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Sunday, October 30, 2011


There was in Christianity [and in other religions as well, but that is beside the point here] a long tradition and elaborate doctrine of the religious calling. Certain men and women felt themselves "called by God" to a life of intense, unremitting religious observance that took them out of the ordinary secular life and set them apart both in their behavior and even in their living circumstances. These especially religious men and women devoted their time to prayer and meditation, and sometimes even to self-flagellation to quell the temptations of the flesh. Their lives and their actions were, the Church believed, glorifying God, and a number of religious orders or organizations of such persons came into being so that groups of men or of women [they were rigidly separated] could live together, completely cut off from ordinary secular life, in quiet, ceaseless prayer. Monasteries and convents were established for such religious heroes and heroines, and it was a source of the greatest pride to families when one of their children chose to follow the religious life.

These orders were guided by a rule that specified in detail how they were to conduct themselves in the religious communities, and the rule, as well as the order, was frequently known by the name of the especially religious individual who had established it -- the Franciscans, the Benedictines, and so on. As everyone surely is well aware, from movies if in no other way, these "regular orders" [as they were called because they followed a rule] were an extremely familiar feature of medieval and early modern life, as indeed they are even today.

The rules by which the religious orders lived varied. Some permitted verbal communication, others imposed a rule of strict silence. But virtually all of them agreed in certain respects. They demanded chastity of both men and women; they demanded poverty and an extreme asceticism, a denial of the temptations of the flesh, a simplicity of dress, a humility and self-control in all things. Needless to say, they demanded ceaseless prayer ad majorem dei gloriam [which is to say, "to the greater glory of God"]. And they demanded unceasing work in the calling. The monks and nuns rose early, slept little, ate lightly of simple food, and worked from before dawn until after dusk, tilling the fields of the Monastery or Convent, praying, copying holy texts, and in every way committing their entire energies to the glorification of God. Their holiness was thought not merely to glorify God and to make their own lives noble, but also to redound to the spiritual benefit of the larger society in which they were located. [Of course, the members of these orders often fell short of the demands of their calling, a fact so glaring by the sixteenth century that it became one of the principal complaints against the Church by the Reformers, but that fact, regrettable though it might be, did not alter the conception of the calling on which the orders were established.]

All Christians were enjoined to pray regularly, to attend Mass, to obey God's law, and to do what they could in their everyday lives to glorify God, but it was understood that ordinary men and women, bemired in marriage and procreation and the getting and spending of money, could not be expected to exhibit the truly heroic religiosity of those in regular orders. Secular men and women were not thought to have been called to God in that special fashion that distinguished monks and nuns. For ordinary folk, there was periodic confession, and penance, and absolution, but the Church took a realistic, even worldly view of what could be expected of the ordinary run of Christian.

The Protestant Reformers took this well-established notion of a calling and secularized it, took it out of the Monasteries and Convents [which they abolished when they could], and preached that every good Christian must treat his or her ordinary secular endeavor as a sacred calling. A silversmith, a cloth merchant, indeed even the owner of a small factory making straight pins [to invoke Adam Smith's famous example of the division of labor] was expected by the Reformed churches to exhibit that same dedication, rigor, and commitment to that secular task with which a that monk or a nun was expected to commit to prayer and meditation -- and for the same reason: ad majorem dei gloriam.

There seems to be a certain manifest contradiction in this notion of a secular calling. A merchant or entrepreneur was supposed to work diligently from before dawn until after dusk expanding his business for the glory of God, but he was also expected to be modest, frugal, even ascetic in his personal consumption: No lavish multi-course dinners at which he was waited on by clouds of liveried servants; No expensive coach-and-four to take him to and from his place of business; No ribbons and bows and ornamental sword with bejeweled hilt to announce to the world the magnitude of his success. Success in business was seen as a sign of election -- a ”proof" as it was called. But if the pious Calvinist or Baptist was expected not to consume what his hard work had earned, what then was he to do with his money? The answer was clear -- he must reinvest it so as to expand the scope of his business ad majorem dei gloriam.

Karl Marx, with characteristic brilliance, insight, and wit, captured in a phrase this peculiar merger of the religious and the secular, in Capital Volume One: "Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!" [Chapter Twenty-Four]. It is worth quoting the next several sentences, even though this is a mini-tutorial on Max Weber, not on Karl Marx: "Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. [24] But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity? If to classical economy, the proletarian is but a machine for the production of surplus-value; on the other hand, the capitalist is in its eyes only a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital."

We might say that whereas Marx correctly identified the inner logic of capitalist accumulation as early as 1867, Weber in 1904 undertook to identify the sources of the psychological energy that was required to transform ordinary men and women into instruments of that accumulation process.

Tomorrow I shall complete my discussion of the secular calling and bring this mini-tutorial to a close.

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