Dante, Usury, Sodomy, and Our Financial Management Class

A reader writes:

Today’s makers do not even “make” anything. They are Warren Buffets or Mitt Romney’s- folks who are glorified gamblers shuffling money into “best bets.”

Most of the folks we are talking about are not Steve Jobs who made things, or Bill Gates who programmed things. The bulk of the real “Makers” are in the financial sector, managing bizarre things like derivatives, etc.

Its not like someone is even investing in a “thing” or a company with the inspiration that one is supporting and assisting in the creation of a “things.” Most of the money is in instruments that invest in things or companies, like mutual funds.

These folks aren’t really John Galts, but are his accountants. That is who became today’s Makers.

I feel this is what warnings against usury were intended to guard against. Money just generating money without connection to God’s Children or His Creation.

You have perceived something that was noted very clearly by Dante. I talked about this once upon a time in at the Register:

One of the interesting and unexpected connections Dante makes in his Inferno is that he links the sin of sodomy with the sin of usury. Don’t see the connection? That’s understandable. You live in a civilization that no longer has a big problem with either. However, Dante’s thinking is this: He regards human activity as oriented toward fruitfulness that must spring from only two sources: Nature and Art. So, for Dante, a man is legitimately wealthy if he, say, grows a crop and sells it or makes a hat (or a poem) and sells them. Likewise, in the sexual realm, he is simply an ordinary orthdox Catholic who thinks that sex has the natural ends of union between husband and wife and the getting of children. That’s what it is for, just as eating is for the twin ends of nutrition and conviviality. So sexual acts, whether contraceptive or homosexual are “dead” acts that lead to no fruitfulness.

Okey doke, but what does that have to do with usury?

Well, for Dante, since fruitfulness can only proceed from Nature or Art (or, as we would say today, “raw natural resources and manufacture of goods and services”), it follows that mere chicanery by which dead gold or silver are made to “breed” by manipulation of interest rates by those who lend at interest is another form of perversion. So he links the sins of sodomy and usury. Both ignore Nature and both are forms of fruitfulness perverted to sterility and the attempt to “breed” something unnaturally.

Our civilization is currently undergoing the consequences of its addiction to usury and we still do not know where the bottom is. God willing, his mercy will triumph over our folly. Whether we will likewise figure out that our addictions to unnatural sex whether contraceptive or homosexual shall likewise end in sorrow is still to be seen.

At least 19th Century robber barons made something. 21st century robber barons make nothing except gambles with other people’s money. No wonder so many of them feel like they deserve high office so that they can do it by force and not merely by trickery and fraud.

And before you quickly and breezily declare that Modern Economics has Changed All that and Usury is Not a Sin Anymore, I suggest you bone up.

If there is any one lesson we should learn from the past decade, it’s not “This time, you can trust the immensely rich and powerful to do the right thing.” In the words of the Prophet Chesterton:

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest–if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this–that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

There you go again, picking on Romney, Shea. (Note how we always have easy tears of pity for the immensely rich and powerful?) But nope. Romney’s just one part of the problem. Obama has never made a thing in his life either, and yet he too is fabulously wealthy, and from the same corporate sources. It’s not Left vs. Right. It’s our usurious Caesaroligarchic Class vs. the Rest of Us. It’s folly to trust them.

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  • James

    Doesn’t the bulk of Obama’s personal fortune come from royalties on his books? That would surely count as having “made” something, at least according to Dante’s definition.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Wouldn’t it be better to answer the question before drawing a conclusion from it?

      • Andy

        Most of his money comes form the sale of his book. Not a statement about the worth or quality of his book.

        • Blog Goliard

          If he only got paid when a reader finished one of his books, he’d surely be a pauper.

          • Andy

            It is the continued royalties that he is reaping.

            • Andy

              To add: A sucker is born every minute – books and circuses I guess. Sorry I forgot this above – damn small keys on my iPad

  • Thomas R

    “Note how we always have easy tears of pity for the immensely rich and powerful?”

    I think it was clear this one wasn’t really about Romney. Although if you used the kind of language you use against the rich on some poor person I wouldn’t like that either. (Granted Jesus could be very harsh to the rich, but he was Jesus and you’re not. Also he did dine with tax collectors and not solely inveigh against them as a “Ruling Class.”)

    • …but he was Jesus and you’re not.

      Not that Mark needs any help defending himself, but I just have to ask: do you really consider this an argument?

      Are we not supposed to take Jesus as a model of Christian behavior? If not, why not? Why is Jesus permitted to do things that are not permissible to us?

      Is it harshness that is reserved to Jesus? Or conversation with the rich? In either case, you have numerous counter-examples ranging from Moses to John the Baptist to Catherine of Siena to Dorothy Day to John Paul II.

      So, what exactly is your objection? And what is your basis for that objection?

      • Pam H.

        Because His motives were pure, and ours never are? Not to say harshness is never called for, but usually our harshness/anger is not “of God”.

        • Hezekiah Garrett


          (My comment isn’t too short, your software is too verbose! So there!!!)

      • Thomas R

        I would think, at the very least, Jesus had information we don’t have. Also the motives issue. But I was going to be gone so adieu.

        • Hezekiah Garrett

          How many Romance languages do you have left to work thru?

          Ciao! Or’var! Adéu! Avedecci! Au revoir! Adeus! Adye! Arrivede la! À bétôt! Aveto! Au’dee! Addi! Orewar! Adieussiatz! Ajo! Do widzenia! La revedere! Довиђења! Nni videmu! Dovidenia! Nasvidenje! Adio! Viszontlátásra! Agur!

        • ivan_the_mad

          “But I was going to be gone so adieu” A cry for attention, this.

    • Ted Seeber

      tax collectors were not the ruling class in Christ’s day any more than the IRS passes laws today.

      • Thomas R

        Okay, but Zaccheus (I think it was) was rich. Also Jesus was perfectly polite to that Roman centurion who’s name I forget.

        I kind of see the jeremiad kind of tradition Shea was going with, but I still think he goes too far. Catholic thinking, as I understand it, is not about hostility to the rich as such. It’s hostility to the use of money for selfish or self-aggrandizing reasons or money for its own sake. Shea’s language, hence why I’m leaving, too often strikes me as dehumanizing rather than just critical. People too often overly praise the rich, but I think we should avoid anything that implies they’re beyond all pity or empathy or that treats them as a despised class of people. A dear family friend, who was a millionaire, died a month or two ago. Yes his family is worthy of pity. And on some level I think Ann Romney could be deserving of some compassion for her medical conditions. And so is the poorest Guatemalan. And so is Mr. Shea and you and me. And maybe on some level even David Berkowitz and Ayman al-Zawahiri. That’s largely what I mean.

        • Hezekiah Garrett

          Yeah, Mitt Romney is just quietly going about his business when that fat bastard Shea just started dehumanising him!

          How can we miss you if you won’t go away?

  • The Deuce

    I don’t think that’s quite accurate in Romney’s case. A large part of his job at Bain was reforming failing companies to make them productive and worth investing in, not just investment itself.

    • Blog Goliard

      My take on the Romney situation–if one wants this piece to be about him specifically–is that he and Bain Capital performed a useful service (ever been to a Staples, for instance?), and represent the best of a bad lot.

      However, in our day, the spirit of the age constantly tempts people like Bain executives to vastly overrate their own importance and accomplishments, vastly underrate the importance and accomplishments of people farther down the corporate food chain…and to pay everyone accordingly.

      I’m also not sure, amid all the admiring talk of “risk-taking”, that the Bain folk ever fully perceive how much more devastating the failure of a Bain venture is for the latter folk compared to the former.

    • Ted Seeber

      I don’t see any difference from the standpoint of Dante’s form of usury.

  • Dan C

    Romney raided failing companies, re-assorted and often sold assets, “saved” the “company” in the sense that some vestige of a product was continued to be made. But that aspect of “the company” that involved the workers was desperately lost as most of the employment was fired, laid off, and the sent overseas. The “company” was saved dor the investors, Bain folks, who were new to the company.

    It is unclear what aspect of the “company” truly remained, other than the fact that a name and IP were transferred together. Workers, owners, investors all were changed. Unless one believes that a company is infused with a soul that is independent actually of the living breathing folks within it.

    Bain does not “save” all companies and raids and auctions many with the same style as those junk-dealers on so many reality shows.

    I am unclear as to what Bain “saves.” Bain is a tool high end investors use to generate enormous wealth at scales that are multiples of the routine market growth. It is gambling. “Saving” a company, as one would normally consider such an entity, with owners and workers, is not even a consideration. If it happens, it is an accident.

  • I’m not sure Randian philosophy is the best way to describe Romney. I think you get a much more accurate description of Romney (and the rest of our Ruling Class) if you go back to Nietzsche’s slave and master classes. In that mentality, the masters are good because they are powerful, greedy, wealthy, and strong-willed. Whether or not the masters actually make anything is of less importance. But if they’re allowed to be autonomous, they will inevitably be productive sooner or later, and they will keep control of the weak-willed, lazy slaves. And the slaves invented Christianity, the source of all evil, in an attempt to scare the masters into treating them kindly.
    As I said, I think Nietzsche is a more accurate description of our Ruling Class than Rand, although Rand did adopt quite a few of Nietzsche’s ideas in her philosophy.

    • Mark S (not for Shea)

      Nietzche at least had the courage to live by his convictions. Rand was an immigrant who hated immigrants. She railed against government programs to help the poor, yet died while being supported by Social Security and Medicare.

      Nietzche was a fiend in many ways, but I can’t help but admire his backbone. Rand was just pathetic.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Whether or not the masters actually make anything is of less importance. But if they’re allowed to be autonomous, they will inevitably be productive sooner or later, and they will keep control of the weak-willed, lazy slaves.”

      I completely disagree with that statement. There is never any need for a wealthy man to produce anything at all of his own hands, and most of them even contract out the actual risk taking, such as it exists in a system designed to eliminate risk.

      • I was just summarizing Nietzsche’s philosophy. I completely disagree with that statement too.

  • Blog Goliard

    “Most of the folks we are talking about are not Steve Job’s who made things, or Bill Gates who programmed things.”


    Okay, I get that some people can’t resist putting in apostrophes that don’t belong. But:

    1) Doesn’t look like they’re trying to make “Jobs” plural. And even if they were, why not “folk’s” and “thing’s” as well?

    2) Maybe it’s just the surname ending in “s” that threw them off. Then why “Job’s” but not “Gate’s”.

    If you’re going to get it wrong, at least get it wrong IN SOME LOGICAL FASHION THAT I CAN FIGURE OUT!

    (P.S. Very nice piece, Mark. Sorry the compliment got squelched by my grammar meltdown. But seriously…when did we all become so sub-literate?

    If I ever acquire Mitt Romney’s wealth, I might just spend it all buying every man, woman, and child a copy of Eats,Shoots & Leaves…and on hefty cash rewards for every one of them who reads it and passes a test on the contents of the book.

    • ivan_the_mad

      “But seriously…when did we all become so sub-literate?” But seriously…when did we all become so prone to rants over grammatical errors?

    • Jay


      Left yourself wide open to that one.

      • Blog Goliard

        Yup. That’s an iron law of Grammar Nazism: Every post that calls someone out for a grammatical error will inevitably contain at least one error of its own.

        • Blog Goliard

          (There’s also a full stop in there that should have been a question mark.

          My horse for an “Edit” function!

          • Jay

            I can sympathize, actually. I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi myself. It can be grating to see the same basic errors over and over again.

            • Blog Goliard

              As my rant tried to point out, I’m especially tortured by those basic errors that crop up randomly and make no sense. If someone uses an apostrophe when forming a plural every single time, I find it vastly easier to swallow…perhaps because it pleases my inner Systematic Nazi enough to pacify the Grammar Nazi.

              • kenneth

                Remember you’re dealing with the graduates of the American school system! The younger generation learned written language from phone text abbreviations. Just be grateful that we have enough functional literacy to spell our own names the same way most days….

                • Hezekiah Garrett

                  I’ll pit just about any of the authors and thinkers remembered from the days before the standardisation of spelling against whoever you care to name from the century of standardised spelling.

                  I don’t see how a man can even call himself literate if he only recognises an English word when spelled a particular way. Perhaps such a man should rot in gaol.

        • Also known as “Muphry’s Law.”

    • Mark Shea

      Fixed the apostrophe. Be gentle with people writing emails off the cuff. Their not writing for the ages (yes, I did that on purpose. Muwahahahaha!).

      • Blog Goliard

        You evil genius you.

        Sorry for getting up on the ranty side of teh bed this morning.

        (Yes, I did *that* on porpoise too!)

  • Much as I love Chesterton, I disagree when he is called a prophet.

    A prophet is a very specific ministry usually of OT (where a specific school of them was a runner up for Carmelite order), but in NT you have the Fatima seers, St Bridget of Sweden, St Bernadette Soubirous and a few others.

    Obviously Chesterton did not consider himself in that league, nor should we. Especially is it annoying if someone gets out of his way to repeat certain of GKC’s principles of criticism with (alas) newer applications and gets considered as if he were thereby claiming what Chesterton certainly did not claim.

    He did claim to be making prognoses, and he did use the word prophet as a slang word for that. But he also made clear the difference, like when he said “all prophecy is unreliable, except the avowedly irrational and supernatural kind” – which was “the kind of prophecy” he was not claiming.

    • Ted Seeber

      He did not consider himself in that league. But another (hindsight is 20/20) version of the vocation of prophet is only recognized several years after your death- when things you predicted start coming true.

      Chesterton is that second sort. Not called to that vocation, but recognized to be IN that vocation after the fact.

  • Susanne

    I guess the millions of dollars Romney gives to charity, the fact that he took no pay for the 4 years he dedicated to running the Olympics in Salt Lake City and that he took no pay for being Governor of Massachusetts don’t count for anything.

    • Richard Johnson

      No…at least with the Olympic years we found out that Romney supports government bailouts.


    • Richard Johnson

      About him not taking any salary from the Olympics…


      SALT LAKE CITY –The day Mitt Romney took over the scandal-tainted Salt Lake City Olympics in 1999, he pledged not to exploit the role for political gain and announced that he would not accept any severance pay when he finished the job. Public records indicate he did otherwise.

      Romney not only accepted a $476,000 severance package from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, according to federal tax records, but he helped to lobby the committee for similarly large pacts for his 25 senior managers, 17 of whom contributed to his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign or the state Republican Party soon after the Winter Games.

      Romney donated the severance package money as well as his Olympic salary to charity, his spokesman says, and Romney himself says that soliciting campaign contributions from friends and colleagues is a common and legitimate practice.

      • Mark Shea

        In other words, not charity, but investment.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      It counts no more than the unicorns I keep trying to auction off at the local sale barn…

  • Mark S (not for Shea)

    Bain Capital made millions by abusing existing businesses. It was the very definition of a Vulture Capitalist Organization. http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmcquaid/2012/01/12/romneys-vulture-capitalist-problem/

  • Ted Seeber

    This is my field of expertise- and I’d like to remind everybody that while Bill Gates is a programmer, he purchased most of the original source code for DOS, Windows, and Office from other people then rebranded it. While Steve Jobs was a great desinger and salesman, The Great and Powerful Woz ws the engineer in early apple, until Jobs pushed him out.

    It’s been a long time since we had *actual makers* able to be successful in software or computers. Patent Trolls are all that seems to be left (companies that buy up, or attempt to obtain, patents, with the business model of suing other inventors for violation of patents).

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      Woz stole the GUI and the mouse!!!

  • Mark R

    There are people who “make” things and they rely on venture capital to put up the money for their ideas. In instances of success, venture capital owns a chunk of the idea it backed.

    • Ted Seeber

      Which, from a 13th century definition of usury, is the very definition of using another human being for your own profit.

      I think a good definition for the 21st century is this- if your employee or any underling will either lose their job or be paid less than it takes them to survive and raise a family because of your investment, OR if your investment in an individual (loan) will cause a family to become homeless due to variable interest rates and/or fees, then you might be a usuror.

      • ivan_the_mad

        “Which, from a 13th century definition of usury” This is what the Church still teaches. And, surprise surprise, nine-hundred-and-some-odd years later, the Church is still right about contracts in mutuum. Thomas Storck penned an especially learned exposition on the subject for the Distributist Review: http://distributistreview.com/mag/2012/01/is-usury-still-a-sin/

        And no argument concerning your definition for the 21st century.

    • Dan C

      The critique of the financial sector is the critique that they do not invest in “things.” The venture capital folks invest in derivatives more often than companies. You are thinking of the 1990’s. That was a generation ago.

  • Andy

    I am sure since this from the New YOrk Times it will be greeted with derision, but David Brooks’ editorial is powerful –
    I hope the link works – the column though would be worth the search if it doesn’t

    • Ted Seeber

      I am of the opinion that traditional conservatives are not welcome in the United States any more.

      • ivan_the_mad

        No, they really aren’t. I remember, in my more formative years, reading Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”. Do we place primacy on economic efficiency or on the cultivation of virtue? Kirk helped me decide on the latter. This helped me reconcile myself to the social teachings of the Church. Then, years later, I discovered that Kirk swam the Tiber. Truthfully, I wasn’t surprised, especially in light of what he wrote concerning the Church in his book.

  • B.E. Ward

    This ‘Dante’ fellow, and his ridiculous comments about what he calls ‘sodomy’ certainly can’t be welcome in our public schools!

    • Richard Johnson

      Makes you wonder if Christians need to be attacking usury and homosexuality with equal fervor rather than focusing more on the latter.

      • beccolina

        Of course we should! I think one is easier to point at as “them” instead of “us”.

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    About what I expected, point out the Church’s unchanging teaching on a Sacrament of Mammon and you can expect the grammarians to show up in force.

    Lots of folks are going to be surprised as their purses scorch their nuts.

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    But should you ever visit the Veneto, do not miss Cappella di Scrovegni in Padua.

    Beautiful church painted all over by Giotto, paid for by the very man Dante represents all usurers by. All those good works couldn’t cool the fire in his sack.

  • Richard

    We must distinguish legitimate value generation from greed. Full disclosure: I am one of those financial professionals who makes a living from working with other peoples’ money. It’s not a lucrative profession, mind you (which may be due to my own incompetence, but I digress), but I feel it is important as a service that I can do for people to help them achieve thier goals of caring for their family, helping their children, protecting their spouses in the event of untimely death, etc. I do it because I can–my clients are not equipped to do so. I can work with a professional plumber who can earn $100,000 because his talents are valued by his many customers who don’t know a wrench from a saw and are willing to use money as a medium of exchange to compete for his time and talent. I can help him use his money in ways he can’t imagine because he is trained in pipes and valves,, not stocks and bonds. Meanwhile, my plumbing skills consist of duct tape and clog remover. So, we trade our talents, our training, our education, our (granted, secular) vocations, using money as a common means of exchange. I find him companies who are able to contract with him to care for his widow; I find companies wanting to build better computers applications but need money to attract and reward talent to do so and agree to give back the loan and more; I help him to find ways to reward educators whose talent is to teach his children as they grow older and wiser; I help him to use his money in ways he can’t imagine to provide him a way to not become a burden to his family after his ability to perform in his vocation is not possible. Usury? I don’t think so. Working to preserve and encourage human dignity? Absolutely. Let’s be sure we understand the real picture before we throw rocks.

  • Eileen

    I suspect in Dante’s time, to the stonemason and the hat maker, a poet was a wastrel looking for a patron.