PHIL536: Economic Thought in the Middle Ages
Instructor: Jonathan McIntosh
Term: Fall 2018 (Sept 10-Dec 14, 2018)
Famously described by Thomas Carlyle as the “dismal science,” economics, properly understood, is anything but. In brief, economics is the science of human action in its use of scarce resources that have alternative applications. So defined, economics should be seen not only as an exciting discipline, but also a critically important one, studying as it does an integral dimension of all purposeful human behavior that no productive and prosperous society—and hence no Christian effort to renew society—can afford to ignore.
For all its importance, however, the idea of economics as a distinct science with its own subject matter and method is in fact a fairly modern development. While the medieval schoolmen, or “scholastics,” had occasion to touch on various economic topics in the course of their theological, anthropological, ethical, and political reflections, their treatment of economic matters was neither systematic nor always, it may be argued, entirely consistent. So why study the economic thought—such as it was—of the Middle Ages? And what, if anything, did the schoolmen have to say of relevance to us in our own, comparatively much more complex economies and economic relations, institutions, and practices today?
This course is an introduction to the discipline of economics, undertaken by way of an examination of the economic thought of the high to late medieval period, and of the “prince of the scholastics” in particular, St. Thomas Aquinas. Although the medieval schoolmen did not recognize economics as a distinct subject of inquiry in its own right, as this course will survey, they nevertheless touched on such universal and foundational economic issues as private property, public goods, the division of labor, the theory of value, exchange, money, prices, banking and interest, inflation, profit, price gouging, scarcity, monopoly, economic need, and more. Of equal if not greater importance, as this course will consider, is the unique way in which they approached matters of human economic action within a comprehensive and systematic framework for understanding and integrating, first, God’s own creative and providential action and, second, man’s own nature as an embodied, rational, and moral being who must use the resources of material creation in order to fulfill his divinely appointed task of responsible dominion and stewardship.
- Provide an introduction to and overview of the science of economics.
- Survey of the main topics in medieval economic thought.
- Consider current scholarly debate(s) over the legacy of medieval economics (e.g., is it free-market tending or not?).
- Introduce students to the economic thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
- Discuss and debate the merits and place of economics within a classical, liberal arts education and the relation of this science to other such disciplines as theology, ethics, and politics.