Friday, February 5, 2010

Gospel Poverty is NOT.... (#4)

Gospel Poverty is not economy.

Father Dubay defines economy as a careful use of money and material goods. He calls it a quality, not a defect. In other words, it can ally itself with a proper frugality but it isn't a synonym for the Christian ideal.

Economy is good when it is for a good reason, (for example to save money and resources for more important things) but bad when it is for a bad reason.... as when you deny someone else something they need for economical reasons.

He uses an example which is puzzling to me. He says it may be more economical to buy an expensive, heavy car that will last twice as long as two smaller ones. But that might not be in accord with a vow of poverty -- to buy the more expensive, durable one.

I haven't figured that out. Any thoughts?

My notes:

A synonym of economy as he defines it seems to be "thrift".

"Very few men know how to use money properly. They can earn it, lavish it, hoard it, waste it; but to deal with it wisely as a means to an end, is an education difficult of acquirement."
Orison Swett Marden, quoted here.

Economy in the classic meaning derived from "oikos", the Greek word for "house" and it meant something like proper management.

"Thrift" is a similar word to "frugality" -- as frugality derives from "fruitfulness", thrift derives from "thriving". So it definitely implies using money and things in a productive, balanced way.

This Catholic Encyclopedia article on Care of the Poor says that one thing people can do to help the poor is educate them in thrifty practices. While many people are poor because of social injustice, as the encyclical Quadregesimo Anno declares, it is also true that knowing some of the principles of thrift can help alleviate poverty. Probably a certain kind of improvidence is partly due to the discouragement faced by those who live in inhumane conditions. It's possible for even people with little money to develop tastes for relative luxuries -- speaking for myself primarily here! -- and so one aspect of voluntary poverty might be to learn to keep tastes and desire simple and ordinate.

From an epistle of Cyprian of Carthage:

"How is such a conversion possible, that there should be a sudden and rapid divestment of all which, either innate in us has hardened in the corruption of our material nature, or acquired by us has become inveterate by long accustomed use? These things have become deeply and radically engrained within us. When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts? And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing?"

But once again, thinking of thrift or economy as a "means to an end" rather than an end in itself seems like the best way. Proper thrift results in ability to be generous and hospitable, a trait valued by the great ancient cultures -- one thinks of Abraham and his fervent hospitality to the guests who turned out to be angels. Also, Aristotle says that generosity is the virtuous mean between wastefulness and stinginess. That goes along with the derivations of "thrift" and "frugality" from "thriving" and "fruitful" since you can sort of picture a plant growing vigorously and providing fruit and shade and oxygen and beauty.

Plato held that the state had three orders
The ideal state is modelled on the individual soul. It consists of three orders: rulers (corresponding to the reasonable soul), producers (corresponding to desire), and warriors (corresponding to courage). The characteristic virtue of the producers is thrift, that of the soldiers bravery, and that of the rulers wisdom. Since philosophy is the love of wisdom, it is to be the dominant power in the state.
So thrift is a trait conducive to productivity, not a thing of value in itself. For example, St Francis of Assissi's father, a wealthy cloth merchant, thought his son was being very reckless by giving away his wares to the poor, but of course it was not so.

Interesting side point -- it was Keynes who developed the concept of the "paradox of thrift" -- in opposition to the Austrian economists, he thought that if the nation as a whole saved money, it would be destructive of the economy. So apparently, in this model, we are set up for a constant consumeristic loop -- if I hire you to take care of my kids so I can go work at the school where your kids are being taught, we are stimulating the economy, whereas if I stay at home with my kids and you do too, we're actually an economic drag : ). This reminds me of Brave New World where there were new fashions for handbags and the like every season so that people would keep spending their money and discarding the old things that were no longer trendy. This seems opposed to true productivity, and it also seems very characteristic of our consumeristic society.


  1. I'm enjoying your analysis, Willa. This is a book I've been telling myself I need to read, but a little hesitant because I know I HAVE to make changes. ;-) But your chapter reviews are so helpful.

    It is amazing how much forced obsolesence has taken over our culture.

    That example Father Dubay gives is very puzzling. I'm presuming that he takes a position that it doesn't matter if it's good for society, but what's best for the soul. I was just thinking by his example if we only buy the cheaper (and often cheaply made) cars that the downside would be at some time we will not have well-made cars. I can't make all the connections, but communist USSR comes to mind.

  2. I really like Father Dubay, and I read this book last year as well as Fire Within. That particular example (and others I can't recall) is puzzling to me as well.

    Also, living with a student of the Austrian school, I am reminded that the percentage increase in price is often not very much when compared to the increase in quality.

    In the same vein that Jennifer was going, our kitchen chairs were found on the side of the road. However, they were excellent chairs at one time otherwise they would not have survived to be found in good condition on the side of the road. I try to buy things used, etc..., but I try not to judge those who can afford full price for clothing, etc..., because if they did not buy it full price, then I could not buy it on clearance or at the thrift shop.

    And in our current climate, more poorly made things tend to be made in sweatshops. When I spend more for items not made in China, I feel that in some way it is in an effort to fight poverty.

    So, while I really wanted to embrace his ideas, and in many ways I do (living them is, of course, harder, lol), I find that his analysis doesn't quite grasp the whole economic picture, and I hope my opinion isn't just based on an inordinate attachment to well-made things.

    I've enjoyed reading your summaries as a way to revisit the ideas of this book before Lent!

  3. Lindsay, I can't help feeling very queasy about buying cheaply made things for the very reason you mention. I can't help imagining the exploitation going on behind the scenes.

    I also agree with what you said about people buying good things at full price and then passing them on in good condition so that I can buy them at thrift stores : ). In some ways you could see that as the "generosity" Aristotle praises.

    I was wondering if Father Dubay means buying a cheap AND second-hand car. Here I'm thinking of a priest that used to come up to our mission chapel here in the mountains. He had a very ancient clunker that could barely make it up the hill. Maybe Fr Dubay is thinking that something like that is closer to poverty of spirit than buying some new Lexus or something that might be a better car, but cost way more up front. Hard to say, though.

  4. Hi! I only just recently found your blog and I'm not too familiar with the author you are analyzing but I just had a thought concerning the cheaper car versus more expensive car. I noticed as you wrote it he said a heavier, more expensive car not a fancier car. My husband has a very basic BMW that he has had for over ten years (since way before we ever met) and I have a sporty KIA that I have had for almost five (purchased shortly before we met). To drive the two cars is night and day. His feels heavier and safer. Mine feels cheap and "on it's way out." He wants to replace it soon because he doesn't feel it is safe enough especially if we have children soon.

    When I bought mine I looked at the car's looks and price without much thought as to quality and by the time I replace it I will have spent considerably more money and resources (the manufacturing of two cars) for my "cheap" choice in transportation than my husband will have spent for his. This is not to say I should have gone out and bought a BMW to begin with. I couldn't have done that anyway but I could have looked for a heavier, safer, more reliable, long term car, probably used rather than lusting after a shiny, little, cheap car that satisfied for the short term.

    The smaller, cheaper car here satisfied a craving not a need. My friends got to ooooh and aaaah over my brand new, sporty car. A heavier, more expensive car probably would not have been a shiny, new or trendy in my case. It would not have been an ego driven choice, wanting to appear as if I had more money than I really did. Just a thought.

    I look forward to reading more!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!