The rise of modern capitalism represented a complete turn around in commonly held beliefs and attitudes from those held in previous times: “It required the almost total dismantling of the mediaeval and classical system of thinking, their concepts, understandings and perceptions. In order to change the world it was necessary to change men’s understanding of it.” Social changes occurred in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century which “converted a natural frailty into a resounding virtue”. Wealth-seeking acquired social legitimacy, through religious sanction.
In the society of the Middle Ages, capitalistic activities involving trade and profit were tolerated as necessary but were not praised nor “ethically justified and encouraged.” The Church looked upon those who devoted themselves to making money through trade or manufacture with suspicion, even though their activities might be honest and their work useful to the community. Money-lending in particular was despised by both the Church and the wider society. Charging interest on money lent was called usury and anyone who engaged in it was likely to be denied the privileges of the sacraments. Those who made fortunes were likely to renounce them in old age or donate their money to the church in order to atone, before their death, for a lifetime of profit-seeking. Others sought respectability by buying land and becoming part of the landed gentry.
Fourteenth century scholar, Henry of Langenstein, argued:
He who has enough to satisfy his wants and nevertheless ceaselessly labors to acquire riches, either in order to obtain a higher social position, or that subsequently he have enough to live without labor...all such are incited by a damnable avarice, sensuality, or pride.
Early Christian, Hebrew, Roman and Greek philosophy all contain the idea that humans once lived in a ‘golden age’, communally and in harmony, sharing all that they had and that the struggle for individual possessions spoiled that harmony and created conflict between humans. For example Roman philosopher Seneca stated:
... This fellowship remained unspoiled for a long time, until avarice tore the community asunder and became the cause of poverty...
But avarice broke in upon a condition so happily ordained, and, by its eagerness to lay something away and to turn it to its own private use, made all things the property of others, and reduced itself from boundless wealth to straitened need.