Introduction: Status Questionis: Good-Bye to the Protestant Ethic?

By Felice, Flavio | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Status Questionis: Good-Bye to the Protestant Ethic?


Felice, Flavio, Journal of Markets & Morality


The careful study made by the late Professor Oscar Nuccio of ancient, preclassical economic thought has clear title to a place among the most significant works that have tackled the debate on the origins of the spirit of capitalism and on the developmental role of the civil jurists of the Low Middle Ages in the formation of the social sciences. Economic science belongs to the family of social sciences and went through the same travails and important events that contributed to their evolution. Albertanus was a jurisconsul from Brescia who lived an intense intellectual and political life in Italy in the first half of the thirteenth century. Nuccio makes a point of informing the reader that the emphasis placed on an author far removed from us is not meant to tout the presence, during the Middle Ages, of a complete system of scientific theories that could lay out the complexity of social and natural phenomena. In this case, the task of the historian is to underline the possibility of grasping, even in the epoch in which Albertanus worked, the signs of an era in profound transformation in which conscience and individual interests were changing radically.

This revisitation of the work of Albertanus is aimed at demonstrating, first of all, the possibility of "making his work present" in a modern key; his is a work that cannot be described with the cliche of the medieval era as the "Dark Ages," an epoch of unified thought, long described as "shadowy," "static," unitary," and "dense." In the second place, the internal analysis of the texts of Albertanus aims at catching the precursors of certain economic categories typical of modern economic epistemology, which can thus make sense of market processes. Nuccio, we will try to show, criticizes sharply that which he calls "the old historical-literary judgment" that relegates the Brescian lawyer to a niche of "didactic-religious" writers. To the contrary, Nuccio presents an original reading in which there clearly appears the figure of a medieval intellectual who is concerning himself with typically modern problems. Albertanus, Nuccio recognizes, despite being a man of the Middle Ages, adopts a thoroughly modern analysis of "human action," of a "double legitimization of work and profit," and of an "ethical consecration of utility."

In identifying some doctrinal aspects of the thought of Albertanus--the concept of "natural man," the virtue of discernment that accompanies every phase of situational analysis, and of the legitimization of profit--Nuccio assesses his contribution to the origins of the social sciences and introduces us to the definition of that "bipolar cosmology" typical of modern thought. The exclusive character of the monastic ideal does not seem to have attracted da Brescia, whose work displays a continuous tension of reconciling the vita contemplativa and the vita operativa, a well-rounded individual who, as Nuccio affirms, reconciled the vir sapiens with homo faber, a man who, to use the expression of Ludwig von Mises, is profoundly a homo agens.

Bio-bibliographical Note

Born in the 1190s, Albertanus was a jurist and writer. Unfortunately, reports of his life are meager and are given only by Albertanus himself in the prologues and in the explicit references of his treatises. In particular, Nuccio notes, it was Thomas Sundby, in his introduction to the Liber Consolationis et Consilii, who subdivided the life of the Brescian jurist into two periods: the first, which did not last past 1238, during which Albertanus was involved in intense public activity, and the second, which went from 1238 to 1250-1253, characterized by a vivacious literary production. (The year of his death is uncertain.) (1)

As far as the first period is concerned, Albertanus was the protagonist of important political events of his epoch. In particular, on April 7, 1226, he participated at Modesto, together with officials of the podesta (magistracy) of Brescia, in confirming the pacts sworn by the Second League, which the Lombard cities formed against Frederick II. …

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