Peter Adamson just published a most fascinating and insightful essay in Philosophy Now about an aspect of the property rights debate that we rarely address: the right to own nothing. It’s an important question, especially in this culture of hyper-consumerism and the conviction that property ownership is essential to personal and political freedom. But as a certain innovative and humble friar realized in the early 13th century, property ownership can also be a burden, alienating us from one another and from the unencumbered pursuit of spiritual perfection. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration of Independence, had a similar insight as St Francis of Assisi and his mendicants when he adapted John Locke’s principle of ‘life, liberty, and property’ as essential human rights as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.
‘One of my favorite things about the history of philosophy is finding out that ideas we now take for granted originally emerged in surprising ways. I can think of no better example than the notion of a right to own property. Not that we can take it for granted that we have such a right, if we consider the history of communism in the Twentieth Century. Still, it seems such an obvious concept that it must surely always have been with us. But you can make a good case that it was first explicitly articulated in the later Middle Ages. And here’s the surprising part: the thinkers who first explored this notion were actually concerned with their right to own nothing.
They were members of the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans. Following the example of their founder, Francis of Assisi, Franciscans argued that spiritual perfection requires the voluntary embrace of poverty. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, they depended on the kindness of strangers, living on charitable donations. Hence the term ‘mendicant’, meaning, ‘given to begging’. Christ and his Apostles, the Franciscans argued, had shown the way by giving up all their possessions. Furthermore, ownership of property is a consequence of the Fall. In a state of innocence there would be no need for possessions, since by generosity of spirit all things would be shared. However, as well as an individual religious commitment, the embrace of poverty amounted to an implicit and sometimes explicit political critique, since the medieval church as an institution most certainly did not embrace poverty. The mendicants’ very existence was a rebuke to the opulence and worldliness of the papal court and the rest of the ecclesiastical hierarchy….’
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