Medieval Scholasticism encompassed some seven centuries, from 800 A.D. to 1500 A.D. In theological and philosophical studies, the activity of the period from 1350 to 1500 is known as Late Scholasticism. In social sciences, Late Scholasticism reaches until the end of the 17th century.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was the foremost Scholastic writer. His influence was so widespread that nearly all Late Scholastics studied, quoted, and commented on his remarks. Their works analyzed issues that later proved relevant to libertarian political and economic philosophy. Francisco de Vitoria (c. 1480–1546), often called the Father of the Hispanic Scholastics, is regarded as the great figure in Late Scholasticism. He belonged to the Dominican order and studied and taught at the Sorbonne, where he helped to edit one of the editions of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and of the Summa of Saint Antonino of Florence (1389–1459). From 1522 to 1546, he taught at the University of Salamanca.
From a pure libertarian perspective, the major contributions of the Late Scholastics are their focus on each person as an individual being distinguished by his freedom; their emphasis on the importance of private property for a peaceful, productive, and ethical social order; and their conclusions about the importance of the right to trade, both nationally and internationally. In addition, the Scholastics wrote much about the relevance of sound money, in its role of both preserving private property and promoting trade. Although these thinkers were prepared to access the notion of a “just” price, their analysis tended to equate a just price with market prices that were devoid of fraud, monopoly, or coercion. In addition, they treated wages, profits, and rents as a reflection of commutative justice (on which contracts were based), rather than of distributive justice, which only dealt with justice in the provision and distribution of goods held in common by a family or political body. Finally, their careful distinction between legal and moral obligations and punishments proved an essential aspect of what later became classical liberal theory.
Lord Acton wrote that, “the greater part of the political ideas of Milton, Locke, and Rousseau, may be found in the ponderous Latin of Jesuits who were subjects of the Spanish Crown, of Lessius, Molina, Mariana, and Suárez.” The Jesuits mentioned by Lord Acton owed many of their views to the Late Scholastics of other religious orders who helped build the foundations of a political order based on libertarian principles. Late Scholastic contributions were not circumscribed to any one religious group or to a particular school or nation.
Scholastic authors from the 14th to the 16th centuries, including St. Bernardino of Siena (a Franciscan); St. Antonino of Florence, Francisco de Vitoria, and Domingo de Soto (all Dominicans); and Luis de Molina, Juan de Mariana, and Francisco Suárez (all Jesuits) all presented arguments that were later to serve as the foundation of a market order based on freedom and property. Bede Jarrett, a Dominican priest and a historian of thought, wrote that, for these authors,
the right to property was an absolute right which no circumstances could ever invalidate. Even in case of necessity, when individual property might be lawfully seized or distrained—in the name of another’s hunger or of the common good—yet the owner’s right to property remained and endured. The right was inviolable even when the exercise of the right might have to be curtailed.
Saint Antoninus, like most of those who wrote after him, worked to place moral philosophy and moral theological studies on a respectable footing, treating them as sciences to be founded on an analysis of the nature of human action. A thorough study of human action was the starting point of Late Scholastic moral theology. Scholastic and Late Scholastic thought, based on the primacy of the individual, also is relevant to today’s debates on environmental issues. Although conflicts between man and nature were seldom discussed in their treatises, whenever the topic did arise, their approach was similar to that applied by libertarians of the 20th and 21st centuries. They used the example of common grazing lands to prove that when property is held in common it is abused. They argued that private property is used more responsibly than common property and that the individual rather than “nature” should form the locus of discussions of these issues. Everything was created by God, and everything, in that sense, was “good,” but there existed an order in creation in which individuals were extended domain over the land, the seas, and even the stars.
On the issue of trade, several authors have credited the Late Scholastics, and especially Vitoria, as being the first to defend the right to trade across borders. It is worthy of note that Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694), who as a Protestant served in many ways as a bridge between the writings of the Late Scholastics and the Scottish enlightenment, criticized Vitoria for stating that the Laws of Nations allowed all men to trade, even in foreign territories.
Although Aquinas to Oresme and Copernicus (who apart from being an astronomer was a doctor in canon law) all commented on the nature and role of money, no one wrote better and with more consistency than did Juan de Mariana. Mariana’s treatise on money and inflation, first published in the late 16th century, anticipated most, if not all, libertarian analyses of monetary policy. However, with respect to the issue of interest rates, the Scholastics almost invariably reached conclusions contrary to libertarian principles. Anne‐Robert‐Jacques Turgot (1727–1781), who was educated in a seminary and whose views were largely consistent with Scholastic teachings, was correct in criticizing their condemnation of levying a charge for the lending of money.
The economic contributions of the Late Scholastics were recognized by F. A. Hayek and especially Murray N. Rothbard. Their political analyses have been studied by Bernice Hamilton, Quentin Skinner, and, more recently, Annabelle S. Brett. All these commentaries help us to understand the important legacy of Late Scholastic thought. Brett’s work provides us with a careful analysis of two of Vitoria’s followers: Domingo de Soto and Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca. According to Brett, Vázquez “represents a major step in the development of a radical legal tradition the analysis of right of which is based on a preoccupation with fact, or what escapes juridical determination.” Vázquez, he notes, made a distinction between power, potentia, as based on position and wealth, and power, potestas, based on law and right. Vázquez’s distinction might serve to improve the arguments of libertarians who see no middle ground between power and markets. Vázquez argued that the consent of previous generations did not bind future citizens. This principle continued to influence leading Catholic theologians, such as the 19th‐century Jesuit Mateo Liberatore, who in his defense of private property wrote that common ownership could be imposed only by the unanimous consent of individuals (e.g., shipwrecked people on an island). However, according to him, the children and grandchildren of this original group would not be obliged to obey because they received their right to property from nature and not from their progenitors.
Late Scholasticism shared with the great classical liberal authors the notion that any discussion of rights disconnected from the Creator made no sense. However, they were keenly aware of the differences among the theological, economic, and political aspects of man’s rights. Vitoria and Soto emphasized the theological and economic, whereas Vázquez emphasized the voluntaristic and legal foundations of right.
The Late Scholastics equated market prices with the just price, a price predicated on a theory of value that was determined by subjective elements. As a consequence, they tended to oppose government intervention in prices. Although they recognized the right of the authorities to fix prices, they questioned its convenience. They thought taxation a more radical constraint on property than regulation, and they shared the view that taxes should be moderate. Profits, wages, and rents were all analyzed in a manner similar to their examination of the nature of prices.
Late Scholastic analysis differentiated between moral violations, such as prostitution or betrayals, and violations of positive law. Despite the baseness of their acts, prostitutes and even Judas had the right to claim what was freely offered to them. Although there was latitude in the price that one could charge without committing a moral violation, they gave even more latitude before one could be legally charged for abusing a customer or fooling a seller.
The Late Scholastics were not libertarians, and they believed that liberty, to be enjoyed by all, needed order and that order needed to be based on respect for human nature and imposed by the state. Their analysis of economic issues within the context of broader questions of man’s role in the universe was made to complement what they had learned through grace and revelation. Although their conclusions cannot invariably be taken as consonant with classical liberalism, as Hayek and Rothbard have noted, aspects of it also can provide the basis for true liberty.
Acton, John Dalberg. The History of Freedom and Other Essays. New York: Classics of Liberty Library, 1993 .
Brett, Annabelle S. Liberty, Right and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Jarrett, Fr. Bede. The Social Theories of the Middle Ages. Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1942 .
Mariana, Juan de. “A Treatise on the Alteration of Money.” Markets & Morality 5 no. 2 (Fall 2002): 533–593 [c. 1599].
Rothbard, Murray N. Economic Thought before Adam Smith. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1995.
Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Vitoria, Francisco de Antony Pagden, and J. Lawrance, eds. Vitoria: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.