Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

(This is pretty much a "must-read." not b/c every idea in it is important and perfect--cuz some are faaar from perfect--but it is a seminal work in Western scholarship)

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

background: If u don't know, Max Weber is one of the most imporant scholars of the late 19th/early 20th ce. He is considered one of the founding fathers of sociology and his writings on economic history have also been looked at as incredibly imporant. He had a vast array of knowledge and was one of the "grand" theorists of the 19th ce (like Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Freud). The original edition of this book was published as 2 essays in 1904/05 in German. This particular edition was revised by Weber and published the year of his death in 1920. It has been translated by Talcott Parsons, another founder of sociology. There is a foreward by Parsons, as well as one by R. H. Tawney, whose book "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" (see my post for it) was primarily based off Weber's book here. Finally, there is an introduction written by Weber in 1919 which is very illuminating as to his and contemporary scholars' mindstate--he believed that the modern West was far superior to an other civilization EVER, in every realm: art, science, politics, economics, etc. He also end his intro with a dubious assertion that he believes that "hereditary" differences btwn ppls can account for the differences in advancement--what he calls "anthropolgy"--but he admits he can't prove it. Not only is it proof of his (and thusly Occidental scholarship's) racist bias, it obviously taints (in our eyes) the rest of his work. BUT the impact of this work cannot be ignored: in the early 1900s and especially now. While in as late as the 1960's western intellectuals were predicting the disappearance of religion altogether in the increasingly
secular world, the new revivals of religious participation (fundamentalism, "3rd world" christianity, Islamic revivals) has forced scholars to re-evaluate Christianity's role in "secularization"--see Mark Taylor post #14--scholars are using Weber's ideas again.

The premise is simple. There are questions that we all should ask: Why are all the leaders of business Protestant? What changed europeans (in their ethics) from being content with peasantry to making everything revolve around profit (ie, time is money, money makes the world go round, etc.)? Why did capitalism, which has been around as long as civiliztion, finally become the norm?

Weber, who is incredibly well-versed in european history and modern era (1400 and up) theologies, demonstrates that the "spirit" of economics, that of maximizing the efficiency of every little thing, and valuing money over all, and the ruthless, cold mentality that it takes to get it--these are all vestiges of Protestant, especially Calvinistic ideas and asceticism.

here are some points:
1) the idea of a "calling", that God has given you a specific task in this world.

The word as we know it simply did not appear in christian writing before the protestants. It was, however, in the works of a german mystic who had a great deal of influence on Luther. So when Luther translated the Bible, he used the word in a place that it had never been used before. This meant that the Bible now "justified" the idea. Prior to that, ppl believed that work was a painful burden and true religious piety came in motionless prayer--like monks--not in labor. Luther, however, saw the Catholic system as corrupt b/c it meant that avg peasants could not achieve real piety and the selling of indulgences to gain partial absolution was an exploitation of that beleif (as well as diproportionately benefitting the wealthy). He believed, and supported it with a reinterpretation of the Bible, that ppl were given their lot in life and that lot was ordained by god and therefore holy (as god made the world the way He wanted it to be). God has chosen those who will be saved and u couldn't gain salvation through work (or the buying of indulgences). but ppl needed to work hard to demonstrate their belief in the holiness of god. Luther, tho, b/c of his peasant roots, believed that all ppl should work on the land and like most ppl before him, thot capitalism was barely not sinful.

2) This emphasis, that hard work is its own reward, was then picked up by the Calvinists. The Calvinists, however, believed more in predestination than Lutherans. Like lutherans, they believed, that god has already chosen the ppl who will be saved and nothing could help one gain salvation. But as a practical issue, it was difficult to determine exactly who was saved and who wasn't. There was a sort of "invisible church" b/c u couldn't really determine difference btwn the saved and damned by their actions. And the lack of confidence in salvation showed imperfect faith. Calvinists, who were bourgeoise business ppl and capitalists, saw how this fit perfectly into their lifestyles anyways. They took this doctrine of "calling" and applied it to their economic class. They were very ascetic ppl and thot indulging in luxiries, idle time and greed were sins, so they thot that the traditional lifestyle of peasantry (which included a 5 to 6 hour workday and many hours at the bar) was sinful. They believed that one must work hard all day. So in their world, that meant making profit day in and day out. This theology was exemplified by the Puritans (who were very calvinist). Other protestants believed in the same strict moral behaviors, but because of other socioeconomic differences, they were simply not as praising of capitalism as the highest virtue. (remember new england was started by puritans. and Ben Franklin, who had so much influence on the philosophy of young america, was a calvinist)

3) At the same time, the price revolution (due to the growing world trading market and the precious metals stolen from the americas) gave the capitalists unprecedented power. But unlike ancient times when capitalists had power and the state simply ended up taking them over b/c they capitalists got lazy with being caught up in ostentation and other depravities of the wealthy. The Protestant capitalists, hwoever, with their strict moral code, were protected from this (at least in teh early stages) and they gained unprecendented power.

4) Ultimately tho, the idea of capitalism became so pervasive and freedom of religion was allowed (to quash dissidents) that the religious background of capitralism and the economic spirit fell into the background and ppl have simply forgotten whence it came.

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