Usury : Peter Szendy

Maurizio Montalti / The Ephemeral Icon
Maurizio Montalti / The Ephemeral Icon

Usury / Peter Szendy


Usury is certainly not a thing of the past. It even invited itself recently into the American presidential campaign, when Bernie Sanders delivered a major speech in New York City Town Hall on January 5th, 2016, turning the word into one of his battle cries:

We have got to stop financial institutions from ripping off the American people by charging sky-high interest rates and outrageous fees. In my view it is unacceptable that Americans are paying 4 or 5 dollars in fees every time they go to an ATM. It is wrong that millions of Americans are paying credit card interest rates of 20 or 30 percent. The Bible has a term for this practice. It is called usury. And in The Divine Comedy, Dante reserved a special place in hell for those who charged people usurious interest rates. Today, we don’t need the hellfire and the pitchforks, we don’t need the rivers of boiling blood, but we do need a national usury law.

Though it seems to be able to circulate as a rallying call against today’s financial abuses, the catchword “usury” also belongs to a long tradition that it drags behind itself. So much so that the campaigning politician has to discard these biblical or medieval connotations at the very moment when he tries to mobilize them in a war against the power of finance.

Usury is a concept both timely and untimely. Timely, because financial capitalism is generalizing on an unheard-of scale the age-old usurious practice that has been traditionally understood—and condemned—as selling time.1 And untimely, because most of the inherited arguments against usury seem to belong to a long-forgotten past, a past that has been swiped away when Calvin decidedly refused the refrain endlessly repeated since Aristotle’s Politics, i.e. that “money does not beget money” [largent nengendre point largent]. In his letter from 1545, written in French as a reply to a certain Claude de Sachins, Calvin declared:

I haven’t yet experimented it myself but I have learned by the example of others how dangerous it is to answer the question on which you asked my advice: for if we totally prohibit usury we impose on the conscience tighter fetters than God himself. If we yield in the least, many, under this pretext, will at once take boundless liberties without tolerating any exception that would limit their measure. If I were writing to you alone I wouldn’t fear such a thing, since your cautiousness and the moderation of your courage is well known to me: but since you ask my advice for someone else, I fear that by seizing upon some word he would allow himself somewhat more than I wish.2

What is so striking in this unbinding of usury, in this lifting of the centuries-long condemnation that absolutely forbade it?3 It is not only that it irremediably relativizes any attempt to measure or contain it, but also that this quantitative fluctuation affects the value of the word “usury” itself: it loses its conceptual anchoring, it is untied from the gold standard of the meaning that it had during the times when it was altogether prohibited, from the early Christian fathers to Luther. From now on, in the discourses on usury, words can be “seized,” as Calvin says, and made into something “more” than what was intended [i.e. crains que en prenant un mot il ne se permette quelque peu plus que ie ne desire].4

These two effects of Calvin’s setting loose of usury—the loss of its absolute measure and the fluctuation of its lexical value—can be heard in later writings, like those of the French Encyclopedists or Jeremy Bentham’s Defence of Usury, published in 1787.

In the article that he dedicates to “usure” in the Encyclopédie, the economist Joachim Faiguet de Villeneuve thus considers that “the whole dispute [around usury] amounts to a question of words” [toute la dispute se réduit à une question de mots]; and we will see in a moment how, for Faiguet, the political import of usury is itself a matter of rhetoric. As for Bentham, he not only mocks and ridicules Aristotle’s argument on the barren nature of money like no one did before him, but he also gives the most hyperbolic version of the relativizing logic that had been voiced by Calvin:5 “antecedently to custom growing from convention, there can be no such thing as usury: for what rate of interest is there that can naturally be more proper than another? what natural fixed price can there be for the use of money more than for the use of any other thing?” Conceptually—and I am concerned here with the genealogy of the concept of usury, not with its socio-economical or juridical history—, interest rates are unleashed.

There is something like a leap, even an abyss separating Calvin’s letter in 1545 from Luther’s sermon “On Commerce and Usury” [Von Kaufshandlung und Wucher] printed in 1524. It can be said, borrowing Max Weber’s words, that in less than twenty years “Luther’s numerous statements against usury or interest in any form” must have suddenly appeared as “a conception of the nature of capitalistic acquisition which . . . is, from a capitalistic view-point, definitely backward [rückständige].”6 Or maybe, as Weber suggests, they were already retrograde when “compared with . . . late Scholasticism” (ibid.).

One should be cautious, though, with any hasty diagnosis of obsolescence. As is well known, Luther’s discourse on usury plays an important role in Marx’s Capital—indeed, it haunts the third volume.7 And, similarly, it might well be that the Scholastics, or the Church Fathers for that matter, continue to haunt the implicit conceptual scaffolding that sustains today’s financial practice or ideology.

So here is the twofold question that I have been deferring and that awaits us: 1. is usury a political concept worthy of the name? and 2. is it in any way up to what we would like to be able to name and identify as our “now,” this historical moment when financial capitalism pervades every aspect of life while its highly complex derivatives escape our grasp?8 In other words: can the concept of usury be said to be political at all? And, if so, is it in any way a timely political concept?

Faiguet de Villeneuve, in the paragraphs of the article that he dedicates to “Usure” in the Encyclopédie, lengthily expands, in the manner of a sustained metaphor, the trope of usury’s sovereignty:

As for me, I consider usury as a sovereign who in olden times reigned in the world and became odious to all the peoples [comme une souveraine qui régnoit autrefois dans le monde, & qui devint odieuse à tous les peuples] because of the humiliations that greedy and cruel ministers inflicted in her name, though without her consent [sans son aveu]; so that this unhappy princess, everywhere degraded and hated [de sorte que cette princesse malheureuse, par-tout avilie & détestée], was finally driven away from a throne that she had occupied with great glory and forced to hide without ever daring to appear [sans jamais oser paroître]. On the other hand, I regard the interests and compensations [les intérêts & les indemnités] that succeeded usury as those dexterous and enterprising troublemakers [comme ces brouillons adroits & entreprenans] who take advantage of a nation’s discontent in order to rise on the ruins of a discredited power; it seems to me that these newcomers are not worth any better than the currently banned queen [ces nouveaux-venus ne valent pas mieux que la reine actuellement proscrite] . . . . Therefore I believe that, given the obvious usefulness of a well-organized usury [vu l’indispensable nécessité d’une usure bien ordonnée] . . . it would be better to recognize the former and legitimate sovereign rather than those usurpers who promised wonders and changed only words [que des usurpateurs qui promettoient des merveilles, & qui n’ont changé que des mots]. I take up my pen in order to restore, if possible, this dethroned queen, convinced as I am that she will . . . repudiate the excesses that caused her fall and misfortune; but let us speak without figures [mais parlons sans figure].9

Is it only a question of words, then, as in Calvin’s letter? A question of figurative language? Is the sovereignty of usury, once deposed from its absolutist throne, a mere matter of fluctuating rhetoric? And what could it mean, then, to restore usury on its throne, or, conversely, to dethrone it?

Faiguet de Villeneuve himself recalls the words of Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century, who commented on the famous passage in Deuteronomy 23 where it is stated that only foreigners can be charged interest; since foreigners were “regarded as enemies,” Faiguet explains [les étrangers, qui étaient tous regardés comme ennemis], “therefore Saint Ambrose considers that striking enemies with the sword and drawing usury from someone by a loan are two equivalent actions; & he thinks that one can demand usury only from those whom one is allowed to kill” [aussi S. Ambroise regarde-t-il comme deux actions égales, de sévir contre les ennemis par le fer, ou tirer de quelqu’un l’usure du prêt; & il pense qu’on ne peut l’exiger que contre ceux qu’il est permis de tuer]. Actually the Saint and Doctor of the Church goes even farther and formulates a much more general law in his De Tobia when he writes: “where there is the right of war, there also is the right of usury” [ubi jus belli, ibi etiam jus usurae].10

Could we draw from such arguments a good, a sufficient reason to consider that usury is decidedly a political category, as some have been tempted to argue? I am thinking here of Luke Bretherton’s thought-provoking hypothesis, in an essay published in 2011:

Contrary to its treatment as an issue for consideration within economic history, I contend the question of whether usury is licit or not is a political rather than solely economic one. . . . Using Schmitt’s conception of the political we can begin to make sense of the Scriptural treatment of usury as a political act. . . . [A]s a political act it is one that can constitute a form of warfare.11

In order to fully grasp the political import of the concept of usury, shall we content ourselves, then, with a Schmittian interpretation of the Deuteronomic distinction between friend and enemy? Luke Bretherton’s argument is strongly convincing. And such an extension of politics to the tissue of usurious relations—a microfabric that is assuredly governed today by macroeconomic interests—opens a perspective akin to Derrida’s suggestion in Politics of Friendship, where his deconstructive reading of the Schmittian logic led him to the following formula for what he termed “hyperpoliticization:” “The less politics there is, the more there is, the less enemies there are, the more there are.” In sum, to rephrase what Derrida calls a “chiasmus of double hyperbole” (the less, the more. . .) from our point of view here: the more politics is dissolved into economics, i.e. the less it can be distinguished from its “others” in the Schmittian sense, the more politics there is.12

So it should be obvious that the political nature of usury is not a mere disposable—or deposable—figure of speech, as Faiguet de Villeneuve seemed, or feigned, to believe. Does that make of it a timely political concept?

But this question immediately divides itself infinitely, it demands to be reinvested without delay in a whole series of derivative questions, in questions on or about this very question. For what could timeliness mean when usury is at stake?

“Timeliness,” according to the definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary, means “the quality or state of occurring or being done at a favourable, opportune, or appropriate and relevant time.” It is in this sense that we are asking if the political concept of usury is a timely one. But “timeliness,” in a sense that is said to be now obsolete, also means “the quality or state of being temporal, as opposed to eternal,” that is to say “temporality” as such. When it means “relating to, or existing in time,” the adjective “timely” is still used in this sense, according to the same dictionary.

Now, one of the main arguments against usury, from the Church Fathers until the time of Luther and Calvin, has been that the usurer is selling time, that is to say: he is selling something that he doesn’t have, that no one has, except God—something that isn’t even a thing. The first trace of this idea that I could find is a passage in Seneca’s Of Benefits (De beneficiis, VII, 10, 4), where Demetrius the Cynic, Seneca’s paradigm of virtue here, addresses Avarice itself, Avarice in person:13 “And how, O Avarice, dost thou fare?” [quid agis, avaritia?], he asks; and he continues: “what are these things, what are interest and the account-book and usury [quid fenus et calendarium et usura], but the names devised for unnatural forms of human greed [humanae cupiditatis extra naturam quaesita nomina]? . . . these bills of thine, what are they? what the computations and the sale of time and the blood-thirsty twelve per cent [quid computationes et venale tempus et sanguinulentae centesimae]?”

The venale tempus—the “time on sale” that Seneca evokes in the years around 60 ad—then became a topos that one encounters in almost every discourse on usury.14 Gregory of Nyssa, in his homily “Against usurers” [Omilia kata tōn tokizontōn] pronounced in 379, describes “time [as] the rain that imperceptibly augments [the usurer’s] harvest of money” [hueton, khronon, auxanonta autōi lanthanontō tēs epikarpian tōn chrēmatōn].15 Almost a millennium later, in the Summa aurea written around 1220 by the French scholastic theologian Guillaume d’Auxerre, one finds, in chapter III of treatise XLVIII, the most remarkable exposition of this question that I am tempted to subsume under the heading of the timeliness of usury. It is worth taking the time—if I dare say so—to follow briefly Guillaume’s reasoning.16

Guillaume first attributes to Augustine the idea that, “as a sign of God’s supreme generosity [indicium summae largitatis Dei], every creature is compelled to give itself [quaelibet creatura compellatur dare se ipsam]:” the sun, for example, “is compelled to give itself in order to illuminate” [ad illuminandum]. Guillaume then adds that “nothing gives itself as generally as time” [nihil autem ita generaliter dat se sicut tempus], since “things have time willy-nilly” [quia velint nolint res tempus habent]. And hence, “the usurer sells what is necessarily common to all creatures” [usurarius vendit, quod de necessitate est omnium creaturarum commune], so that he “injures all creatures, even the stones” [creaturis omnibus injuriatur et lapidibus].

In many ways, Guillaume’s rigorous formulation of the timeliness of usury announces some of Derrida’s arguments in Given Time. Commenting on a sentence about the French king Louis XIV in a letter written by his morganatic wife Madame de Maintenon—“The King takes all my time,” she says; “I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all”—, Derrida emphasizes not only the impossibility to own time (let alone to sell it, we should add), but also the impossibility of there being a rest when all the time is taken.17 Madame de Maintenon, Derrida recalls, founded the charitable institution named Saint-Cyr for the education of impoverished young ladies; when she eventually retired there, she “no doubt was able to devote all her time to it . . . after the death of the King in 1715” (4). So, Derrida asks, “would we say, then, that the question of the rest, and of the rest of given time, is secretly linked to a death of the king?” (ibid.).

If I refer to the fascinating scene that Derrida stages with Madame de Maintenon centuries after Guillaume d’Auxerre, it is because, here as there, what is at stake is sovereignty, or the fantasy of sovereignty, as the ownership of time. God, or the King, is the sole owner or taker of a time that belongs to everyone in the exact measure in which it does not belong to anyone.

Now, setting apart for the moment the question of selling time, it should be emphasized that giving time—however impossible such a gift is, as Derrida convincingly demonstrates—is the very condition, the impossible condition of the political as such. Not in the sense of the oppositional definition put forth by Schmitt (the opposition between friend and enemy that guided Luke Bretherton’s Schmittian reading of usury in Deuteronomy 23), but in the sense of Jacques Rancière’s Disagreement, where the exercise of political liberty is defined as “this paradoxical time that those who do not have the time devote to such a practice” [ce temps paradoxal que consacrent à cet exercice ceux qui n’en ont pas le temps].18 A few years later, in The Distribution of the Sensible, Rancière uses the verb “to give” instead of “to devote” (time): “The democratic distribution of the sensible,” he writes, “removes the artisan from ‘his’ place, the domestic space of work, and gives him ‘time’ to occupy the space of public discussions and take on the identity of a deliberative citizen.”19 In sum, politics, for Rancière, supposes the impossible or paradoxical possibility of giving time, that is to say of taking it too, of giving it back, of appropriating and reappropriating it. It is in this very precise sense that Rancière says that “there is . . . an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics” [à la base de la politique], an “aesthetics” to be understood “in a Kantian sense—re-examined perhaps by Foucault—as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience” [ce qui se donne à ressentir: literally “what gives itself to be sensed”]. When Rancière, then, speaks of “politics as a form of experience” [la politique comme forme d’expérience], he is close to describing what I would call the economy of a quasi-transcendental aesthetics. Politics is an economy in so far as it is a matter of giving and taking, distributing time. And it is the economy of a quasi-transcendental aesthetics because, contrary to Kant’s transcendental aesthetics (where “time is the a priori formal condition of all appearances in general,” but “time itself does not alter”),20 there seems to be, for Rancière, a politics of time, of time as the condition for anything to appear: if there is a possible change in the distribution of time (and hence of the sensible), then time in a way and in spite of all pure transcendental logic also belongs to what it makes possible. Indeed, the properly improper place of politics might be exactly the impossible possibility of this belonging.

Now, in order to head towards a conclusion, let us turn again to a consideration of what Seneca called venale tempus, “time on sale.”

Actually, if one begins to look closely, one discovers that, in the scholastic history of discourses on usury, the conceptual ban on the sale of time, as exemplified by Guillaume d’Auxerre’s argument, gradually loses its absoluteness. In fact, some later authors, like the Franciscan Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444), explicitly discuss the licitness of a commerce with time. Let us read Bernardino’s argument in his sermon XXXIV entitled De temporis venditio.21 The first chapter of the first article examines “when the time proper to the vendor can be licitly sold, & when not” [quando proprium venditoris tempus licite potest vendi, & quando non]. Bernardino distinguishes between two ways of considering time:

Firstly, as a duration that derives from the primum motum [i.e. that follows the first moved part or the outer sphere of the universe]: & in this way time is common to all, & in no way can be sold [primo modo, ut est quaedam duratio quae consequitur primum motum: & hoc modo tempus est quid commune omnium, & nullo modo vendi potest]. . . . Secondly, as a duration that applies to something; which duration and use are conceded to someone in order to exercise his work: & in this way time is proper to someone, as for example the year of the horse that was lent to me is said to be mine: & this kind of time can licitly be sold [secundo modo, ut est quaedam duratio applicabilis alicui rei; quae duratio, atque usus est alicui concessus ad ejus opera exercenda: & hoc modo tempus est proprium alicujus, sicut annus equi mihi accommodati dicitur esse meus: & hujusmodi tempus licite vendi potest].

The crime of usury, then, does not consist anymore in the selling of a time that belongs to God (the time of the primum motum), but in the selling of a time that belongs to someone else, i.e. the debtor. For Bernardino gives the following example in order to better explain his rule:

Let us suppose that someone owes you a hundred ducats to be paid after three years [sit qui tibi solvere debeat post tres annos centum ducatos]. . . . he can sell you that time, negotiating with you to give you soon 85 and keep for himself 15 for the intercurrent time of three years [potest tibi vendere illud tempus, paciscendo tecum quod mox tribuat tibi 85. ac propter intercurrens tempus trium annorum 15. sibi retineat]. . . .

When the theoretical possibility of selling time opens up,22 late scholasticism comes closer than we would have imagined to contemporary finance. A century after Bernardino, in Antonino da Firenze’s Summa sacrae theologiae, it is not only time that can has a price, but also risk in time: considering the case of Florence forcing its citizens to lend money to the city-state against moderate interests—a common practice also in Venice or Genoa—, Antonino writes that “such credits, with the right of receiving increments of this kind, can be alienated to others” [talia credita cum iure percipiendi huiusmodi accessiones alienari posse in alio].23 The resale of these loans or credits was often made at a great discount—Antonino takes the example of a credit of 100 florins resold for 25 florins—, since there was a possibility that the debtor city-state would unilaterally discontinue the payment of interest. Therefore, says Antonino, buying 100 florins at a discount is not usury: “it is not time that is being sold here” [hic non venditur tempus], the acquisition of 25 florins is not made “with the intention of having more in the future due only to the mere lapse of time” [cum intentione plus habendi in posterum ex solo lapsu temporis], so that what is being negotiated “is not the price of time, but the price of danger in time” [non est praecium temporis, sed praecium periculi in tempore].

Though many of today’s financial products or tools obviously did not exist at the time, though Bernardino or Antonino did not have any knowledge of the forwards, futures, swaps, or options that we now subsume under the general heading of “derivatives,” their concern with the selling of time or risk in time remains more than ever crucial to what is at stake in contemporary capitalism.24

The Latin word sors was used by scholastic thinkers to designate “capital bearing interest;” but sors also meant the casting or drawing of lots, an oracular response or prophecy, fate, destiny, fortune. It is this intertwining of the unforeseeable future with the monetary or fiduciary investment that allows Ambrose, in his De Tobia, to apostrophize the usurers so strikingly: “You call what is owed you your fortune [sors: your capital]. In fact, it is thus that the wretched lot [misera sors] is tumbled in a funeral urn, this lot that must be redeemed by the torment of the debtor about to perish. The pallid defendants [rei: the accused, those who are indebted] stand awaiting the outcome of their lot [sors].”25

Ambrose’s discourse is not a mere play on words—or if it is, it is because, as Calvin or Faiguet de Villeneuve might have known, what is at stake in usury is also the fiduciary import of words and the speculation on them. From Ambrose to Bernardino and beyond, usury has been the conceptual locus or crossroads where timeliness and the distribution of time—of timely lots and lots of time—has been debated. As such, it is not a thing of the past. It is ahead of us, it is a political concept to come.


Peter Szendy is David Herlihy Professor of Humanities and Comparative Literature at Brown University.


Published on May 25, 2017

1. It is ultimately to this trading in time that the word “usury” will refer here. Let us recall, however, that “usury” usually means today “excessive or illegal rates of interest for money on loan,” according to what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a “later use” (s.v. “Usury”). While it is difficult to date with precision this “later use” (see note 3 below), it is clear that when a historian of debt like David Graeber refers to the practice of loans in ancient Mesopotamia as “usury in the classical sense of the term,” he has in mind “interest-bearing loans” in general, without consideration of rates, excessive or not (Debt: The First 5,000 Years [New York: Melville House Publishing, 2011], 64). In his remarkable study, Graeber says nothing about usury as the selling of time. Maurizio Lazzarato, in The Making of the Indebted Man (translated by Joshua David Jordan [Los Angeles: semiotext(e), 2012], 47-48), has a few remarks about such a definition of usury (he borrows them from Le Goff: see note 13 below), but he does not conceptualize the political dimension inherent in the usurious trade of time. When Lazzarato, enthusiastically exclaiming about “the wisdom of our forebears!,” writes that “in the Middle Ages the distinction between usury and interest was not well-established—the former being considered but an excess of the latter” (47), he is either vague or wrong: in the medieval West, usury was strictly synonymous with interest in general; it is only later (and until today) that it has been interpreted as an excess thereof.

2. Jean Calvin, De usuris, in Opera, X (Brunsvig: Schwetschke, 1871), 245-249: Ie nay point encore experimente mais ay appris par les exemples des aultres combien il est perilleux de rendre reponse a la question de laquelle vous me demandez conseil: car si totallement nous defendons les usures nous estraignons les consciences dun lien plus estroict que Dieu mesme. Si nous permettons le moins du monde plusieurs aincontinent soubs ceste couverture prennent une licence effrenee dont ils ne peuvent porter que par aulcune exception on leur limite quelque mesure. Si iescrivoye a vous seul ie ne craindroye point telle chose, car vostre prudence et la moderation de vostre courage m’est bien cogneue: mais pource que vous demandez conseil pour un aultre ie crains que en prenant un mot il ne se permette quelque peu plus que ie ne desire.

3. The Church laws (canonical law) have defined usury as “anything that is claimed beyond capital” (quicquid ultra sortem exigitur usura est, says the Decretum Gratiani compiled in the twelfth century: Decreti pars secunda, Causa XIV, Quaestio III, C. IV), while Roman law distinguished between interest on a loan—which was perfectly lawful, though curbed—and anatocismus, a term borrowed by Cicero from the Greek (anatiktein means to give birth again) in order to designate what is commonly called today “compound interest,” i.e. interest on interest. On the Roman history of anatocismus and its prohibition, see the excellent study by Anna Pikulska, “Anatocisme,” in Revue internationale des droits de l’Antiquité, vol. XLV, 1998.

4. Calvin seems to fear what Marc Shell calls “verbal usury,” i.e. “the generation of an illegal . . . supplement of verbal meaning” (“The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in ‘The Merchant of Venice’,” The Kenyon Review, vol. 1, no. 4, 1979, 66). In The Weight of All Flesh: On the Subject-Matter of Political Economy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), Eric Santner speaks of “hermeneutic usury” (53).

5. Jeremy Bentham, Defence of Usury; Shewing the Impolicy of the Present Legal Restraints on the Terms of Pecuniary Bargains. In a Series of Letters to a Friend…, London: Printed for T. Payne, and Son, at the Mews Gate, 1787, 9 (letter II). On Aristotle, see 99 (letter X): “. . . that great philosopher, with all his industry and all his penetration, notwithstanding the great number of the pieces of money that had passed through his hands . . . had never been able to discover, in any one piece of money, any organs for generating any other such piece. Emboldened by so strong a body of negative proof, he ventured at last to usher into the world, the results of his observations, in the form of a universal proposition that all money is in its nature barren.”

6. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), 42. Luther’s sermon has been translated by Philipp Robinson Rössner: On Commerce and Usury (London and New York: Anthem Press, 2015).

7. Karl Marx, Capital, III, translated by David Fernbach (London and New York: Penguin Classical, 1991), especially chapter 36 (“Pre-Capitalist Relations”).

8. On derivatives and their role in financial capitalism, see Arjun Appadurai, Banking On Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016); and Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty, Capitalism With Derivatives: A Political Economy of Financial Derivatives, Capital and Class (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

9. My translation; I use the online version of the Encyclopédie:

10. De Tobia, XV, 51; I quote the English translation by Lois Miles Zucker: S. Ambrosii De Tobia (Washington: The Catholic University of America, 1933), 67.

11. “‘Love Your Enemies:’ Usury, Citizenship and the Friend-Enemy Distinction,” Modern Theology, vol. 27, no. 3, July 2011, 367 and 369-370.

12. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, translated by George Collins (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 129-130; Politiques de l’amitié (Paris: Galilée, 1994), 153: “. . . une sur- ou une hyper-politisation[:] Moins il y a de politique, plus il y en a, moins il y a d’ennemis, plus il y en a.” I analyzed in Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013, 26) the way Schmitt theorizes “the end of politics, that is to say its dissolution into a worldwide police force in the service of the economy”. On the “oppositional” definition of politics, see Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translated by George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 26-27: “The specific political distinction [die spezifisch politische Unterscheidung] to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy [ist die Unterscheidung von Freund und Feind]. This provides a definition [Begriffsbestimmung, in other words a conceptual determination] in the sense of a criterion. . . . Insofar as it is not derived from other criteria, the antithesis of friend and enemy corresponds, in the political order [für das Politische], to the relatively independent criteria of other antitheses: good and evil in the moral sphere, beautiful and ugly in the aesthetic sphere, and so on. In any event it is independent. . . . The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. . . . Thereby the inherently objective nature and autonomy of the political becomes evident by virtue of its being able to treat, distinguish, and comprehend the friend-enemy antithesis independently of other antitheses [die seinsmässige Sachlichkeit und Selbständigkeit des Politischen zeigt sich schon in dieser Möglichkeit, einen derartig spezifischen Gegensatz wie Freund-Feind von anderen Unterscheidungen zu trennen und als etwas Selbständiges zu begreifen].” As I recall in Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials (163), this is the reason why Derrida qualifies Schmitt as “the last great metaphysician of politics:” because of his attachment to oppositional purity and the credit he accords to “oppositionality itself, ontological adversity” (Politics of Friendship, 247 and 249). While it is certainly true, then, that Schmitt was in search of a purity of the political as such, he was also—and for this very same reason—the one who theorized its dissolution in economics. One could even argue, as I tried to show elsewhere (see Peter Szendy, “Katechon,” online at, that Schmitt’s notion of the “katechon”—borrowed from Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians—is precisely what allows a conceptualization of the very limit between the two “antinomical but functionally related” paradigms distinguished by Agamben as “political theology” and “economic theology” (The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011], 1).

13. Seneca the Younger, Moral Essays, III: De Beneficiis, translated by John W. Basore (Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 480-481.

14. The argument about the selling of time has gradually become a locus communis; as Jacques Le Goff puts it, quoting a collection of exempla compiled in France at the end of the 13th century (Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages, translated by Patricia Ranum [New York: Zone Books, 1990], 39): “expressing a commonplace of the period, the Tabula exemplorum reminds readers that ‘usurers are thieves, for they sell time that does not belong to them. . . .’”

15. I quote from the following edition: Saint Grégoire, Homélie contre les usuriers, IV, Greek text and French translation (Paris: Librairie de L. Hachette et Cie, 1862), 14-18.

16. I follow the transcription of the Latin text of the passage of the Summa aurea given by Karl Lessel in a footnote of his dissertation: Die Entwicklungsgeschichte der kanonistisch-scholastischen Wucherlehre im 13. Jahrhundert (Luxemburg: Druck der St. Paulus-Gesellschaft, 1905), 17. The passage seems faulty—it does not make sense—in Jean Ribaillier’s edition when he reads: quia velint nolint reges, tempus habent pauperes (Magistri Guillelmi Altissiodorensis Summa Aurea [Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1986], 931). But Ribaillier seems right when he reads indicium instead of iudicium. See also the translation given by John T. Noonan, Jr., in The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957, 43-44), where the problem of choosing between indicium and iudicium is carefully avoided by using . . . ellipsis.

17. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, translated by Peggy Kamuf (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press), 3: “She gives the rest which is nothing, since it is the rest of a time concerning which she has just informed her correspondent she has nothing of it left since the King takes it all from her. And yet, we must underscore this paradox, even though the King takes all her time, she seems to have some left, as if she could return the change. ‘The King takes all my time,’ she says, a time that belongs to her therefore. But how can a time belong? What is it to have time? If a time belongs, it is because the word time designates metonymically less time itself than the things with which one fills it, with which one fills the form of time, time as form. It is a matter, then, of the things one does in the meantime [cependant] or the things one has at one’s disposal during [pendant] this time. Therefore, as time does not belong to anyone as such, one can no more take it, itself, than give it.”

18. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 66; La Mésentente: Politique et philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 1995), 101. See also Derrida, Given Time, 28: “if certain persons or certain social classes have more time than others—and this is finally the most serious stake of political economy. . . .”

19. Jacques Rancière, “The Distribution of the Sensible,” in The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: continuum, 2004); Le Partage du sensible (Paris: La fabrique, 2000), 13.

20. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 180 and 184. I borrow the concept of the “quasi-transcendental” from Jacques Derrida, who defines it as follows (Resistances of Psychoanalysis, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998], 79): “each time, in fact, that the transcendental condition of a series is also, paradoxically, a part of that series.”

21. Sermon XXXIV, I, 1, in Quadragesimo de evangelio aeterno (Venice: Andrea Poletti, 1745), 196. See also the (anonymous) Italian translation in Istruzioni morali di S. Bernardino da Siena . . . intorno al traffico, ed all’usura (Venice: Gaspare Storti, 1774), 41; and the passages quoted and translated by Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 75-76.

22. Noonan (The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 76) describes Bernardino’s position as a “blunder in the whole scholastic tradition of usury,” for “certainly, no one else will ever be found who will say that ‘one’s own time’ can be sold.” He also emphasizes that Bernardino contradicts himself, since in his sermon XLIII (II, 3) he declares that the usurer “sells time that belongs only to God” [vendit tempur quod solius est Dei]. But Noonan himself suggests that such a “blunder” is not a hapax, that it does not occur only once; in the Tractatus de usuris, for example, written by Alessandro Bonini (a Franciscan also known by the name of Alessandro di Alessandria, who lived between 1268 and 1314), there is a debate that Noonan sums up as follows (165): “Alexander . . . puts the case of a merchant selling to the city of Genoa for payment at a later date; preferring cash, he sells his right at a discount. Many, says Alexander, defend the discount because a right to money and not money itself is sold; and such a right is not as secure as money in hand. This opinion, seemingly so ominous for the usury theory, is accepted by Alexander without objection.” In any case, one cannot simply assert, as Maurizio Lazzarato well-intentionedly does in the aftermath of the subprime crisis (and in the midst of the Greek sovereign debt crisis), that “whereas in the Middle Ages time belonged to God and God alone, today, as possibility, creation, choice, and decision, it is the primary object of capitalist expropriation / appropriation” (The Making of the Indebted Man, 48-49).

23. Summa sacrae theologiae, II, 1, 11 (Venice: Giunti, 1582), 47v; I quote Noonan’s translation of the relevant passages: The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, 166-167.

24. For a good definition of the various types of derivatives used in today’s financial capitalism, see Dick and Rafferty, Capitalism With Derivatives, 46-47: “forward contracts . . . are contracts that commit parties to exchange a specified amount and quantity of a commodity, financial asset or index at a specified price at some place and some time in the future”; “futures . . . are similar to forward contracts but are standardised so as to permit trading on organised markets” (in this way, “futures contracts may be on-sold”); “swaps . . . are contracts in which parties exchange a commodity, financial asset (liability) or index, or the net cash flows arising from these for a specified period of time”—the most common types of swaps being “currency swaps where different currencies are swapped for a specified period” and “interest rate swaps, where the net cash flows (say interest rate payments) from two loans are exchanged”; finally, “option-type derivatives are similar to forward-type derivatives, except that the owner of the derivative has the right but not the obligation to execute the derivative contract”. For a more general view on contemporary finance and trading in time, see Elena Esposito, The Future of Futures: The Time of Money in Financing and Society (Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2011).

25. De Tobia, IV, 14; I quote Lois Miles Zucker’s translation (S. Ambrosii De Tobia, 33), though modifying it in order to be closer to the Latin text: Sortem dicitis quod debetur. Etenim velut urna ferali misera sors volvitur, perituri debitoris luenda supplicio. Stant pallentes rei ad sortis eventum. There is a very similar polysemy in the Greek verb khrēmatizō: negotiate, have dealings in money matters, conduct business, and (of an oracle) give a response.