Guest Post: Michael Brennen on Luigino Bruni’s Recent Book, The Wound and the Blessing

The following is a guest post by Michael Brennen, who recently translated Italian philosopher, Luigino Bruni’s new book, The Wound and the Blessing. Michael has had a long career in software and technology, eventually deciding to pursue a long-smoldering interest in philosophy.  In 2010 he graduated from the the University of Illinois, Springfield with a BA in philosophy, summa cum laude, and is presently working on an MA in philosophy of economics at UIS, focusing on the ethical dimensions of economics.  He has a particular interest in contemporary Italian economic thought developing reflections on a largely unknown mid-18th century school of political economy centered around Naples.


In his book The Wound and the Blessing: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness, recently published in English by New City Press, Luigino Bruni, an Italian philosopher of economics at the Milano-Bicocca University in Milano, considers happiness in economics and how people relate in markets; I had the privilege of translating the book.  Drawing from Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas est, in which Benedict explores the necessary and complementary nature of eros, philia, and agape in human relationships, Bruni presents a startling analysis of markets in terms of tripartite love and an unusual proposal for consideration.

Regarding the current globalizing economy, one can frequently find two positions.  On the one hand, there is the demand to involve the entire world in market relationships; on the other, there is the demand to do away with markets, as the market itself is seen as the source of societal and structural evils.  Bruni argues for balancing these competing demands.  He considers the market as a positive triumph of modernity; markets, as places in which people can meet and exchange as peers, can be a cornerstone of civilization.  In short, we need markets; without them we cannot live well, yet neither can we live well by reducing all social relationships to market relationships.  Bruni works within the eudaimonist tradition, and he balances these two positions against that backdrop.

For Aristotle, for whom civil, political and economic society was a whole, one cannot be happy without friends whom one values intrinsically.  One cannot live a fully human and happy life without friends, but the risk is that those same friends can be the source of one’s most painful relational wounds.  Aristotle’s response to limit this risk was that one’s friends should be few, and like oneself.

For Adam Smith and other 18th century philosophers working in political economy, markets were places where people could meet and exchange as peers rather than being dependent on the benevolence of one’s superiors in a hierarchical feudal society.  Smith, deeply influenced by Stoic thought, saw the common good emerging as an unintended consequence of self-interested action.  Markets mediate independent relationships in which buyers and sellers exchange in self-interested and impersonal, though cordial, encounters; one’s personal relationships should be pursued outside the market.

In contrast with Aristotelian thought, modern market relationships are thus instrumental: the other is useful as a means to one’s own ends.  Through this relational mediation, most market encounters happen such that the risk of relational injury is minimized.  With risk minimized in the larger market, it might seem that privately consuming and enjoying one’s increasing objective wealth should increase one’s happiness.

Paradoxically though, recent studies in the economics of happiness by Richard Easterlin and others show that, above a certain threshold, increases in income can result in unchanged or even diminished levels of subjective happiness.  In the market one must constantly compete against others for scarce work; with increased income comes additional responsibility and stress.  Due to hedonic adaptation, increasing consumption is required to maintain one’s sense of satisfaction with one’s standard of living.

For Bruni this “paradox of happiness” is one consequence of the loss of intrinsically valuable relationships in the market; as Bruni noted in an interview, markets designed to separate people do separate people.  To formulate his response to this paradox, Bruni considers the market analogues of eros, or erotic, romantic love, philia, or friendship love, and agape, or self-giving love.

Bruni proposes that we understand the contract as an analogue of eros, as the quintessential market instrument of self-interest.  Parties to a contract seek to maximize their gains and advantages and minimize their costs and risks; the contract establishes the relationship among the parties, and each party is concerned only with its interests.

For philia, Bruni proposes that associations and cooperatives—perhaps more diversely and fully developed in Europe than in North America—are market expressions of a relationality that considers self and other.  In such productive organizations, people live more fully in an awareness of interdependence and mutuality.

Bruni finds no market analogue of agape, or selflessness, in markets.  He notes that love, in economic terms, is even sometimes seen as a scarce resource that one should reserve for private relationships rather than dissipating it in the market.

His proposal to fill this dearth of agape in markets is gratuitousness, arguably the key term in the book; by that he means a willingness to exchange in free and open reciprocity—not altruism—that, though one may have an interest in the transaction, does not demand a return of equal value.  In economic terms, relationships themselves become goods with intrinsic value, apart from the goods exchanged.  Living in gratuitousness requires living in the awareness that another will eventually betray one’s trust, resulting in a relational or even material wound; finding the strength to transform those wounds into blessings can be at once a great challenge and a source of deep fulfillment.

Bruni closes with a reflection on the role of charisms in transforming market institutions toward more human, humanizing, and fulfilling relationships.  It is here perhaps that his deeply felt passion is most evident; economists do not normally talk about spiritual charisms in markets.  This discussion is far more than theory for Bruni; he has long been closely involved with the Economy of Communion (EoC,) in which for-profit businesses devote part of their earnings directly to aiding the poorest of the poor.  His experiences seeing people’s lives changed through mutual market relationships infuses his writings with a vigor not typical of economic texts.

Finally, it may also be of interest that Bruni and his co-author Stefano Zamagni were a significant influence behind Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate; further insight can be found on The Tablet, an EoC publication.

Michael Brennen