Calvinic Capitalists and the Cult of Profit

Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1905. Sociology.

1Behold Max Weber’s marvelous classic treatise on bourgeois capitalism as driven by “ascetic” Protestantism’s weltanschauung—“the idea of a man’s duty to his possessions” articulated so well in Benjamin Franklin’s Quaker proverbs.

This embrace of Virgil’s auri sacra fames by Calvinists and other hardliners (or “puritanical” Protestants) broke with the more otherworldly Roman Catholic tradition. Catholic teachings historically frowned on hard work and profit (beyond that needful to make a living) as conducive to avarice, akin to usury, and prejudicial to salvation. This Catholic attitude typified what Sigmund Freud would later characterize as the normal human desire for stability and security over material or experiential improvement.

The Protestant Reformation reversed this longstanding disdain for business acumen. Martin Luther went so far as to propose that the pursuit of a worldly calling enabled believers to better practice brotherly love (cue chortles from Milton Friedman). Austere sects such as Calvinism perpetuated this shift through their faith in predestination: the belief in a bureaucratic God whose arbitrary decisions cannot be influenced by good works or virtuous living. Early Puritan theologians like Richard Baxter and John Wesley wrestled with the paradox of wealth, which they saw as likely to produce sinful idleness yet also identified as a sign of divine favor.

Consequently, Puritans urged the acquisition—but not the enjoyment—of wealth as a way to glorify God and attest to one’s personal perfection. This Puritan ascetic quality eventually faded, but the cult of profit continued to flourish, giving rise, arguably, to the bourgeois decadence of Europe’s fin-de-siecle and to consumer capitalism of the post-WWII era.

Despite his Teutonic habits of repetition and generalization, Hegelian sociologist Max Weber thus offers a persuasive and thought-provoking counterpoint to Marxist materialism, reifying G. K. Chesterton’s critique of profiteers who confuse “making good” with goodness itself.

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