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The Right to Be Poor

Peter Adamson looks into the surprising derivation of the right to property ownership.

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.

Saint Francis
Francis of Assisi by Giotto

At first, the church grudgingly accepted the mendicants’ lifestyle nonetheless, and criticism initially came from rival theologians at the university of Paris rather than the papacy. But in the early 1320s Pope John XXII declared the Franciscan stance incoherent, and even heretical, since it falsely claimed that Christ owned nothing, when this was in fact impossible. Why impossible? Well, even the most pious mendicant has to eat, since starving yourself would be suicide, which is a sin, and it makes no sense to claim that you don’t own the food you eat. Even if it is charitably donated to you, once it passes into your possession, it must, well, be your possession. It is your ownership that gives you permission to destroy the food by eating it.

The mendicants gave this problem deep thought, and not only as it applied to food. Ironically, their orders had become very wealthy thanks to the generosity of pious laypeople, with libraries full of books, and buildings in which to live and work. But they argued that these things did not belong to the individual friars, they belonged to the church, and the mendicants were just using them. Therefore, to respond to critics such as Pope John, Franciscans and their allies had to work out a sophisticated account of the difference between mere use and actual ownership.

The distinction is actually rather plausible. You might be reading this magazine without owning the copy you’re perusing. Perhaps you’re at a bookshop and haven’t yet paid for it, or perhaps you borrowed it from a friend. Although you are using the magazine, you do not own it, as shown by the fact that you have no legal rights over it. If someone steals the magazine you’ve borrowed, it will be its true owner and not you who has legal recourse against the thief.

On behalf of the mendicants, the anti-papal polemicist Marsilius of Padua argued that one can only take ownership of something on a voluntary basis. When something is transferred into your possession, you can decline to take ownership, so that the original possessor can demand it back at any time. This applies even to goods that are destroyed in the process of using them, such as food. The generous noblewoman who allows a friar to eat the bread she has donated continues to own the bread even as it is being consumed. Or, if she voluntarily gives up her rights over the bread, then the bread belongs to no-one. The mendicants’ opponents found this absurd, but Marsilius could point to a precedent in Roman law. Antique jurists had developed the idea of a res nullius – something owned by no-one. Marsilius gave the example of a fish in the sea, which belongs to no-one. If a mendicant catches it but voluntarily declines to own it, so that he acquires no legal right over it, it keeps on belonging to no-one even as the friar grills and eats it.

With arguments like these, Marsilius and other theorists of voluntary poverty, such as Peter Olivi and William of Ockham, articulated a right of ownership precisely in order to deny that the mendicants were exercising such a right. After all, in the normal case, people do consent to own what is given to them, or what they purchase, and when they do so they acquire a special right over these things. Not only a right of use, since that could be present even without ownership – everyone uses the air they breathe, but no one owns the air. Rather, this is a new kind of right that imposes obligations on other people. If you own bread, I can’t just eat it without your permission, as I legally could if you were a mendicant who denied that it is his property. We might say, then, that property ownership is a right that was discovered precisely in the process of dis-owning it.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2017

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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