Category Archives: obnoxious

Being obnoxious

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One of the most surreal experiences I’ve had the pleasure of going through was my first job interview. Not only because it took place in a bar, while the interviewer was having a double scotch on the rocks, or because as soon as I sat at his table he started singing “Laura is the face in the misty lights”, but in that it was the first time that I ever talked to this man one-on-one. “This man” being Dr Armando Ribas, an economist that I deeply admired (I still do!) and one of the main reasons why I decided to study Economics. So there I was, at the verge of becoming the co-author of his latest report on the state of the Argentinean economy. After a long talk that covered such disparate issues as Austrian business cycle theory, the problem of universals, and how pretty I looked, he told me that the job was mine if I was still interested. I think that my gigantic smile let him know that I was even before I could gather the words to say it to him. By now you must be wondering what the point in this story is. Well, that right before going our separate ways, he gave me a piece of advice that shaped the way I’ve conducted myself ever since: “You should never waste a chance of being obnoxious.”

Thinking for oneself and not apologizing for stating one’s own ideas, questioning the politically correct views, critically examining other people’s opinions and not shying away from a debate: all of these things are what makes one an obnoxious person according to Ribas. So, out of the esteem and respect that I feel for my first boss, I’ve decided to, ever so often, write a post about someone whom I find to be particularly obnoxious in the peculiar sense he gave to the word. Today, I will deal with Juan de Mariana.

Juan de Mariana was born in Talavera de la Reina, a Spanish town near Toledo, in the year 1536. In 1553 he entered the University of Alcalá, where he stood out as a student of Arts and Theology, and a year later he got into the Society of Jesus. In 1861, after completing his studies, he moved to Rome and lectured on Philosophy at the Jesuit College there. His teaching career took him from Rome to Sicily and finally to the University of Paris. However, due to his delicate health, he had to give up teaching, and retired to live in Toledo, where he spent the remaining 50 years of his life writing about politics, economics and religion. He died in 1624, at the age of 88.

And that’s about it for Mariana’s biographical data. Now let’s move on to the juicy stuff: his ideas. If there was ever a man who really put everything he had into being hated by his contemporaries, who left no stone unturned, no thorny subject untouched, that man was Juan de Mariana. I will try my best to prove this by putting forward some of his views on monarchy, wealth distribution, currency debasement and the internal organization of the Jesuit Order.

In 1599, by exhortation of King Philip II of Spain, Mariana published De Rege (On Kingship). The book starts by explaining that due to his weaknesses and the impossibility of procuring for himself all the necessaries of life, man is a social creature. As such, he needs to develop laws and a structure of government in order to organize collective life and administrate justice. Monarchy is to Mariana the best system because: it minimizes internal conflict; it’s less costly, since the greed of “only one” must necessarily be smaller than that of “many”; and it’s more efficient, in the sense that decisions are made faster if time is not wasted on debates. Nothing out of the ordinary up to this point, right? However, things get spiced up when he draws a line separating a king from a tyrant. Mariana states that originally, political power rested on the people, who delegated it to the king in order to govern. Nevertheless, this surrender of sovereignty is not total, and the people reserve for themselves certain rights: reclaim sovereignty, regulate taxation, veto laws and determine succession if the king has no heirs. Any ruler who infringes these rights is not a king but a tyrant, and therefore, his power is not legitimate. But the really interesting stuff is what he proposes as the solution for this political problem: tyrannicide! And the startling thing about this is that Mariana holds that the decision to assassinate the tyrant does not have to be imperatively reached by the collective, but that each individual citizen has the moral duty to perform such an action on his own accord. The only means of killing the tyrant that Mariana claims to be unacceptable is poisoning, because, as the ruler would be taking the poison by himself, it would be like forcing him to commit suicide, and that is against the laws of God. A pious man, no doubt. Impacts of this work in the real world? When in 1610 Ravaillac murdered Henry IV, King of France, the French “parlement” ordered the hangman to publicly burn De Rege, and the Jesuit Order was forced to issue a decree forbidding the members of the organization to teach that it’s morally correct to kill tyrants.

But being unpopular abroad was not all that Juan de Mariana aspired to, so he went one step further in 1609, with the publication of  De Monetae Mutatione (On the alteration of money). In it, Mariana states that, due to the fact that man is weak and greedy, private property is a necessary evil, and therefore the king should do his best to protect his subjects’ possessions. However, he also says that one individual’s gain translates into another one’s loss, and consequently, great fortunes mean great injustice. All the goods in the Earth would be enough for everybody if only they were rightly distributed. Mariana then proceeds to put forward three ways in which the gap between the rich and the poor could be minimized:

(1) Luxurious goods should be very highly taxed, whereas the necessaries of life should have a slight charge. (Just a thought: I was unable to find a demarcation criteria in his works, so I’m wondering how this policy could be put into practice. I mean, as time goes by, what were luxuries of the past become every day necessaries).
(2) Wealthy citizens working at the high levels of the State should not receive any financial remuneration for their services, but be content with the honour their positions hold.
(3) It should be made mandatory for officials collecting high salaries to spend part of it for civic improvements, public buildings and arming the military.

These ideas of redistribution were not well received by the Spanish aristocrats, who considered Mariana an agitator.

But what really got him into trouble were his ideas on debasement, also presented in De Monetae Mutatione. Mariana described Philip III of Spain’s policy of debasing copper coinage as a strategy to rob the people and cripple commerce. The inflationary process that plagued Spain was, according to the obnoxious Jesuit, a direct consequence of this increase in the quantity of money, and hence, debasement was a hidden tax on the private property of the subjects. Remembering that in De Rege, a tyrant is described as one who, among other things, taxes the people without their consent, it’s not too great of a logical jump to conclude that this accusation was some sort of a death threat. At least, that’s how the king took it. Mariana was sent to prison, convicted of the crime of lèse-majesté. It was only the Pope’s intervention that got him released four months later, on the condition that he would choose his words more carefully in the future. Of course, the king made sure that his officials bought and destroyed every copy of the book they could find, and even after Mariana’s death, the Spanish Inquisition put the book on the Index.

Finally, Mariana didn’t waste the chance of being obnoxious to his own Order, and wrote his Discurso de las enfermedades de la Compañía (Discourse on the ailments of the Company), in which he criticized the military style of the Jesuit organization. He claimed that too much power was concentrated in too few hands, and that a democratic reform was called for. Even though his superiors were not very happy about this input, they didn’t expell him from the Order. Nevertheless, he was regarded with suspicion ever since.

That is all I have to say about Juan de Mariana. You may not agree with him (I don’t, most of the times), but there’s one thing you can’t deny: he was a gutsy, obnoxious, opinionated fellow. And that’s what makes him an interesting subject to write about.

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