Thursday 20 November 2014


In 1526 the philosopher Juan Luis Vives published a treatise On the Relief of the Poor. His book is addressed to the mayor and city council of Bruges and argues that it was the responsibility of the state to look after the poor. Sounds progressive? Well, not quite. The 16th century mentality prevails. Here is Vives’ advice to the poor:

First, they should consider that their poverty has been sent to them by God in a most just and secret design…Therefore they should not only tolerate poverty with resignation but gladly embrace it as a gift of God.
Question: If poverty is God-given, why try to fight it and waste taxpayer’s money on poor relief? A good editor would have cut that bit out. Instead, Vives develops the thought further:

And since they suffer evil in this life, let them strive and do their best not to fare worse in the next. In other words, be good and don’t make God angry.
Let them pray much and with pious sentiments for the good of their own soul and the souls of those who help them in the necessities of life, that the Lord Jesus may deign to reward them a hundredfold in the goods of eternity.
Okay, so that takes care of the goods of eternity, but what about temporal goods?

Let them beg and conduct themselves modestly and honestly…What is more intolerable than a proud pauper? Right. Let’s not overdo it with the self-respect.

One other bit of good advice:
Those who can work must not be idle. That’s the problem with the poor, see? They don’t want to work. Nothing is sweeter to them now than that slothful and torpid idleness.
And if they have kids (and usually do, what with all the sweet idleness),
let them bring up and instruct their children piously and religiously, and although they will not leave them any material goods, they will leave them virtue and wisdom, which is the preferred legacy.
Problem solved.

If they live in this way, I know and I dare to promise…that when food is lacking to them from human sources, it will never be lacking from God in heaven.
Stay tuned for Vives’ advice to the rich.

(Source: Vives, De subventione pauperum, trans. C. Fantazzi)

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