Thrift as a Christian Virtue

“The modern world must somehow be made to understand (in theology and other things) that a view may be vast, broad, universal, liberal and yet come into conflict with another view that is vast, broad, universal and liberal also.”  So says Chesterton, in perhaps the most important sentence in What’s Wrong with the World. “There is never a war between two sects, but only between two universal Catholic Churches,” he adds, “The only possible collision is the collision of one cosmos with another.”

He is speaking there about a difference in sexes, in a chapter entitled, “The Romance of Thrift.” Husbands, he says, like to go to public houses and spend freely there, which they take to show a favoring of friends over money.  Wives, who must oversee the household, can appear in contrast to be mean-spirited.

Yet their attention to “thrift” is itself a form of magnanimity: “many a good housekeeper plays the same game every day with ends of cheese and scraps of silk, not because she is mean, but on the contrary, because she is magnanimous; because she wishes her creative mercy to be over all her works, that not one sardine should be destroyed, or cast as rubbish to the void.”

It’s a strange conflict of cosmoi, involving a dispute over virtues and vices. The man’s liberality looks like prodigality to the woman; the woman’s looks like meanness to the man.  On Chesterton’s telling, these traits don’t neutralize each other, or come to co-exist amicably in “complementarity.” To be sure, in God’s providence, husband and wife mysteriously balance each other out.  Yet for them there is a kind of running challenge of misunderstanding and forbearance. “The whole pleasure of marriage is that it is a perpetual crisis,” he famously quipped.

Of course, to read Chesterton with sympathy on sex differences already requires a journey to another cosmos, away from what counts as vast, broad, universal, and liberal today.  We can dispute how much of his account is a creature solely of Victorian England.  But on one point he is close to the common experience of humankind, and we are the outliers – in his emphasis on thrift.

We don’t even understand the word. “Thrift” means the concrete product of thriving, just as a gift is the product of giving, and as, when we say, “Do you get my drift?” we mean “Do you get what I am driving at?”  Thriving without thrift has nothing to show for itself.


The seed of the plant is its thrift, likewise the wealth that a household may acquire over a lifetime and pass down. Families used to devote themselves to saving, and institutions that arose in answer to that intention were called simply “Thrifts.”

By transference, “thrift” means also the habit of conserving thrift.  As conserving thrift is a good, thrift is a virtue, also known in the tradition as “economy”, “frugality,” and “parsimony.”

These in turn get paired with “industry” as the divinely willed precondition of the acquisition of substance: “Following in the footsteps of Our Predecessor,” writes Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno, “it will be impossible to put these principles into practice [viz. of social justice] unless the non-owning workers through industry and thrift advance to the state of possessing some little property.”

“Take away the instinct which Christian wisdom has planted and nurtured in men’s hearts,” Leo XIII commented, “take away foresight, temperance, frugality, patience, and other rightful, natural habits, no matter how much he may strive, [the workman] will never achieve prosperity.” (Graves de communi re)

We disagree on words when the virtue looks a lot like the vice.  Consider “parsimony”: it’s a lovely word that meant originally “to spare money” (parcere monia). For Adam Smith, it is the virtue: “Parsimony, and not industry,” he writes in Wealth of Nations, “is the immediate cause of the increase of capital. Industry, indeed, provides the subject which parsimony accumulates; but whatever industry might acquire, if parsimony did not save and store up, the capital would never be the greater.”

Yet in the Catholic tradition, the word tends to mean the vice: “He lived with such simplicity that he was blamed for parsimony,” says the old Catholic Encyclopedia(q.v. Giovanni Morgagni), “but his secret charities, revealed after his death, disprove this charge.”

In the use of money, the virtues and vices are very close. “Magnanimity is a virtue,” says St. John Chrysostom, in a homily on the use of money:

and hard by it stands prodigality.  Likewise, economy is a virtue, and hard by it stands parsimony and meanness. . . .He that spends his money on fit objects, this is the magnanimous man: for someone who is not a slave to passion, and who is capable of taking money to be insignificant, truly has a great soul.  Likewise, economy is a good thing: someone who spends in a proper manner, and not at random, without management, will be the best steward.  But parsimony is different – even when an urgent necessity demands it, it will not touch principal. And yet, parsimony is always near to economy.

But the virtues provide the standard of right reason.  That is why Leo XIII defines a “living wage” in relation to the virtue: “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”

Modern formulations, however, tend to leave out the virtues: “Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community,” (CCC 2428) – everyone, not “every frugal person.”

We have much to learn from that other cosmos that emphasized thrift and saving.  Our neglect, in our lives – and even in guiding summaries of Church teaching – harms us all, in many ways.


*Image: St. Bernard’s Prayer for a good Harvest by Jörg Breu the Elder, c. 1500 [Zwettl Monastery, Austria]. The painting is a panel from the St. Bernard Altar, which depicts various scenes from the life of the founder of the Cistercian order.

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.