The parsing of literature to support any given political, economic and social agenda is not an uncommon practice, but one that, nevertheless, must be done with great care. Viewing high culture through a reductive critical and ideological prism often risks diminishing the contribution literature makes to culture by viewing the entirety of an artist’s work through the wrong end of a telescope. In this postmodern era rife with deconstruction, it becomes all too easy to concoct an argument that even the most banal elements of our culture deserve consideration, at the hands of those with a critical axe to grind.
I noted with interest an interview that Pope Francis gave in which he alludes to some of his literary interests both because I find I share what I know of Pope’s Francis’ taste in literature (Romano Guardini, Robert Hugh Benson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, St. Augustine, Henri de Lubac, etc.) and because the pope references one of my heroes. Which brings me to Alessandro Manzoni.
Manzoni was an intriguing personality. Raised largely by nannies, he certainly “sowed his wild oats” as they say, until he finally settled down, returned to the practice of his faith and evidently brought both his wife and his mother into the fold as well. Manzoni may have inherited his own liberal (in the European sense) sensibilities from his maternal grandfather Cesare Beccaria, who is reported to have anticipated in some ways the economic theories of Adam Smith. Here, we gain a glimpse into the infrequently referenced and under-appreciated tradition of Italian Catholic liberalism (again, in the European sense of the word). Manzoni was also a friend of another nineteenth-century Italian liberal, the great priest-theologian-philosopher Antonio Rosmini, author of a vast corpus, including, The Constitution Under Social Justice, which I had a hand in helping get translated and published in English for the first time.
As it turns out, Pope Francis is a fan of Manzoni, who wrote, next to Dante’s La Divina Commedia, what is probably the greatest work of Italian literature, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Here is Pope Francis speaking about the importance of the novel to him in a wide-ranging interview with America magazine in 2013:
I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: “That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….”
The Betrothed is, as its title implies, an epic love story that traces the circumlocutions of the engagement of Lorenzo Tramaglino to Lucia Mondella across the magnificently described countryside of Italian Lake District and Milan. Though written in the early nineteenth century, the action of the novel takes place in the midst of the seventeenth century and depicts historical events and personages. It is no spoiler to say, and you will be relieved to know, that the boy gets the girl in the end and eventually marry. But it is what happens along that way that makes The Betrothed so engaging and instructive.
The novel’s antagonist, Don Rodrigo, is a Spanish foreigner exercising control in Italy’s northern region of Lombardy, which was the case in the seventeenth century. By the time Manzoni published the novel in 1827, Lombardy was controlled by the Austrian Empire and some speculate that Manzoni was drawing a comparison to the Austrian occupation in his novel.
The Betrothed fictionalizes in great detail the historical realities of the Thirty Years War and the Great Plague. Manzoni details the negative impact of price controls throughout Lombardia specifically and across Italy more generally with an amazing grasp of economics.
Economic sanity, unfortunately, is rare for many of our cultured elites whose illiteracy in the field frequently fuels class antagonisms.
It is not my intention here to offer a full appreciation of the literary merits of The Betrothed, which is done so well in so many other places—Paris Review, Italica, and by Edgar Allen Poe in The Southern Literary Messenger, to name a few. I merely wish to provide a brief overview of Chapters XI and XII where we see Manzoni’s keen economic insight in his depiction of scarcity wrought by human activity. In Chapter XI we accompany Renzo as he enters Milan and discovers a bread shortage on his way from Monza (I am using Penguin’s fine 1972 translation by Bruce Penman):
He walked on, not knowing what to think, and saw long white lines of something soft and light on the ground, as if it were snow. But it could hardly be snow, which does not lie in lines like that, nor fall so early in the year, as a rule. He bent over one of the drifts, looked at it carefully, and touched it. It was flour. They must be well off for food in Milan, he thought, if they misuse the bounty of God in this manner. And then they say there’s famine everywhere! That’s to keep us poor country folk quiet.
A few more paces took him to the side of the column, and at its foot he saw something stranger yet. On the steps of the plinth were scattered some things which could hardly be stones, and if you had seen them on a baker’s stall, you would not have hesitated a moment before calling them loaves. But Renzo dared not believe the evidence of his own eyes at once. After all, it wasn’t exactly the place you’d expect to find bread. Let’s see what this means, he said to himself. He went on to the column, bent down, and picked one up. It really was a loaf, a round loaf of the whitest bread, such as Renzo seldom ate except on feast days.
“It really is bread!” he said, speaking out loud in his amazement. “Do they throw it around like that in these parts, in a year like this? Can’t they even be bothered to pick it up when it falls? Is this the Land of the Cockaigne?” [A kind of “land flowing with milk and honey.”]
From here, Manzoni—in the thoughts of Renzo—anticipates the mentality birthed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels later in the century. Renzo notices “that everyone was taking what he liked, in proportion to his hunger and his strength, and paying for it with blows.” Manzoni notes that Renzo
was in no way a man who rose above the general intellectual level of his age, and therefore he too held the common opinion—which might almost be called a common passion—according to which the shortage of bread was the fault of the hoarders of grain and the bakers. He was ready to see the justice in any method of making them lose their hold on the food which they (according to that opinion) were cruelly denying to the needs of a famished nation.
By the following chapter, however, Renzo comes to realize the bread and flour he has chanced upon is merely surplus from previous years. But in 1628, the harvest failed, which Manzoni attributes to bad weather, warfare and the unforeseen consequences of taxation on peasant farmers “who were compelled to go out and beg their bread instead of growing it by the sweat of their brow for themselves and for their fellow men.” What was grown, Manzoni states, was haphazardly harvested, which contributed to the ensuing shortage: “With the shortage came its painful, salutary, inevitable consequence, a rise in prices.”
Manzoni’s use of the word salutary (salutevole) to describe the consequence of rising prices in a shortage evidences of his grasp of the way the law of supply and demand is reflected in prices. Where prices are permitted to rise, signals are sent to anyone, either locally or from outside the region, who are in search of a good profit for them to find ways to resolve the crisis. He sees how class divisions are destructive and illusory. Forgetting the principles of supply and demand, the public will find other reasons to blame for rising prices, including the bogeymen of
imaginary hoarders of grain, landholders who did not sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it in stock—everyone in fact who possessed or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage, and for the high prices, and made the target of universal complaint and of the hatred of rich and poor alike. The storehouses and granaries were known to be full, overflowing, bursting with grain; their location was known too, and the number of sacks they contained, which was impossibly large.
People talked with certainty of the vast quantities of grain that were being secretly exported to other territories. (In those territories, no doubt, people were shouting with equal certainty and with equal fury that their grain was being sent to Milan.)
And then Manzoni hits the economic nail right on the head by recounting the government’s attempts to mitigate the shortages its policies helped to create. Among the government “solutions” recounted by Manzoni are price-fixing, penalties applied to merchants who fail to adhere to government-set prices and other regulations. Such is the government’s shortsightedness, writes Manzoni, it is oblivious to the most obvious solution—attracting imports from areas recognizing crop surpluses. The worsening of the situation, in turn, exacerbates pleas from the populace for the government to intervene even more.
Manzoni draws a vivid analogy of the politicians to “behaving like a lady of a certain age, who thinks she can regain her youth by altering the date on her birth certificate.” I am reminded of Milton Friedman’s dictum: “There is a sure-fire way to predict the consequences of a government social program adopted to achieve worthy ends. Find out what the well-meaning, public-interested persons who advocated its adoption expected it to accomplish. Then reverse those expectations. You will have an accurate prediction of actual results.”
Manzoni is a towering literary figure in the contribution he made to Italian literature. My point in drawing out Manzoni on economic matters is to identify a sensible tradition of Catholic thought on economics and to call Pope Francis’ attention to this tradition from within sources he already deems credible.
This is not unlike the thought of Francis’ predecessor, Pius XI, who, in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno says:
Even though economics and moral science employs each its own principles in its own sphere, it is, nevertheless, an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from and alien to each other that the former depends in no way on the latter. Certainly the laws of economics, as they are termed, being based on the very nature of material things and on the capacities of the human body and mind, determine the limits of what productive human effort cannot, and of what it can attain in the economic field and by what means. Yet it is reason itself that clearly shows, on the basis of the individual and social nature of things and of men, the purpose which God ordained for all economic life….
The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.
Admittedly, Pope Francis is not much interested in economic matters. In fact, he admitted to reporters in September 2015: “I have a great allergy to economic things.” As a result he may not have been able to draw the connections Manzoni makes in his classic work.
Another favorite writer of mine, whom I suspect Pope Francis would enjoy as well, made a cogent observation in a different context, but which pertains to this matter. In her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” Flannery O’Connor wrote:
It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the Truth in the Church, we can use this Truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of the discipline itself.”
There are certain economic realities, which do not in any way involve putting money before humans, or the idolatry of money, or greed or any of the other problematic moral failures that can arise when people are free, that when ignored really do produce “an economy that kills”—to coin a phrase.