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Friday, October 28, 2011


Predestination is the claim that God has, from all eternity, determined who will be saved and who will be damned, a determination that is -- since God is perfect and immutable -- impossible to change by any human thought, deed, or ecclesiastical rite. If you think about it, this doctrine is really the only one compatible with the infinite perfection of the deity, and it is perhaps not surprising that the most logically rigorous of the reformers, John Calvin, made it the centerpiece of his theology. The philosophical/theological point is this: God is omniscient, omnipotent, perfect -- all Christians agreed on that. Since God is perfect, He cannot change, because all change [Aristotle here] is a movement from potentiality to actuality, and God, as perfect, is perfectly actual. Hence, there can be no change in Him. Since He is omniscient, He knows from all eternity exactly what will happen at every moment in the universe He creates. Since He is also perfectly just and immutable, as well as perfectly benevolent, He knows from all eternity which souls he will, out of his bottomless mercy, admit to heaven for all eternity, and which souls He will, out of His perfect justice, condemn to eternal hellfire [just because all human beings, afflicted with Original Sin, fail in some way or other to obey God's Law, and hence deserve damnation.]

This is all a no-brainer from God's point of view, if I may speak somewhat disrespectfully of the Deity. And as a matter of theology, it really ought to be a no-brainer for any Priest, Bishop, Pope, or Minister whose livelihood consists of thinking about such things. How could it be otherwise? If one claims that an act of contrition, or a good work, or a priest's absolution can make any difference at all in God's plan, which has, as I keep repeating, been fixed from all eternity [God being unchanging and omniscient and all that], then one is saying that what we humans do can somehow change God's mind, make Him relent, persuade Him to scratch out some poor sinner's name from the rolls of the damned and enter it in shining gold in St. Peter's Book. But that is patent nonsense.

Well, you would think so. But by the time the Reformers came along, the Roman Catholic Church had for fifteen hundred years been making out like gangbusters by offering its communicants the opportunity the tip the balance scales of celestial justice. And Calvin was having none of it.

So much for the theology. Now let us talk about something a great deal more important, something that Weber makes the centerpiece of his essay: What was the psychological effect on the followers of Calvin and the other Reformers of the doctrine of Predestination? This is where things get really interesting. If you are a true believer, then clearly the most important single matter, trumping all else, is the answer to the simple question, Am I saved or am I damned? Faced with the hope of eternal bliss and the threat of eternal damnation, each follower of one of the Reformers, and most particularly each follower of Calvin, necessarily worried about this question day and night.

You see the nature of the problem. There was, according to this doctrine, nothing you could do to affect the answer to the question, for it had already been answered unalterably before the world was created! The most you could do was to examine yourself, your actions, your innermost thoughts, obsessively and incessantly in an attempt to discern signs that you had been chosen for salvation -- or, to use the terminology then current, signs of proof of election.

There were endless pitfalls in this process of rigorous self-examination. According to the theology attendant upon the doctrine of predestination, if you have been saved, then your thoughts and actions will be those of one reborn in Christ, of -- to use the language of the time -- a Saint. Now, one of the signs of election is humility, which means that if you find yourself taking pride in the righteousness of your thoughts and deeds, that in itself may be a sign of damnation. And it is no good making resolutions to do better next time, because that cannot somehow persuade God to change his Immutable Mind.

So much, in this brief and hurried mini-tutorial, for the doctrine of Predestination. Now let us turn to Weber's argument, and see how he connects up the emergence of capitalism with the distinctive teachings of the Protestant Reformers.

Although capitalism got its start in England, and came to Germany relatively late, Weber begins with a striking fact about Germany, though I cannot tell from the text whether it was this fact that first got him thinking about the connection between Protestantism and capitalism. As a consequence of the Thirty Years War [1618-1648], The Hapsburg Empire was fragmented, with a number of independent states -- Duchies, Counties, Principalities, etc -- emerging in central and northern Europe. The war was fought over religion, among other things, and under the agreements that ended it, each state adopted as its official religion the faith of its ruler. This made for a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant German-speaking mini-states, roughly but not entirely sorted out with the Catholic states in the south and the Protestant states in the north. When the region underwent unification in the nineteenth century, and became what we know today as Germany, these administrative boundaries were preserved, with the consequence that as economic and other statistics began to be assembled by the governmental bureaucracy, it was possible to see quite clearly differences between the degree and success of capitalist enterprises in the Catholic and the Protestant regions of Germany. To an quite extraordinary degree, it turned out that it was the Protestant regions in which capitalism took hold and flourished.

Now, Weber makes it clear that by the time he comes along, at the beginning of the twentieth century, capitalism has won the day, and is flourishing in Catholic as well as Protestant Germany. But this striking difference in Germany during the early period, coupled with the equally striking difference in England and the Colonies between the economic activity of Anglicans or Catholics and that of Puritan Non-Conformists, leads Weber to ask what it is about the religious ethic of Protestantism that made it so fertile a ground for the development of capitalism.

The first step in making the connection is looking at the nature of the earliest capitalist undertakings, and what Weber finds may come as a surprise to those whose impression of capitalism is derived from contemporary accounts of Wall Street fat cats giving themselves obscene bonuses and then using the money to stage twenty million dollar weddings for their children. The early capitalists exhibited three striking characteristics, all of which distinguished them markedly from landed aristocrats, the nobility, and others at the top of the economic food chain.

The first characteristic was an unceasing pursuit of profit. "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," said Benjamin Franklin, whom Weber takes as emblematic of the mentality and practical ethic of the early capitalists. The entrepreneurs who defined early capitalism were relentless in their efforts to expand their business, and they viewed this behavior as a moral imperative, not as an unpleasant but unavoidable necessity imposed on them by the forces of competition. They took pride in their industriousness, having nothing but scorn for those who were too lazy or ne'er-do-well [as they saw it] to persevere at their chosen line of trade. [Note the original meaning of the phrase "ne'er-do-well." We now use it to describe someone who is casual and lackadaisical in his or her habits, but the literal meaning of the phrase is that someone with that manner of action will never do well, i.e., never flourish, make a success of business, show a profit.] These early capitalists, Weber says, did not merely work hard. They showed the most profound moral disapproval of those who did not. Hard, relentless work was a virtue, and sloth a sin.

The second characteristic was a meticulous, precise keeping of records and making of economic calculations, what Weber calls a thoroughgoing rationalization of economic activity. In part this manifested itself in the use of double entry bookkeeping methods that allowed the entrepreneur to expenditures and receipts with an exactitude that was quite different from the record keeping of previous generations of merchants and farmers. But the rationalization of economic activity went beyond what was required for successful business and took on a quality of righteous virtue all its own,

To illustrate this idea, let me for a moment speak about a completely different sphere of activity in which exactly the same characteristics are revealed. When I taught at the University of Chicago in 1961-63, one of my colleagues was a Professor of Psychology named David Bakan, who was unusual in the field for being an expert both on the theories of Sigmund Freud and also on the statistical methods then being used by experimental psychologists. Bakan did a close examination of the publications and journals of the nineteenth century American proponents of what was called Behavioral Psychology, and made the following two fascinating discoveries. First, almost to a man [they were all men], they were religious Protestants from small towns who had come to big cities like Chicago and were struggling to adjust to the religious and cultural heterogeneity of big city life, so different from the homogeneity in which they had grown up. And second, the journals in which they published their results would routinely turn back submitted their academic papers because they had not done enough experiments to support their findings, even though Bakan showed that their results were in fact statistically significant with the numbers of experiments they had performed. The journal editors treated the doing of experiments not as a scientific necessity but rather as an evidence of virtue. Too few experiments meant shirking on the job, being lazy, falling short, regardless of the scientific validity of their claims! Bakan, who was of course quite familiar with Weber's work, was demonstrating that the influence of the Protestant mindset manifested itself in other areas besides business.

The third characteristic of the early Protestant businessmen, and to Weber clearly the most important, was the fact that they viewed their capitalist activities as the expression of what in religious terms is labeled "a calling." Tomorrow, I shall talk about the central idea of a calling [ein Beruf, in the German. Those of you who are familiar with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach will perhaps recall the beautiful Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.]


Don Schneier said...

How, according to Weber, was the emergence of Capitalist individualism received by entrenched political hierarchies? As a threat, for example?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, that is really two questions. The entrenched religious hierarchy resisted Protestantism to the death, of course -- see the Thirty Years War, which was very violent, not to speak of the English Civil War! The reaction to the development of capitalism was complicated. In England, the landed gentry rented their land out to the agricultural entrepreneurs because they were land poor [i.e., had a desperate need for cash, which the entrepreneurs could provide.] Capitalism exploded in the cities, creating a class of newly rich entrepreneurs who were resisted socially but whose money bought them a place in the halls of the powerful. In a place like New England, there was no pre-existing hereditary hierarchy to push back. Needless to say, this is a very complicated story, with variations in every locality.

Marinus said...

I must take a small offense at how you describe the Protestant (rather, Reformed) psychology of someone who believes in predestination, or something similar. People very often say that a life of Calvinism and the like must be tremendously dreary, and of course it isn't. These are, after all, evangelical churches, who wish to spread the happy news - my (long) experience of Calvinist churches is lots of enthusiastic repetition of phrases like 'God is love' and heartfelt exultations of joy in the face of the glory, and the infinite love and mercy of God. Asking yourself the question 'am I saved or am I damned?' over and over is neither a likely or fruitful course of action for a wholly committed Protestant. Even setting aside its real ability to cause emotional distress, it can be taken to show a certain lack of faith. The theology and practice of Protestantism does offer a great deal of support for the believer in the face of this worry - in particular, the doctrine that the Elect (who receive divine grace) shall be known by their deeds. A member of the Elect is as cheerful as you'd expect someone so favoured to be, but also hard-working, upright and possessing every kind of virtue. This, of course, does Weber's analysis no harm.

Rob said...

I was a Christian from the age of 15-16. I remember at that time I felt I was living a double life (although I liked the guidance provided by the concrete moral rules). One of outward appearance and another of my own subjective experience. I came to the conclusion some years later that no Protestant Christian can really 'believe.' Instead, there is (below the surface) a viscious circle of existential crisis that prevails. It seemed to me part of the compact (in being a Christian in the company of other Christians) was keeping this private. And this seemed utterly fraudulent.
And a seperate question, Prof. Wolff, would you be able to recommend a book on the Thiry Years War? From my studies I remember to salient things about this period. Firstly, it was the time when the alliance between the church and the state ended, and secondly, it was when (arguably) the modern state form emerged as a means to more effectively pursue the business of war. I wonder how these issues tie into the emergence of capitlaism?
All the best, RobD

LFC said...

In reply to RobD on the question of the emergence of the "modern" state form and how it ties in (or doesn't) with capitalism:

There is a huge literature on this.
A few suggestions of possible starting pts.:
I. Wallerstein, The Modern-World System
C. Tilly,Coercion, Capital and European States
D. Nexon,The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe
B. Teschke,The Myth of 1648
R. Bean, "War and the Birth of the Nation State," Journal of Economic History ('73)

Rob said...

Thanks very much for the suggestions. I'll certainly look a few of them up (I remember the Tilly book, now). The Teschke book looks very interesting. I was, before, fascinated by the 1640-60 period in England and also the Europe wide interregnum. I read Christoper Hill's 'The world Turned Upside Down' when i was a postgrad. He charts periods on organised spiritua-political anarchy in communities in England during the lapse in authority. But I'm still very much unreconciled on another question. At the same time the phenomenon of mercenarism was hitting it's peak in Europe and (I think) the land owners (aristocracy)were increasingly indebting and undermining themselves to the bankers. However, on the continent the Aristocracy (mostly) won out, unlike in England (at first). I see another concept mixed into this question: if the midsets of men are like a vast sea that cannot be possessed how does this relate to what is politically possible at a given time. Lastly, in this sense, is history circular in some sense... is it predictable... might something like the rise of mercenaries happen again (is it happening again now in transnational corporate form?) and can we chart this phenomenon in relation to mindset, and is it comparable to the C17th? I'm yet to read the likes of Lovejoy, Hegel or Spengler on this type of idea. But on the whole I remain rather muddled on this reoccuring thought...

all the best, RobD