354. Greed is Good: Economics in the Italian Renaissance

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Leon Battista Alberti, Benedetto Cotrugli, and Poggio Bracciolini grapple with the moral and conceptual problems raised by the prospect of people getting filthy rich.



Further Reading

• B.G. Kohl and R.G. Witt (eds), The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society (Manchester: 1978). [Includes Poggio’s On Avarice]

• J.F. Phillimore (trans.), Benedetto Cotrugli: The Book of the Art of Trade (Venice: 2017).

• R.N. Watkins, Leon Battista Alberti: the Family in Renaissance Florence, Book Three (Long Grove: 1994).


• G. Dahl, Trade, Trust and Networks: Commercial Culture in Late Medieval Italy (Lund: 1998).

• R. De Roover, San Bernardino of Siena and Sant’Antonio of Florence: the Two Great Economic Thinkers of the Middle Ages (Boston: 1967).

• R. Faucci,  A History of Italian Economic Thought (Abingdon: 2014), ch.2.

• J.F. McGovern, “The Rise of New Economic Attitudes – Economic Humanism, Economic Nationalism – During the Later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, A.D. 1200-1500,” Traditio 26 (1970), 217-53.

• C.J. Nederman, “Avarice as a Princely Virtue? The Later Medieval Backdrop to Poggio Braccilolini and Machiavelli,” in C.J. Nederman (ed.), Mind Matters: Studies of Medieval and Early Modern Intellectual History in Honour of Marcia Colish (Turnhout: 2009), 255-74.

• O. Nuccio, La storia del pensiero economico italiano: come storia della genesi dello spirito capitalistico (Roma: 2008).

• J. Oppel, “Poggio, San Bernardino of Siena, and the Dialogue On Avarice,” Renaissance Quarterly 30 (1977), 564-87.

• N. Regent, “Guicciardini’s La Decima scalata: The First Treatise on Progressive Taxation,” History of Political Economy 46 (2014), 307-31.

• N. Regent, “Guicciardini and Economic (In)equality,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought  27 (2020), 49-65.


mehmet on 26 July 2020

Hi Peter, do you still plan

Hi Peter, do you still plan to do an episode on Renaissance legal thought?

In reply to by mehmet

Peter Adamson on 26 July 2020

Renaissance legal thought

Oh, actually no - I will talk a little about it when I discuss medicine, since there was a debate over the relative merits of law and medicine. But I decided that law will be a pretty major theme in the Reformation series and that I had hopefully said enough about legal issues already in the politics episodes we have just finished (including in this new one on economics). So no episode specifically on Italian law in this period, sorry! If you think this is a big miss for some reason let me know, I don't want to skip anything crucial. (No gaps!)

In reply to by Peter Adamson

mehmet on 26 July 2020

I think it will be a valuable

I think it will be a valuable addition to the series, insofar as the series evolved from "strict history of philosophy" to "philosophy-centered intellectual history". I'm currently reading arthur r. hogue's "origins of the common law" which made me aware of how important legal history is in the general setting of intellectual history. And legal history is probably the most overlooked area.  I believe it would be a good addition to the podcast.

After telling that, I would agree that it would be very difficult and time consuming to prepare such an episode. I know by experience that for non-english legal history it is quite difficut fo find sources. I'm still looking for a general history of medieval french law..  Fortunately, for italian law, such a book exists: "a history of italian law" by carlo calisse. For general medieval law there is lawrence berman's "law and revolution: formation of the western legal tradition", and "coomon legal past of europe" whose author I cannot remember..

maybe you can arrange an interview?

In reply to by mehmet

Peter Adamson on 26 July 2020

Italian law

Yes, I agree the history of law is important - thanks for the reference to the Calisse book. I think I will still hold off and talk about legal theory in this period as part of the Reformation series, the moment has kind of passed since the upcoming episodes are shifting attention to Aristotelianism and then sciences (mathematics, medicine). But like I say, I may say a bit more about it when I talk about medicine.

HOPWAG Fan on 8 October 2021


A rich episode. I would have liked a couple more on this subject. Some thoughts.


You wondered whether the people behind Game of Thrones had read Cotrugli. Unlikely, but they may be aware of the following. In 1599, the Jivaro tribe attacked the Spanish settlement in Logrono, Equador, and executed the governor by pouring liquid gold down his throat. The Spanish had been cheating the Jivaro on a gold deal. Another more famous case is Marcus Crassus. The richest man in Rome. One of the ways he got there was to run his own fire service, at a time when there was no city fire service. His team would rush to a burning building and offer say, 10% of the value to buy it from the owner. If the offer was accepted they saved the building, if not, they watched it burn to the ground. Crassus eventually became bored of just being wealthy, moved into politics and war, became part of the triumvirate, eventually being killed in the Parthian empire, now Iran, by having molten gold poured down his throat. So the legend goes. I'd like to know if we have any Parthian sources for that.


It doesn't quite seem to meet your definition of a philosophical own goal, as he doesn't set out the view he wants to discredit. However, if Kant was hoping that his deontology would be taken up on a widespread basis, his example of the not lying to the axe-murderer at the door, could be seen as an own goal. (Today more commonly known as the Nazi at the door asking for Jewish people). That example is regularly used to beat Kant's deontology. He created a rod for his own deontological back. I would like to think that he simply had intellectual integrity. This was the logical consequence of his arguments and though he probably knew other people would reject it as a reductio absurdum, he set it out explicitly. As Kant bit that bullet, my esteem for him is higher. You said that people tend to find the view the author wants to discredit more compelling. Whatever the opposite of compelling is, (repelling? repellant?), for most people, Kant's example is it.


You mention Gordon Gecko's "greed is good" speech. I've added that to the bottom of my comment as I find it interesting. One of the things it highlights is why philosophers might invent their own terminology instead of using ordinary language. Greed is not the right word, but there might not be a better one for what Gecko is getting at. (Though it might be the right word for his purposes, if what he wants most is be provocative). With the right word to encapsulate them, things are much easier to understand. In free will; libertarianism, determinism and compatibilism encapsulate things very well for me. Where there aren't fitting words, it might help to create your own. After a search, "utopia", "robot" and "cyberspace" are all invented words that have passed into ordinary language, though not necessarily from philosophy. However, there may be costs to inventing your own terminology. In consciousness, "intentionality" seems to be an invented word and I find it a horrible word. I have to translate it into "aboutness" every time I see it. The extra work it takes to do that, is brain energy I can't then use to understand what's being said. Not having the right word reduces cognitive capacity. On the other hand using an invented word can force us to give more attention to what's actually being said, whereas with a word like greed, we may too readily think we understand what's actually being said, without taking the time to examine it more carefully. In time, "intentionality" might pass into ordinary language, but right now it's a yuck. Let's say Gecko was a thinker and seriously wanted to promote the notion that "greed" is good. If he came up with a new word to replace "greed", he might be able to get that across better and have that met with a warmer reception. If words are tools, sometimes someone might need to create a new tool, or borrow one from somewhere else.

(Another example, you spoke about a flat tax in the episode. That seems commonsensical. But Americans often talk about progressive and regressive taxation. Not so obvious. In addition, that seems normatively loaded. Isn't progressive better? and regressive worse?)


It's fascinating to see how far back many of these debates go. After the financial crisis of 2008, many people observed how the practice was unfair because of the lack of risk involved. At the banking casino, for many in high finance, it was heads I win, if the trade goes right, I keep the profits; but tails you lose, if the trade goes badly, the regulator/government/tax payer, will bail us out. Fascinating to see that much the same thing was being said about the morality of making money, especially making money simply by having money, way back when.


I'm interested in when the idea of progress began to take hold in the imagination. It seems to me that in the past, people just assumed, or existed in the paradigm that this is how things are and how they will always be. A zero sum game. If someone gains, someone else must lose. At some point the idea of progress began to set in. To where today it's now expected, and people believe it's somehow wrong, if today's young western adults will not be doing better than their parents. I believe you say that the historian of philosophy also needs to be a historian of culture to be able to put that philosophy in its context. This may be a lot to ask but, in your opinion, when would it be that the idea of progress set it in? That rather than a zero sum game, the pie might be growing and should be growing. Meaning that, on average, there's a bigger slice for all and that future generations will have a bigger slice still.

(Incidentally, the rhetoric around social mobility seems misguided to me. Social mobility is a zero sum game. For some to rise, some others must fall. But the fact that some must fall is almost never mentioned.)


In the comments for the History of Philosophy in Africa podcast, there was a discussion about whether Egypt should be considered part of Africa. My initial response was duh! But people there made some interesting points about how culturally and economically, Egypt may be more part of the Mediterranean. However, a counterexample to that is Mansa Musa's visit to Egypt in 1324, from old Mali, before the period of the podcast. He brought so much gold to Egypt that he created an inflation crisis. There was enough contact with sub-Saharan Africa to destabilise the economy and apparently people in the Med didn't notice if they first began to think about inflation after the discovery of the Americas. From wikipedia:

"Musa is known to have visited the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Al-Nasir Muhammad, in July 1324. Because of his nature of giving, Musa's massive spending and generous donations created a massive ten year gold recession. In the cities of Cairo, Medina, and Mecca, the sudden influx of gold devalued the metal significantly. Prices of goods and wares became greatly inflated. This mistake became apparent to Musa and on his way back from Mecca, he borrowed all of the gold he could carry from money-lenders in Cairo at high interest. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean."

(The final sentence doesn't seem to fit with the notion that people in the Med didn't notice, perhaps it's dubious?)

A long post, it was a dense episode :)


Gekko: Well, I appreciate the opportunity you're giving me, Mr. Cromwell, as the single largest shareholder in Teldar Paper, to speak.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we're not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality. America, America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company!

All together, these men sitting up here [Teldar management] own less than 3 percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than 1 percent.

You own the company. That's right -- you, the stockholder.

And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.

Cromwell: This is an outrage! You're out of line, Gekko!

Gekko: Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.

The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated.

In the last seven deals that I've been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Thank you very much.

In reply to by HOPWAG Fan

Peter Adamson on 8 October 2021

Greed etc

Wow, what an interesting and detailed response! Glad you found the episode so worth engaging with. Just to make sure you didn't miss it, there is also an episode back in the medieval period about economic theory. I assume this will come up more as we go forward (at some point in this Reformation series I should really do something on the emergence of capitalism).

You asked about when people started thinking in terms of constant progress, and that is a great question. I guess basically, I just don't know. The idea of progress as such was less foreign to pre-modern european thought than often supposed, e.g. thinkers like Aristotle or Galen certainly thought they were improving on their predecessors (as did, say, Avicenna in the Islamic world). But the idea that all of society should be doing better than it has been in the last generation seems to me like something much, much more recent. Perhaps it doesn't come along until the industrial revolution?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

HOPWAG Fan on 9 October 2021


If human progress corresponds to something like an exponential growth curve, the industrial revolution would seem to be where it begins to kick upwards. My thought was that the idea of progress might begin to take hold with democracy and widespread voting rights. Politicians needed to appeal to a broad mass of people, not just propertied elites. That would often mean making promises about how they will change peoples' lives for the better and change their children's lives for the better. Maybe that's how the notion of progress was pushed into our group consciousness. "The existing guy is doing it wrong, I'll do things how they should be done, vote me and I'll make things better, vote for a brighter tomorrow".

Your podcasts often set me thinking and much as I did say, I could have said more. I will just mention another own goal that I remembered last night. This I think better meets your definition, but isn't from philosophy. It involves a scholar who was piqued by people questioning the historical existence of Jesus. He jokingly argued that people may as well question whether or not Shakespeare wrote the plays. But today, people still question the historical existence of Jesus, but now also question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. The opposite of what he hoped for.

"But it’s especially interesting to note that for a span of more than two centuries after his death, no one even suggested that the Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of his own plays.

In fact, the first person to make the argument did it as a joke, as Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro points out in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? In 1848, a young Lutheran scholar from Pennsylvania named Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, dismayed about the academic trend of using historical and biographical evidence to doubt the existence of Christ, argued that the same approaches could be used to argue that Shakespeare never existed.  But he meant it all as a parody.

Shapiro says that Schmucker’s forgotten book, Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare: Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible, foreshadows all the major themes of the Shakespearean doubters: the lack of documentary evidence, a distrust of disputed texts, the improbable success of an unlikely individual, and the notion that the “official” story can only be perpetuated by general ignorance and conspiracy by the establishment.

“Schmucker has a great time of it,” writes Shapiro, “mostly because it never entered his head that his readers could seriously imagine that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.”

But, if anything, the joke was on Schmucker."

(From an article on BBC America: Did Shakespeare really write his plays? A few theories examined)

Thanks for the podcasts :)

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