Christopher J Berry. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

As an idea, poverty has had an eventful history. From roughly the eighteenth century onward, a change in moral sensibility caused a shift in the understanding of poverty as being an ideal state (for both individuals and communities) to being an execrable condition that societies should seek to ameliorate. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the growth of social welfare programs, intense academic debate has focused on the meaning and definition of the term. These debates, though they now dominate the discussion of poverty, nevertheless echo earlier discussion surrounding poor laws and social administration. This article will chart the development in sensibilities and attendant evaluations and then consider how the “problem of poverty” was framed and how it has manifested itself in contemporary debates.

Poverty as an Ideal

There is a long-standing discourse within which poverty has a positive moral connotation. Facets of this discourse are delineated below.


With respect to the idea of poverty as a voluntary condition, two emphases can be identified. The first of these is exemplified by Stoicism, in thinkers such as Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) and Epictetus (c. 55 CE-135 CE), but is equally manifest in the ascetic tradition in Christianity and other religions. Here, like its contextual close-relations, simplicity, austerity, and severity, poverty refers to the estimable practice of temperance and continence. To live the simple life of poverty in this sense is to be in control of oneself and thus of one’s actions; it is to know the true and proper value of things and to be in a position of forswearing temptations, that is, things of illusory value. The second emphasis is more civic and is embodied, though commonly retrospectively as some lost ideal, in Sparta or ancient Rome or the earliest Christian communities. One consequence, common to both emphases, of situating poverty in this lexicon is that it is a product of choice or will or reason. Thus understood it is possible to draw a conceptual distinction between poverty as a self-imposed voluntary state and being impoverished (or necessitous; that is, having no choice).

Accompanying this idealized or moralized use of poverty is a hierarchical division between reason and desire. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) established the core principle when in The Nicomachean Ethics he distinguished those (the enkratic) who exhibit discipline and act from choice not from “desire” from those (the akratic) who lack discipline and who, as a result, pursue bodily pleasures excessively. The notion of “excess” is crucial. There is a natural norm that ought not to be transgressed. Hence, in line with this principle, the virtue of poverty is expressed by the individual who, in the light of a rational apprehension of the natural order, self-disciplines desires so that indulgence is forsworn. So the Stoic sage will drink but not get drunk and one informed with patristic teaching will forgo sex with (or as) a pregnant woman. Of course, the body has needs that must be satisfied but there is also a natural or rational limit to this satisfaction—hence only drink when thirsty and only have sex for the sake of conception. Similarly, in the civic emphasis, the virtuous citizens of Rome’s early years, for example, were portrayed as exhibiting personal poverty while dedicating their resources to public monuments.

This idea of self-control, of poverty as a voluntary state, played an important role in Christian teaching and practice. In part this was negative. As St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1274) expressed it in Summa contra gentiles, poverty is commendable because it frees a man from “worldly solicitude.” The more positive aspect, as also articulated by Aquinas, was that those who embraced voluntary poverty did so to follow Christ and “be useful to their community.” Whilecommunity here refers to society at large, perhaps, the most distinctive Christian contribution has been the establishment of institutions that explicitly identify poverty as their rationale.


Institutions embracing poverty, generically known as monasteries, took their inspiration from a view of the early life of the Christians, who, expecting an imminent Second Coming, withdrew from worldly contact and tried to live a simple Christ-like life. But the eventual establishment of Christianity as the legal religion of Rome by the Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan (313) led to a reaction and an attempt to re-create the ideal of poverty. This appeared first in Eastern (or Orthodox) Christianity as initially individuals, then communities, fled to the deserts of Egypt. The principles of life in such communities became codified and the most influential “code” was issued by St. Basil (c. 329-379 C.E.), the archbishop of Caesaria. His Rules established the goal of monastic life—jointly to practice the Christian virtues of chastity, poverty, and sharing the common goods of the monastery. These ideas spread into western (or Latin) Christianity through the medium of (among others) St. Ambrose (339-397), who had himself spent time in the Palestinian desert. The western equivalent to Basil was St. Benedict (480-547) who also laid down his Rule. This went into great detail about monastery life, not only specifying meal times but also how much can be consumed and the proper conduct while doing so. While not strenuously ascetic the monks are instructed to chastise the body, to love fasting and not become addicted to pleasures. They should also relieve the poor. This command seemingly acknowledges that for some, poverty was not a voluntary state.

Voluntary and Involuntary Poverty

The canon lawyer Huguccio of Pisa (d.1210) elaborated upon the distinction between voluntary and involuntary poverty. In his commentary (1188) on Gratian’s Decretum (c. 1140), the primary canon law text, Huguccio divided the poor into three categories. There were those who while born poor willingly endured this state as an expression of their love of God, and there were those who deliberately surrendered their possessions that they might live a virtuous Christian life. Both of these exemplified voluntary poverty. The third category, however, comprised those who were destitute and liable to be inhibited from achieving the higher moral values. This was involuntary poverty. However, the thrust here is on the involuntary poor being inhibited; as the first category demonstrates, the dominant sensibility was that poverty was not of itself an evil to be extirpated. Indeed, Stoic echoes can still be heard in Huguccio’s explicit identification of this category with those who are poor because they are filled with the “voracity of cupidity” (quoted in Tierney, p. 11).

Change and Renewal

It is a notable characteristic of the ideal state of poverty that it represented a pristine condition from which any change was a deterioration. This resulted in a recurrent motif of regeneration or a return to “basics.” The Roman moralists treated the history of Rome in this manner. Livy (59 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) prefaced his History with the judgment that no republic, in its origin, was greater or more virtuous, because then poverty and thrift were honored, but, now, it has been brought to ruin by the introduction of luxury and avarice. Since, for Livy, history is valuable because of the lessons it imparts then this judgment in this context makes his purpose clear. He was here following the lead of (among others) Sallust (86-35 or 34 B.C.E.), who, in his The Conspiracy of Catiline (43 B.C.E.), used polemically and not disinterestedly the corruption associated with that conspiracy (64 B.C.E.) to contrast the rampant love of luxury and riches with the original dedication of the Romans to the public good, as seen in their courage, their lavish treatment for the gods, and their domestic frugality. This motif was to recur. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), in what is ostensibly a commentary on Livy, declares that the way to renew a corrupt state of affairs is “to bring them back to their original principles.” And, as his version of the story of Cincinnatus makes plain, these principles were designed to keep the Roman citizens poor.

According to Machiavelli, religious, as well as political institutions, are liable to fall into corruption. It was certainly a feature of monasticism that it was continually being renewed. If one monastic order appeared to become lax, another more rigorous one was established. Given that a frequently identified source of this laxity was wealth, then these new (or renewed) orders laid emphasis on being truer to the founding ideals of poverty. Hence the Cistercian order, founded in 1098, though decisively developed by St. Bernard (1090-1153) in his Apologia (1127), was based on the original (ascetic) Rule of St. Benedict. But even the Cistercians accumulated wealth.

In the thirteenth century orders of mendicant friars were established, who being without ties to a particular institution were thought more likely to escape the accumulation and trappings of wealth. The Franciscan order, founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226), was based on a re-created ideal of apostolic poverty (so begging was preferred to having money) and, the other great order, the Dominicans followed suit, if less wholeheartedly (always allowing for example the personal ownership of books). The adoption of these principles did not preclude, in due course, extensive intellectual debate between the two orders on the meaning of “property,” in which Aquinas (a Dominican) participated vigorously. At the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth century, the so-called spiritual wing of the Franciscan order, under the influence of the writings of John Peter Olivi, insisted on an extreme interpretation of voluntary poverty. Their open conflict with the more moderate “conventuals” led to the suppression of the spiritual party by Pope John Paul XXII. These ideals and practices are not confined to Christianity. Most of the world’s religious and ethical systems adopt a similar range of attitudes. For example, one of the five great vows of Jainism is aparigraha,meaning nonpossession or nonattachment to material things (including people). Their monks (and nuns) follow this vow strictly and totally—they are permanently naked and eat only once a day—but even lay members try to follow the vow as far as they can, hence for example, they undergo prolonged fasts. Buddhism is less austere; only in the special cases of holy persons should poverty be deliberately cultivated. In Islam the emphasis is, perhaps, less on individual self-control than on responsibility toward the poor. It is a recurrent injunction in the Koran that the poor rate should be paid, and it is a mark of the unrighteous that they do not feed the poor. Often too, here, there is the periodic call to abandon current corruptions and return to the purity of the original state and in Islam’s case this gathered political momentum in the later decades of the twentieth century.

Changing Conceptions of Poverty

The most far-reaching call for spiritual renewal was the Reformation, which characterized European Christendom in the sixteenth century. Martin Luther (1483-1546), himself a monk, inveighed against the corruption of Christian practice and advocated a return to a more austere theology. But, as argued in Max Weber’s (1864-1920) classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), perhaps more strikingly, the Reformation fostered a view of salvation that associated it with industry or work in conjunction with a worldly asceticism. A corollary of this was to associate indolence with lack of virtue. While this applied to the “idle rich” it also encompassed “beggars and vagabonds,” whose poverty became presumptive evidence of their wickedness. Voluntary poverty now takes on a negative character, a “popish conceit,” as the English Puritan theologian William Perkins (1558-1602) called it. Nonetheless, Perkins also held that poverty should be seen as providential and even those whose “calling” requires the performance of “poore and base duties” will not be base in the sight of God, if they undertake those duties in obedient faith to the glory of God.

This idealization of poverty was undermined by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who explicitly criticized those he called “severe moralists” (he named Sallust as an example). These individuals are those who uphold the virtue of poverty, which they typically contrast with the vice of luxury. Hume subverted this contrast. By understanding poverty not as virtuous austerity but as necessitousness then (and this is his main aim here) luxury can lose its negative (moralized) meaning. The effect of this is to associate “ages of refinement,” or luxury, with happiness and positively with virtue. Luxury nourishes commerce and this both reduces destitution and augments the resources available for amelioration.

He, therefore, who keeps himself within the bounds of nature will not feel poverty; but he who exceeds the bounds of nature will be pursued by poverty even though he has unbounded wealth.

This argument was influentially developed by the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790). By being “blessed” by opulence, the members of a commercial society are able to enjoy a far better standard of living than those in earlier ages. In material terms their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing are better and more adequately met. Beyond this, human relationships are more humane. This enhanced “quality of life” extends beyond “goods” or things to relationships. In the introduction to his text An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith says that the inhabitants of “savage nations of hunters and fishers” are “miserably poor,” so that, as a consequence, “they are frequently reduced or, at least, think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying and sometimes abandoning their infants, their old people and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger or to be devoured by wild beasts.” This is a powerful and important argument. Contrary to Stoic “frugality” or Christian asceticism, or Algernon Sidney’s (1622-1683) characteristic neo-Stoic, or civic republican, view that poverty is “the mother and nurse of … virtue,” Smith is firmly repudiating any notion that poverty is ennobling or redemptive; a life of necessity now signifies not the austere life of poverty but an impoverished one, a life of misery. And since the abundance that commerce brings is precisely such an improvement, then Smith’s repudiation of the nobility of poverty is a key factor in his vindication of “modern” commercial society.

Smith is, perhaps, now best known for developing an economic theory that relied, in circumstances of “freedom and security,” on the “natural effort of every individual to better his own condition” in order to carry society to “wealth and prosperity.” This “effort,” moreover, was capable of “surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations.” An example of such a folly is the English Poor Law, which, on Smith’s reading, by prohibiting the mobility of labor, inhibited the spread of commerce and thence of the affluence that was the most effective remedy for poverty. Smith similarly berates the mercantilist advocacy of “low wages.” In Fable of the Bees, the Dutch-born english essayist Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)—admittedly an extreme case, a position he artfully cultivated—wrote that the poor are to be “well-managed,” so that while they should not starve yet they “should receive nothing worth saving.” This argument for what E. Furniss called the “utility of poverty” was rejected by Smith, who declared unambiguously in The Wealth of Nations that “no society can be flourishing and happy of which the greater part are poor and miserable,” (just as Hume had earlier stated, in “Of National Characters, ” that “poverty and hard labour debase the minds of the common people.”

The change in sensibilities that the work of Hume and Smith represents comes to dominate. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the apparent confidence that Smith exhibited in the workings of commerce to improve the lot of the poor seemed increasingly complacent. The condition of the “working class” (as they became known) prompted a range of responses. What they shared was a moral revulsion at the dreadful circumstances in which the poor lived. Important work was done to document just how awful these conditions in fact were. Friedrich Engels’ (1820-1895)Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) was a pioneer study and the seventeen-volume Life and Labour of the People in London (1891-1903) of Charles Booth (1840-1916) and Seebohm Rowntree’s (1871-1954) study of York were prototype social surveys documenting the lives of the poor. Poverty gradually became in this way a topic of social science—something to be measured and statistically analyzed. But it never lost sight of its origins in moral disquiet. Rowntree, for all his deliberate attempt to “state facts,” declared the finding that a quarter of his survey lived below the poverty line, in a time of unexampled prosperity, may cause “great heart-searching” (p. 304). Hence, while emphases differed, this shared moral concern prompted a search for remedies. Karl Marx (1818-1883) is the best-known analysis of capitalism. He argued that the increasing (relative) misery of the proletariat was caused by capitalism. Marx is equally recognized (if only because of the subsequent revolutions that evoked his name) for his advocacy of communism as a solution. Poverty was thus for him symptomatic; for others it was more central. Some, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), while criticizing the destructive competitiveness of capitalism, even reinvoked the moral ideal of poverty. Marx was, however, scathing of the contemporary attempts to deal with the “problem of the poor,” which he alleged located the source of the problem in the poor themselves.

The Problem of the Poor

The “problem of the poor” was always one of a threat to social order and thus always had a political dimension. For example, in Aristotle’s classification of constitutions in The Politics, democracy was identified as a perverse form, since it was rule by the “many” for the good of the many (not “all”). The many are immediately said to be the poor. This association between the poor and inferior political order endured. The “mob” was perceived as an ever present threat and European history has been marked by the recurrent eruptions of urban riots and peasant uprisings.

One of the striking things about the ideal of poverty was that very often in practice it served to underwrite a hierarchical status quo. For example, innumerable sumptuary laws were passed in the Roman republic and empire, and all European “states” followed suit throughout the early modern period. This legislation sought to preserve the extant social pecking-order, to attempt to confine the incidence of a good and prevent its diffusion. Luxury, “new” wealth, always threatened to overturn this hierarchy; Hume’s defense of luxury, as part of his reconfiguration of poverty from ideal to a state of necessitousness, was a critique of this rationale. From the “ideal” perspective, those in the lower ranks of these societies may well want some of those privileged goods but that “wanting” was a mark of their unworthiness; their lack of the requisite self-control, and if self-control is lost then the stability of the social order is under threat. Hume’s view contains a rebuttal of that disparagement. In so doing he was representing the “modern” view of human nature. Humans are motivated by their desires and the work of reason is not to control these but to steer them effectively. It is this same understanding of the effective springs of human motivation that underpins the shift in moral sensibilities that displaced the ideal view of poverty by one which conceived of it as state of material distress.

Poor Laws

Sumptuary laws were only indirectly concerned with the question of the poor and poverty. More overt measures were undertaken. A petition to the English Parliament of 1376 linked poverty with idleness and criminality. This was before the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which had been preceded by an uprising in France in 1358, and there were similar revolts in Florence in 1378 and the Low Countries in 1382. In early modern Europe, attempts were made to deal with poverty administratively. The Elizabethan Poor Law (1601), which Perkins, in Treatise of the Vocations, called an “excellent statute” and “in substance the very law of God,” charged each parish with the responsibility to support their own poor. Adam Smith put its origin down to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which had previously been the major source of charitable relief for the impoverished and destitute. This law was revisited over the years. The Act of Settlement of 1662 enabled parishes to eject immigrant paupers—ostensibly to counteract inequality of provision. The whole system was overhauled in 1834 after a royal commission into the Poor Laws. The new poor law nonetheless retained the basic distinction, made by Perkins and other advocates of the original poor law, between the deserving poor who worked (independent laborers) and the undeserving who were dependent on “public largesse” (paupers, sturdy beggars). The latter were less “eligible” for relief than the former; that is, the relief had to be less attractive than that available to even the poorest laborer (otherwise there would be no incentive to work). The tenability of the distinction was assailed from its origins, and a further commission in 1909 was divided in its recommendations. The majority view still distinguished between unwilled and willful incapacity and saw an important role for charity. The minority view, led by Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), an early leader of the Fabian Society, which published a cheap and best-selling version of her “view,” wanted a radical break with the past both administratively and with respect to the principle that the causes of poverty lay in individuals (in some moral defect) rather than having a social origin. With the emergence of explicitly welfare states in the second half of the twentieth century the basic thrust of the minority view was implemented.


Because Britain was the most advanced industrial society, it is there that many of the issues surrounding the problem of poverty were articulated and why so many British sources and experience figure so prominently in its history. Britain, however, had no monopoly. The French, for example, had a system of hôpiteux and the Dutch spinhausen, which functioned like English workhouses, although the parish-based localism of the English system was distinctive. While most of the associated literature dealt with practical issues, such as curbing the spread of begging, there were more theoretical treatments. Prominent among these is the systematic development by a group of theorists, known as the cameralists, of the notion of Polizei (police). The task of the Polizei was to care for the “order, security and welfare of subjects” (the German philosopher and administrator Johann Justi [1720-1771], quoted in Knemeyer). The Prussian code of 1794 institutionalized the idea, and the best-known theoretical appropriation of the term was by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who used the idea of Polizei to refer, in general, to the administration of the contingencies of “civil society” (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) and included, more particularly, therein an examination of the question of “modern poverty.” What is “modern” is not being destitute but in having a “disposition” toward one’s plight, attributing it (say, a failed harvest) not to fate or God’s punishment but to a social cause. This attitude to poverty breeds what Hegel calls a “rabble” (die Pöbel) and he is, uncharacteristically, indeterminate when it comes to finding a solution. Marx, Hegel’s most famous critic, saw the solution (implicitly) in a cooperative society based on the common ownership of the means of production, where, it follows, there would be no exploitative relations, and where the organizing principle would be, in a famous—if unoriginal—phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Relativism and Equality

The idea of needs, while always perhaps implicit in the notion of poverty, has come to the fore in contemporary debates. The crux of these debates is whether poverty is necessarily relative. At the root of Hume’s critique of the “severe” morality of poverty was his replacement of the categorical distinction between necessity and luxury to one where these are points on a scale. This then enabled him consistently to argue (as many others did likewise) that onetime luxuries could become necessities. Adam Smith defined “necessaries” as “not only commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life but whatever the customs of the country renders it indecent for creditable, even of the lowest order, to be without.” Hence in Smith’s time, a day laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt (its nonpossession, indeed, would denote a “disgraceful degree of poverty”) when the Greeks and Romans of an earlier age lived very comfortably though they had no linen.

Relative or Absolute?

In modern debates, this fluidity in the meaning of necessity has been taken to be a vindication of the “relativity” of poverty. A major advocate of this position is the sociologist Peter Townsend, who declares that poverty can be defined “only in terms of the concept of relative deprivation” (p. 31). More precisely the standard of deprivation is socially relative and Townsend is critical of an “absolute concept” that would be based on some universal, extra-social, notion of “needs.” Townsend holds that needs must be defined as more than some biological minimum and, rather, as “the conditions of life which ordinarily define membership of society.” These conditions comprise “diets, amenities, standards and activities which are common or customary” (p. 915). The reference to “custom” is a deliberate echo of Smith’s argument. The poor are now identified as those who lack the resources to participate in those customary conditions definitive of social membership and who are as a consequence “excluded from ordinary living patterns” (p. 31).

To its critics, Townsend’s relativity approach leads to the absurd conclusion that someone could be called poor because they could buy only one Cadillac a day while others in the same community could buy two, or that more people can be “poor” in California than in, for example, Chad. It follows, further, that poverty cannot be eliminated, no antipoverty program can ever be entirely successful. To these critics there has to be an absolute core, since only from such a secure basis is it possible meaningfully to identify poverty and only then does it become possible to conceive of poverty’s elimination. Hence the number of people with inadequate sustenance, shelter, and life expectancy is greater in Chad than in California, and, thus, there are more in poverty in the former than in the latter location.

Whether poverty is regarded as a form of social exclusion or as the deprivation of basic needs, the shared assumption is that it is a morally pernicious state of affairs. It is bad in itself because suffering is bad in itself and not, as the “virtuous” view would claim, a condition of “indifference” or even sanctity. This is the modern sensibility and it is now dominant—in no way can poverty be an ideal. The corollary of this is that the existence of poverty is indefensible and there is a moral imperative to seek remediable action, which to be effective is now typically thought to require the activity or intervention of the state. Here the poverty debate enters into the mainstream of contemporary moral, social, and political theory.

Poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble; a rabble is created only by the disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, the government etc.… The rabble do not have sufficient honour to gain their own livelihood through their own work yet claim they have a right to receive their livelihood. No one can assert a right against nature but within the conditions of society hardship at once assumes the form of a wrong inflicted on this or that class. The important question of how poverty can be reconciled is one which agitates and torments modern societies especially.

Contemporary Debate

On one side there are liberals (such as the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek [1899-1992]) who argue that the best remedy to poverty is to permit inequality in the form of wide income differentials so that the incentive to gain these high rewards produces the social wealth (and higher tax revenues) that enables the lot of the impoverished to be improved. Indeed, Hayek claims that in this way “poverty in the absolute sense has been abolished” (vol. 2, p. 139). This belongs in the Smithian tradition—Smith himself had said that universal poverty was conjoined with absolute equality in the earliest (hunter-gatherer) societies. The thrust of the argument here is that what matters morally is individuals having enough to sustain themselves, not that others might have more than enough. On the other side are welfare socialists, like Townsend, who (as previously noted) picks up a different aspect of Smith. Socialists are far less complacent about inequality. Townsend’s own prescription is the abolition of “excessive” income and wealth and the establishment of a more egalitarian society. These two positions do not exhaust the field. There are welfare liberals (including John Rawls [1921-2002] in his A Theory of Justice [1971]) who think that inequalities in income and wealth are justified so long as the lot of the least-well-off is maximized. There are also more radical approaches that seek appropriately the root of the problem and locate this in a socially induced emphasis on production and consumption. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, for example and unwittingly echoing Thomas Paine in Agrarian Justice (1797) about the American Indians, argues that poverty is a problem created by the market-industrial system and when the lives of those assumed to be in dire poverty, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, are examined they can be discerned to live in “a kind of material plenty”—they are content with few possessions. This approach has affinities to environmental or “green” thought, which enjoins what one of its influential sources, E. F. Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful (1973), has called “Buddhist economics.” Without ever expressing the point explicitly it is, from the perspective of the history of ideas, possible to see here a reprise of the ideal of poverty, understood as self-control. The Bushmen have (so to speak) heeded the wisdom of the Stoic sage and have no wants beyond what they need; they do not experience poverty.


Poverty is an idea with a history that is particularly instructive. In the twenty-first century, poverty as a state of material and social deprivation is regarded as the standard meaning. But when examined historically, it can be seen that this meaning has far from dominated. In the history of Western experience (with echoes elsewhere) poverty had for a long period been considered a preferred condition, one where humans demonstrated their control both of their own nature and of the circumstances in which they found themselves.