But greed hasn’t always been popular in Western societies. Stanford historian Laura Stokes is uncovering how attitudes toward “acceptable greed” have done a turnaround in the past 500 years. Self-serving behavior deemed necessary on Wall Street today might have been despised in medieval Europe. One might even have been murdered for using wealth as a justification for circumventing societal norms.
Capitalism, Stokes has found, managed to flourish in the intensely community-conscious culture of medieval times. Men of business successfully built financial empires based on trade and credit, even though unbridled greed was universally condemned. The question that perplexes Stokes, an assistant professor of history, is how such men could be admired by their peers, when greed was frowned upon.
In short, blatantly selfish economic behavior was simply unacceptable. In describing the contradiction between present-day business attitudes and a medieval mindset, Stokes said, “A medieval businessman would surely be impressed by the successes of his modern descendants, but he would also despise them as men without honor or virtue.”