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The Monk as Merchant: Economic Wisdom from a Desert Hermit

Before Max Weber ever conducted his study of the “Protestant ethic” of hard work and commerce as a matter of one’s election before God, there was the ascetic ethic of the ancient Church. A story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers illustrates this ascetic business ethic well:

A brother said to Abba Pistamon: “What am I to do? I find it painful to sell what I make.” Abba Pistamon replied: “Abba Sisois and others used to sell what they made. There is no harm in this. When you sell anything, say straight out the price of the goods. If you want to lower the price a little, you may and so you will find rest.” The brother said: “I have enough for my needs from other sources, do you think I need worry about making things to sell?” The old man answered: “However much you have, do not stop making things, do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.”

Weber knew about the monastic ideal, and there are some important differences between the desert ethic and what he called Protestant “worldly ascetisicm.” There is nothing here about “mak[ing] [one’s] call and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) through material success in one’s work, but there is a lot about economics. Let’s examine this saying piece by piece to see how it can teach us about the good of production, exchange, subjective pricing, labor, and profit.

The unnamed brother begins with what has been a common dilemma for some, even today: profiting from providing for the needs and uses of others. “I find it painful to sell what I make,” he says. He seems to find any participation in commerce at least a violation of his monastic discipline, if not in some way sinful. Abba Pistamon provides a different perspective: “There is no harm in this.”

Far from a gnostic allergy to any involvement with the material world, Abba Pistamon acknowledges the good of production and exchange, appealing to past precedent of other revered monks before him (“Abba Sisois and others”). Commerce, he says, was common. In fact, according to the size and expansive enterprise of ancient monastic communities, we can say that his assessment is more than anecdotal. In ancient Christian sources, contempt for the merchant and trader is common, but the reality is more complicated. Sometimes traders and merchants went by a more respectable name: monks. We should not be surprised, then, that Abba Pistamon displays a certain natural business sense. But he does not stop at the merely economic aspects of production and exchange.

First of all, he’s against excessive haggling: “When you sell anything, say straight out the price of the goods.” He doesn’t want the brother starting high with the hope of reeling an unsuspecting patron into a price that he himself would not pay. However, Abba Pistamon seems to understand the subjective aspect of prices as well: “If you want to lower the price a little, you may.” This may be an accommodation for the brother who would rather give away his wares for free, but it may also be an acknowledgement that the price that the monk initially sets may not actually meet consumer demand. So while the starting price should be honest, there is room for a little haggling after all.

Second, the brother is not completely satisfied with this answer and pushes the old man one step further: “I have enough for my needs from other sources, do you think I need worry about making things to sell?” This is an interesting oddity: The brother has left everything to live in poverty in the desert, but he somehow thinks he can get by without working—anything to avoid participating in commerce, apparently. Though dressed in rags, he has the luxury of leisure. Abba Pistamon, however, denies that leisure is enough: “However much you have, do not stop making things.”

In her study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, Helen Rhee notes, “The monastic poverty in reality was more patterned after economic self-sufficiency than destitution.” It is not enough for Abba Pistamon that the brother live in comfortable poverty; he has a responsibility to provide for himself. As St. Paul wrote, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Ancient Christians were known for their almsgiving and care for the disabled, so it would be a mistake to read Paul’s conviction in too absolute of terms. By Abba Pistamon’s response, however, we may safely surmise that the brother was an able-bodied man of relatively sound mind. As such, he needed to work to provide for himself and for others through exchange.

The brother also needed to work for his soul. We may recall the common Benedictine adage, ora et labora: “pray and work.” Work—especially physical labor—wards off the passion of acedia, a sort of spiritual listlessness that causes laziness, boredom, and discontent. Even if the brother has all the material things that he needs, he still needs to work for his own spiritual good.

Last of all, Abba Pistamon cautions against pursuing profit to an excessive degree, compromising one’s conscience: “do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.” Yet he does not say, “Do as much as you can until all your needs have been met” or even “only to meet your own needs.” Rather, he acknowledges that not all profit is necessarily bad. Assuming it is made licitly, profit is only good or bad depending on its use for good or evil, respectively. As St. John Chrysostom put it, “neither is wealth an evil, but the having made a bad use of wealth; nor is poverty a virtue, but the having made a virtuous use of poverty.” So too with profit.

Chrysostom’s comment acknowledges something of a common and timeless prejudice with which many still struggle today. It is the same problem that prompted the brother in this story to ask his first question: the presumption that the profit-motive is a species of greed, and therefore, by extension, that anyone who has profited greatly must have succeeded through selfishness. This is a common error from Ayn Rand (who thought selfishness was therefore good) to the Occupy crowd (which assumes that great wealth is therefore always bad).

Reality, on the other hand, favors Abba Pistamon, St. John Chrysostom, and others like them. While one may profit unjustly or prove an unfit steward of the wealth one acquires, profit serves an extremely vital economic (and charitable) function: investment—in greater production, more workers, better employee benefits, new products, or even shares in other companies. Without gains beyond one’s expenses and without going beyond meeting one’s needs, one has nothing left over to use for the greater good of others. As Pope John Paul II put it, justly ordered profit is “an indication that a business is functioning well” and “that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.”

Paradoxically, denial of the potential good of profit may turn out to be the more selfish economic practice: to make enough only to provide for oneself can leave the unemployed without jobs, the entrepreneurial dreamer without investors, and the needy without benefactors. This is an error that Abba Pistamon, at least, bids us to avoid. Rather, with the important caution that we firstly tend to the peace of our souls, we ought to do as much good as we can through our labor, production, profit, and exchange. This economic wisdom from the ancient Egyptian desert proves timelessly prudent, still relevant for our own context today.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • BM

    Good piece.

  • Daniel Schwindt

    Nothing in these citations speaks of the “profit motive.” They speak of profit, and they affirm the validity of profit. I don’t think the Christian tradition has ever condemned profit, as such, and it is possible to affirm profit while nonetheless condemning the “profit motive” as the engine of economic progress. Also, to say that these citations affirm the possession of “great wealth” (thereby rejecting the “Occupy crowd”) is just plain univocity (which is something of a fetish of the “Liberal crowd,” I’ve begun to see).

    • Dylan Pahman

      Abba Pistamon tells the brother that even if he has enough to meet his needs, he should make and sell stuff anyway, i.e. keep selling in order to make a profit. How is that not a commendation of a motive to work for a profit? Unless you expect people only accidentally to make a profit your distinction is meaningless.

      • Daniel Schwindt

        Actually you’ve hit the nail on the head: the profit is supposed to be accidental, a byproduct of the work, the means to enable one to keep working, while the notion of the “profit motive” (at least in the way it is almost always used) promotes profit itself to the level of an “end” of the work, or construes it as the primary driver of productive activity. Thus, it is a perversion of work. I’ll find a citation or two when I can get to my books.

        • Daniel Schwindt

          From Bede Jarrett’s “Social Theories of the Middle Ages”, commenting on the arguments of Aristotle, St. Thomas, and St. Antonino:

          “For the medievalist, then, the justification of trade lay in the intention of the trader. If his prime object was to make money he was sinfully engaged in his profession; if his object was to secure enough money to live on, and to help forward the good of his neighbor, he was lawfully engaged in his profession…”

          Intention matters because this gives the act a purpose outside of itself: “If you give an art a purpose you have given it a limitation; unless you give it a purpose it will have no limitation.”

          This is at the heart of Aquinas’ argument against usury, and the Church’s argument against the limitless accumulation of wealth. It is why profit is valid, but not valid as a central motive of work: because if it became the central motive it would have no conceivable limit.

          • Dylan Pahman

            This just repeats the prejudice, however. You are not asking the question, “What are profits for?” Rather you are presuming that profit is by definition for selfish purposes. If someone pursues profit for their own selfish ends, then of course it is vicious. If they pursue it to invest it in ways I’ve mentioned above, it can be virtuous. This was precisely my point in citing Chrysostom. Just as wealth is neither per se good nor evil, so too with profit.

          • Yes Daniel, this is essential to understanding the problems we face today. We are pursuing the money not the joy of the craft. In fact, perfection of a craft is roundly punished, if you make the best of something, something customized, you need to get paid for the extra time, or else you will wither and die in the market– you have the same costs to pay! But no one is able to pay you, because they are in the same pressures, of needing to “spin their wheels” trying to generate volume, trying to “keep up”. In a sense, we all just hamsters in a wheel!

            With the goal just a volume of money we are fully disconnected from the Gospel of Jesus. The market as we know it, cannot adjust to keep greed in check. To claim it can without ever trying to find solutions to these obvious disconnects, is simply consigning mankind to its current anti-social state and assuring the destruction of the earth itself.

  • Thanks Dylan. Your premise is right, a market actor can be driven by justice. However your premise is disabled by final line of your quote, which embodies greed: “However much you have, do not stop making things, do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.” (!)

    In the world of automated overproduction with the barest of efforts, there is our quandary in a nutshell. It would be no quandary however if, once a judicious level of inventory was achieved, the producers would (be able to) leave their work and tend to their domestic and community lives, including their Churches and their relationships with God.

    • Dylan Pahman

      So you think that Abba Pistamon’s comment, which is who you quoted above, “embodies Greed”?

      • Partially, yes… Again, “However much you have, do not stop making things, do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.” This sounds like the license we live by today. Unrelenting productivity in the narrowest frame, our chosen economic niche, has become the be all and end all of our existence. Our spirits and our planet are being emaciated.

        • Dylan Pahman

          I think that’s too narrow of a reading. And given that the speaker is an ancient monk (someone who has forsaken material comforts), presuming he is motivated by greed (desire for material comforts) seems incongruous and uncharitable. Why couldn’t he simply be expressing an issue of stewardship? I.e., God gave us talents and resources, and we have a responsibility to use them to serve the common good. No greed required.

          • I look at his advice, not his conduct.

            Your reckoning is preferred by our society of course, and informed by neo-Thomism. It also explains concisely our entire out of control system, built on maximum accumulation of surplus. We suffer, our earth suffers, from the scourge of oversupply and our time-consuming settlements of same, emaciating all other social relations.

          • Dylan Pahman

            Well, I guess we’re at an impasse but thanks for your comments.

          • Thank you!

          • Where’s Storck today?… 🙂

        • Jennifer P

          I understood this to be saying that one must always work and be involved in something. Idleness is not good for either body or the soul. A monk that has more than he needs but has a talent to make something might continue to make that something and give the proceeds he does not need to the poor. But if, say, he had a talent of healing he could work as a doctor or nurse or counselor.

          • True, the motivation is key, as noted elsewhere herein. There is nothing wrong with some idleness either, if it is a time for prayer, reflection, etc. However the world I see around me, is driven by the former, an ethic and/or requirement for work that is just out of any proportion next to faith, family, community, life … Meanwhile, real incomes have declined, in purest economic terms that means we passed a “point of diminishing returns” for aggregate work! The de facto standard is the two earner household, and yet that still is not enough. It just seems like an “arms race” of surpluses!

            P.S. The so called Parable of Talents has been misinterpreted by many scholars who should know better. (In fact, Jesus never told anyone to work hard anywhere in the Gospel, yet He warned of greed, many times.) So, please read Matthew 25 including that Parable in verses 14- 30 to see for yourself that Jesus was using the “talent” currency as an analogy for the spiritual gift of the Word of God. Jesus was telling his flock to evangelize, not to hustle to gain more assets, and for any Biblical scholar to make that claim is just a blasphemy of that text in Matthew!

  • M. Imlac

    Wonderful insights. I also am a devoted reader of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. At the moment I’m reading Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics” and somehow it is very relevant, esp. his discussion of the role of prices. Thank you!

  • In my opinion, the key moral question isn’t profit per se. It is the disposition of profit, which is by definition a form of excess: “…whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: ‘The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.'” -Thomas Aquinas

    If the profit motive is coterminous with the charitable motive – that is, if the profit-making enterprise is pursued out of love of neighbors – then there isn’t an issue. But if it is pursued for the purpose of withholding or shutting away from neighbors, it is problematic: “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.” (CCC #2403).

  • Thomas Storck

    “Assuming it is made licitly, profit is only good or bad depending on its use for good or evil, respectively.”

    But what is licit profit? Is profit payment for an entrepreneur’s labor, skill, risk, etc., or is it simply the difference between his expenses and his income, no matter how he has gained that, no matter how little it bears any reasonable relationship to his labor, skill and risk? The former is defensible, the latter a highly questionable way of looking at economic activity, one which acknowledges no end or limit, and is therefore the direct cause of a commercial, consumerist society.

    Also, one wonders whether it’s possible to simply transport ideas from the desert fathers and insert them into a 21st century liberal understanding of economic activity, without doing damage to the ideas in the process.