10 November 2011

Where Did Americans Get Their Work Ethic?

Here is a section from a historiographical paper that I'm writing on the Puritans.  I'll probably post the entire paper here later if it doesn't get reamed terribly.  I reviewed the book referred to below last year for a class on the Anglo-Atlantic World.  While the so-called Weber thesis has its detractors, it is still quite popular in the popular consciousness of American society, even in a more pluralistic age.  I can remember some undergrad professors at West Virginia Tech in the mid-1990s talking about the "Judeo-Christian ethic" or the "Protestant ethic."  Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism greatly contributed to this belief.

Many writers have attempted to depict the Puritans as a sort of proto-capitalists.  Authors such as Max Weber and R. H. Tawney popularized this motif.  Weber, a nineteenth-century sociologist, attempted to explain the rise of capitalism.  He argued that a “Protestant ethic” was the impetus that allowed for the development of capitalism.  This opposed Karl Marx’s view that class struggle led to the rise of capitalism.  Weber defined the “spirit of capitalism” as “the earning of more and more money, combined with the avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life.” (53)   

According to Weber, the Protestant idea of a calling in life (to a certain occupation or station) was crucial to the development of modern capitalism.  He contrasted the worldview of European Catholics with that of Protestant ascetic sects, such as the Calvinists, Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists.  Weber argued that medieval and early modern Catholics worked to live.  They did enough to provide for themselves and the society in which they lived, with little concern for working harder.  He then looked at the Calvinists, with their emphasis on predestination and the corresponding concern for an assurance of their salvation.  While good works would not save them, the Calvinists believed that good works were a sign of one’s election and that they would bring the desired assurance of God’s favor.  The Calvinists and other ascetic groups worked hard because of their belief that God had called them to a certain occupation.  According to Weber, instead of working to live, the Calvinists lived to work so that they could obtain assurance of their salvation.  Work in itself was done for the glory of God, and to fail to do one’s best was viewed as a sign of reprobation.  

Since the earning of money was a side benefit of work, the earning of money could then be viewed as a noble goal if done for the glory of God, rather than being done simply for the enrichment of the worker.  Weber’s main point was that this ethic was responsible for the rise of capitalism.  This Calvinist work ethic definitely applied to the Puritans.  However, Weber’s thesis did not take into account the fact that Venice, Genoa, and other Italian city-states were the originators of much that makes up modern capitalism.  These early Italian merchants did not shy away from making money, and they were not Protestant, but Catholic.  In addition, Weber did not really address the use of colonial possessions and new technology in the rise of capitalism, so there is much room for debate on his famous thesis.

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