Sep 29 2016
Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism is a 110-year old essay that remains influential today and claims a relationship between the development of science, technology, and industry and the ideology of “ascetic Protestantism,” a label under which he groups Calvinists (American presbyterians), Pietists (Vanished in the US) , Methodists, and Baptists. The English translation is a short 124 pages. It is easy to read, not entirely convincing, and a window into the mind of a social scientist ca. 1900. The obvious flaw in Weber’s argument is the prominent role played in the scientific and industrial revolution by societies like England where ascetic Protestantism had little or no influence.
Limits To Weber’s Sources
Weber was raised in Germany by a calvinist mother, studied law and history, and traveled to Italy, England, and the US, but there is no indication in his biography that he ever visited any other part of the world, nor that he learned Chinese, Hindi or Sanskrit, or Arabic. And he saw these cultures through the prism of European imperialism, as depicted by conquerors and missionaries in translated documents.
But it did not keep him from writing about features of China and India that explain why neither spawned modern science and industry. He does not say that these cultures are incompatible with the practice of science and industry when, reading his essay, his contemporaries could easily make that mistake. From the vantage point of Silicon Valley 100 years later, where you work side by side with colleagues from all over the world, it is glaringly obvious.
In his problem statement, Weber focuses on Europe, particularly Germany, and asserts that Protestants outperform Catholics in wealth, entrepreneurship, and all the upper levels of employment in all regions where they coexist. He says it is obvious from statistics but does not quote any.
Today’s social scientists wouldn’t dare make such statements without showing comparative charts of graduation rates at multiple levels of schooling, wealth and income and the source of their data. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century shows you a chart of the median age of inheritance in Canada through the ages, based on official records!
Weber then attributes these differences to attitudes about working life. He attributes the alleged underperformance of Catholics to a view of work as a means of sustaining their life, while the Protestants want to get ahead. To explain what he means, he uses as an example the effect of changing rates in piece work for manual labor.
He describes employers increasing piece rates to entice workers to produce more. It worked with the Protestants who took the opportunity to make more money, but not with the Catholics, who reduced their output to the level needed to maintain their income So they reduced the piece rates instead to make the workers produce more to receive the same amount. Not even Taylor, an advocate of differential piece rates, ever brought up anything like this.
Weber goes further and, on the basis that it is “what employers say,” asserts that women workers perform worse than men, except when they have been raised as ascetic Protestants. Take that, Rosie the Riveter!
Benjamin Franklin And The “Spirit Of Capitalism”
Assuming all of these unsubstantiated claims were true, Weber wonders what this “spirit of capitalism” is, that inhabits the diligent Protestants. It’s not obvious, even to him, that capitalism has a spirit, and, if so, what it is, especially considering that it is an evolving system, and not the same in 1904, when he writes, as it was in 1700.
As a concise expression of it, he settles on Benjamin Franklin’s 1748 letter of Advice to a Young Tradesman, most famous for opening with first occurrence of the expression “time is money.” The letter then goes on with exhortations to save, live modestly, invest, and use credit wisely. It contains no reference to religion, except at the end, where he tells his correspondent that “industry and frugality” will make him rich unless God decides otherwise. This letter has aged well, and the abundant advice literature on personal finance in 2016 is little more than a verbose rehash of it.
From Protestant Roots To Franklin And Today’s Work Ethic
Weber spends the rest of the essay establishing an unlikely filiation from the Taliban-like ideology of 16th-century ascetic Protestants to the ideas of Franklin’s that he sees as embodying the spirit of capitalism. And it all starts with what Weber describes as a translation error committed by Martin Luther in a book of the old testament called the Wisdom of Sirach. The passage in question is available on line in many different and inconsistent translations. Here are just three of them:
- 11-20 Stick to your job, work hard at it and grow old at your work. 11-21 Do not admire the achievements of sinners, trust the Lord and mind your own business; since it is a trifle in the eyes of the Lord, in a moment, suddenly to make the poor rich.
11-20 Stand by your agreement, devote attention to accomplishing it, and grow old in your work. 11-21 Don’t be amazed at the works of sinners, but trust in the Lord and continue your work, because it is easy in God’s sight to make the poor person quickly and suddenly rich.
11-20 Stand by your covenant and attend to it, and grow old in your work. 11-21 Do not wonder at the works of a sinner, but trust in the Lord and keep at your toil; for it is easy in the sight of the Lord to enrich a poor man quickly and suddenly.
Whatever the original said, the translations have echoes in the glorification of the honorable plodder versus the ruthless, unprincipled fast-buck artist found, for example, in It’s a Wonderful Life …
or in Wall Street:
The particular wrinkle Luther threw in is the new word “Beruf,” literally “calling.” It’s not about a job, an agreement, or a covenant but about what you are called upon to do. The word has taken root in the German language and, today, is used to mean profession or trade. To Luther, it wasn’t something you chose, but your fate, in the sense that, if you are a cobbler’s son, you will be a cobbler yourself.
To Calvin and the following ascetic Protestants, it became what God intended you to do, and it’s for you to find out what it is. Religion aside, some of us know early on what their life’s work should be while many of us still struggle in middle age to figure out what we want to do when we grow up. A man I knew as a classmate at age 10 wanted then to be a medical doctor and now runs a transplantation center in a university hospital.
As Weber tells the story, the calling became essential to the ascetic Protestants because, unlike Catholics, they held that religion should rule every aspect of the daily lives of all believers, not just Catholic monks. Leisure, luxury, gambling, and joy in sex were banned, even in marriage, and the believers were all supposed to dedicate themselves to their callings, “for the glory of God,” in the hope that they were predestined for salvation. This theology valued work and didn’t discourage the accumulation of wealth, as long as it wasn’t used for anything pleasant, and the rich, whose calling was running businesses, had a docile workforce whose calling was drudgery.
In describing the Dutch Protestants’ work ethic of the 1600s, historian Simon Schama invoked the mythical “drowning cell,” that would be gradually filled with water, but equipped with a pump that the prisoner could operate and stay alive. It was supposed to teach the value of work. Schama does not believe it actually existed, other than in the public’s imagination, where it served as a way to scare the lazy into the diligent fold.
Through multiple splits, the proliferation of sects and migration across the Atlantic, over centuries, this ideology evolved, by the 18th century into Franklin’s. By the 21st century pursuing your calling has become “follow your dream,” and individuals who overcome the odds to achieve success are fodder for highly dramatic, morality tales, from Hoosiers to Erin Brockovich. This is a country where, as Bob Strauss put it, “every politician wants you to believe that he was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands.”
As for the “working for the glory of God” part, it is now “making the world a better place.” And, of course there are still plenty of businesses that don’t make the world a better place but instead prey on the weakness of others — casinos, real estate seminars, or Ponzi schemes — and these are the descendants of Sirach’s “achievements of sinners,” that you are not supposed to admire.
Weber is much more convincing as a historian tracing back the evolution of ideas in Europe and America, than as a sociologist, making broad assertions that he doesn’t back up with data, or discussing other cultures that he has no direct knowledge of.
He makes a credible link between the ideology of 16th-century ascetic Protestantism and the work ethic professed by many Americans today. Describing it as “the spirit of capitalism,” however, is an exaggeration, first, because, as stated earlier, capitalism flourished first in England, a society that was not dominated by ascetic Protestantism, and second, because it later spread to other societies with different perspectives on work.
Even in the US, there are plenty who don’t see work as more than an unpleasant necessity. This thinking was eloquently expressed in the 1960 campaign by the exchange between John Kennedy and an old West-Virginia coal miner who, in response to Kennedy’s admission that he was a rich man’s son who had never done a day’s work in his life, said “You haven’t missed a damn thing.”
The way Japanese people perceive work is the product of many influences over 1,500 years, not including ascetic Protestantism or even Christianity. The motivations of Japanese government officials, business people, scientists and artists, while rooted in Confucius and Buddha, have not made them any less effective.