23 December 2011

Short Synopsis of R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Fairly recently, I posted a review of Max Weber's classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  A very similar work that gets lumped with Weber in the historiography of the Protestant Ethic is R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  Tawney came from a slightly different standpoint as a British Christian socialist, but here is a short overview of his major argument, taken from my recent historiography on the Puritans:

British historian R. H. Tawney proposed a similar argument to Weber in his 1926 work Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  However, he did not focus upon Calvinism in general, but rather the English Puritans as the progenitors of capitalism.  As a Christian socialist, Tawney actually bemoaned the individualism and loss of concern for the common good that he saw arising out of the Puritan movement.  Like Weber, he saw Luther tied more to the medieval understanding of business.  Unlike Weber, Tawney still viewed Calvin as more of a medievalist, although he allowed that Calvin gave a few concessions to the business class regarding the charging of interest.  He also distinguished between the Puritans who left for the New World and those who remained in England.  The former attempted to imitate Calvin’s Geneva with their concern for the commonwealth, while the latter became enamored with business and became a fairly sizable proportion of the wealthy merchant class in the mother country.  While he mentioned that the first Puritans who went to the New World were more communitarian in their dealings, he did not really discuss why they changed quite rapidly in their viewpoint toward business.[1]     
Tawney and Weber both dwelt on the relationship between religion and capitalism.  Many people still hold to this view today.  However, people at that time of the Puritans did not view what they were doing as overly Christian, because the use of interest and profiteering were major areas of conflict between churches and businessmen.  It is quite interesting how merchants came to be one of the more revered classes in the modern world, after spending the medieval era as a sort of necessary evil.  I wonder what people writing about Christians and business in the twenty-first century will write when looking back at our time. 

[1] R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: John Murray, 1926).

No comments:

Post a Comment