A few months ago, as part of my ongoing side-project of reflecting on the relation of Christian ethics to private property, I posted a discussion of a passage from Melancthon’s 1555 Loci Communes
on the subject, from the chapter on the distinction between “commandments” and “counsels.” In this passage, he castigates the Anabaptists for their attempt to do away with the order of private property, which he insists is divinely ordained. At the time, I critiqued Melanchthon, suggesting that he was an example of the shift away from the medieval understanding of private property as a pragmatic adjustment of the natural state of common ownership to the modern understanding of private ownership as itself completely natural and perpetual. My friend Peter Escalante informed me that I had badly distorted Melanchthon on this point, arguing that he was in fact well-aligned with the medieval consensus, and I so I offered something of a retraction. Now at last I can shed a little more light on Melanchthon’s view.
Sure enough, if one looks at the first edition of the Loci, the 1521 edition, one finds a presentation that is much more equivocal about the status of private property. Expounding the natural law, Melanchthon argues that there are three main laws of nature: “1. God must be worshiped. 2. Since we are born into a life that is social, nobody must be harmed. 3. Human society demands that we make common use of all things.”
Wow. So the common use of worldly goods is not merely a nice idea, but one of the fundamental laws of nature, on par with “God must be worshiped”? Looks like it.
“The third law, about the common use of things, obviously arises from the very nature of human society. For if the saying ‘Friends have all things in common’ ought to be valid when a few friends are involved, why should it not hold among all men? It should, since all are supposed to cling together as brothers do with brothers, children with parents, and parents with children. For the law not to inflict harm has commanded this.”
So, is there any place for private property? Yes indeed. For we aren’t living in our natural state anymore, but in sin:
“But because human avarice does not allow that we use all things in common, this law had to be corrected by the one above, the law that no one be harmed. Things must be shared to the extent that the public peace and the safety of the group permit. For as a rule inferior laws are corrected by higher ones, and public sharing must be regulated according to some limit.”
In the state of sin, a perfect common property regime is unlikely to last for long without causing strife, and so it must be modified as necessary to provide for peace.
“Therefore, another law must be subjoined to the third, namely, that property must be divided, since the common welfare of the multitude so demands. Furthermore, since it is a condition of human affairs that there is need of at least some sharing of property because by nature things ought to be in common, it has been decided that their use be shared, for instance, through contracts, buying, selling, leases, rents, etc. And here you discern the origin of contracts….One must not look for any other model of a well-constituted state than that state in which it is possible to observe the rule that friends must share. Thus contracts have been devised through which the goods of each are shared by the many so that there may be at least some sharing of things.”
In other words, private property is introduced in a state of sin as a way of realizing the original natural good of common use. If we can’t have a truly common property regime, then we should come as close as we can to achieving the same end under a private property regime. This stance (which looks like Option 5B or possibly 5A on the taxonomy of private property justifications I provided here) is actually less affirming of private property than Aquinas–it is more Augustinian–since St. Thomas believed that the specification of private property might have happened anyway even without sin. But the basic logic is quite similar.
However, there does seem to be a marked shift by the time we come to the 1555 Loci. Not surprising, really. Back in 1521, in the first flush of the Reformation’s success, the Reformers were filled with evangelical optimism and perfectionism; the Anabaptist utopianism had not yet come to stand in opposition to the mainstream reformers. By the middle of the century, however, a hard-nosed realism and cynicism has set in. Men are a wretched and on the whole irreformable lot; some will be saved, but the majority just need to be restrained. In such a milieu, anything other than the existing private property arrangements is going to sound hopelessly idealistic. No surprise, then, that we should find Melanchthon here indulging in a furious polemic against the Anabaptist opposition to private property, something which he might have disagreed with in 1521, but hardly set himself against so ferociously. In this polemic, he argues that property is not merely a good, but a a duty–voluntary poverty is simply wicked hypocrisy, and a violation of the divine order of property.
This polemic corresponds to a considerably flattened account of the justice of private property in his exposition of the law. In the 1555 Loci, this comes in an exposition of the Ten Commandments as the basic principles of natural and divine law. In speaking of the seventh commandment (eighth for us Reformed), he says,
“Let us learn from this commandment that God himself has established ownership of property and reasonable laws to regulate it. It is comforting to know that the laws by which we live and have property are pleasing to God, for then a believing man can work with a clear conscience to maintain himself in such an order, and can invoke God’s blessings and aid….
“Note this in reference to the devilish Anabaptists. They argue that all goods must be held in common and boast that it is a mark of great holiness to break up property….Against such madness one should consider and uphold the beautiful wisdom contained in this commandment.
“Because possession of property is right and pleasing to God…God erects a strong wall around each householder for the sake of his shelter and goods, namely this his law, ‘You shall not steal.’ Our hearts and hands should not desire another’s goods nor acquire them, except as God has ordained an exchange by agreement and equal payment. In this life we need various things, and God gives to one the fruits of the earth, to another, wool and cloth. Therefore, to facilitate exchange, God himself ordained contracts, buying, and selling. He desires us to use these means to preserve equality, for otherwise we would soon consume one another.”
It is impossible to deny a striking contrast. Here there is no overarching right of common use that precedes and gives purpose to the order of private property (although there is still a hint of this at the end in the remarks, reminiscent of those from 1521, that contracts enable common use within a private property regime); here there is no qualification to the divine ordination of property–indeed, here it might appear that private property was natural and perpetual, rather than an adjustment to the natural order as a result of the Fall. And whereas in the 1521 discussion, we might’ve been left with the impression that a common property regime was still a live option under certain circumstances and a praiseworthy one, here any such notion is castigated as “devilish madness.” What we appear to have now, in short, is an Option 4A or even an Option 3 account of the justification of private property
. It may well be that Melanchthon here has not actually changed the logic of his theory. If pressed to explain the natural-law basis of private property, he might still follow the structure of the 1521 account. But the rhetoric has certainly changed. And in my experience, rhetorical shifts often precede and influence theoretical shifts (e.g., as I argued happened in the case of sola Scriptura
Of course, none of this is intended to single out Melanchthon for criticism. My sense (thus far relatively unconfirmed by careful research) is that this shift was fairly prevalent in the sixteenth century, among Protestants and Catholics. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to confirm that one way or another.
(If I’ve still got it wrong, Peter, don’t hesitate to come down on me hard again. 😉 )
8 thoughts on “A Closer Look on Melanchthon and Private Property”