The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Scholastic Economic Thought

  • Henry W. Spiegel
Reference work entry


Scholastic economic thought, which flourished during the Middle Ages, differs in many respects from the economic thought of our own time. It was not positive or hypothetical but normative, directing the faithful to do certain things and abstain from doing others. Human weakness or wickedness would account for gaps between the norm and its fulfilment. Furthermore, scholastic economic thought did not generate rules that were uniformly applicable to homo oeconomicus; instead there was a division among its addressees between the select few capable of abiding by the counsel of perfection and the general run of humanity that required a less exacting rule. Moreover, scholastic economic thought was not presented in systematic form but arose sporadically and incidentally in conjunction with other matters treating, perhaps, of sales, fraud or usury. It was not shaped by professional economists but by theologians and lawyers. It did not form an autonomous discipline but relied on precepts derived from theology, philosophy and law. A number of social ideals that are characteristic of modern times were alien to it, chiefly the ideal of progress; instead, stratified medieval society, which was organized more on the principle of status than of contract, looked for a golden age that was located in the past rather than the future. Scholastic economic thought was the thought of an age of faith whose overriding concern was the salvation of souls in the next world rather than this-worldly concern with reforms that might produce an earthly paradise. With man fallen and tainted by original sin, perfection was not of this world.

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  1. For treatments of the period by outstanding economists see Joseph A. Schumpeter (1954, ch. 2) and Jacob Viner (1978, ch. 2), the latter being chapters of an unfinished work published posthumously and also available in book form. For a survey that treats not only the scholastics but Roman and canon law as well see Gordon (1975, pp. 122–272). For a textbook treatment with ample bibliography see Spiegel (1983, chs 3 and 4). For a collection of articles by the outstanding specialist of his time dealing with such topics as scholastic economics, the scholastic attitude towards trade and entrepreneurship, and monopoly theory, see de Roover (1976, 1958, 1967). For a work by an historian on the same subject see Baldwin (1959). On usury see Noonan (1957) and Nelson (1969), the first the work of a legal historian, the second that of a sociologist, and both based on original sources. About Navarrus and other Spanish writers see Grice-Hutchinson (1978). For an English translation of a manual on business ethics see Nieder (1966), originally published in Latin in 1468 and authored by a lesser-known scholastic. See also Monroe (1924, chs 3 and 4) for translations from Saint Thomas Aquinas and Nicole Oresme.Google Scholar
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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henry W. Spiegel
    • 1
  1. 1.