Monday, October 15, 2007

Your TA's Executive Summary: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A colleague asked for my notes from Steve Hanson’s 204 class on Friday. I wrote them up and thought, fuck it, I never write about the big ideas anymore. So, ta da! The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Like you really wanted to know.

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According to Weber, the idea of rationalizing an action around a value has its origins in monastic life. Bit of background that I have having grown up Catholic: Monks and nuns were people who sought to follow the Bible's injunction to always be praying (having grown up Catholic, typically, I can't give you a chapter and verse—but I know it's in there).The most literal example of this was one of the saints (again, I' deeply embarrassed that I don't remember which one, but he was a monk) who actually strove to be literally praying all the time, having the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner" playing in the back of his mind always the way pop songs get stuck in the back of ours. The idea is a soul that is always praying will have difficulty consciously sinning. But at any rate, monastic life, if you will is the "rational choice" expression of those who wish to live a life that maximizes holiness, a life in which all work and rest is suffused with prayer. For a Catholic to this day, the term "vocation" refers principally to a calling to religious life, i.e. being a priest, monk or a nun.

Martin Luther rejected this stance, deriding the monastic life as a cowardly retreat from the world of the living. A religious radical, he sought to break the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church, but a political conservative, he had no intention of mobilizing the peasantry or leading political reform (which made him popular with kings who could then break the monastaries and confiscate their land and, in the process destroy the only system of social welfare in place in the medieval west). Catholics believe that being saved is a matter of baptism, a rite that is typically performed in infancy. Luther, in contrast, conceived that being saved required to be an individual experience of God's salvation (hence the ubiquitous evangelical question, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"). God further called human beings to work in a worldly vocation, i.e. one in contact with the world. Not being a political or economic radical, that vocation was basically doing what your parents did. This, as far was Weber's theory is concerned, was the extent of Luther's innovation.

With Luther, then, two changes emerge. First salvation becomes an individual experience (the story of how one was saved) rather than a status ascribed to a sacred community (into which the individual is initiated shortly after birth through infant baptism). Luther thought that this community approach had created the sort of slovenly Christianity that led to the Reformation in the first place. The second change is that Catholic idea of a religious, monastic vocation, becomes a worldly experience in which faith is expressed not through a life of prayer but rather through hard work in the world (not that Luther didn't believe in prayer, but he didn't believe in monastic life).

Calvin essentially "modernized" Luther's stance taking it further. Not only was salvation an individual calling, but the choice of vocation was an individual calling as well. The individual did not simply accept what his or her parents did mindlessly as a traditional nitwit, but instead searched their hearts to discover where Jesus was calling them to go. This is fairly easily explained to students. While few are looking to Jesus to tell them where to go, they almost all are still searching their hearts for what they ought to do with their lives.

Calvin's own approach to the question of theodicy led him to espouse a belief in pre-destination. Simply put, an almighty and omniscient God knows, because He knows His creation, who is saved and who is damned. Indeed, God alone knows who is saved and who is damned. Being saved or damned in Christianity has always been as simple as a response of faith. The question for the individual living on earth becomes, "Do you truly believe?" This creates a type of "salvation anxiety" among the faithful. Doubt, and indeed, who among us is so confident as to avoid doubt, in a sense made them work all the harder. If nothing else, they needed to reassure themselves of that which they cannot know: that they are the elect. [Individual grad students have this problem "Am I brilliant or a fake?" dwells in each grad student's mind in much the same way. Admission to the grad school is never real proof.] So, like the monks who sought to make every part of life a ceaseless prayer, Calvin's Puritans sought to work every minute of the day, because the true response of faith is work. Hence, time is money, a la Ben Franklin.

Well, working this way accumulated a great deal of financial capital. The Puritans were the most austere sorts of Christians, so blowing the money on booze and hookers was completely out of the question. Charity was never really quite as big with the anti-monastic Protestants as it was with the monks and nuns of old (after all, by the new dogma, the drunk in the gutter probably belongs there, but maybe you give to the Salvation Army, just in case). So you reinvest, to show God you take the Word seriously, i.e. by working even harder, making the work even more productive, etc.

Well. most people don't want to work this way, but the problem is if they don't adopt the technique, they'll be driven out of business. The fading of Puritanism (their descendents the Congregationalists have a nice church north of campus with a gay couple as their ministers, to give you some idea of how much things have changed) did nothing to make a dent in this phenomenon. Once the pattern existed, it was available for use. People like Bill Gates find meaning in this sort of work, even if they aren't Puritans. Perhaps it's keeping score that drives them the way our students are driven to hit the start button every time they get a "game over" on their video games, even if it is two in the morning and they're bleary eyed. For whatever reason, a cadre of people are always internally driven to work this way. As they are, the rest of us are forced to work to their standards lest we be weeded out of the market.

Rinse, lather, repeat until the last ton of fossilized fuel is burnt.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

I Thessalonians 5:17 -- "Be joyful always; pray continually"

I've been Catholic so long I had to actually look it up. Though having shit for memory doesn't help either. However, I thought it was I Thessalonians something so I wasn't too far off.

As I haven't yet read Herr Weber, I can't really comment on your summary. Though I feel fairly confident that now I will no longer feel such a hole in my existence not having read it since now I've read your summary. ;-)