Of Accountants, Artists, and History

Historical Perspective
Week of February 16, 1997

Of Accountants, Artists,
and History

Most readers of the Positive Press have to earn their own bread. And the act of having to make a living has, until recently, been much disparaged. Historically, in most cultures, the highest rungs of society were reserved for some sort of aristocracy. In 16th-century Japan the aristocracy was the warrior class, governed by the code of Bushido and ruled by a shogunate. In 18th-century Europe the aristocracy was one of birth and breeding, governed by the code of the gentleman and lady, and ruled by hereditary monarchs. But past centuries and cultures have shared at least one thing in common: The idea that work was somehow degrading, and beneath the dignity of the upper classes.

The 20th century has changed all that. Work is now considered noble; many people who have no economic need to work have jobs or run businesses because they enjoy feeling productive. Yet we are still likely to view certain types of work, such as writing or creating art work, as sublime and “worthwhile,” and to view other less glamorous work, including most of the routine occupations of the business world, as something less than inspiring.

But what really sparked the period of sublime art and culture that we know as the European Renaissance? Could it have been something as dry as, well, accounting? Micheal Olmert’s “The Smithsonian Book of Books” is a beautifully produced book which tells the story of publishing from biblical parchment scrolls to the present day. And Olmert writes: “It was the perfection of accounting in the 13th century — and specifically the invention of double-entry book-keeping — that made Italy great.”

As most of us make our living as computer programmers, teachers, accountants or in other useful and productive, though not necessarily glamorous, fields, it’s easy to become intimidated by the greatness of the Renaissance legends: Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, Erasmus. And, no doubt, their work was great. But the fact remains that they owed their chance to shine to the scores of workers who toiled outside the spotlight.

“The Renaissance still shapes up as the product of immeasurable genius,” Olmert writes, “but genius animated by money and the skills essential to commerce.” Italy, especially Venice, was a great international trading center, and as trading grew more complicated and diverse the need for good accounting grew proportionately. And as trading grew, spurred by double-entry bookkeeping, so grew the wealth of Italy, and the ability of Italians to commission the great works of art now revered the world over.

The role of commerce in spurring culture and art began long before the Renaissance. The invention of writing itself 6,000 years ago was due to the need to keep records for commercial transactions. As described in Chris Scarre’s “Timelines of the Ancient World,” writing was first invented in Mesopotamia around 4,000 B.C. Simple marks were scratched onto the surface of a hollow clay ball. “Small clay tokens that represented commodities such as sheep, goats, or jars of oil,” Scarre writes, “were placed inside the clay ball as a record of a commercial transaction.”

Even Shakespeare, that most romantic of poets and authors, makes great use of commercial characters and analogies in his work. In “The Merchant of Venice,” the best and brightest Italians are men of business. Even Romeo’s lament in “Romeo and Juliet” is an analogy to commerce: “Oh dear account! My life is foe’s debt.”

Thus, although most societies have deprecated the creation of wealth and preferred “old” money to “new,” the Renaissance was a product of commerce and the complex accounting that made it possible. Over time, some artists and authors came to appreciate, and in some cases, even glorify the role of the ordinary worker and business person. The very best writers even came to apply the same standards to their own exalted professions as to those in less conspicuous roles. As the great English novelist William Thackeray writes in “Pendennis,” “if a lawyer, or soldier, or a parson, outruns his income, and does not pay his bills, he must go to jail; and an author must go, too.” Thackeray’s point was simply that professionals and business people made valuable contributions, and should be regarded as equal to the artist in many respects.

In works of history it is always the great artists, writers and philosophers whose lives are recounted, and whose contributions to history are tabulated. But, as Olmert, Scarre, and Thackeray remind us, it is the anonymous work of traders, business people and bookkeepers that has made it all possible.