Probably the most common reading of Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that capitalism appeared for the first time with English Puritans (Calvinists) of the seventeenth century, as though the “impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money” began decisively at this time or with this people (17). Weber is sardonic in his dismissal of such a reading. The impulse to acquisition, he says, “has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given” (17). He insists that “[i]t should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit” (17). Weber’s argument is centered rather on a more basic and interesting phenomenon: what he terms the “disenchantment” (die Entzauberung, or Rationalisierung, “rationalization”) of life and work in Puritan theology.
In summary, we may say that Puritanism’s peculiar God-centeredness, according to Weber, conceived God’s transcendence “negatively”: God was pervasively “present” in the world only through the influence of his “absence.” The human being never participates intrinsically in God’s goodness. On the contrary, man remains a subject to whom that goodness must be imputed, incomprehensively and from outside. Likewise the things of the world are drained of all intrinsic worth.
Puritan “disenchantment” thus involves an utterly utilitarian view of the world. Man’s purpose in the world is to be ever-active in “rationalizing” things in maiorem Dei gloriam. But the point is that this “rationalizing” process is conceived in a thoroughly instrumentalized fashion. Nothing in the cosmos really bears value—or salvific value in relation to God—save as “rationalized” via the power of human activity. …
In this light, “the most urgent task” for the Puritan becomes “the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment”—as a necessary condition for bringing “order into . . . conduct” (119). “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God” (157‒58). Restlessness becomes a sign of God’s salvific action. Inactive contemplation is valueless, or even directly reprehensible insofar as it detracts from the orderly demands of daily work. What gives glory to God, in a word, is the incessantly active performance of his will in one’s “worldly calling” (157‒58). …
It is important to see that the Puritan ethos as described by Weber persists in America even when, over time, the strength of Puritan piety wanes. Pious Americans and secularized Americans continue to occupy largely the same cultural space, insofar as they both presume a distant God who is most effectively present in and to the world in his “absence,” and insofar as they (consequently) approach the things of the world most basically as apt for rationalization—if not any longer as a sign (for the religiously inclined) of God’s imputed favor, then in the interest of enhancing comfort and advancing the (secular) human estate. What is crucial to see is the link Weber’s book defends (here set forth in terms of Puritanism and America) between the ethos of a culture and its (acknowledged or unacknowledged) assumptions regarding God and the orders of creation and civilization. This link remains even when one is unaware of these assumptions.
Weber’s argument, then, implies not only that those in America who faithfully follow Puritan theology embody this ethos, but that any who live in America are inevitably shaped by this ethos, even if unconsciously. They tend to presuppose a God who is distant from the world, or acts ungenerously (or not at all) in relation to the world, such that the world is no longer symbolic of God, bearing inherent truth, goodness, and beauty as given (qua being). Human freedom becomes a simple exercise of choice, absent of any naturally ordered love of God. Knowledge becomes a matter properly of power over things and their meaning, as distinct from first “seeing” or experiencing things as they are (contemplation). The world becomes neutral (“dumb”) stuff awaiting controlled manipulation (experiment). Leisure is identified with idleness and enjoyment of external-bodily pleasure. Work is reduced to ever-more efficient activity for the purpose of producing the ever-greater wealth that enables idle comfort. Deepening the truth, goodness, and beauty of things for their own sake and as symbols of the good God, and thus simultaneously toward liturgical service, is no longer the proper concern of civilized public—economic, political, academic—order.
Weber’s argument in the end implies that no religion has more thoroughly instrumentalized the world and work and leisure than has Puritanism.
I’m instantly skeptical when I hear someone cast “capitalism” in a negative light, because behind the slight air of scorn that almost always accompanies the comment is some specific complaint or reading-into of a social/moral/cultural activity that the person has a problem with and assigns to “capitalism” broadly, rather than the actor specifically. Dr. Schindler sheds light for me on one of the legitimate problems of our age—this cultural “breathing in” of the Puritan mentality of justification through activity/work—that makes it difficult to even speak about “capitalism” without meaning a sort of capitalism wherein no one is ever at peace.
Catholics have lots of work to do if we’re ever to reform a cultural sense of capitalism that is closer to what Michael Novak so clearly recognized it is, at its core: an uplifting and ennobling force, so long as it allowed for the creative and virtuous channeling of human energies in a way that recognizes human dignity.