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Thursday, October 27, 2011


Weber takes as his subject for explanation "the origin of ... sober bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labor." He notes that once capitalism is an established economic system, the behavior of capitalists is to a large measure determined by the forces of market competition. An entrepreneur who does not adopt rationally calculated methods of business will be driven to the wall by those who do. But it is a quite different matter to determine where this rather distinctive mode of activity comes from, how it arises. As we shall see, Weber will conclude that the answer to this question lies in "the connection of the spirit of modern economic life with the ascetic ethics of rational Protestantism."

Two preliminary points, before we launch into Weber's argument. The first -- the relationship between the scholarly research of specialists and an interpretative essay like this one -- is not strictly relevant to this tutorial, but I cannot resist quoting what Weber has to say, because it speaks so directly to the pontificating of people like Thomas Friedman, who read a book and become instant experts. "The uninitiated," Weber says, "must be warned against exaggerating the importance of these [i.e., Weber's] investigations." Only those who know the languages and have made a study of China or India or Egypt can speak with any authority about those civilizations, and Weber is quite prepared to submit his suggestions to their evaluation. Then he writes, "Fashion and the zeal of the literati would have us think that the specialist can to-day be spared, or degraded to a position subordinate to that of the seer. Almost all sciences owe something to dilettantes, often very valuable view-points. But dilettantism as a leading principle would be the end of science. He who yearns for seeing should go to the cinema." Perhaps you can see why I love that man!

The second point is an important matter of information for those of you who are not as conversant with the struggle between The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers as you should be. This is going to take a while, so settle down. By the way, if you are not a devout Christian of some sort, and I rather suspect that very few of my regular readers are, you may be a trifle impatient with all of this theological business, but it is absolutely essential that you understand it, because otherwise you will simply not be able to make sense out of Weber's argument. You may be able to tell that I actually rather like this stuff, despite being an atheist. Go figure.

When Martin Luther, followed by John Calvin and many others, challenged the Catholic Church and eventually broke with it decisively, there were two great areas of contention between them: doctrine and church organization. Although issues of church organization were extremely important in the Protestant Reformation, touching on the authority of the Pope, the apostolic succession of the priesthood, and even such apparently worldly matters as church income and landed property, it is doctrinal matters on which Weber concentrates in his essay.

Central to the challenge to the official Roman Catholic doctrine was the question of the conditions or circumstances in which an individual soul could achieve salvation, which was to say eternal life in heaven rather than an eternity of hellfire and damnation. Catholics and Protestants agreed that as a consequence of Adam's disobedience of God's commands in the Garden of Eden, an Original Sin has been passed on to all of Adam's descendents, which is to say all mankind, who are born with this spiritual blemish on their souls, and hence are incapable of obeying God's Law with the completeness and perfection that would earn them salvation. The point of the Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection is precisely that God offers his Only Begotten Son as a sacrifice to atone for Man's sinfulness, thus making salvation at least possible. Thus far, the Catholics and Protestants were in agreement. However, the Catholic Church maintains that through good works, contrition, confession, and atonement, a human being under the guidance of the Church can overcome Adam's curse and avail himself or herself of the free gift of Salvation made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who is called Redeemer precisely because his sacrifice redeems us, gives us an opportunity for a salvation that we have not earned. It should be obvious that if all of this is true, then the Church is crucially important, for it holds a monopoly on the means of salvation.

On just this point, Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers disagreed. Luther, famously, when reading a central passage in the Epistles of Paul, wrote in the margin of his copy that salvation is by faith alone [sole fide], not by faith and good works. If you are not of a religious turn of mind, you might imagine that this would be good news [i.e., literally gospel, or in the Greek evangelion], and officially it is. But psychologically, it imposes an almost unbearable burden. The problem is this: To have faith means to believe without the slightest hesitation or reservation that God will keep the promise of salvation that he brought to Man in the form of Jesus Christ. [By the way, "I believe in God" does not, to a Christian, mean "I believe that God exists." It means "I believe that God will keep his promise, despite the fact that there is not, and cannot be, any visible evidence that He will.]

Now, just as it is impossible for sinful Man to fulfill God's Commandments [hence the importance of Jesus' Immaculate Conception -- which is to say, Conception without the blemish of Original Sin. He and He alone among men is capable of perfect obedience to God's law]; so Man can have Faith only if God makes it possible for him to do so, and this capacity for Faith, which is a gift from God, is called Grace. But how am I to know whether I have been the recipient of God's Grace, hence capable of Faith, hence saved? My immortal soul and my eternal future depend on it and it alone. No good works, no contrition, confession, absolution, and atonement can wipe away the stain of Original Sin even for a moment and make me eligible for salvation. Hence, if I am a believing Protestant, I will be in a perpetual state of anxiety about whether I have been the recipient of Grace, and hence am capable of Faith. And any inner doubts that I may find myself having merely intensify this anxiety by seemingly indicating that my belief is flagging, and hence that God's Grace has in fact not shone on me.

To this religio-psychological situation, fraught with the most intense existential angst, John Calvin added one more element that ratcheted up the anxiety to a truly horrific level: the doctrine of predestination. Tomorrow, we shall confront this centerpiece of Puritan theology, whose secularized consequences, Weber will argue, gave us the distinctive form of ascetic rationalized economic activity that we know as capitalism.


Michael said...

A minor quibble from a former Catholic: the immaculate conception dogma says that Mary was conceived without original sin. The line, going back to Augustine, is that original sin is passed on via sexual intercourse. (It's not too much of a distortion to say that the whole thing is genetic. Notice that the subtitle of Kierkegaard's Concept of Anxiety refers to hereditary sin; this is an exact translation of the standard Danish term for original sin.)

Since Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin (so the story goes), no sex was involved. Still, one might worry that Mary could have passed on her own original sin to Jesus. The point of the immaculate conception is that she too was born without original sin, so she had nothing to pass on.

Why wasn't Mary, whose parents conceived her in the standard way, corrupted by original sin? The relevant papal bull just says something about "a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God." Explanations have to stop somewhere, I guess.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am chastened and humbled! Thank you for that clarification, of which, I ama shamed to admit, I was unaware.

Unknown said...

Robert, as a somewhat regular reader, I have to respond to your comment directly above. I consider myself a thoughtful guy, but your intelligence and insight often inspire me. Cut yourself some slack! As far ahead as you are from most of the pack, I think you are allowed a mistake or two, without suffering ANY shame. And thank you, Michael, for that "insider" knowledge! ;-)