Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Usury, Dante, Time

I am currently reading Dante's "The Divine Comedy," and one of the groups of people punished in Hell is, of course, the usurers. For Medieval Christians and modern Muslims (among each other), usury was a sin. But why?

Dante suggests:

"Philosophy makes plain by many reasons," 
he answered me, "to those who heed her teachings,
how all of nature,---her laws, her fruits, her seasons,---

springs from the Ultimate Intellect and Its art:
and if you read your Physics with due care,
you will note, not many pages from the start,

that Art strives after her by imitation,
as the disciple imitates the master;
Art, as it were, is the Grandchild of Creation.

By this, recalling the Old Testament
near the beginning of Genesis, you will see
that in the will of Providence, man was meant

to labor and to prosper. But usurers,
by seeking their increase in other ways,
scorn Nature in herself and her followers. (John Chiardi, tr.)
The author of the Physics is, of course, Aristotle. And Art for Plato and Aristotle was poiesis, which was a "making" or "doing." The maker learns what to make by apprenticing to a master. God, being the ultimate creator, is the ultimate master. He created the universe, and we imitate God.

But we cannot imitate God in one thing: making something out of nothing. At the time, people considered usury to be the creation of something (more money) out of nothing (mere lending). Of course, what a lender does in charging interest is charge for time. Thus, the usurer creates time for others.

But if we consider the fact that in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition God is the creator of time, where does that put the usurer? Is he not equally imitating God in making time for people? He cannot create it literally -- but he can, through lending, make time. And do we not deserve to get paid for what we make?

With a proper understanding of what it is usury does, we can see that the usurer is in fact a maker, just like the maker of physical objects. Thus, we can finally lead the usurers out of Hell.

Caplan on Tolstoy on Lying

Bryan Caplan reflects on lying and trust in light of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. It has been a while since I read the story, but I remember liking it a great deal.

Caplan raises the issues of lying and trust. Specifically, in believing a lie or an untruth. Ivan Ilych is dying, but everyone tells him he's not. Are they doing it to be kind? Ivan thinks it unkind. They could be sympathizing with him more if they weren't lying to him and themselves about his condition. Everyone could say their goodbyes. But more, this lying undermines trust, and trust is a vital element for a society's well-being.  Of course, one has to have the right institutions in place to promote trust

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Paul Cantor on South Park

Paul Cantor on South Park.

Ever wonder why egalitarians tend to lose their sense of humor? "To laugh at people is to feel superior to them." In other words, humor is anti-egalitarian. More, it is outright judgmental.

Cantor also sums up the difference between economic exchange and poltical exchange quite concisely:

"Politics is a zero-sum, winner-take-all game in which one business triumphs only by using government power to eliminate a rival; but in the voluntary exchanges that a free market makes possible, all parties benefit from a transaction."

Cantor does a great job of demonstrating how good literary analysis should be done.