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Charly Coleman, The Spirit of French Capitalism. Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment

Giacomo Todeschini
p. 159-162
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Charly Coleman, The Spirit of French Capitalism. Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021, 392 pages, 978-150360843-6

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1Nor “Catholic variation on Weber’s Protestant Ethic”, nor history of the “entrepreneurial initiative” rooted in a recapitulation of the multifaceted relation between religions and economics, the search for the spirit of French capitalism by Charly Coleman looks rather an inquiry on the semantic connection between French Catholicism as institutional and rational system and economics as profit rationality in the 17th-18th century. From this perspective the book aims to explain both the logical and linguistic consistence between the Ancien Régime French economic organization of markets as well as the Ancien Régime economic thought and the economic discourse that it is possible to find in many and different modern French theological sources: sermons, treatises, liturgical formulations, and descriptions of mystic-religious practices. As the author explicitly states, the methodological background of the book is shaped by the historical reconstruction of western economic thought emphasizing in different perspectives, during the last twenty years, the linguistic and conceptual link between lexica of Christian theology and the making of European economics.

2In the first crucial chapter of the book (“The Economy of the Mysteries”), Coleman analyzes and interprets many different theological writings, such as those of several 17th-century French theologians, including the Provençal canon François Arnoulx, the Provençal Jesuit Pierre de Gourdan, and the famous Parisian preacher Louis Bourdaloue. These authors use various economic images and metaphors to illustrate and describe rhetorically the metaphysical significance of the passion of Christ, the dynamics of salvation and, on the whole, the “holy commerce” that links Christians to God, a commerce that produces a “treasure” that “cannot be measured” (61). It would have been useful if the author had provided a brief excursus apt to underline the historical and theological deepness and antiquity of this metaphorical discursive procedure, especially its Augustinian origin and its development through the writings of the Church Fathers until the medieval Scholastics. The image/idea of the amount of gold, the “heavenly treasure”, to represent the notion of heavenly happiness, for example, is easily traceable in Patristic texts as well as in late-medieval sermons on Paradise by the Franciscan preachers. Analogously the western Christian use of describing in monetary terms, namely through powerful credit metaphors, the authenticity of one’s faith, the original sin, and the rescue operated by Christ’s passion, was fostered and circulated, many centuries before the Council of Trent, by some Augustine’s sermons and commentaries on Scriptures.

3Then, the author’s thesis that “a spiritual economy … underwrote” the very notion of “œconomie” (in Coleman’s terms) as it was shaped by the writings of the 17th-18th-century French writers clearly connecting the order of providence to the economic system they theorized and experimented (66 ff.) is perfectly convincing. Nonetheless, the semantic roots of the “invisible hand” can be retraced, beyond Smith and the Enlightened economists underlining the performing action of divine Providence, not simply in a generic evangelical tradition, but, more precisely in the complex history of the conceptual relation between providence and productivity of wealth and money as it was highlighted by the work of Hengstmengel (2019).

4Analogously, the description of the historical process that the author calls “the arbitration of interest” (chapter 4, “Usury Redeemed”, 144 ff.), namely the discussions that, between 13th and 17th century, focused on the price of money and the productivity of monetary investments, is affected by a certain imprecision. At the present stage of historical research, is it satisfactory to explain these disputes and interpretations of money and money’s actual and hypothetical value simply in terms of a “mitigation” of “the ban depending on the intention of creditors and justifying compensation owing to loss sustained (damnum emergens), the forfeiture of potential gains (lucrum cessans), or delinquency on the borrower’s part”?

5It seems excessively hasty to affirm, as the author do, that “the catholic claim that money could not produce money had its origins in the Church Fathers and was significantly buttressed by Aristotle, whose statements on the subject were taken up and extended by Thomas Aquinas and his Scholastic heirs” (163). This decoding of the medieval/modern conundrum of money's potential value, clearly depends on the traditional historiographical representation of the alleged medieval incapacity to overcome Aristotle’s notion of the sterility of money (an approach well exemplified by de Roover (1971) and Langholm (1992)), rather than be basedas the author claimson the extraordinarily innovating work on the history of balance by Joel Kaye (2014). Actually, it seems imprecise and approximate to reduce the history of western reasoning on the sense and value of money to an uninterrupted history of the “ban on interest” directly, and seamlessly connecting the economic conceptualizations of John Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan to the Decretum Gratiani, Thomas Aquinas and finally the 17th century French economists. This simplified approach to the question, on the one hand, forgets to consider the multiple aspects of medieval and early modern discussions on money and its value, a complexity well exemplified by the works of Peter Olivi, Gilles of Lessines, Henry of Ghent, and many other authors until the important recapitulation by Konrad Summenhart at the end of 15th century. On the other hand, this kind of reconstruction of pre-industrial economic discourse overlooks the importance of the economic analysis performed by the representatives of the Second Scholastic, an importance recently deeply analyzed by the book of Decock (2012) on 16th century theologians and contract law. In other words the historical reconstruction of the conceptual and linguistic genealogy of modern economic theology or theological economics proposed by Coleman’s book is partially questionable.

6Despite these weaknesses, Coleman’s work offers a notable example of historical research about the functioning of theological notions and religious practices and devotional objects in the field of administrative French economy during the 17th and 18th century, namely during the elaboration of the Physiocratic theories. Especially the relation between the mystical “economy of devotion” (203) as well as the actual commerce of indulgences and the birth of a French consumer society is brilliantly described and clarified (“The Cult of Consumption”, 175 ff., 195 ff.). Indeed, the author shows the underlining of the close connection existing between, on the one side, the beginning of the enlightenment market economic philosophy aimed to emphasize the importance of the production and circulation of luxurious and superfluous goods and, on the other side, the theological reflection on desire, deprivation and limitless growth of the potential amount of wealth whose core was shaped by the infinite abundance of grace produced and distributed by the Incarnation of God (“Turgot as Economic Theologian”, 236 ff.)

7In the last part of the book, the author shows how deeply this medieval/modern encounter between theology and economic thought and language influenced not only the way of thinking of physiocrats and supporters of liberistic (i.e., free market) capitalism, but was also a decisive component of the anticapitalist reasoning of Marx and Benjamin (257 ff.). Especially the work by Benjamin offers a good example of how the theological and mystic components of European economic thought and imagination are clearly detectable even in what Coleman calls the “apocalyptic reckoning” (265) characterizing Marxian and post-Marxian critic of economy and economics. It is also from this perspective that Coleman’s important book enlightens the long history of the semantic crossing between theological and economic conceptualizations and representations. A very long history whose knowledge is indispensable to understand the way the historical shaping of a performative economics has been decisive for creating present market society.

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Decock, Wim. 2012. Theologians and Contract Law: The Moral Transformation of the Ius Commune (ca. 1500-1650). Leiden: E.J. Brill.

De Roover, Raymond. 1971. La pensée économique des scholastiques : doctrines et méthodes. Montreal:  Institut d'études médiévales.

Hengstmengel, Joost. 2019. Divine Providence in Early Modern Economic Thought. London: Routledge.

Kaye, Joel. 2014. A History of Balance, 1250-1375: The Emergence of a New Model of Equilibrium and its Impact on Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langholm, Odd Inge. 1992. Economics in Medieval Schools. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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Giacomo Todeschini, « Charly Coleman, The Spirit of French Capitalism. Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment »Œconomia, 12-1 | 2022, 159-162.

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Giacomo Todeschini, « Charly Coleman, The Spirit of French Capitalism. Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment »Œconomia [En ligne], 12-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 09 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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