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Calvinism and the Protestant Ethic

Calvinism and the Protestant Ethic

Author: Zach Lamb

Examine the concepts of the Protestant Ethic and predestination.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. In this lesson, we're going to cover one of the most famous sociological ideas and studies of all time. That is Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Well, Weber argued that the ideas of capitalism and how to work in capitalism and to get by in capitalist society were helped by a religious ethos originally, and that was Calvinism, given to us by John Calvin.

Calvin lived from 1509 to 1564. He was a part of the Protestant Reformation, and John Calvin founded a spin-off from the Roman Catholic Church, Calvinism. Central to Calvinism is this idea of predestination. Predestination is a religious teaching that says that a select few are chosen by God in advance before they're even born and predestined for salvation in the next life, while the vast majority of others are condemned. And everyone's fate was known only to God, and God chose it before they were born. So this made everyone nervous in society. They ran around wondering, well, have I been chosen? Am I predestined for salvation in the next life, or am I condemned? How do I know? What am I supposed to do? Where am I going to find this out? These were really pertinent questions in the 1500s.

So in this context, prosperity came to be seen as a sign of predestination. If somebody was prosperous, successful, wealthy, well God had smiled upon them and they were predestined for life in heaven. But if somebody was destitute, poor, morally questionable, a drunkard, et cetera well then God obviously didn't choose this person. So people looked, they needed some kind of way to know, have I been predestined? And they looked at prosperity as the way to do it.

So in a really sophisticated fashion, Weber argues that predestination then, and this idea of seeking prosperity, gave us a Protestant Ethic and helped to discipline a workforce and aid in the transition to capitalism. It got people out of a traditional orientation towards work and into the capitalist orientation towards work, because they were constantly laboring to get more money.

In traditional societies, and in the traditional world view, Weber claimed and argued that if you offered a peasant a 50% raise, meaning they could make 50% more in a work day, they would rather than do that, reduce their work time by 50% so that they could make the same amount of money as they made before, enough to earn a living wage, and then work half the time. They could spend the other half of the time being idle and doing whatever they wanted. But this kind of world view and orientation towards work is incompatible with capitalism, a system that demands constant work and taking more money and reinvesting it back into the business to then generate more money.

So something had to happen. We had to move from that traditional world view into this capitalist work ethic, and Weber argued that this Protestant Ethic was the spirit of capitalism that got us there. So what spirit beat traditionalism? What is the Protestant Ethic in the spirit of capitalism? Well, Weber drew on Benjamin Franklin, a proponent of the American capitalist ethos to make his point. And Weber then borrowed from Franklin and elaborated some points of the Protestant Ethic. And the first is that time is money, which is an expression you are very, very familiar with. It's ingrained in our culture. If you're wasting your time being lazy, not doing anything, well you're not making money. So you should look at that time not as enjoyment but as lost wages that you didn't earn.

Also that credit is money. If you are not investing your money, you're not earning interest on that money. So you're not turning it into more money when you could be. So if you just take $10 and sit on it and don't put it in the bank or don't invest or don't do anything with it, well that $10 can't become $12 and then that $12 can't become $15 and on and on and on. So in this way, money is prolific. It can generate and beget more money. And along with the importance of having good credit, remember the good paymaster is lord of another man's purse, meaning that if I'm always paying back my debts, I can always get more money to reinvest and invest and make even more money. So as long as I'm paying on time, I'm credit worthy, essentially.

And then finally then like the most trifling actions, Benjamin Franklin writes, and this is in Weber's Protestant Ethics. The most trifling actions affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at 5:00 in the morning or 8:00 at night heard by a creditor makes him easy six months longer. Meaning you can not pay him for another six months, but if he sees you at the billiard table or hears your voice at a tavern when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day, demands it in a lump sum before you can pay it.

So this kind of thinking is antagonistic to the traditional way of thinking. And this idea of predestination, well I need to be prosperous. That's a sign that I'm destined for salvation in the next life, induced these habits in people. And so these habits, then, are amenable to the capitalist system. So we were able to make the transition to capitalism Weber argued, because the population came to be imbued with the Protestant work ethic that I just described.

In capitalism and the Protestant work ethic has some consequences for society. It demands that we deny worldly pleasures and enjoyments. One needs to work hard, save, not waste money on drink or lavish items of consumption, but you need to reinvest that money so you can accumulate more money. This is what capitalists do in factories. They don't just get a bunch of people together, produce a bunch of clothes or garments, sell them, make a profit and then well I'm done and I just go and I blow it all on drinks and nice houses and things like that. No, you take that money, reinvest it back into the production process to make you more money. So this accumulation of chasing money, money, money as an end in and of itself is what capitalism is all about. You're not taking that money and wasting it on consumption, but you're reinvesting it in the process. So money making is an end in itself. Good intentioned Calvinists labored hard in a calling so they could see their money making as a sign of salvation from God.

I hope you enjoyed this discussion of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. As I said, this is one of the hallmark ideas in sociology, one of the most brilliant, famous ideas by one of the most brilliant sociologists who ever lived, Max Weber.

Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Protestant Ethic

An ethos born of Calvinism that champions hard work, frugality, material prosperity, and disciplined labor in a calling as pleasing to God.

People to Know
John Calvin

John Calvin was an influential thinker of the Protestant Reformation who advanced the idea of predestination and founded Calvinism. The doctrine of predestination asserts that either one's salvation in heaven, or condemnation in hell, has been predetermined by God before they are born.

Max Weber

Hugely influential, founding sociologist who argued that the ideas of Calvinism, specifically predestination, imbued people in society with a strong work ethic such that traditional attitudes towards work and labor were replaced by a capitalist orientation towards work.