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Monday, October 31, 2011


The English Puritans, in their zeal to examine their lives for signs of election [or damnation] went to extraordinary lengths, engaging in ritualized, rigorous self-examination. An entire literature sprang into life as a consequence of their obsessive need to ascertain their spiritual condition. The central document in this literature was the Puritan diary.

[And now, a personal interpolation. When I took down from the shelf my copy of The Protestant Ethic to re-read it in preparation for writing this mini-tutorial, I found in it, as I anticipated, my underlinings and marginal notes from half a century ago. But to my surprise, I also found notes and comments in a different hand, and after a moment's puzzlement, I realized that they were the product of my first wife. In the middle '60s, in the early years of our marriage, Cynthia Griffin Wolff was a young doctoral student in the Harvard English Department, writing her dissertation under the direction of the great scholar Harry Levin. She had chosen as her topic the influence of Puritan devotional literature on the early English novel, and as part of her background reading, she read Weber's essay, using my copy. Everything I know about this subject -- and about many other literary topics -- I learned from her. The dissertation was published as her first book, Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth Century Puritan Character. ]

Puritan diaries were not finely wrought literary productions, like the diaries of Samuel Pepys or Samuel Johnson. They were written to the minute, as the expression had it, which meant that the author wrote immediately and without reflection whatever thoughts occurred to him or her, or about even the most trivial events of the day. The author then read the diary later, looking for signs of backsliding, of sinful thoughts, of any details no matter how seemingly unimportant that might constitute the terrible evidences of damnation. The diaries were not intended to be read by others, but a number have survived to this day, and can be found, among other places, in Dr. Williams' Library in Gordon Square in London. They are rather difficult to read, by the way, because the diarists frequently employed the paper-saving technique of "cross-writing," which is to say first writing a complete page, and then rotating the paper ninety degrees and writing across what was already there. With practice, one can actually read both levels of text!

When a Puritan sought membership in a congregation, the applicant was expected to present a formal statement of his or her spiritual eligibility in the form of an Autobiography. After a member of the congregation died, others would often write a hagiographic "Saint's Life" detailing the many evidences of the subject's election. Saints Lives were collected and circulated, to be read by members of the congregation and others as exempla of deserving lives. Diaries, Autobiographies, Saints' Lives -- these literary genres, which for several hundred years played a central role in the religious lives of English and American Puritans, give testimony to the extraordinary impact of the theology of the Reformed Churches on the everyday lives of ordinary believers.

The core of Weber's argument is the claim that the same mentality, the same obsessive concern with salvation, found expression in the ideal of a secular calling, pursued with religious zeal, with ascetic self-control, and with rational attention to every detail of that calling. The result, he argues, was what we have come to know as capitalism.

I should like, in this penultimate Part of the mini-tutorial, to devote space to several extended quotations from Weber's essay, both to be sure that I have represented him correctly, and to give you some sense of the flavor of his exposition. What follows are a series of passages from Weber without comment from me. Tomorrow, I shall make some further remarks before concluding the mini-tutorial. The first passage comes from the very end of the long central chapter "The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism." The remainder are taken from the final chapter, "Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism," and are quoted in the order in which they appear in the text.

1. "the conception of the state of religious grace, common to all the denominations, as a status which marks off its possessor from the degradation of the flesh, from the world. On the other hand, though the means by which it was attained differed for different doctrines, it could not be guaranteed by any magical sacraments, by relief in the confession, nor by individual good works. That was only possible by proof in a specific type of conduct unmistakably different from the way of life of the natural man. From that followed for the individual an incentive methodically to supervise his own state of grace in his own conduct, and thus to penetrate it with asceticism. But, as we have seen, this ascetic conduct meant a rational planning of the whole of one's life in accordance with God's will."

2. "It is true that the usefulness of a calling, and thus its favour in the sight of God, is measured primarily in moral terms, and thus in terms of the importance of the goods produced in it for the community. But a further, and, above all, in practice the most important, criterion is found in private profitableness. For if that God, whose hand the Puritan sees in all the occurrences of life, shows one of His elect a chance of profit, he must do it with a purpose. Hence the faithful Christian must follow the call by taking advantage of the opportunity. "If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way (without wrong to your soul or to any other), if you refuse this, and choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be God's steward, and to accept His gifts and use them for Him, when He requireth it: you may labour to be rich for God, though not for the flesh and sin." [The quotation is from Richard Baxter, whom Weber chooses as exemplifying the Puritan mentality.]

3. "The emphasis on the ascetic importance of a fixed calling provided an ethical justification of the modern specialized division of labour. In a similar way the providential interpretation of profitmaking justified the activities of the business man."

4. "As far as the influence of the Puritan outlook extended, under all circumstances-and this is, of course, much more important than the mere encouragement of capital accumulation-it favoured the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life. It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man."

5. And finally: "What the great religious epoch of the seventeenth century bequeathed to its utilitarian successor was, however, above all an amazingly good, we may even say a pharisaically good, conscience in the acquisition of money, so long as it took place legally."

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