Ancient Economic Thought - Vol. 1

By B. B. Price | Go to book overview

8

THE CLASSICAL ROOTS OF BENEVOLENCE IN ECONOMIC THOUGHT

Gloria Vivenza

This chapter is the result of work begun a few years ago, 1 starting from the intention to retrace the intellectual and historical background of a particular use of the term "benevolence" in economic contexts. I was surprised, in fact, by the parallelism between the famous "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest" (Smith 1976:1.ii.2), and a sentence of the Latin philosopher Seneca who, in De beneficiis (1982), states that a merchant who sells his corn produces no benefit, although he really saves the life of a man or of a whole city. None of the persons helped by his act is in debt towards him because he did not think to comfort them, but only to look after his own interests (Seneca, De beneficiis VI, 14, 3-4). 2 Another passage from the same work has a vaguely Smithian flavour, as it explains that whatever is done for the sake of gain is not a benefit: ad alienum commodum pro suo veniunt ("they [merchants] give advantage to others in order to have their own") (Seneca, De beneficiis IV, 13, 3). They produce a positive outcome without having this purpose in mind as a sort of "unintended consequence" with which the ancient world, too, was acquainted in its own way.

The Greek and Roman roots of the concept of benevolence are important, I think, for their implications for moral, economic and political problems; but my "modern" starting point compels me to make clear some particular points. What I would like to trace back is the history of that "benevolence" which influenced medieval and Renaissance thought and became a multifaceted concept whose main characteristic was a double "paradigm" with hierarchical aspects on the one hand, and egalitarian on the other (Vivenza 1995:511-515). All other connections (for example, with charitable or philanthropic activities, or with God's benevolence towards humanity) must be left aside because they could be confusing. They are out of place in this short treatment, although they will be recalled, when necessary to explain the evolution of the concept.

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