Unnatural Vice and Economics

Jeet Heer in The American Prospect uses the brouhaha over Niall Ferguson and Keynes to comment on homosexuality and economics.

He quotes Aristotle’s condemnation of usury from the Politics:

The most hated sort [of wealth-getting], and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of any modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural

Here is how Heer glosses the passage:

the idea there was a tension between sodomy and the procreative goal that they [Greeks] saw governing proper household management

Or another gloss:

the curious argument made by Aristotle—that usury was similar to unnatural sex, a case of money being generated by interaction with an outside party rather than the growth of a household through the fruitful union of husband and wife.

A further gloss:

Aristotle’s linkage of non-procreative sex with usury profoundly influenced Christian thinkers.

But these are glossing too far.

The birth of money from money; the breeding of money – this has nothing to do with sodomy, unnatural sex, or non-procreative sex. Quite the contrary: it involves birth and breeding! Sodomy, non-procreative sex, does not go along with birth and breeding. Aristotle objects to unnatural breeding not unnatural sex.

The profound influence on Christian thinkers against homosexuality did not come from the Pagan philosopher but from the Old Testament. It was the Jews, not the Greeks, who objected to homosexuality. Their hostility was passed down through the Old Testament to the medieval Church. (The New Testament has little to say on the subject.)

Why were the Jews such enemies of homosexuality? I commented on that question here. The basic answer is that one of their enemy tribes practiced it. If the enemy does it, it must be bad.

The animus against usury was common in premodern societies. Perhaps because most were kin-based, clannish, social orders—the idea of lending money to kin for interest still today is regarded as distasteful.

Later, if Heer is right, Jeremy Bentham was the first thinker to clearly argue that both usury and sodomy are acceptable.

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