+1 (208) 254-6996 [email protected]

Home>Social Science homework help>Sociology homework help2pagesurgent

According to Blumer, how should we approach studying society? Please complete this week’s memo based on your reading of “Society as Symbolic Action.” You may choose a reading of your choice from a different week for the comparison portion of the memo.  

Don't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay on
Memo-Sociology Theory
Just from $13/Page
Order Essay

Your memo should use the QCCQ format. QCCQ refers to quotation, concept, comparison, and question. [Quotation] A quotation should be a selection of one sentence or a phrase from an assigned reading from the week (“Society as Symbolic Action”). The quote that you choose should capture one of the key arguments of the reading (“Society as Symbolic Action”). You should then summarize or restate the quote in your own words. [Concept] Next, you explain the concept or key idea that the quote captures. [Comparison] Then you make a comparison between the assigned reading and another reading from the class. The comparison could be a discussion of how the two readings are similar or different. [Question] Lastly, you should include a critical thinking question. 

You will be assessed as follows:

  1. [Quotation] Selection of an appropriate quote (1-2 sentences) from the reading that captures an important concept or the main ideas and an appropriate restatement of the quote (3 points).
  2. [Concept] A clear explanation of the concepts or ideas that the quote captures from the reading (3 points).
  3. [Comparison] An effective and logical comparison with another reading selection (3 points).
  4. [Question] A high-level critical thinking question (1 point).

Each memo should be 2 pages, double spaced using font size 11 or 12.

Society as Symbolic Interaction

A view of human society as symbolic interaction has been fol lowed more than it has been formulated. Partial, usually fragmen tary, statements of it are to be found in the writings of a number of eminent scholars, some inside the field of sociology and some out side. Among the former we may note such scholars as Charles Hor- ton Cooley, W. I. Thomas, Robert E. Parks, E. W. Burgess, Florian Znaniecki, Ellsworth Paris, and James Mickel Williams. Among those outside the discipline we may note William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. None of these scholars, in my judgment, has presented a systematic statement of the nature of hu man group life from the standpoint of symbolic interaction. Mead stands out among all of them in laying bare the fundamental prem ises of the approach, yet he did little to develop its methodological implications for sociological study. Students who seek to depict the position of symbolic interaction may easily give different pictures of it. What I have to present should be regarded as my personal version. My aim is to present the basic premises of the point of view and to develop their methodological consequences for the study of human group life. «

The term “symbolic interaction” refers, of course, to the peculiar

“Society at Symbolic Interaction” Arnold Rose, ed., Human Behavior and Social Processes, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co.


and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or “define” each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Their “response” is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions. This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior.

The simple recognition that human beings interpret each other’s actions as the means of acting toward one another has permeated the thought and writings of many scholars of human conduct and of human group life. Yet few of them have endeavored to analyze what such interpretation implies about the nature of the human being or about the nature of human association. They are usually content with a mere recognition that “interpretation” should be caught by the student, or with a simple realization that symbols, such as cultural norms or values, must be introduced into their analyses. Only G. H. Mead, in my judgment, has sought to think through what the act of interpretation implies for an understanding of the human being, human action, and human association. The essentials of his analysis are so penetrating and profound and so important for an understanding of human group life that I wish to spell them out, even though briefly.

The key feature in Mead’s analysis is that the human being has a self. This idea should not be cast aside as esoteric or glossed over as something that is obvious and hence not worthy of attention. In declaring that the human being has a self, Mead had in mind chiefly that the human being can be the object of his own actions. He can act toward himself as he might act toward others. Each of us is familiar with actions of this sort in which the human being gets angry with himself, rebuffs himself, takes pride in himself, argues with himself, tries to bolster his own courage, tells himself that he should “do this” or not “do that,” sets goals for himself, makes compromises with himself, and plans what he is going to do. That the human being acts toward himself in these and countless other ways is a matter of easy empirical observation. To recognize that the human being can act toward himself is no mystical conjuration.

78 79

Mead regards this ability of the human being to act toward himself as the central mechanism with which the human being faces and deals with his world. This mechanism enables the human being to make indications to himself of things in his surroundings and thus to guide his actions by what he notes. Anything of which a human being is conscious is something which he is indicating to himself— the ticking of a clock, a knock at the door, the appearance of a friend, the remark made by a companion, a recognition that he has a task to perform, or the realization that he has a cold. Conversely, anything of which he is not conscious is, ipso facto, something which he is not indicating to himself. The conscious life of the human being, from the time that he awakens until he falls asleep, is a continual flow of self-indications— notations of the things with which he deals and takes into account. We are given, then, a picture of the human being as an organism which confronts its world with a mechanism for making indications to itself. This is the mechanism that is involved in interpreting the actions of others. To interpret the actions of another is to point out to oneself that the action has this or that meaning or character.

Now, according to Mead, the significance of making indications to oneself is of paramount importance. The importance lies along two lines. First, to indicate something is to extricate it from its setting, to hold it apart, to give it a meaning or, in Mead’s language, to make it into an object. An object—that is to say, anything that an individual indicates to himself—is different from a stimulus; instead of having an intrinsic character which acts on the individual and which can be identified apart from the individual, its character or meaning is conferred on it by the individual. The object is a product of the individual’s disposition to act instead of being an antecedent stimulus which evokes the act. Instead of the individual being surrounded by an environment of pre-existing objects which play upon him and call forth his behavior, the proper picture is that he constructs his objects on the basis of his on-going activity. In any of his countless acts—whether minor, like dressing himself, or major, like organizing himself for a professional career—the individual is designating different objects to himself, giving them meaning, judging their suitability to his action, and making decisions on the basis of the judgment. This is what is meant by interpretation or acting on the basis of symbols.


The second important implication of the fact that the human being makes indications to himself is that his action is constructed or built up instead of being a mere release. Whatever the action in which he is engaged, the human individual proceeds by pointing out to himself the divergent things which have to be taken into account in the course of his action. He has to note what he wants to do and how he is to do it; he has to point out to himself the various conditions which may be instrumental to his action and those which may obstruct his action; he has to take account of the demands, the expectations, the prohibitions, and the threats as they may arise in the situation in which he is acting. His action is built up step by step through a process of such self- indication. The human individual pieces together and guides his action by taking account of different things and interpreting their significance for his prospective action. There is no instance of conscious action of which this is not true.

The process of constructing action through making indications to oneself cannot be swallowed up in any of the conventional psycho- logical categories. This process is distinct from and different from what is spoken of as the “ego”—just as it is different from any other conception which conceives of the self in terms of composition or organization. Self-indication is a moving communicative process in which the individual notes things, assesses them, gives them a meaning, and decides to act on the basis of the meaning. The human being stands over against the world, or against “alters,” with such a process and not with a mere ego. Further, the process of self-indication cannot be subsumed under the forces, whether from the outside or inside, which are presumed to play upon the individual to produce his behavior. Environmental pressures, external stimuli, organic drives, wishes, attitudes, feelings, ideas, and their like do not cover or explain the process of self-indication. The process of self-indication stands over against them in that the individual points out to himself and interprets the appearance or expression of such things, noting a given social demand that is made on him, recognizing a command, observing that he is hungry, realizing that he wishes to buy something, aware that he has a given feeling, conscious that he dislikes eating with someone he despises, or aware that he is thinking of doing some given thing. By virtue of indicating such things to himself, he places himself over against them and is able to act back against them, accepting them, rejecting them, or transform-

80 81

ing them in accordance with how he defines or interprets them. His behavior, accordingly, is not a result of such things as environmental pressures, stimuli, motives, attitudes, and ideas but arises instead from how he interprets and handles these things in the action which he is constructing. The process of self-indication by means of which human action is formed cannot be accounted for by factors which precede the act. The process of self-indication exists in its own right and must be accepted and studied as such. It is through this process that the human being constructs his conscious action.

Now Mead recognizes that the formation of action by the individual through a process of self-indication always takes place in a social context. Since this matter is so vital to an understanding of symbolic interaction it needs to be explained carefully. Fundamentally, group action takes the form of a fitting together of individual lines of action. Each individual aligns his action to the action of others by ascertaining what they are doing or what they intend to do—that is, by getting the meaning of their acts. For Mead, this is done by the individual “taking the role” of others—either the role of a specific person or the role of a group (Mead’s “generalized other”). In taking such roles the individual seeks to ascertain the intention or direction of the acts of others. He forms and aligns his own action on the basis of such interpretation of the acts of others. This is the fundamental way in which group action takes place in human society.

The foregoing are the essential features, as I see them, in Mead’s analysis of the bases of symbolic interaction. They presuppose the following: that human society is made up of individuals who have selves (that is, make indications to themselves); that individual action is a construction and not a release, being built up by the individual through noting and interpreting features of the situations in which he acts; that group or collective action consists of the aligning of individual actions, brought about by the individuals’ interpreting or taking into account each other’s actions. Since my purpose is to present and not to defend the position of symbolic interaction I shall not endeavor in this essay to advance support for the three premises which I have just indicated. I wish merely to say that the three premises can be easily verified empirically. I know of no instance of human group action to which the three permises do not apply. The reader is challenged to find or think of a single instance which they do not fit.


I wish now to point out that sociological views of human society are, in general, markedly at variance with the premises which I have indicated as underlying symbolic interaction. Indeed, the predominant number of such views, especially those in vogue at the present time, do not see or treat human society as symbolic interaction. Wedded, as they tend to be, to some form of sociological determinism, they adopt images of human society, of individuals in it, and of group action which do not square with the premises of symbolic interaction. I wish to say a few words about the major lines of vari- ance.

Sociological thought rarely recognizes or treats human societies as composed of individuals who have selves. Instead, they assume human beings to be merely organisms with some kind of organization, responding to forces which play upon them. Generally, although not exclusively, these forces are lodged in the make-up of the society, as in the case of “social system,” “social structure,” “culture,” “status position,” “social role,” “custom,” “institution,” “collective representation,” “social situation,” “social norm,” and “values.” The assumption is that the behavior of people as members of a society is an expression of the play on them of these kinds of factors or forces. This, of course, is the logical position which is necessarily taken when the scholar explains their behavior or phases of their behavior in terms of one or another of such social factors. The individuals who compose a human society are treated as the media through which such factors operate, and the social action of such individuals is regarded as an expression of such factors. This approach or point of view denies, or at least ignores, that human beings have selves— that they act by making indications to themselves. Incidentally, the “self” is not brought into the picture by introducing such items as organic drives, motives, attitudes, feelings, internalized social factors, or psychological components. Such psychological factors have the same status as the social factors mentioned: they are regarded as factors which play on the individual to produce his action. They do not constitute the process of self- indication. The process of self-indication stands over against them, just as it stands over against the social factors which play on the human being. Practically all sociological conceptions of human society fail to recognize that the individuals who compose it have selves in the sense spoken of.

Correspondingly, such sociological conceptions do not regard the

82 83

social actions of individuals in human society as being constructed by them through a process of interpretation. Instead, action is treated as a product of factors which play on and through individuals. The social behavior of people is not seen as built up by them through an interpretation of objects, situations, or the actions of others. If a place is given to “interpretation,” the interpretation is regarded as merely an expression of other factors (such as motives) which precede the act, and accordingly disappears as a factor in its own right. Hence, the social action of people is treated as an outward flow or expression of forces playing on them rather than as acts which are built up by people through their interpretation of the situations in which they are placed.

These remarks suggest another significant line of difference between general sociological views and the position of symbolic interaction. These two sets of views differ in where they lodge social action. Under the perspective of symbolic interaction, social action is lodged in acting individuals who fit their respective lines of action to one another through a process of interpretation; group action is the collective action of such individuals. As opposed to this view, sociological conceptions generally lodge social action in the action of society or in some unit of society. Examples of this are legion. Let me cite a few. Some conceptions, in treating societies or human groups as “social systems,” regard group action as an expression of a system, either in a state of balance or seeking to achieve balance. Or group action is conceived as an expression of the “functions” of a society or of a group. Or group action is regarded as the outward expression of elements lodged in society or the group, such as cultural demands, societal purposes, social values, or institutional stresses. These typical conceptions ignore or blot out a view of group life or of group action as consisting of the collective or concerted actions of individuals seeking to meet their life situations. If recognized at all, the efforts of people to develop collective acts to meet their situations are subsumed under the play of underlying or transcending forces which are lodged in society or its parts. The individuals composing the society or the group become “carriers,” or media for the expression of such forces; and the interpretative behavior by means of which people form their actions is merely a coerced link in the play of such forces.

The indication of the foregoing lines of variance should help to


put the position of symbolic interaction in better perspective. In the remaining discussion I wish to sketch somewhat more fully how human society appears in terms of symbolic interaction and to point out some methodological implications.

Human society is to be seen as consisting of acting people, and the life of the society is to be seen as consisting of their actions. The acting units may be separate individuals, collectivities whose members are acting together on a common quest, or organizations acting on behalf of a constituency. Respective examples are individual purchasers in a market, a play group or missionary band, and a business corporation or a national professional association. There is no empirically observable activity in a human society that does not spring from some acting unit. This banal statement needs to be stressed in light of the common practice of sociologists of reducing human society to social units that do not act—for example, social classes in modern society. Obviously, there are ways of viewing human society other than in terms of the acting units that compose it. I merely wish to point out that in respect to concrete or empirical activity human society must necessarily be seen in terms of the acting units that form it. I would add that any scheme of human society claiming to be a realistic analysis has to respect and be congruent with the empirical recognition that a human society consists of acting units.

Corresponding respect must be shown to the conditions under which such units act. One primary condition is that action takes place in and with regard to a situation. Whatever be the acting unit —an individual, a family, a school, a church, a business firm, a labor union, a legislature, and so on—any particular action is formed in the light of the situation in which it takes place. This leads to the recognition of a second major condition, namely, that the action is formed or constructed by interpreting the situation. The acting unit necessarily has to identify the things which it has to take into account-tasks, opportunities, obstacles, means, demands, discomforts, dangers, and the like; it has to assess them in some fashion and it has to make decisions on the basis of the assessment. Such interpretative behavior may take place in the individual guiding his own action, in a collectivity of individuals acting in concert, or in “agents” acting on behalf of a group or organization. Group life consists of acting units developing acts to meet the situations in which they are placed.

84 85

Usually, most of the situations encountered by people in a given society are defined or “structured” by them in the same way. Through previous interaction they develop and acquire common un- derstandings or definitions of how to act in this or that situation. These common definitions enable people to act alike. The common repetitive behavior of people in such situ atio ns should not mislead the student into believing that no process of interpretation is in play; on the contrary, even though fixed, the actions of the participating people are constructed by them through a process of interpretation. Since ready-made and commonly accepted definitions are at hand, little strain is placed on people in guiding and organizing their acts. However, many other situations may not be defined in a single way by the participating people. In this event, their lines of action do not fit together readily and collective action is blocked. Interpretations have to be developed and effective accommodation of the participants to one another has to be worked out. In the case of such “undefined” situations, it is necessary to trace and study the emerging process of definition which is brought into play.

Insofar as sociologists or students of human society are concerned with the behavior of acting units, the position of symbolic interac- tion requires the student to catch the process of interpretation through which they construct their actions. This process is not to be caught merely by turning to conditions which are antecedent to the process. Such antecedent conditions are helpful in understanding the process insofar as they enter into it, but as mentioned previously they do not constitute the process. Nor can one catch the process merely by inferring its nature from the overt action which is its product. To catch the process, the student must take the role of the acting unit whose behavior he is studying. Since the interpretation is being made by the acting unit in terms of objects designated and appraised, meanings acquired, and decisions made, the process has to be seen from the standpoint of the acting unit. It is the recognition of this fact that makes the research work of such scholars as R. E. Park and W. I. Thomas so notable. To t r y to catch the interpretative process by remaining aloof as a so-called “objective” observer and refusing to take the role of the acting unit is to risk the worst kind of subjectivism—the objective observer is likely to fill in the process of interpretation with his own surmises in place of catching the process as it occurs in the experience of the acting unit which uses it.


By and large, of course, sociologists do not study human society in terms of its acting units. Instead, they are disposed to view hu- man society in terms of structure or organization and to treat social action as an expression of such structure or organization. Thus, reliance is placed on such structural categories as social system, cul- ture, norms, values, social stratification, status positions, social roles and institutional organization. These are used both to analyze hu- man society and to account for social action within it. Other major interests of sociological scholars center around this focal theme of organization. One line of interest is to view organization in terms of the functions it is supposed to perform. Another line of interest is to study societal organization as a system seeking equilibrium; here the scholar endeavors to detect mechanisms which are indigenous to the system. Another line of interest is to identify forces which play upon organization to bring about changes in it; here the scholar endeavors, especially through comparative study, to isolate a relation between causative factors and structural results. These various lines of sociological perspective and interest, which are so strongly entrenched today, leap over the acting units of a society and bypass the interpretative process by which such acting units build up their actions.

These respective concerns with organization on one hand and with acting units on the other hand set the essential difference between conventional views of human society and the view of it implied in symbolic interaction. The latter view recognizes the presence of organization to human society and respects its importance. How- ( ever, it sees and treats organization differently. The difference is along two major lines. First, from the standpoint of symbolic inter- action the organization of a human society is the framework inside of which social action takes place and is not the determinant of that action. Second, such organization and changes in it are the product of the activity of acting units and not of “forces” which leave such acting units out of account. Each of these two major lines of dif- ference should be explained briefly in order to obtain a better understanding of how human society appears in terms of symbolic interaction.

From the standpoint of symbolic interaction, social organization is a framework inside of which acting units develop their actions. Structural features, such as “culture,” “social systems,” “social strati- fication,” or “social roles,” set conditions for their action but do not

determine their action. People—that is, acting units—do not act toward culture, social structure or the like; they act toward situ- ations. Social organization enters into action only to the extent to which it shapes situations in which people act, and to the extent to which it supplies fixed sets of symbols which people use in interpret- ing their situations. These two forms of influence of social organiza- tion are important. In the case of settled and stabilized societies, such as isolated primitive tribes and peasant communities, the influence is certain to be profound. In the case ot human societies, particularly modern societies, in which streams of new situations arise and old situations become unstable, the influence of organization decreases. One should bear in mind that the most important element confronting an acting unit in situations is the actions of other acting units. In modern society, with its increasing criss-crossing of lines of action, it is common for situations to arise in which the actions of participants are not previously regulari/ed and standardized. To this extent, existing social organization does not shape the situations. Correspondingly, the symbols or tools of interpretation used by act- ing units in such situations may vary and s h i f t considerably. For these reasons, social action may go beyond, or depart from, existing organization in any of its structural dimensions. The organization of a human society is not to be identified w i t h the process of inter- pretation used by its acting units; even though it affects that process, it does not embrace or cover the process.

Perhaps the most outstanding consequence of viewing human society as organization is to overlook the part plaved by acting units in social change. The conventional procedure of sociologists is (a) to identify human society (or some part of it’ in terms of an established or organized form, (b) to identify some factor or condition of change playing upon the human society or the given part of it, and (c) to identify the new form assumed by the society following upon the play of the factor of change. Such observations permit the student to couch propositions to the effect that a given factor of change playing upon a given organized form results in a given new organized form. Examples ranging from crude to refined statements are legion, such as that an economic depression increase? solidarity in the families of workingmen or that industrialization replaces extended families by nuclear families. My concern here is not with the validity of such propositions but with the methodological position


which they presuppose. Essentially, such propositions either ignore the role of the interpretative behavior of acting units in the given instance of change, or else regard the interpretative behavior as coerced by the factor of change. I wish to point out that any line of social change, since it involves change in human action, is necessarily mediated by interpretation on the part of the people caught up in the change—the change appears in the form of new situations in which people have to construct new forms of action. Also, in line with what has been said previously, interpretations of new situations are not predetermined by conditions antecedent to the situations but depend on what is taken into account and assessed in the actual situations in which behavior is formed. Variations in interpretation may readily occur as different acting units cut out different objects in the situation, or give different weight to the objects which they note, or piece objects together in different patterns. In formulating propositions of social change, it would be wise to recognize that any given line of such change is mediated by acting units interpreting the situations with which they are confronted.

Students of human society will have to face the question of whether their preoccupation with categories of structure and organization can be squared with the interpretative process by means of which human beings, individually and collectively, act in human society. It is the discrepancy between the two which plagues such students in their efforts to attain scientific propositions of the sort achieved in the physical and biological sciences. It is this discrepancy, further, which is chiefly responsible for their difficulty in fitting hypothetical propositions to new arrays of empirical data. Efforts are made, of course, to overcome these shortcomings by devising new structural categories, by formulating new structural hypotheses, by developing more refined techniques of research, and even by formulating new methodological schemes of a structural character. These efforts continue to ignore or to explain away the interpretative process by which people act, individually and collectively, in society. The question remains whether human society or social action can be successfully analyzed by schemes which refuse to recognize human beings as they are, namely, as persons constructing individual and collective action through an interpretation of the situations which confront them.

88 89

Memo 1

Quotation: “It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless

indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In

one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked,

shameless, direct, brutal exploitation”(Marx and Engels, 16). In this quote from “Bourgeois and

Proletarians”, “it” refers to the bourgeoisie. The quote explains how through capitalism, the

bourgeoisie have created a system where commodities are no longer given value based on their

use or worth to the buyer, but are instead only seen for their exchange value. It also states how

capitalism has sacrificed individual freedoms for free trade. Instead of the proletariat being free

to produce whatever commodity they choose, capitalism dictates what they will produce and

allows for the exploitation of workers, which is sustained through religious and political


Concept: This quote highlights how capitalism has changed the structure of society and created

class inequality between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The bourgeoisie are those who own the

means of production and the proletariat are the workers. Industrialization has changed the

structure of society because commodities, meaning goods and services, are being produced in

factories instead of by individual merchants. Removing this freedom of the worker to choose and

connect with the commodity they produce results in alienation. Marx argues that the machinery

disconnects the workers from themselves, so they work only for money and no longer find the

work fulfilling. Furthermore, the quote references “exchange value”, which is the idea that

commodities get their value based on how much money they are worth. This is a shift from how

commodities were viewed based on their “personal worth” before capitalism and

industrialization, meaning that commodities previously received value based on how useful the

buyer viewed them as. Lastly, this quote references that there is exploitation of the proletariat

under capitalism. Competition among the bourgeoisie drives them to continuously seek ways to

produce goods more cheaply and efficiently, which means they will pay the workers the lowest

possible wage. The bourgeoisie will continue to exploit the proletariat by trying to get the

maximum amount of labor from them.

Comparison: In Weber’s essay titled, “Class, Status, Party”, he proposes a more complicated

way to view division and inequality in society. Similarly to Marx, he acknowledges that

ownership and lack of ownership of property define one’s class, but Weber describes how class

can also be further divided by the type of property one owns. While Marx mainly focuses on the

economic division of society, Weber also discusses the social divisions within society. He

described how status groups, which are communities that share the same way of life, contribute

to power or lack of power in society. People of different classes can be in the same status groups,

therefore Weber disagrees with Marx by arguing that society would still be unequal if there were

no economic class distinctions. On the other hand Weber agrees with Marx when he says that

religion can sustain inequality, but Weber’s reasoning is that different social systems dictate the

way people interact with each other, which ensures status distinctions. While Weber agrees that

economics are important in shaping one’s way of life, honor in a status group does not come

purely from ownership of property.

Question: What would Weber predict for the future of society? Does he agree with Marx that

capitalism will eventually destroy itself, or does his multidimensional view of inequality make

the future of society more complicated to predict?



In order to understand the connection between the fundamental religious ideas of ascetic Protestantism and its maxims for every- day economic conduct, it is necessary to examine with especial care such writings as have evidently been derived from minis- terial practice. For in a time in which the beyond meant every- thing, when the social position of the Christian depended upon his admission to the Communion, the clergyman, through his ministry, Church discipline, and preaching, exercised an influ- ence (as a glance at collections of consilia, casus conscientiæ, etc., shows) which we modern men are entirely unable to picture. In such a time the religious forces which express themselves through such channels are the decisive influences in the forma- tion of national character.

For the purposes of this chapter, though by no means for all purposes, we can treat ascetic Protestantism as a single whole. But since that side of English Puritanism which was derived from Calvinism gives the most consistent religious basis for the

idea of the calling, we shall, following our previous method, place one of its representatives at the centre of the discussion. Richard Baxter stands out above many other writers on Puritan ethics, both because of his eminently practical and realistic atti- tude, and, at the same time, because of the universal recognition accorded to his works, which have gone through many new editions and translations. He was a Presbyterian and an apologist of the Westminster Synod, but at the same time, like so many of the best spirits of his time, gradually grew away from the dogmas of pure Calvinism. At heart he opposed Cromwell’s usurpation as he would any revolution. He was unfavourable to the sects and the fanatical enthusiasm of the saints, but was very broad-minded about external peculiarities and objective towards his opponents. He sought his field of labour most especially in the practical promotion of the moral life through the Church. In the pursuit of this end, as one of the most successful ministers known to history, he placed his services at the disposal of the Parliamentary Government, of Cromwell, and of the Restora- tion,1 until he retired from office under the last, before St. Bartholomew’s day. His Christian Directory is the most complete compendium of Puritan ethics, and is continually adjusted to the practical experiences of his own ministerial activity. In com- parison we shall make use of Spener’s Theologische Bedenken, as representative of German Pietism, Barclay’s Apology for the Quakers, and some other representatives of ascetic ethics,2

which, however, in the interest of space, will be limited as far as possible.3

Now, in glancing at Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest, or his Christian Directory, or similar works of others,4 one is struck at first glance by the emphasis placed, in the discussion of wealth5 and its acquisition, on the ebionitic elements of the New Testament.6

Wealth as such is a great danger; its temptations never end, and its pursuit7 is not only senseless as compared with the dominat- ing importance of the Kingdom of God, but it is morally suspect.

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 103

Here asceticism seems to have turned much more sharply against the acquisition of earthly goods than it did in Calvin, who saw no hindrance to the effectiveness of the clergy in their wealth, but rather a thoroughly desirable enhancement of their prestige. Hence he permitted them to employ their means profitably. Examples of the condemnation of the pursuit of money and goods may be gathered without end from Puritan writings, and may be contrasted with the late mediæval ethical literature, which was much more open-minded on this point.

Moreover, these doubts were meant with perfect seriousness; only it is necessary to examine them somewhat more closely in order to understand their true ethical significance and implica- tions. The real moral objection is to relaxation in the security of possession,8 the enjoyment of wealth with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life. In fact, it is only because possession involves this danger of relaxation that it is objection- able at all. For the saints’ everlasting rest is in the next world; on earth man must, to be certain of his state of grace, “do the works of him who sent him, as long as it is yet day”. Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will.9

Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins. The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to make sure of one’s own election. Loss of time through sociabil- ity, idle talk,10 luxury,11 even more sleep than is necessary for health,12 six to at most eight hours, is worthy of absolute moral condemnation.13 It does not yet hold, with Franklin, that time is money, but the proposition is true in a certain spiritual sense. It is infinitely valuable because every hour lost is lost to labour for the glory of God.14 Thus inactive contemplation is also valueless, or even directly reprehensible if it is at the expense of one’s daily work.15 For it is less pleasing to God than the active performance of His will in a calling.16 Besides, Sunday is provided for that,

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism104

and, according to Baxter, it is always those who are not diligent in their callings who have no time for God when the occasion demands it.17

Accordingly, Baxter’s principal work is dominated by the con- tinually repeated, often almost passionate preaching of hard, continuous bodily or mental labour.18 It is due to a combination of two different motives.19 Labour is, on the one hand, an approved ascetic technique, as it always has been20 in the West- ern Church, in sharp contrast not only to the Orient but to almost all monastic rules the world over.21 It is in particular the specific defence against all those temptations which Puritanism united under the name of the unclean life, whose rôle for it was by no means small. The sexual asceticism of Puritanism differs only in degree, not in fundamental principle, from that of monasticism; and on account of the Puritan conception of mar- riage, its practical influence is more far-reaching than that of the latter. For sexual intercourse is permitted, even within marriage, only as the means willed by God for the increase of His glory according to the commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply.”22

Along with a moderate vegetable diet and cold baths, the same prescription is given for all sexual temptations as is used against religious doubts and a sense of moral unworthiness: “Work hard in your calling.”23 But the most important thing was that even beyond that labour came to be considered in itself 24 the end of life, ordained as such by God. St. Paul’s “He who will not work shall not eat” holds unconditionally for everyone.25 Unwilling- ness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.26

Here the difference from the mediæval view-point becomes quite evident. Thomas Aquinas also gave an interpretation of that statement of St. Paul. But for him27 labour is only necessary naturali ratione for the maintenance of individual and community. Where this end is achieved, the precept ceases to have any mean- ing. Moreover, it holds only for the race, not for every individual. It does not apply to anyone who can live without labour on his

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 105

possessions, and of course contemplation, as a spiritual form of action in the Kingdom of God, takes precedence over the com- mandment in its literal sense. Moreover, for the popular the- ology of the time, the highest form of monastic productivity lay in the increase of the Thesaurus ecclesiæ through prayer and chant.

Now only do these exceptions to the duty to labour naturally no longer hold for Baxter, but he holds most emphatically that wealth does not exempt anyone from the unconditional com- mand.28 Even the wealthy shall not eat without working, for even though they do not need to labour to support their own needs, there is God’s commandment which they, like the poor, must obey.29 For everyone without exception God’s Providence has prepared a calling, which he should profess and in which he should labour. And this calling is not, as it was for the Lutheran,30 a fate to which he must submit and which he must make the best of, but God’s commandment to the individual to work for the divine glory. This seemingly subtle difference had far-reaching psychological consequences, and became con- nected with a further development of the providential interpret- ation of the economic order which had begun in scholasticism.

The phenomenon of the division of labour and occupations in society had, among others, been interpreted by Thomas Aquinas, to whom we may most conveniently refer, as a direct consequence of the divine scheme of things. But the places assigned to each man in this cosmos follow ex causis naturalibus and are fortuitous (contingent in the Scholastic terminology). The differentiation of men into the classes and occupations estab- lished through historical development became for Luther, as we have seen, a direct result of the divine will. The perseverance of the individual in the place and within the limits which God had assigned to him was a religious duty.31 This was the more certainly the consequence since the relations of Lutheranism to the world were in general uncertain from the beginning and remained so. Ethical principles for the reform of the world could

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism106

not be found in Luther’s realm of ideas; in fact it never quite freed itself from Pauline indifference. Hence the world had to be accepted as it was, and this alone could be made a religious duty.

But in the Puritan view, the providential character of the play of private economic interests takes on a somewhat different emphasis. True to the Puritan tendency to pragmatic interpret- ations, the providential purpose of the division of labour is to be known by its fruits. On this point Baxter expresses himself in terms which more than once directly recall Adam Smith’s well- known apotheosis of the division of labour.32 The specialization of occupations leads, since it makes the development of skill possible, to a quantitative and qualitative improvement in pro- duction, and thus serves the common good, which is identical with the good of the greatest possible number. So far, the motiv- ation is purely utilitarian, and is closely related to the customary view-point of much of the secular literature of the time.33

But the characteristic Puritan element appears when Baxter sets at the head of his discussion the statement that “outside of a well-marked calling the accomplishments of a man are only cas- ual and irregular, and he spends more time in idleness than at work”, and when he concludes it as follows: “and he [the specialized worker] will carry out his work in order while another remains in constant confusion, and his business knows neither time nor place34 . . . therefore is a certain calling the best for everyone”. Irregular work, which the ordinary labourer is often forced to accept, is often unavoidable, but always an unwelcome state of transition. A man without a calling thus lacks the systematic, methodical character which is, as we have seen, demanded by worldly asceticism.

The Quaker ethic also holds that a man’s life in his calling is an exercise in ascetic virtue, a proof of his state of grace through his conscientiousness, which is expressed in the care35 and method with which he pursues his calling. What God demands is not labour in itself, but rational labour in a calling. In the

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 107

Puritan concept of the calling the emphasis is always placed on this methodical character of worldly asceticism, not, as with Luther, on the acceptance of the lot which God has irretrievably assigned to man.36

Hence the question whether anyone may combine several call- ings is answered in the affirmative, if it is useful for the common good or one’s own,37 and not injurious to anyone, and if it does not lead to unfaithfulness in one of the callings. Even a change of calling is by no means regarded as objectionable, if it is not thoughtless and is made for the purpose of pursuing a calling more pleasing to God,38 which means, on general principles, one more useful.

It is true that the usefulness of a calling, and thus its favour in the sight of God, is measured primarily in moral terms, and thus in terms of the importance of the goods produced in it for the community. But a further, and, above all, in practice the most important, criterion is found in private profitableness.39 For if that God, whose hand the Puritan sees in all the occurrences of life, shows one of His elect a chance of profit, he must do it with a purpose. Hence the faithful Christian must follow the call by taking advantage of the opportunity.40 “If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way (with- out wrong to your soul or to any other), if you refuse this, and choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be God’s steward, and to accept His gifts and use them for Him when He requireth it: you may labour to be rich for God, though not for the flesh and sin.”41

Wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.42 The parable of the servant who was rejected because he did not increase the talent which was entrusted to him seemed to say so directly.43 To

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism108

wish to be poor was, it was often argued, the same as wishing to be unhealthy;44 it is objectionable as a glorification of works and derogatory to the glory of God. Especially begging, on the part of one able to work, is not only the sin of slothfulness, but a violation of the duty of brotherly love according to the Apostle’s own word.45

The emphasis on the ascetic importance of a fixed calling provided an ethical justification of the modern specialized div- ision of labour. In a similar way the providential interpretation of profit-making justified the activities of the business man.46 The superior indulgence of the seigneur and the parvenu ostentation of the nouveau riche are equally detestable to asceticism. But, on the other hand, it has the highest ethical appreciation of the sober, middle-class, self-made man.47 “God blesseth His trade” is a stock remark about those good men48 who had successfully fol- lowed the divine hints. The whole power of the God of the Old Testament, who rewards His people for their obedience in this life,49 necessarily exercised a similar influence on the Puritan who, following Baxter’s advice, compared his own state of grace with that of the heroes of the Bible,50 and in the process inter- preted the statements of the Scriptures as the articles of a book of statutes.

Of course, the words of the Old Testament were not entirely without ambiguity. We have seen that Luther first used the con- cept of the calling in the secular sense in translating a passage from Jesus Sirach. But the book of Jesus Sirach belongs, with the whole atmosphere expressed in it, to those parts of the broad- ened Old Testament with a distinctly traditionalistic tendency, in spite of Hellenistic influences. It is characteristic that down to the present day this book seems to enjoy a special favour among Lutheran German peasants,51 just as the Lutheran influence in large sections of German Pietism has been expressed by a preference for Jesus Sirach.52

The Puritans repudiated the Apocrypha as not inspired,

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 109

consistently with their sharp distinction between things divine and things of the flesh.53 But among the canonical books that of Job had all the more influence. On the one hand it contained a grand conception of the absolute sovereign majesty of God, beyond all human comprehension, which was closely related to that of Calvinism. With that, on the other hand, it combined the certainty which, though incidental for Calvin, came to be of great importance for Puritanism, that God would bless His own in this life—in the book of Job only—and also in the material sense.54 The Oriental quietism, which appears in several of the finest verses of the Psalms and in the Proverbs, was interpreted away, just as Baxter did with the traditionalistic tinge of the passage in the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, so important for the idea of the calling.

But all the more emphasis was placed on those parts of the Old Testament which praise formal legality as a sign of conduct pleasing to God. They held the theory that the Mosaic Law had only lost its validity through Christ in so far as it contained ceremonial or purely historical precepts applying only to the Jewish people, but that otherwise it had always been valid as an expression of the natural law, and must hence be retained.55 This made it possible, on the one hand, to eliminate elements which could not be reconciled with modern life. But still, through its numerous related features, Old Testament morality was able to give a powerful impetus to that spirit of self-righteous and sober legality which was so characteristic of the worldly asceticism of this form of Protestantism.56

Thus when authors, as was the case with several contemporar- ies as well as later writers, characterize the basic ethical tendency of Puritanism, especially in England, as English Hebraism57 they are, correctly understood, not wrong. It is necessary, however, not to think of Palestinian Judaism at the time of the writing of the Scriptures, but of Judaism as it became under the influence of many centuries of formalistic, legalistic, and Talmudic

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism110

education. Even then one must be very careful in drawing paral- lels. The general tendency of the older Judaism toward a naïve acceptance of life as such was far removed from the special characteristics of Puritanism. It was, however, just as far—and this ought not to be overlooked—from the economic ethics of mediæval and modern Judaism, in the traits which determined the positions of both in the development of the capitalistic ethos. The Jews stood on the side of the politically and speculatively oriented adventurous capitalism; their ethos was, in a word, that of pariah-capitalism. But Puritanism carried the ethos of the rational organization of capital and labour. It took over from the Jewish ethic only what was adapted to this purpose.

To analyse the effects on the character of peoples of the pene- tration of life with Old Testament norms—a tempting task which, however, has not yet satisfactorily been done even for Judaism58—would be impossible within the limits of this sketch. In addition to the relationships already pointed out, it is import- ant for the general inner attitude of the Puritans, above all, that the belief that they were God’s chosen people saw in them a great renaissance.59 Even the kindly Baxter thanked God that he was born in England, and thus in the true Church, and nowhere else. This thankfulness for one’s own perfection by the grace of God penetrated the attitude toward life60 of the Puritan middle class, and played its part in developing that formalistic, hard, correct character which was peculiar to the men of that heroic age of capitalism.

Let us now try to clarify the points in which the Puritan idea of the calling and the premium it placed upon ascetic conduct was bound directly to influence the development of a capitalistic way of life. As we have seen, this asceticism turned with all its force against one thing: the spontaneous enjoyment of life and all it had to offer. This is perhaps most characteristically brought out in the struggle over the Book of Sports61 which James I and Charles I made into law expressly as a means of counteracting

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 111

Puritanism, and which the latter ordered to be read from all the pulpits. The fanatical opposition of the Puritans to the ordin- ances of the King, permitting certain popular amusements on Sunday outside of Church hours by law, was not only explained by the disturbance of the Sabbath rest, but also by resentment against the intentional diversion from the ordered life of the saint, which it caused. And, on his side, the King’s threats of severe punishment for every attack on the legality of those sports were motivated by his purpose of breaking the anti- authoritarian ascetic tendency of Puritanism, which was so dan- gerous to the State. The feudal and monarchical forces protected the pleasure seekers against the rising middle-class morality and the anti-authoritarian ascetic conventicles, just as to-day capital- istic society tends to protect those willing to work against the class morality of the proletariat and the anti-authoritarian trade union.

As against this the Puritans upheld their decisive character- istic, the principle of ascetic conduct. For otherwise the Puritan aversion to sport, even for the Quakers, was by no means simply one of principle. Sport was accepted if it served a rational pur- pose, that of recreation necessary for physical efficiency. But as a means for the spontaneous expression of undisciplined impulses, it was under suspicion; and in so far as it became purely a means of enjoyment, or awakened pride, raw instincts or the irrational gambling instinct, it was of course strictly con- demned. Impulsive enjoyment of life, which leads away both from work in a calling and from religion, was as such the enemy of rational asceticism, whether in the form of seigneurial sports, or the enjoyment of the dance-hall or the public-house of the common man.62

Its attitude was thus suspicious and often hostile to the aspects of culture without any immediate religious value. It is not, how- ever, true that the ideals of Puritanism implied a solemn, narrow-minded contempt of culture. Quite the contrary is the

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism112

case at least for science, with the exception of the hatred of Scholasticism. Moreover, the great men of the Puritan movement were thoroughly steeped in the culture of the Renaissance. The sermons of the Presbyterian divines abound with classical allu- sions,63 and even the Radicals, although they objected to it, were not ashamed to display that kind of learning in theological polemics. Perhaps no country was ever so full of graduates as New England in the first generation of its existence. The satire of their opponents, such as, for instance, Butler’s Hudibras, also attacks primarily the pedantry and highly trained dialectics of the Puritans. This is partially due to the religious valuation of knowledge which followed from their attitude to the Catholic fides implicita.

But the situation is quite different when one looks at non- scientific literature,64 and especially the fine arts. Here asceticism descended like a frost on the life of “merrie old England”. And not only worldly merriment felt its effect. The Puritan’s fer- ocious hatred of everything which smacked of superstition, of all survivals of magical or sacramental salvation, applied to the Christmas festivities and the May Pole65 and all spontaneous religious art. That there was room in Holland for a great, often uncouthly realistic art66 proves only how far from completely the authoritarian moral discipline of that country was able to coun- teract the influence of the court and the regents (a class of rentiers), and also the joy in life of the parvenu bourgeoisie, after the short supremacy of the Calvinistic theocracy had been trans- formed into a moderate national Church, and with it Calvinism had perceptibly lost in its power of ascetic influence.67

The theatre was obnoxious to the Puritans,68 and with the strict exclusion of the erotic and of nudity from the realm of toleration, a radical view of either literature or art could not exist. The conceptions of idle talk, of superfluities,69 and of vain ostentation, all designations of an irrational attitude without objective purpose, thus not ascetic, and especially not serving

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 113

the glory of God, but of man, were always at hand to serve in deciding in favour of sober utility as against any artistic tenden- cies. This was especially true in the case of decoration of the person, for instance clothing.70 That powerful tendency toward uniformity of life, which to-day so immensely aids the capital- istic interest in the standardization of production,71 had its ideal foundations in the repudiation of all idolatry of the flesh.72

Of course we must not forget that Puritanism included a world of contradictions, and that the instinctive sense of eternal greatness in art was certainly stronger among its leaders than in the atmosphere of the Cavaliers.73 Moreover, a unique genius like Rembrandt, however little his conduct may have been acceptable to God in the eyes of the Puritans, was very strongly influenced in the character of his work by his religious environment.74 But that does not alter the picture as a whole. In so far as the devel- opment of the Puritan tradition could, and in part did, lead to a powerful spiritualization of personality, it was a decided benefit to literature. But for the most part that benefit only accrued to later generations.

Although we cannot here enter upon a discussion of the influ- ence of Puritanism in all these directions, we should call atten- tion to the fact that the toleration of pleasure in cultural goods, which contributed to purely æsthetic or athletic enjoyment, cer- tainly always ran up against one characteristic limitation: they must not cost anything. Man is only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God’s grace. He must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him,75 and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s own enjoyment.76 What person, who keeps his eyes open, has not met representatives of this view-point even in the present?77 The idea of a man’s duty to his possessions, to which he subordin- ates himself as an obedient steward, or even as an acquisitive machine, bears with chilling weight on his life. The greater the

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism114

possessions the heavier, if the ascetic attitude toward life stands the test, the feeling of responsibility for them, for holding them undiminished for the glory of God and increasing them by rest- less effort. The origin of this type of life also extends in certain roots, like so many aspects of the spirit of capitalism, back into the Middle Ages.78 But it was in the ethic of ascetic Protestantism that it first found a consistent ethical foundation. Its significance for the development of capitalism is obvious.79

This worldly Protestant asceticism, as we may recapitulate up to this point, acted powerfully against the spontaneous enjoy- ment of possessions; it restricted consumption, especially of luxuries. On the other hand, it had the psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods from the inhibitions of trad- itionalistic ethics. It broke the bonds of the impulse of acquisi- tion in that it not only legalized it, but (in the sense discussed) looked upon it as directly willed by God. The campaign against the temptations of the flesh, and the dependence on external things, was, as besides the Puritans the great Quaker apologist Barclay expressly says, not a struggle against the rational acquisi- tion, but against the irrational use of wealth.

But this irrational use was exemplified in the outward forms of luxury which their code condemned as idolatry of the flesh,80

however natural they had appeared to the feudal mind. On the other hand, they approved the rational and utilitarian uses of wealth which were willed by God for the needs of the individual and the community. They did not wish to impose mortifica- tion81 on the man of wealth, but the use of his means for neces- sary and practical things. The idea of comfort characteristically limits the extent of ethically permissible expenditures. It is nat- urally no accident that the development of a manner of living consistent with that idea may be observed earliest and most clearly among the most consistent representatives of this whole attitude toward life. Over against the glitter and ostentation of feudal magnificence which, resting on an unsound economic

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 115

basis, prefers a sordid elegance to a sober simplicity, they set the clean and solid comfort of the middle-class home as an ideal.82

On the side of the production of private wealth, asceticism condemned both dishonesty and impulsive avarice. What was condemned as covetousness, Mammonism, etc., was the pursuit of riches for their own sake. For wealth in itself was a tempta- tion. But here asceticism was the power “which ever seeks the good but ever creates evil”;83 what was evil in its sense was possession and its temptations. For, in conformity with the Old Testament and in analogy to the ethical valuation of good works, asceticism looked upon the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself as highly reprehensible; but the attainment of it as a fruit of labour in a calling was a sign of God’s blessing. And even more important: the religious valuation of restless, continuous, sys- tematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceti- cism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of that attitude toward life which we have here called the spirit of capitalism.84

When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save.85 The restraints which were imposed upon the consump- tion of wealth naturally served to increase it by making possible the productive investment of capital. How strong this influence was is not, unfortunately, susceptible of exact statistical demon- stration. In New England the connection is so evident that it did not escape the eye of so discerning a historian as Doyle.86 But also in Holland, which was really only dominated by strict Cal- vinism for seven years, the greater simplicity of life in the more seriously religious circles, in combination with great wealth, led to an excessive propensity to accumulation.87

That, furthermore, the tendency which has existed every- where and at all times, being quite strong in Germany to-day, for

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism116

middle-class fortunes to be absorbed into the nobility, was necessarily checked by the Puritan antipathy to the feudal way of life, is evident. English Mercantilist writers of the seventeenth century attributed the superiority of Dutch capital to English to the circumstance that newly acquired wealth there did not regu- larly seek investment in land. Also, since it is not simply a ques- tion of the purchase of land, it did not there seek to transfer itself to feudal habits of life, and thereby to remove itself from the possibility of capitalistic investment.88 The high esteem for agri- culture as a peculiarly important branch of activity, also espe- cially consistent with piety, which the Puritans shared, applied (for instance in Baxter) not to the landlord, but to the yeoman and farmer, in the eighteenth century not to the squire, but the rational cultivator.89 Through the whole of English society in the time since the seventeenth century goes the conflict between the squirearchy, the representatives of “merrie old England”, and the Puritan circles of widely varying social influence.90 Both elements, that of an unspoiled naïve joy of life, and of a strictly regulated, reserved self-control, and conventional ethical con- duct are even to-day combined to form the English national character.91 Similarly, the early history of the North American Colonies is dominated by the sharp contrast of the adventurers, who wanted to set up plantations with the labour of indentured servants, and live as feudal lords, and the specifically middle- class outlook of the Puritans.92

As far as the influence of the Puritan outlook extended, under all circumstances—and this is, of course, much more important than the mere encouragement of capital accumulation—it favoured the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life. It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man.

To be sure, these Puritanical ideals tended to give way under excessive pressure from the temptations of wealth, as the

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 117

Puritans themselves knew very well. With great regularity we find the most genuine adherents of Puritanism among the classes which were rising from a lowly status,93 the small bourgeois and farmers, while the beati possidentes, even among Quakers, are often found tending to repudiate the old ideals.94 It was the same fate which again and again befell the predecessor of this worldly asceticism, the monastic asceticism of the Middle Ages. In the latter case, when rational economic activity had worked out its full effects by strict regulation of conduct and limitation of con- sumption, the wealth accumulated either succumbed directly to the nobility, as in the time before the Reformation, or monastic discipline threatened to break down, and one of the numerous reformations became necessary.

In fact the whole history of monasticism is in a certain sense the history of a continual struggle with the problem of the secu- larizing influence of wealth. The same is true on a grand scale of the worldly asceticism of Puritanism. The great revival of Meth- odism, which preceded the expansion of English industry toward the end of the eighteenth century, may well be compared with such a monastic reform. We may hence quote here a pas- sage95 from John Wesley himself which might well serve as a motto for everything which has been said above. For it shows that the leaders of these ascetic movements understood the seemingly paradoxical relationships which we have here ana- lysed perfectly well, and in the same sense that we have given them.96 He wrote:

I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism118

Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; con- sequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this—this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.97

There follows the advice that those who gain all they can and save all they can should also give all they can, so that they will grow in grace and lay up a treasure in heaven. It is clear that Wesley here expresses, even in detail, just what we have been trying to point out.98

As Wesley here says, the full economic effect of those great religious movements, whose significance for economic devel- opment lay above all in their ascetic educative influence, gener- ally came only after the peak of the purely religious enthusiasm was past. Then the intensity of the search for the Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue; the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitar- ian worldliness. Then, as Dowden puts it, as in Robinson Crusoe, the isolated economic man who carries on missionary activities on the side99 takes the place of the lonely spiritual search for the Kingdom of Heaven of Bunyan’s pilgrim, hurrying through the market-place of Vanity.

When later the principle “to make the most of both worlds” became dominant in the end, as Dowden has remarked, a good conscience simply became one of the means of enjoying a com- fortable bourgeois life, as is well expressed in the German prov- erb about the soft pillow. What the great religious epoch of the

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 119

seventeenth century bequeathed to its utilitarian successor was, however, above all an amazingly good, we may even say a pharisaically good, conscience in the acquisition of money, so long as it took place legally. Every trace of the deplacere vix potest has disappeared.100

A specifically bourgeois economic ethic had grown up. With the consciousness of standing in the fullness of God’s grace and being visibly blessed by Him, the bourgeois business man, as long as he remained within the bounds of formal correctness, as long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable, could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so. The power of religious asceticism provided him in addition with sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God.101

Finally, it gave him the comforting assurance that the unequal distribution of the goods of this world was a special dispensation of Divine Providence, which in these differences, as in particular grace, pursued secret ends unknown to men.102 Calvin himself had made the much-quoted statement that only when the people, i.e. the mass of labourers and craftsmen, were poor did they remain obedient to God.103 In the Netherlands (Pieter de la Court and others), that had been secularized to the effect that the mass of men only labour when necessity forces them to do so. This formulation of a leading idea of capitalistic economy later entered into the current theories of the productivity of low wages. Here also, with the dying out of the religious root, the utilitarian interpretation crept in unnoticed, in the line of development which we have again and again observed.

Mediæval ethics not only tolerated begging but actually glori- fied it in the mendicant orders. Even secular beggars, since they gave the person of means opportunity for good works through giving alms, were sometimes considered an estate and treated as such. Even the Anglican social ethic of the Stuarts was very close

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism120

to this attitude. It remained for Puritan Asceticism to take part in the severe English Poor Relief Legislation which fundamentally changed the situation. And it could do that, because the Protest- ant sects and the strict Puritan communities actually did not know any begging in their own midst.104

On the other hand, seen from the side of the workers, the Zinzendorf branch of Pietism, for instance, glorified the loyal worker who did not seek acquisition, but lived according to the apostolic model, and was thus endowed with the charisma105 of the disciples.106 Similar ideas had originally been prevalent among the Baptists in an even more radical form.

Now naturally the whole ascetic literature of almost all denominations is saturated with the idea that faithful labour, even at low wages, on the part of those whom life offers no other opportunities, is highly pleasing to God. In this respect Protest- ant Asceticism added in itself nothing new. But it not only deep- ened this idea most powerfully, it also created the force which was alone decisive for its effectiveness: the psychological sanc- tion of it through the conception of this labour as a calling, as the best, often in the last analysis the only means of attaining certainty of grace.107 And on the other hand it legalized the exploitation of this specific willingness to work, in that it also interpreted the employer’s business activity as a calling.108 It is obvious how powerfully the exclusive search for the Kingdom of God only through the fulfilment of duty in the calling, and the strict asceticism which Church discipline naturally imposed, especially on the propertyless classes, was bound to affect the productivity of labour in the capitalistic sense of the word. The treatment of labour as a calling became as characteristic of the modern worker as the corresponding attitude toward acqui- sition of the business man. It was a perception of this situation, new at his time, which caused so able an observer as Sir William Petty to attribute the economic power of Holland in the seven- teenth century to the fact that the very numerous dissenters in

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 121

that country (Calvinists and Baptists) “are for the most part thinking, sober men, and such as believe that Labour and Indus- try is their duty towards God”.109

Calvinism opposed organic social organization in the fiscal- monopolistic form which it assumed in Anglicanism under the Stuarts, especially in the conceptions of Laud, this alliance of Church and State with the monopolists on the basis of a Christian-social ethical foundation. Its leaders were universally among the most passionate opponents of this type of politically privileged commercial, putting-out, and colonial capitalism. Over against it they placed the individualistic motives of rational legal acquisition by virtue of one’s own ability and initiative. And, while the politically privileged monopoly industries in England all disappeared in short order, this attitude played a large and decisive part in the development of the industries which grew up in spite of and against the authority of the State.110 The Puritans (Prynne, Parker) repudiated all connection with the large-scale capitalistic courtiers and projectors as an ethically suspicious class. On the other hand, they took pride in their own superior middle-class business morality, which formed the true reason for the persecutions to which they were subjected on the part of those circles. Defoe proposed to win the battle against dissent by boycotting bank credit and withdrawing deposits. The difference of the two types of capitalistic attitude went to a very large extent hand in hand with religious differences. The opponents of the Nonconformists, even in the eighteenth cen- tury, again and again ridiculed them for personifying the spirit of shopkeepers, and for having ruined the ideals of old England. Here also lay the difference of the Puritan economic ethic from the Jewish; and contemporaries (Prynne) knew well that the former and not the latter was the bourgeois capitalistic ethic.111

One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism122

born—that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate— from the spirit of Christian asceticism. One has only to re-read the passage from Franklin, quoted at the beginning of this essay, in order to see that the essential elements of the attitude which was there called the spirit of capitalism are the same as what we have just shown to be the content of the Puritan worldly asceti- cism,112 only without the religious basis, which by Franklin’s time had died away. The idea that modern labour has an ascetic character is of course not new. Limitation to specialized work, with a renunciation of the Faustian universality of man which it involves, is a condition of any valuable work in the modern world; hence deeds and renunciation inevitably condition each other to-day. This fundamentally ascetic trait of middle-class life, if it attempts to be a way of life at all, and not simply the absence of any, was what Goethe wanted to teach, at the height of his wisdom, in the Wanderjahren, and in the end which he gave to the life of his Faust.113 For him the realization meant a renunciation, a departure from an age of full and beautiful humanity, which can no more be repeated in the course of our cultural development than can the flower of the Athenian culture of antiquity.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern eco- nomic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment”.114 But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 123

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfil- ment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual gen- erally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.115

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Special- ists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

But this brings us to the world of judgments of value and of faith, with which this purely historical discussion need not be burdened. The next task would be rather to show the signifi- cance of ascetic rationalism, which has only been touched in the foregoing sketch, for the content of practical social ethics, thus for the types of organization and the functions of social groups from the conventicle to the State. Then its relations to humanistic

the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism124

rationalism,116 its ideals of life and cultural influence; further to the development of philosophical and scientific empiricism, to technical development and to spiritual ideals would have to be analysed. Then its historical development from the mediæval beginnings of worldly asceticism to its dissolution into pure utilitarianism would have to be traced out through all the areas of ascetic religion. Only then could the quantitative cultural significance of ascetic Protestantism in its relation to the other plastic elements of modern culture be estimated.

Here we have only attempted to trace the fact and the direc- tion of its influence to their motives in one, though a very important point. But it would also further be necessary to investigate how Protestant Asceticism was in turn influenced in its development and its character by the totality of social condi- tions, especially economic.117 The modern man is in general, even with the best will, unable to give religious ideas a signifi- cance for culture and national character which they deserve. But it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided material- istic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of history. Each is equally possible,118 but each, if it does not serve as the preparation, but as the conclusion of an investigation, accomplishes equally little in the interest of historical truth.119

asceticism and the spirit of capitalism 125

  • Part II The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism

Order your essay today and save 10% with the discount code ESSAYHELP