28 July 2016

Legitimizing Desire: Why We Needed a Religious Revolution to get Our 1st Market Economy

During the first market economy of roughly 1300 to 1700, desire had to be made legitimate. This was one important reason that church reform was central to the emergence of the first economy, shifting the regulation of desire from the church to the individual.

Martin Luther helped to ignite the Protestant Revolution by translating the Bible into the German language that could be understood by the average German and not just the elite who'd been educated in Latin. But literacy rates were not that high and art still had a huge role in transmitting ideas.

Martin Luther challenged the Church in so many ways that it's easy to forget that one of his most startling challenges was around the issue of celibacy. He was in favor of emptying out the convents and marrying off the nuns. On the left is a painting of Martin Luther with his wife, the former nun Katharina von Bora. It was made by Lucas Cranach the Elder, probably the most famous German painter of his time and Martin Luther's friend. It was circulated to illustrate this notion that individual freedom included even the right of priests and nuns to marry. Martin Luther realized how important this message was for religious change and his friend Lucas helped him with this mission.

Lucas Cranach the Elder also did this painting of the Silver Age on the right. Like other Renaissance artists, he went back to the classical myths and art of the Greeks and Romans to find inspiration in depicting a less cloistered world. The Italian Donatello, who died in 1466, six years before Lucas the Elder was born, had carved the first nude since classical times. By the time of Martin Luther, art had become more openly erotic, the human body a legitimate theme for artists throughout Europe.

It might be easy to dismiss this new theme in art as tangential to the bigger changes sweeping throughout Europe but it seems as though it was, instead, fundamental.

At the dawn of the first economy, in about 1300, the church controlled about 70 percent of the money in circulation. Desire of every kind - whether in the form of covetousness, curiosity, or lust - was controlled by - or least condemned by - the church. Individual desire was something to be repressed rather than allowed. One of the overlooked reasons for the darkness of the Dark Ages, the incredible poverty and brevity of life, was because desire was illegitimate.

Desire is the engine of any market economy. In a traditional or even centrally-controlled economy, you can tell the consumer what they want or what is good for them. Their desires are incidental to what society produces and distributes. One definition of a market economy is that it caters to the individual. People want a quarter pounder with cheese even though experts agree it's not healthy? The market makes quarter pounders by the billions. The market lets the individual define what goods and services are offered. In a world in which the church controls 70% of the currency, the individual has almost no control.

Martin Luther did more than undermine the Church's exclusive control over proper thinking by translating the Bible into German and giving each literate German the chance to reach his or her own conclusions about God's word. When he married Katharina von Bora, he helped to legitimate desire.

As it turns out, the first market economy had to make desire of every kind legitimate. Covetousness, the desire for goods that make us happy but aren't essential to survival, had to be legitimate in order for economic progress to kick in. And covetousness, lust, and curiosity - the desire to have, to possess, and to know - are so closely linked that it's simply not possible to allow one without allowing them all. The story of our first market economy was a story about deciding that individual desire is legitimate and best left to the individual to regulate or channel.

More of Lucas Cranach the Elder's amazing paintings here.

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