. D., L. H. D.,
EX-PRESIDENT OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
AMONG questions on which the supporters of right reason in political and social science have only conquered theological opposition after centuries of war, is the taking of interest on loans. In hardly any struggle has rigid adherence to the letter of our sacred books been more prolonged and injurious.
Certainly, if the criterion of truth, as regards any doctrine, be that of St. Vincent of Lerins, that it has been believed in the Church "always, everywhere, and by all," then on no point may a Christian of these days be more sure than that every savings institution, every loan and trust company, every bank, every loan of capital by an individual, every means by which accumulated capital has been lawfully lent even at the most moderate interest, to make men workers rather than paupers, is based on deadly sin.
The early evolution of the belief that taking interest for money is sinful presents a curious working-together of metaphysical, theological, and humanitarian ideas.
In the great center of ancient Greek civilization, the loaning of money at interest came to be accepted at an early period as a condition of productive industry, and no legal restriction was imposed. In Rome there was a long process of development. The greed of creditors in early times led to laws against the taking of interest, but, though these lasted long, that strong practical sense, which gave Rome the empire of the world, substituted finally, for this absolute prohibition, the establishment of rates fixed by law. Yet many of the leading Greek and Roman thinkers opposed this practical settlement of the question, and, foremost of all, Aristotle. In a metaphysical way he declared that money is by nature "barren"; that the birth of money from money is therefore "unnatural"; and hence that the taking of interest is to be censured and hated. Plato, Plutarch, both the Catos, Cicero, Seneca, and various other leaders of ancient thought arrived at much the same conclusion — sometimes, from sympathy with oppressed debtors; sometimes, from hatred of usurers; sometimes, from simple contempt of trade.
From these sources there came into the early Church the germ of a theological theory upon the subject.
But far greater was the stream of influence from the Jewish and Christian sacred books. In the Old Testament stood a multitude of texts condemning usury, the term usury meaning any