I have many commendations, and one complaint/caveat about Charles Taylor’s discussion of the formation of an “economic” image of society in the early modern period ( A Secular Age , 176-84 ).

Kudos for Taylor for his modification of the Weber thesis. Like Weber, he traces the rise of economic society to the Reformation and the Puritans; unlike Weber, he highlights the “sanctification of ordinary life” as the key factor, rather than “proving your election.” This has the virtue of highlighting the very thing the Reformers highlighted - the priesthood of believers, which unfolded in a theology of vocation. Taylor writes,

“If one claims that all Christians must be 100 percent Christian, that one can be so in any vocation, then one must claim that ordinary life, the life that the vast majority cannot help leading, the life of production and the family, work and sex, is as hallowed as any other.” This “sanctification of ordinary life” has two facets: “it promotes ordinary life, as a site for the highest forms of Christian life; and it also has an anti-elitist thrust: it takes down those allegedly higher modes of experience, whether in the Church . . . or the world . . . . The mighty are cast down from their seats, and the humble and meek are exalted” (179).

One might be tempted to think of something like a “priesthood for the plebs,” and then further note how central to the Reformation was the effort to overcome (perhaps “obliterate” is closer to the truth) the nature/grace, sacred/secular divide that characterized the medieval church and society. The notion of vocation is an assault on nature/grace dichotomies in an empirical, social form, more striking than any theory. And then one further note the irony many of those today who most loudly proclaim their loyalty to the Reformation aim to re-erect precisely the distinctions that the Reformation renounced.

My complaint: As evidence of the penetration of the economic concept of society, Taylor cites “no less a personage than Louis XIV” who claims that the elements of the world “are united to each other only by an exchange of reciprocal obligations. The deference and respect that we receive from our subjects are not a free gift form them but payment for the justice and protection they expect to receive from us” (178). This doesn’t strike my ear as an “economic” notion, but rather gift-exchange. And that makes me wonder how Taylor’s account of the rise of “economic society” is tainted by a conflation of gift-exchange and economy. If we distinguished the two, we would have a more accurate, and no doubt more nuanced, grasp of the novelty of modern society.

More on: Economics, History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...