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Sep 11, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: The Christian Theory of Property

Smith discusses the traditional Christian theory of private property and how it was viewed as the result of original sin.

I previously discussed Jean Meslier’s defense of common property over private property. Although Meslier was an atheist who repudiated many of Christianity’s metaphysical and ethical teachings, his position on property was in some respects curiously similar to that of traditional Christianity, especially as found in the writings of the Church Fathers, such as Ambrose (340-97) and Augustine (354-430). The theory of private property found in most classical liberal texts—such as the claim of John Locke that we originally acquire ownership of a natural resource by “mixing” our labor with it—was not accepted by leading Christian theologians for many centuries. Contrary to Locke, according to whom private property is a natural right, Augustine and other Christians typically argued that private property is not sanctioned by the original natural law; rather, it is a creation of government. Thus in the early fifth century, when the Christian schismatics known as Donatists complained that the orthodox Christian government of Imperial Rome had confiscated their property without just cause—property that they had earned by their labor—Augustine replied that Romans enjoyed their property solely on the sufferance of the Roman government, who could confiscate that property at its own discretion. Romans had rights in private property only because the government permitted it, so when it rescinded those rights the victims had no legitimate complaint. According to Augustine, there is no such thing as a natural right to private property that a government has a duty to respect.

To understand Augustine’s position we need to appreciate the standard Christian doctrine of original sin. Human nature before Adam’s Fall into sin—known as prelapsarian man—was perfect, having been created in God’s image. It was only after Adam’s Fall into sin that human nature became vitiated with the evil and destructive tendencies, such as avarice, selfishness, and violence, that we know today. Thus if the Fall had never occurred three institutions would have been unnecessary and would never have arisen: private property, government, and slavery. These institutions were instituted and sanctioned by God solely because of original sin; they were intended, as Augustine put it, as a punishment and remedy for sin. Every Church Father who wrote about property agreed with this position. Common property, not private property, would have been the rule in the idyllic Garden of Eden if Adam had never sinned and if humans had remained in their pure, prelapsarian condition. Prelapsarian man would not have been tainted with the acquisitive and violent tendencies of postlapsarian man, so the coercive institutions of private property, government, and slavery would have been unknown.

According to A.J. Carlyle, a distinguished historian of medieval political thought, the Christian theory of property “is the opposite of that of Locke, that private property is an institution of natural law, and arises out of labour.”

To the Fathers the only natural condition is that of common ownership and individual use. The world was made for the common benefit of mankind, that all should receive from it what they require. They admit, however, that human nature being what it is, greedy, avaricious, and vicious, it is impossible for men to live normally under the condition of common ownership. This represents the more perfect way of life, and this principle was represented in the organization of the monastic life, as it generally took shape. For mankind in general, some organization of ownership became necessary, and this was provided by the State and its laws, which have decided the conditions and limitations of ownership. Private property is therefore practically the creation of the State, and is defined, limited, and changed by the State. (“The Theory of Property in Medieval Theology,” in Property: Its Duties and Rights, Macmillan, 1922, p. 132.)

Christian theologians did not oppose private property, government, or slavery. On the contrary, these institutions were specifically mandated and authorized by God for corrupt human beings, even though they were not part of the original, or primitive, natural law. As Charles H. McIlwain explained in his classic work, The Growth of Political Thought in the West (Macmillan, 1932, p. 151):

The corruption of man began with the fall, and that corruption, the inheritance of all the children of Adam, created for the human race the necessity for coercive law and other like institutions. To supply the need God gave man the Mosaic law, and sanctioned human laws and institutions necessary to curb the evils arising from avarice, violence, and other forms of vice. Coercive law…is no part of man’s original nature; it came as a corrective of conditions arising from man’s fall from innocence. It is no branch of the law of nature…but it is none the less provided by the ordinance or sanction of God as a partial remedy for the consequences of that sin, and to this extent has a divine origin and a divine character. Its precepts must therefore be obeyed as a religious obligation. “Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. (Romans xiii.)

Jean Meslier, in effect, accepted the Christian teaching about the existence of common property in a prelapsarian society; but, having rejected the doctrine of original sin, he did not accept the Christian argument that private property was needed because of a corrupted human nature generated by the Fall. His position resembles that adopted by some radical Protestant sects during the seventeenth century, such as the Family of Love and the Grindletonians, “who taught that prelapsarian perfection could be attained in this life.” (Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, Viking Press, 1973, p. 133.) Without sin private property would be unnecessary and undesirable, so such groups typically advocated a return to the primitive communism of prelapsarian man. Private property would be inappropriate in a community of saints; common property was the ideal. 

As Ludwig von Mises noted in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (trans. J. Kahane, Liberty Fund, 1981, pp. 41-42), the “romantic Utopia of common ownership” was believed by many ancient civilizations.

In ancient Rome it was the legend of the Golden Age of Saturn, described in glowing terms by Virgil, Tibullus, and Ovid, and praised by Seneca. Those were the carefree, happy days when none had private property and all prospered in the bounty of a generous Nature. Modern Socialism, of course, imagines itself beyond such simplicity and childishness, but its dreams differ little from those of the Imperial Romans.

The early Christian conception of a Golden Age was profoundly influenced by the writings of the Roman philosopher Seneca, a leading Stoic. Christians took the sketchy account of the Garden of Eden in Genesis and fleshed it out with the more elaborate description of the Golden Age found in the Letters of Seneca. Seneca, referring to men in the primitive Golden Age, wrote:

What race of men could be luckier? Share and share alike they enjoyed nature. She saw to each and every man’s requirements for survival like a parent. What it all amounted to was undisturbed possession of resources owned by the community. I can surely call that race of men one of the unparalleled riches, it being impossible to find a single pauper. (Letter XC, in Seneca: Letters From a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 2004, p. 174.)

Before avarice burst upon the scene—which caused people to claim exclusive property in land and other goods, and to covet luxury items that were unnecessary to fulfill their real needs—scarcity, competition for resources, and violent conflicts were nonexistent.

The earth herself, untilled, was more productive, her yields being more than ample for the needs of peoples who did not raid each other….All was equally divided among people, living in complete harmony. The stronger had no yet started laying hands on the weaker; the avaricious person had not yet started hiding things away, to be hoarded for his own use, so shutting the next man off from actual necessities of life; each cared as much about the other as about himself. Weapons were unused; hands still unstained with human blood had directed their hostility exclusively against wild beasts. (Letter XC, pp. 174-5.)

The early Christian view of property held sway for many centuries, though it was modified somewhat after the writings of Aristotle were rediscovered in the twelfth century. When Thomas Aquinas (1255-1274), having integrated many of Aristotle’s ideas into his writings, discussed property, he treated it as more of a natural institution than had many previous theologians. Nevertheless, Aquinas agreed that common ownership was the original condition of humankind, and this led him to argue that though the acquisition of property fulfills a natural need, such property (beyond that needed for one’s personal use) is legitimate only when devoted to the common good.

We see here how the prelapsarian notion of common property influenced Christian thinking about the proper uses of private property. Common property, though a thing of the past, remained an ideal in the Christian theory of private property; it served as a beacon indicating the proper use of privately owned wealth. Beyond what was needed to satisfy the legitimate needs of the owner, private property could be justified only if the owner devoted it, not to his own selfish benefit and pleasure, but to further the common good. This was the original purpose of common property in prelapsarian society, after all, so the system of private property should emulate this function as much as possible.

The traditional Christian theory of private property differed substantially from the theory embraced by most classical liberals and libertarians, whose approach may broadly be described as secular. The nature of those differences will be the topic of my next essay.

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