Sunday, July 2, 2017
Capitalism and Calvinism by Emile Doumergue 1909
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Max Weber (Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism) sums up modern culture in the word, "capitalism". "The spirit of capitalism" is the modern spirit. Then, he sums up the moral, practical and social tendency of Protestantism in the word, "asceticism"; but a very special asceticism, which must always be accompanied by two epithets: Protestant)and intra-mundane. And finally Weber's special thesis 1s that this Protestant asceticism of the 16th century has been one of the great factors of the capitalistic or modern spirit.
This is how he expresses himself: "The spirit of labor", of "progress", or whatever you wish to call it, to which one is inclined to attribute the awakening of Protestantism, must not, as it is the habit nowadays to do, be taken in a Rationalistic sense (aufklarerisch). The old Protestantism of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Voet, concerned itself little with what to-day is called "progress". If, then, there is an intimate kinship between the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture, we must try to find this relationship, rightly or wrongly, not in a pretended "delight in the world" (joie du monde), more or less materialistic, or at least anti-ascetic, but rather in purely religious principles. Montsquieu (Esprit des Lois, xx, 7) says of the English: "They are the people of the world who have best known how to excel at the same time in three great things: religion, commerce and liberty". Did their superiority in the domain of industry and their capacity for appropriating liberal political institutions, of which we shall speak elsewhere, depend on the religious ideas which are a matter of record, according to Montesquieu? Such is the question to which Weber answers Yes, with a knowledge that can be called positive, avoiding equally Rationalism (Aufklarung) on the one hand, and the Middle Ages on the other. "The modern conception, indicated by the expression, 'spirit of capitalism', would have been proscribed in antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages, as sordid avarice and mentality without dignity". In the Middle Ages it was the general opinion that the merchant could not please God (Deo placere non potest); that there was something shameful (pudendum) in a mercantile condition. And it was necessary to break away from this "tradition" of antiquity and of the Middle Ages in order to make way for modern times.
Who broke with this tradition? The Protestantism of the 16th century; the Protestantism and not the Rationalism. Those who are tempted to believe that the "capitalistic spirit" is a product of Rationalism, and that Protestantism intervenes only so far as it is a forerunner of Rationalism, Weber confronts simply with the facts.
Protestantism has worked through its religious conceptions, properly so-called, in the list of which Weber puts the great idea of vocation. The Latin-Catholic peoples have no word, any more than has classical antiquity, to express this idea of vocation (Beruf), in the sense of social condition, life in a determined sphere. On the other hand this word exists among all Protestant peoples. "And as the significance of the word is new, so also is the idea; it is a product of the Reformation. No doubt, already in the Middle Ages certain attempts at appraising daily toil in this way are found. But what is entirely new is this: the esteeming the accomplishment of duty, in the earthly vocation, as the ideal of personal morality. This it is that has logically produced the view of the religious importance of the daily task in this world and which has given birth to the idea of vocation. Thus, that which finds its expression in this idea of vocation is the central dogma of all the old Protestant denominations, which rejects the distinction between the precepts and the counsels in Christian ethics, and indicates, as the only way of leading a life agreeable to God, not the excelling of worldly morality by monastic asceticism, but the being content merely with the fulfilment of one's duties in the world, as the situation of each requires, that is to say, fulfilling his vocation."
"That this moral character of 'vocation' is one of the merits of the Reformation, the consequences of which have been most important, and that it is specially due to Luther, is incontestable and of common notoriety." However, if Luther began, he did not continue. Luther became more and more a traditionalist. "He did not discover the new theoretical basis on which the relation between vocation and religious principles rests." "So the simple idea of vocation, in a Lutheran sense, remained (in the domain in which we are), of problematical importance."
But Calvinism came. "Calvinism, historically, is one of the incontestible factors of the 'capitalistic spirit'." And it is Calvinism that has been the most opposed to the Middle Ages. "It is with reason that Catholicism has regarded Calvinism, from its origin until to-day, as its real enemy." Luther created Protestantism; Calvin saved it.
It is seen how the article of Weber excludes the thesis of Troeltsch, and how it proves that the Reformation broke with the Middle Ages, and inaugurated modern times. Undoubtedly, in Weber's work, aside from the fundamental thesis, there are points upon which we are not in agreement with the author. But that matters little here.
We confine ourselves to formulating two regrets. The first is that Weber has called the "spirit" with which the Reformation has inspired modern culture, "the capitalistic spirit." Of course, I know Weber's reservations. I know that he is not concerned with capitalism, but with its "spirit", with that which has been its quality, to wit, a power of incessant toil systematically disciplined. This spirit, which does not urge on to pleasure, but to production, is so contrary to human nature that it could only arise through the influence of an extremely efficacious spiritual power.
From Dictionary of Political Economy, Volume 1 edited by Sir Robert Harry Inglis Palgrave 1894:
Calvin was the first theologian who rejected the current opinions regarding the sinfulness of usury. His views on this subject are to be found in his commentaries on Ex. xxii. 25; Lev. xxv. 35; Deut. xxiii. 19; Ps. xv. 5; Ezek. xviii.; Luke vi. 35, and in the famous letter (Works, vol. viii. 223, ed. Amst.) Usury is not condemned by Scripture. Scripture forbids the exaction of usury from the poor,
but allows it in the case of the rich. The laws of the Jews which prohibited the taking of interest by Jews from Jews are political not moral laws: these very laws permitted Jews to receive interest from Gentiles. Usury is repeatedly condemned in the Old Testament, but never on grounds which are valid for all Christians. The prohibition of interest in the Old Testament is a provision in the interests of the poor. The exaction of interest from the poor has often produced tumults, as in Rome. Calvin rejects with proper scorn the substitution of "usura" for "the detested word foenus," holding that there is no description of "foenus" to which the name "usura" may not be given. He exposes the evasions by which usury was exacted without being mentioned by name, a poor man requiring to repay the loan of six measures of wheat by a return of seven. The question is one not of words but of things. Aristotle's argument, accepted by Ambrose and Augustine, that usury is unnatural because money is barren, is worthless. May not a cheat make much profit by trading with another man's money? A man purchases a farm. Is not the produce convertible into money? Usury is not unlawful unless it contravenes equity. Usury therefore must not be exacted from the needy; the lender must not forget to be charitable; regard must always be had to natural equity; the borrower must be as much enriched by the transaction as the lender; our conception of justice must be drawn from the Word of God and not from prevailing usage; (6) the interests of the state as well as the individuals concerned must be considered; and the limit of interest fixed in each state must not be exceeded. But usury should not be made a means of livelihood. It is plain from this passage that Calvin rejected the two chief arguments against usury—its condemnation by Scripture, and the barrenness of money; but that he felt rather than saw the distinction between usury and interest. Whether he discerned the principle on which the payment of interest rests is doubtful. He says, indeed, that no creditor can ever lend money without loss to himself, and that usury ought to be paid to the creditor in addition to the original sum to compensate him for loss, but it is uncertain whether he saw that this principle applies in all cases. (On Ex. xxii. 25 and related passages.)
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