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The First Estate: a clergyman educates the two others (17th-century gable stone; Amsterdam)

The First Estate: a clergyman educates the two others (17th-century gable stone; Amsterdam)

Why is it that a commercial income can be larger than an income from a rural estate? Where does the merchant’s profit come from? Is it not from his own energy, thrift and hard work?

This view of commercial activity was expressed by the French reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564), and in expressing it he distanced himself from the views of earlier moral philosophers whose opinion it was that merchants were profiteers who exploited another person’s needs. Not that these philosophers were blind to the advantages of commercial activity. In fact, they had sought reasons to permit forms that would not put a man’s spiritual welfare in danger, even citing Saint Omobono as an example to businessmen, a saint who had always donated his profits to the poor. However, it was John Calvin who first accepted urban industry and trade for what they were.

Nevertheless, Calvin also recognized the necessity to justify commercial activity and so bankers were given all sorts of advice and admonishments. They should not demand too high a collateral; a loan should be more advantageous to the debtor than to the creditor; they must not demand interest from the poor; preferably, they should not make their living from banking; finally, it was strictly prohibited to become rich from another man’s work. Calvin’s admonishments are mild and the fact that he acknowledged that commerce was necessary, alleviated the angst of those who earned their living otherwise than from agriculture: for the first time they did not have to fear hellfire for the simple reason that they pursued a commercial profession.

Since the devil finds work for idle hands to do, it was imperative that every true believer serve God with disciplined work. The craftsman and the merchant had to make his profits productive by, for instance, plowing them back into his own business. Merchants were not allowed to flaunt their wealth by giving away wastefully large alms or by building town palaces as the Italian merchants did. Work, work and more work was the order of the day and repos ailleurs (take your rest in heaven).

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