The Franciscan Adventure
RUSSIA aims at Communism, and the rest of the world watches breathless; most people apprehensive, horrified, a minority anxiously sympathetic. A socialist government, seemingly supported by a large proportion of intellectuals, holds office in England. The question concerning the social advantage and ethical soundness of private property-control is to the fore in practical politics. Has history any light to throw on this situation?
One episode in this connection is salutary to consider — the adventure of the sons of Saint Francis in the century after his death. For they tried valiantly, those mendicants, to live without possessions. Naked they sought to follow the naked Christ. Nor were they running away from life like the hermits of the Thebaid; the first note in Francis’s method was surrender to the common lot, and the impelling motive inherited by his disciples was not the ascetic distrust of natural good, though as time went on this got mixed with better things in these thirteenth-century men, but what we now call social compunction. ‘The poverty of that man is a great shame to us,’ said Francis. He was also wont to say in effect that he would not be a thief, and he felt himself one if he kept anything another needed. From such feeling flow the best activities of himself and his children. Not that altruism alone inspired them. They could not have persisted so stubbornly had not their renunciation of personal greed been password for them to a realm of spiritual riches. For men rightly crave fulfillment of life, and unless they know that such fulfillment is best found in escape from the acquisitive instinct on material levels t here is little hope that a social system which tends to inhibit this instinct can endure. At long last, a religious as well as a social impulse is needed to realize the socialist dream; and study of the friars is primarily interesting to those who recognize this fact.
Theirs was a great adventure. Was it a failure? Was it a success? Did it hold any hints for the future?
Taken at face value, the Franciscan experiment registers a defeat. It was thwarted at every turn. The conservative can point to it triumphantly as a rout of the attempt to dispense with private property or literally to carry out the more drastic injunctions of the Gospels. The men to the Left in the movement — the Zelanti, or Spirituals, as they are called — stuck obstinately to their purpose. They are vividly interesting people, especially the leaders, such men as Jacopone da Todi the poet, Angelo Clareno the historian, Ubertino da Casale, and Jean Pierre Olivi. Their story is heroic; they endured prison, exile, and the stake, often at the hands of their own brothers, the moderates of the Order. But they did not win out. Their effort to practise evangelical poverty to the limit and to live with no divisive claims must join the number of pathetic abortive experimerits which have tried to exist at cross-purposes with the principles normal in the society where they found themselves; while meantime the main body of the Order, — the ‘Community,’ as it came to be known, — made up for the most part of honest and earnest men, was forced into compromise after compromise.
The worst of it was that the effort to dispense with property and privilege was in the main self-defeated. The compromises accepted by the main body of the Order were really due to the essentially social character of the Franciscan ideal. Decent consideration for one another pressed possessions and worldly cares upon the brothers. Even Francis’s last years were darkened, till comfort was born of anguish at La Verna, where he was made mystically one with the Passion of his Lord. In 1230, soon after his death, the perplexed brothers sought help from the Papal See, and Gregory IX established an evasion long useful. No goods, personal or corporate, were to be held by the brothers, but such goods might be given to trustees for their use. In time, the tenure of all titles to property by the Church of Rome relieved the troubled consciences of all but the extremists.
From that date began to pile up a mountain of careful, well-meaning legislation, —definitions, exemptions, privileges, — a mass under which Francis would have suffocated. His sons had been originally a group of free, merry, holy vagrants, impressing the respectable of their day as a sort of sanctified hobos or I. W. W.’s. They roamed over Europe, loving comrades of the poorest, scorning any connection between services and rewards, begging, singing, giving, working, in the liberta francescana which became a byword. But by the time of the scholar-saint Bonaventura in the middle of the thirteenth century their happy light was dimmed — now by propriety, among the scholars; now, as among the Zealots, by indignation and pain. Established in dignified and wellendowed monasteries, popular at the universities, avid for learning, courted by princes, they had become conformed to a conventional monastic pattern.
It is to be feared that the Order was no longer indifferent to reward; for instance, people eagerly sought the privilege of burial in its churches, and the results were lucrative. Mendicancy, which to Francis had shone as the jeweled crown of Humility, had lost its spiritual lustre. To say that it now adorned the brow of Greed would be too severe; but it had certainly become the accredited policy. Support from the public was demanded as a right; for the idea of ‘rights,’ abhorrent to Francis, had crept in. The Order had become respectable; and the misery of the radical group is reflected in a vision of Brother James of Osimo, who, searching through Paradise vainly for Francis, was led by an angel to a shadowed place where the saint bent over a leper. ‘This is my Order,’ sighed Francis. ‘It is leprous without and within.’
During all this process, the Zealots stood firm by their ideal. The uncompromising Will of Francis, no less than the Rule, constituted their marching orders; for if phrases in the Rule could be explained away, the Will could not. They practised poverty of the most extreme. But too often, though not always, they bore the unlovely hallmark of the fanatic. They defended meekness with arrogance, they were gluttons of poverty, and as for learning, if they denounced it with Francis, they none the less ransacked the Church Fathers in support of their wives, and drew up anthologies which could still furnish an arsenal of weapons to the Christian radical. Fanaticism is better than apathetic conformity; but it has its dangers. At their best, the Zealots often fled from life, rejecting the apostolic in favor of the hermit ideal, and thereby making, as Francis would have felt, the Great Refusal.
Intuitions, especially if they lead into uncharted ways, have a trick of spoiling into theories. By mid-century the whole Order was thinking hard about the ethics of property. A sharp distinction was drawn between usum and dominium, or, as we should say, Property for Use and Property for Power. Some claimed, with a good deal of sense, that the evil in property was really in the dominium, the control it gave over other people. That control being obviated by the ‘interposed persons’ of Pope Gregory, there was no reason why the brothers should not enjoy life’s good things to the full. So thought Peter Aurioli, who died in 1322 Archbishop of Aix. Let buildings be beautiful, for they will impress the public; a tunic of choice material will last longer than a cheap one, beside being warmer; if the convents offer all the attractions, more novices will join.
Of course this convenient theory was too much for most of the brothers. Bonaventura himself had written admirably on the Simple Life: ‘ Let a man so renounce Dominion that he does not reject Use; let him so accept Use that it does not involve Dominion; let Use not be so strictly interpreted that nature lack what it need, but let need never deviate from strictness.’ Now appeared the phrase, ‘The Poor Use,’ or Usus Pauper, of which Olivi was the chief exponent and which became the rallying cry of his party. He was more searching than Bonaventura, and Tolstoy or Thoreau would have enjoyed his definition: he wanted ‘a standard of life which, all things considered, shall be judged closer to poverty than to abundance,’ and one which should always be distinctly tower than that of the group to which one belonged.
We are still talking about the Simple Life — and indeed many an issue that agitates the modern mind comes to the fore during the hot debates that racked the Order in the thirteenth century. The proper distribution of manual work, and its relation to the activity of the mind; the right attitude toward compromise; the balance between authority and freedom; the value of censorship as a method of protecting the truth — such are some of the matters that flash in and out of the picture as the reel unfolds; and, dominant, recurrent, that greatest question the mere mention of which carries offense to the conservative mind — the rightful scope of private property. Not one of these questions did those mediæval social radicals settle, as our present confusion clearly shows. But the upshot of their struggles was that the men to the Left were worsted. It was common for friars to receive and expend money alms; they would even carry a servant along with them to hold the purse! Rich revenues were welcomed from vineyards and orchards. The ideal of the Zealots proved impracticable— for the simple reason that while one man may pretty effectively reject ownership if he wants to run away and live on roots, a group cannot. Groups involve possessions. The Franciscan adventure is an outstanding example of the impossibility of living without wealth or thought for the morrow, in the world order as it is.
But if this were the whole story, this paper would not be written; nor would pilgrims by the thousand visit yearly the Umbrian shrine, nor historians by the dozen add yearly to the vast literature that gathers around the figure of the Poverello. Let us turn to the Franciscan achievement; it is an amazing one.
Note first that the swift decline of Franciscan ideals and practice is a close parallel to what happened to the Christian Church in the first century after the death of the Founder. That community at Corinth to which Paul wrote, with its fierce dissensions and its self-indulgence, was far enough from illustrating the Sermon on the Mount. Yet its record is rightly included in the New Testament canon, for, despite their scandalous defects, its members were really trying to live the new life bestowed of Jesus and the Spirit, through which civilization could be born from above. That life has never perished. Through the sins and failures of the centuries endures the vital power which those Corinthians feebly felt.
In the same way, the dynamic released by Francis never ceased to work through the first hundred years of Franciscan history. The friars desired what he desired, tried, however stumblingly, to follow him. And still to-day the ferment of their ideas works in the Christian will. The vision of a society saved from greed, and from the noxious necessity of measuring services against rewards, the passionate impulse to cast to the winds all bargaining that can put a man or a nation in antagonism with other men or nations, has a potency attested by all Utopias, by experiments renewed down the ages, and not least by the slow upheaval witnessed in our own day in the spheres of industry and politics, and the emerging of programmes aiming at this great end.
The mendicant orders were in the thirteenth century an arresting fact, The mere spectacle of their numbers is extraordinarily impressive. Here are thousands of men from all nations and classes who have cut themselves wholly adrift from the rigid systems of their day. They have tossed aside everything supposed, then as now, to conserve civilization. Not withdrawn like monks, but moving freely among their fellows, they try to obey the absolute law of love. True, they find it impossible to be strictly loyal to their belief that this law precludes all private ownership; but abandon the belief they will not. The fact that they were baffled in their attempt must not blind us to the strangeness of their having made it. In a society firmly established, just like our own, on a basis of rank and wealth, property and power, they turned to the precise opposite, being possessed by a paradoxical zeal for poverty. The majority of them were men of privilege, heirs often of feudal rights, more frequently perhaps, like Francis himself, members of the prosperous commercial class; surprisingly many were lawyers, professional men, possessing the richest background of culture the Middle Ages knew. Were they impelled largely by restless craving to escape the restraint and boredom of the familiar? Surely not. Their first motive was divinely clear: they wanted, as Francis had wanted, to follow Jesus. But they had faith that Jesus knew the best life for His disciples; and that when He said, Blessed are the poor, the meek, those who hunger for justice, blessed are you when men shall disapprove of you and make things hard for you, He meant what He said, and what He meant was true.
So they came; rallied by hundreds, by thousands, to the banner of that Little Poor Man of whom one of his friends said that he should never have guessed that Francis was a saint. And when the movement swelled and spread till it became a mighty international force, the Church beheld it with amaze; though of course its happiness and power were just what were to be expected, if all the Church claimed to believe was true. Nor can any decline as years went on obscure the might of that impulse which drove those men to unclass themselves, to incur the obloquy of the religious public, rejecting all accredited ways of attaining sanctity, and to renew the spirit of those apostles who were justly accused of turning the world upside down. What if some went but half the way? Always to their own deep conviction their existence was built on quite different principles from those which governed the outer world.
Europe blossomed under the touch of the friars. Their extraordinary repudiation of that profit motive which is usually supposed to be a necessary incentive to progress, their implicit obedience to the command to take no thought for the morrow, seemed to waken a new life. They won the inheritance of the meek; having renounced the earth, they possessed it. Art, science, music, philosophy, sprang into fresh forms where they passed. The sons of Francis were not betrayed into any otherworldly passivity; they shared the common life, and sharing it enriched it. Their emancipation from the double greed for property and power brought with it quickening of all creative faculties. Necessity jealously to preserve right to gain and hold as the first perquisite of personality and the chief guaranty of progress is a commonplace of social and economic theory. And to this position the story of the friars gives a flat and effective lie.
This is the great outstanding lesson of Franciscan history: the fact that creative power is not lowered but increased by absence of all those incentives generally cherished, to which our social theorists most tenaciously cling. Defeated on the surface, the experiment succeeded fundamentally; for it demonstrated with irrefutable force that life is more abundant, that it flows with more victorious power to release genius and enrich civilization, when the acquisitive instinct is thrown to the winds.
Take, for instance, the stimulus given in the field of art; is it not enough to mention the Upper and Lower Church at Assisi, not to speak of the noble work of Giotto at Padua, and such frescoes as those lately discovered at Pistoia? There is a pretty legend to the effect that Francis copied the Portiuncula in a tiny church on a mountain site, and had painted around the altar angels, children, birds, and beasts, with Praises written below. This is fantasy; but it is fact that the early rise of portraiture accompanied the story of the friars.
Would that the portrait of Brother Elias in the Upper Church at Assisi had survived! But we have more precious things in the authentic portraits of Francis himself, at Subiaco, Greccio, Pisa. The almost immediate canonization of the saint led to demand for images of him and for pictures of his very human legend; people who had known the Poverello personally would not be satisfied with Byzantine images, nor could, for instance, a thirsty peasant stooping to drink on the way up La Verna be depicted in an archaic design. The Legend called for settings of the day, and art, obeying the call with delighted courage, inaugurated a new tradition. Sometimes the friars were themselves artists; more often the relation of their movement to art was that of influence. All the scenes of Holy Writ began to be painted in a new way. In their sense of intimate communion with the earthly life of Jesus, the Little Brothers were precursors of our twentieth-century effort to escape the theological Christ and return to the Carpenter — and the Baby. This was an amazing attempt at a time when the image of King, Redeemer, Judge, deep enshrined in the liturgy of the Church, gazed on the faithful everywhere, obscuring the Friend of Sinners, the Wanderer in Galilee.
One can hardly overestimate the humanizing of religion by the sons of Francis; under their influence, the humanizing of art naturally followed, and a book like the Meditations on the Life of Christ by Brother John of the Cabbages — formerly ascribed to Bonaventura — is said to have had an incalculable effect on painting. Nor must it be forgotten that the great Franciscan churches, with types all their own, play an important part in the development of architecture in Italy.
Francis himself was both poet and musician, and he never feared poetry and music as he did learning. Both flourished among the friars. Are not the Dies Iræ and the Stabat Mater theirs? And those wonderful Lauds of Jacopone da Todi, which alternate homeliest grotesque and folklore, now with bold invective, now with the farthest flights of breathless mystical passion? Was not Dante himself, according to the best tradition, a Franciscan tertiary? As for music, Francis defiantly demanded it on his deathbed, and one likes to quote from Thomas of Celano’s account of his canonization: ‘New songs echoed in the Temple, and the servants of God exulted in the spiritual melody. Organ harmonies were heard, and spiritual songs were sung in voices well attuned. A suave fragrance was breathed, while most joyful melody moved the hearts of all.’ Those troubadours of the Lord went singing through the world. Wherever a Franciscan ‘place’ was opened, a trained choir was instituted, and friars minor were choirmasters to half the courts in Europe.
Having escaped those preoccupations with property or career which are so time-consuming to most of us, the friars have ample leisure. Perhaps their most salient achievement is their contribution to learning. The intense intellectual ardor of the age centred in the thinking of the mendicants. Francis may have deprecated learning, and Giles cried aloud, ‘Paris, Paris, thou hast destroyed Assisi,’ while Jacopone sang gayly that to be crazed for Jesus Christ was better than the wisdom of the university. None the less, the capture of the universities by the mendicant orders is a thrilling phase in the history of scholarship. There was hidden affinity between the restless intellectual passion seething in mediæval Europe and the rejection of worldly bonds. The scholars stormed the Order; and surely Francis in Paradise is proud of Alexander of Hales, Bonaventura, and Duns Scotus, and rejoices in the fact that his Little Brothers with their fellow Dominicans rejuvenated the intellectual life and reformed the intellectual methods of the Western world. Nor is it without significance that Roger Bacon chose to be a friar, nor that hydraulic engineering came to be a specialty of the brothers in the thirteenth century. The Franciscan spirit inspired at once the followers of Bacon and of the Apocalyptic mystic Joachim of Flora — that is to say, all which was most adventurous in scientific investigation on the one hand and in mystical speculation on the other. Minds that defy social conventions are likely to follow one of these two lines, realistic or romantic if you will; and the disciples of ‘Francis Innovator,’ to use the epithet fondly given the saint by his children, were bold explorers in both directions.
The part played by the brothers in the political life of the day is pleasant to contemplate. They were in great demand as counselors in the courts of princes; yet they deserve the title minores, aligning them with the proletariat. Their sympathies were with progressive forces, and they identified themselves with the deep currents of popular life, settling often in the slums of the towns, as in Stinking Lane in London. The proverb puts it: —
Bernardus valles, montes Benedictus amabat, Oppida Franciscus. . . ,
‘Bernard loved the valleys, Benedict the mountains, Francis the cities.’
It was the Grey Friars who buried Simon de Montfort, and their feeling toward him is evident in a poem written after his death by one of their number.
Totus flos militiae,
Duras poenas passus mortis,
Protector gentis Angliae.
Apud Deum, qui defendor
In terris extiteras.
‘Hail, Simon de Montfort, flower of all knighthood, thou who hast endured the sharp pains of death, protector of the English people! Be thou, who wast our defender on earth, our intercessor with God!’
But it is in the legislation for the Third Order that the spirit of Francis applies most directly to the social and political situation of the times. For the prohibition to bear arms unless in defensive war, or to hold public office, contained in the Rule for these Brothers of Penitence, struck at the very roots of feudalism, and was, so critics agree, one of the chief forces in undermining the feudal order. There were so many conscientious objectors that it almost seemed as if wars might perforce cease. At all events there were enough bitterly to anger the civic authorities and the feudal lords. The Church, to
its credit, stood steadily by the Tertiaries in their repudiation of the feudal oath.
We have not spoken of the tremendous missionary activity of the brothers, nor of their care for the sick, their manifold works of mercy. Occupations of these types are naturally expected from men who have renounced the world. But this brief review has surely made evident for what rich energies, creative and productive, the devotion to Lady Poverty set men free. Their haggard mistress said to them not No, but Yes. Despite the impasse which sooner or later confronted the sons of Francis, his Order down the generations can show progressive and constructive achievement of the most varied types, to an extraordinary degree.
A more important question than what the friars did, however, is the question what they were. In the Middle Ages, men thought Being more important than Doing. The friars — and this was part of their sanity — cared more about action as compared with contemplation than did most religious orders, but they too placed Beatrice above Matilda. Perhaps they are right; perhaps the power to see and to adore is in last analysis the touchstone of character. We receive always in far greater degree than we can achieve, and memory of this proportion was at the root of Francis’s repudiation of justice; for the proportion is violated by the notion that a man can deserve reward for anything that he does. Beggars all! Francis was right in thinking it a higher thing to receive alms than to give them, for receptivity is man’s primary and normal attitude; our modern fallacy is not that we press our responsibility toward action too far, but that we fail to hold it embraced in that larger gratitude through which we are one with the harmony of the natural world. Perhaps the beauty, grace, and fragrance of nature, inanimate and animate, are its perpetual song of gratitude and praise. In their worship the brothers minor manifest themselves most truly, and worship had a wide connotation for them; it was one with their joy in the world.
The friars appear in the history of their time as men of singularly clearcut personality, and there is wide diversity of type among them; but they have one distinguishing and uniting trait. It is their abundance of wholesome and rejoicing life. Here is the secret of their charm. Through the dim centuries one travels back and finds one’s self with happy men. Joy shines in the Fioretti, the Mirror of Perfection, the Mystical Marriage of Saint Francis with Our Lady Poverty. It ripples into merriment, it deepens into rapture. It survives ridicule, a hard test for good spirits. Brother Masseo feels it while he twirls on the road till he drops; Brother Juniper while he teeters amid the jeers of the astonished crowd; even the melancholic Rufino, one dares believe, as he obediently preaches in the Cathedral of Assisi, clad only in his drawers. The English brothers laugh in choir till the Crucifix rebukes them; Jacopone’s ecstasy breaks bounds of human speech, as the ‘Jubilus’ sings in his heart.
The glory faded. The shadow of asceticism darkened the lives of them all, especially the Zealots. But that shadow was, it is safe to say, less deep and more intermittent than with any other religious order of the time. The attitude of the friars may be illustrated by two quotations; the first, from Roger Bacon’s De Retardatione Accidentium Senectutis, shows what healthy and intelligent zest for living a friar could possess: — A cheerful and refreshed mind imparts vigor and stimulates nature, it retains youth and preserves health. A man is recreated in two ways, by his circumstances and by the virtues of medicines. Among circumstances may be included the wearing of clothes with attractive ornaments, that by their aspect the mind may be enlarged and the strength and splendor of life reinforced; and the sweet sound of musical instruments, and lovely songs; hearing or reading delectable books or listening to choice eloquence; looking at the beautiful faces of some people, or at other delightful things, as for instance the sky, stars, water, harmonious colors, fine figures, preciously wrought vessels, and whatever does the soul good. And among the best ways of all is to sit wuth beautiful young people, suitably dressed, and talk with them as time allows. Also to enjoy sports, and to follow up victory, to welcome fame, honor, glory, and joy, and gladness and rational intellect.
There is Bacon’s Canticle of the Sun — hardly a programme for an ascetic, and not to be scorned by a modern psychiatrist. Francis would have liked it, he who bade his sons never be nubilosos or gloomy, but always hilares, and, if melancholy befell them, to keep the secret between themselves and their God. Our second passage is on a higher level; it suggests how these men were able to keep healthful and glad, in a world which they certainly did not find easy. It is from Bona Ventura’s great mystical treatise, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, the Journey of the Soul to God, which he wrote at La Verna: —
He who is not illumined by these splendors of created things is blind; he who is not awakened by such harmonies is deaf; he who does not praise God for all these works of His is dumb; he who from so many signs does not learn the Primal Cause of all things, is stupid. Open then thine eyes, quicken thy spiritual ears, free thy lips and fix thy heart, that in all creatures thou mayst see thy God, and hear praise and love and cherish Him, and magnify and honour, lest perchance the whole round world arise against thee.
The heart fixed on the God who is manifest in His works yet transcends them is the source of the friars’ joy. It is also the source of their pain. For their joy is triumphantly compatible with power to suffer, and is perfected, as Francis told Brother Leo, in disgrace and defeat. To them it was ‘by the Cross’ that ‘joy had come to the whole world.’ All things, says a lovely phrase of Thomas of Celano’s, were to sing to them of their poverty and exile. ‘Thou makest me lie down in green pastures,’ said Gherardo di San Donnino when his Order put him in the prison where he languished till he died. ‘How gracious is God to vouchsafe us this high privilege,’ exclaimed Brother Michael of the Marches of Ancona when confronted by his funeral pyre. Brother Michael was burned in Florence in the year of Our Lord 1393, because he would not abandon his belief in the poverty of Christ.
The Franciscan records reveal living men; so refreshingly varied that many a one has become a legend; yet all alike in that they have lost to find. If to fulfill personality be the ultimate test of a way of life or of a social system, the brothers minor met it.
Yet all the while, how can we forget that impasse?
The sources of power in the Franciscan movement are never to be sought in conformity to the conventions of the age, but in departure from those conventions. The scornful attitude toward property which was the movement’s chief heritage remained to the end at the centre of its very life. The forces released by Francis had tended with Startling success not only to restrain possessive and aggressive instincts, but also to stimulate all that made for creation and for peace. Two secret burdens rest on us worldly folk, and as the burden of greed slips from our shoulders the burden of contrition takes its place. The libertà francescana set men free from both. Was that liberty a dream?
Certainly it was not maintained, and the tenacious effort to live in the world refusing to hold property met the reductio ad absurdum. The Order as a whole became controlled in large measure by the very principles with which it was most at odds — witness the papal bulls, especially the later ones, with their careful protection of the property interests of the friars. Honorable members of the Order observe personal poverty to this day, though the hand-to-mouth insecurity dear to the first Companions did not long persist. But the communities soon became rich. When in 1322 that sardonic person Pope John XXII canceled the old provision for the vesting of titles in the Papal See and forced those titles back on the convents, a wail went up not only from the Spirituals but from the entire Order; yet it is hard not to feel that the brothers were put in a more honest position. The attempt to dispense with ownership was checkmated at every turn.
The failure of the friars cannot be accounted for by limitations peculiar to the Middle Ages. It is inherent in a situation still persisting; for the social background of the thirteenth century is essentially the same as that of the seventeenth, the twentieth. All down the generations this struggle has been resumed, and always it has failed. John Woolman may be recalled, trying at every point to avoid contamination from communal sin, refusing to profit in any way by what may have cost health or life to others. His story is heroic, but it is not a story of success. This very day, a group of consecrated women in Francis’s own Umbria are trying to live without possessions exactly as he did. They are as happy as his first companions; the peasants have named them the Larks of Saint Francis. But they are involved against their will in the intricacies of private property, forced on them under penalty of becoming useless derelicts. In the United States, one young man at least seeks entire escape from the Proprium, severs services from rewards, refusing salary or wages, as completely as did Francis, and wanders about doing odd jobs. And there are similar groups in England. Theirs is a sobering challenge, but its ability to suggest deepreaching remedies for our social maladjustments is far from clear. In every period, those who offer this sort of challenge, either as a community or as individuals, become cranks or outcasts. Not that lovers of poverty mind either fate; but whatever ridicule our efficiency fetich excite, it is hard to deny all value to our hard-won belief that life should be made worth while by productive service within the established order. Adventurers in purely coöperative life, within society organized, as it now is, on principles precisely opposite to those by which they wish to live, face an impossible dilemma.
In a world arranged on a proprietary basis, success for such an adventure cannot be conceived. The Franciscan experiment is as striking a proof as any offered by history of the inadequacy of any personal or partial solution to the social problem. All similar experiments end in one of three ways. They may revert to a stereotype, continuing as respected exceptions to the existing system; they may compromise till their distinctive character is lost; or they may lose themselves in frustrations and sterile martyrdoms. Yet Francis’s
ideal, of services severed from rewards, and of escape from the acquisitive instinct, is deep-rooted in Christian desire. This ideal can never be realized in a society founded on private wealth. May analysis press a little further?
Francis and his Order had never learned to think in economic terms. They left the world, its politics, finance, industrial organization, to go its own way. Moreover, they had no thought of presenting a new principle for the acceptance of everybody. The prevalent belief in rank had its religious counterpart in belief that Christian perfection could be sought and realized only by the few; and, for that matter, the great apostolic commission which the saint took to himself was never meant to be of common application. The Franciscan Order therefore formed a spiritual aristocracy, apart from the social structure of the time and valiantly struggling to remain unrelated to that structure. In this fact, its isolation in its formative principles from the general life, is the profoundest cause and the clearest evidence of the Franciscan defeat. The time was not ripe for any more general challenge to the principle of private ownership. But the result was that the movement remained essentially separatist and individualistic. It was an alien element in civilization rather than a penetrating leaven. Like its monastic predecessors, it became to a considerable degree subject to the very laws it abjured, and subsisted as an exception to the normal state of things, forfeiting the exquisitely universal note which when all is said sounds through the appeal of Francis.
The last controversy of the brothers, in 1322-23, centred on the question whether or no Christ and the apostles owned private property. That question has ceased to interest us, for we have learned to respect the reticences of the Gospels. We see Jesus moving through an imperfect world, and attacking its evils, not by harsh denunciation, but by a life that created an atmosphere in which such evils must wither and die. Is the private tenure of property such an evil? The Gospels yield no explicit answer. Yet the great passages that the brothers loved to gather into their anthologies, those passages of general appeal so disconcerting and sobering to sincere Christians, suffice to show that the laws by which the lifeblood flows in the Kingdom of Heaven contradict those laws precious to a civilization based on the Proprium. An urgency in Christian thought and emotion has always set against private ownership; and as we widen our vision in the modern way to include the whole structure of society, and as the encouragement offered by privilege and possession to our worst instincts is discerned, it becomes natural to feel that sympathy should more and more be given to those political and economic programmes which contemplate removing temptation to the lust of ownership from the common man. Nor does the failure of the brothers minor to live in the world as it is, consistently renouncing the Proprium, prove that a whole society founded on communal rather than private ownership need fail.
It is creative power that separates man from the brute and allies him to the gods. The history of the friars shows that this power is not entwined with freedom to gain and to possess, but is independent of it and stifled by it, and released in proportion as possessive passion is renounced. Now this is surely a very great thing to have shown. The lesson is worth all the anguish the adventure cost. For the Devil is always asserting the contrary, and he has convinced most good people. He insists that self-realization, which all men rightly crave, must involve ownership, and many wise books claim that property is a natural extension of personality, and that the hope of acquiring it is the necessary spur to progress. Does not the story of the friars disprove all that? And, if this literally diabolic fallacy be dismissed, have we not an important clue to the right political and social aims of the future?
To deny value to the acquisitive instinct in history would be folly. That instinct registered advance in the slow ascent of man and it has been very useful. Even now, it is hardly possible for a man to indulge in lofty scorn over the relation of services and rewards and to toss all considerations of reward away; for self-respect and concern for others blend with the baser motives that impel him to centre his energy on getting on in the world. The Devil, who is naturally a conservative, a static person and a laudator temporis acti, finds plenty to say to him. Yet all the time spreads that gnawing unease, sharpening in noble natures into shame, at the necessity of focusing effort on material advancement; all the time, as democratic passion enters our blood and nerve, the misery grows more acute over the enforced endurance of privilege unshared. As a French critic of America lately put it, perhaps our choice lies between Ford and Gandhi.
The psychological transformation going on much resembles that in the idealist attitude toward war. For, indeed, war and property are closely related, as Saint Francis knew, who told the Bishop of Assisi, pressing him to own something, that if he and his brothers had property they would need arms to defend it and might be forced to shed the blood of their fellow men. The most inveterate pacifist must recognize the heroism and sacrifice associated with war in the past, its disciplinary training and its power to rouse a corporate loyalty. Yet the horror of war deepens day by day till the nations enter into a pact to exile it. To contemplate a warless world is not easy. To contemplate the minimizing of private wealth is harder still. And we come at once against the dead failure of every group committed to communist experiment since civilization began. But light is thrown on the paradox if we think of escape from parts to wholes. Here we must part company with the friars, who never realized the full implications of their doctrine. New factors which they never saw have entered the situation, and that enlargement of vision impossible to them has occurred.
The sense of the whole! The only healing for our social disorders! Evil inheres forever in the partial, the divided; where shall the cure be found, except in unity? The Middle Ages understood this in a way better than we. ‘Everything doth so long subsist as it is One, and perisheth and is dissolved so soon as it ceaseth to be one,’ said Philosophy to Boethius. ‘Know thou then that unity and goodness are the same. Those things which when they differ are not good, and when they are one become good, are they not made good by obtaining unity?’ On every line, the escape from parts to wholes is the hope of civilization. Disarmament can never happen till there is a simultaneous movement toward it among the nations. So long as industrial competition is the rule, small cooperative groups must fail. Economic rivalry will last till customs barriers be done away. The individual who seeks to flee communal guilt is forced apart from his fellows, into an isolation which denies his creed of love. The curse resting on private property is the habitual curse resting on separateness, and there is no use in perpetuating that curse in the very effort to escape.
Broad conceptions on this line are becoming common. A society in which the Proprium should be discouraged, if not disallowed, is not only a usual theme for economic thinking, but a purpose-dictating programme in one great nation. But alas for impatient human nature, the means used are those old means of coercion, which drive the mind back once more to a central principle of the friars. For their poverty was voluntary, and renouncement enforced can never bring the enrichment of life they knew. Near the start of modern thought Rousseau challenged a society, to which the very word Democracy was unfamiliar, with his theory of the General Will as the source of government; and that individual choice is helpless till extended into such Will is Democracy’s Act of Faith. Wide psychological change must precede and accompany any new social system having power to endure. That the desire of the classes in possession should cooperate with the desire of the dispossessed, in developing a social order in which temptations to greed and pride should be robbed of fair disguises and relegated to the low plane where they belong, is a Utopian thought. But if it could be realized, perhaps men might recover something of the gayety of spirit and that eager advance in all the higher lines of interest and achievement which marked the sons of Francis in their prime. And unless a policy with some such aim increase until it win the suffrages of many, the Franciscan defeat and the Franciscan triumph must continue to confront each other in hopeless deadlock, in a world that can neither follow nor forget the call of Francis and his Lady Poverty.