In my third blog on the Protestant Ethic, I discussed English Puritanism founded upon John Calvin’s vocational theology. Weber focuses on the writings of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), an English church leader and Puritan theologian, who advocated combining industrious work and asceticism. The result was the accumulation of capital and financial prosperity. In 1620, a small Puritan colony landed in the New World. Other colonies followed and by the 18th century, colonies were established along the east coast of the soon-to-be United States.
Dr. Stephen Kalberg, Professor of Sociology at Boston University, translated from German to English Max Weber’s groundbreaking book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011). Max Weber (1864-1920) was a Professor of Economics at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg.
Protestantism was the dominant religion of colonial America and Calvinism was a major cultural influence. The new world was fertile and teeming with rich resources. All that was required was human and financial capital. Europeans saw these opportunities and continued to immigrate. The Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789) elevated human reasoning and Christian doctrines were questioned. The Puritan vocational concepts slowly moved from their theological roots to an organized life culture which stands directly opposite “to the undirected life that simply, like a natural event, flows on in time without internal guidance.” (page 421)
Weber highlights Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) as an example of this transition. While Franklin grew up in a Calvinist home, he was an enlightened man guided by reason and not Church doctrine. He was culturally utilitarian:
“All of Franklin’s moral admonishments are applied in a utilitarian fashion: Honesty is useful because it leads to the availability of credit. Punctuality, industry, and frugality are also useful and are therefore virtues. It would follow from this that, for example, the appearance of honesty, wherever it accomplishes the same end, would suffice. Moreover, in Franklin’s eyes an unnecessary surplus of this virtue must be seen as unproductive wastefulness. Indeed, whoever reads in his autobiography the story of his ‘conversion’ to these virtues, or the complete discussions on the usefulness of a strict preservation of the appearance of modesty and the intentional minimizing of one’s own accomplishments in order to attain a general approval, will necessarily come to the conclusion that all virtues, according to Franklin, become virtues only to the extent that they are useful to the individual.” (pages 79-80)
Puritan vocational values, supported by Calvinism, migrated into a secular utilitarianism organization of life. Franklin’s truisms like “time is money” and “a penny saved is a penny earned” established the spirit of capitalism as a cultural North American norm. What modern Americans take for granted in our capitalistic society actually started before the American revolution under Puritan vocational theology, then filtered into secular society.
The interesting aspect of the spirit of capitalism is its separation of work and pleasure. “The complexity of this issue is above all apparent in the summum bonum [‘supreme good’] of this ‘ethic’: namely, the acquisition of money, and more and more money, takes place here simultaneously with the strictest avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of it. The pursuit of riches is fully stripped of all pleasurable, and surely all hedonistic, aspects. Accordingly, this striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself – to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational, at least when viewed from the perspective of the ‘happiness’ or ‘utility’ of the single individual.” (page 80)
The Middle Ages exalted the sacred ascetic life. In less than 300 years, the Protestant Ethic ushered in the spirit of capitalism which exalted the secular ascetic life. What was formerly viewed “as an expression of filthy greed and a completely undignified character” (page 82) was now viewed as a “manifestation of competence and proficiency in a vocational calling.” (page 81) What was theologically founded turned anti-religious. “People who are saturated by the ‘capitalist spirit’ today [written in 1904] tend to be indifferent, if not openly hostile, to religion.” Weber’s writings, over 100 years old, still illuminate our post-modern era and cause one to ponder: why do “people live for their business rather than the reverse”? (page 92)