Sodomy and Usury

Aristotle thought that usury and sodomy were related because in both cases there was attempted reproduction in an unnatural way. (Yeah, I don’t get it either. The argument would have been better as an argument against cloning. No matter, the argument was influential).

In a very good piece, Jeet Heer contrasts the ancients with Adam Smith and the liberal, free market tradition:

Aristotle’s linkage of non-procreative sex with usury profoundly influenced Christian thinkers. Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica codified the fusion of Aristotle with Christianity, argued that sodomy and usury were both “sins against nature, in which the very order of nature is violated, an injury done to God himself, who sets nature in order.” Echoing Aquinas, Dante placed sodomites and usurers in the same circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy. In his 1935 tract “Social Credit,” Ezra Pound, whose obsession with crackpot economics took him down many historical byways, argued that “usury and sodomy, the Church condemned as a pair, to one hell, the same for one reason, namely that they are both against natural increase.”

There is a flipside to this tradition of seeing sodomy as the enemy of the natural economy of the household: The counter-tradition of liberal economics founded by Adam Smith challenged the household model by seeing economics as rooted in the free trade of goods between households and nations. Precisely because Smith was more receptive to previously condemned or taboo economic activities like trade and manufacturing, he was also more open to sexual liberalism.

Smith’s friend Alexander Dalrymple is now thought to have written an anonymous tract, Thoughts of an Old Man (1800), recalling that the founder of modern economics believed that “sodomy was a thing in itself indifferent”—a radical thing to say even in private at a time when sodomy was a capital offence, condemned by church and state.

…Smith’s new and somewhat inchoate ideas were pushed further by Bentham, who in an unpublished essay observed that sodomy “produces no pain in anyone” but “on the contrary it produces pleasure.”

…It’s no accident that in 1787 Bentham wrote a “Defence of Usury,” which tried to convince Adam Smith to take a more benevolent view of the hitherto morally sanctioned economic activity. On the subject of both usury and sodomy, Bentham’s inclination was to take Smith’s liberal impulses to their logical end. Bentham was in favour of consensual adult acts (be they sexual or economic) that led to greater happiness, whether they violated pre-existing taboos or not.

It was, of course, also no accident that Tyler posted on Bentham last week. Here is a good extract of Bentham on usury.

Hat tip: The Browser.


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