In this biweekly series, the First Things junior fellows share mini-essays on their current reading endeavors.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber distinguishes the idea of capitalism from all formal structures and institutions typically associated with it in the modern age. Private property rights, free markets, entrepreneurial commerce, financial intermediaries, and other such forms of economic organization have also developed in traditional societies that are not properly called “capitalist.” What sets capitalist societies apart, for Weber, is their spirit.
The spirit of capitalism is a kind of secular asceticism, a willingness to discipline oneself and reorder one's desires for the sake of profit. Economic actors have always sought accumulation and gain, but only in capitalist societies does a dominant new philosophy of life—with “responsibility” its highest virtue, and Franklin's Autobiography its Bible—take shape around oeconomic logic. What capitalist societies call “rational” self-interest is really anything but. Its first premise, Weber proposes, is the plainly irrational belief that business—moneymaking, productive labor, and all it entails—is “the aim of man’s life,” an end in itself, and not merely “the means to satisfying…material needs.” Man “exists for his business, and not vice-versa.”
Famously, Weber found an explanation for this “incomprehensible” worldview in the theological innovations of the Protestant Reformation. With their doctrines of unconquerable concupiscence and justification sola fide, Luther and his progeny not only rejected traditional Christian asceticism, but eliminated all distinction between religious and secular vocations. (Luther himself, who believed Catholic ascetical counsels “dictated by the Devil,” encouraged whole convents of nuns to reenter the secular world and marry.) Spiritual striving was dismissed as Pelagian egoism, but secular labor was dignified and elevated. Under the priesthood of all believers, “every legitimate occupation is quite simply of equal value.”
The concept of professional “calling,” on Weber's account, emerged as a transposition of religious asceticism from the sacred to the secular sphere. Whereas Catholicism had considered secular work strictly a natural necessity, good and worthy only insofar as it met natural needs—“as morally neutral as eating and drinking”—Protestants came to believe that “the fulfillment of innerworldly duties is absolutely the only way to please God.” The question of one’s professional activities took on a new spiritual significance, with every person’s occupation providentially preassigned by “direct outflow of the divine will.”
Of course, public opinion of what consititutes a good and genuine calling will vary from time to time and place to place, with the spirit of the age. Under the spirit of capitalism, most individuals will, predictably, feel “called” to pursue whatever work is most profitable to them. By submitting to subjective notions of authenticity and feeling rather than dogmatic authority, Protestant Christianity makes itself the most flexible—and politically useful—of all religions. Weber was not wrong to seek a theological explanation for the confluence of bourgeois culture, industrial might, and Protestant religion in nineteenth-century Europe.
But Weber’s thesis is even more evident today than it was in his lifetime. At Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs, pastor Bill Hybels sees no conflict between the Gospel and corporate virtues. His Global Leadership Summit, a sort of Evangelical TEDx conference beamed in live HD for two days every August to thousands of viewers worldwide, uses “world-class leadership development tools and services” to help Christian leaders “maximize the Kingdom impact.” This year’s keynote speakers included Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Marcus Lemonis of CNBC’s The Profit, and “Business Creativity Expert” Fredrik Härén.
Fortunately, one needn’t look far for some relief from this corporatized Christianity. There are classical arguments for the superiority of the contemplative over the active life in Book X of Aristotle’s Ethics and the Secunda Secundae of St. Thomas’s Summa. Or there is T. S. Eliot’s telling remark from Murder in the Cathedral: “They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer. / They know and do not know, that action is suffering / And suffering is action.” But above all, I take the examination of conscience in my 1960 Catholic prayerbook seriously when it asks, “Have you performed or commanded unnecessary servile work?”
This week I’ve been rereading Milton. Not his epic poetry, nor his prose tracts, but his sonnets. In his youth, Milton spent some time dabbling in Petrarchan love poetry. Between 1629 and 1632—while in his early twenties—he composed an assortment of sonnets and canzoni in Italian (Milton wasn’t content to be a master merely of his native tongue).
These verses offer a glimpse of the poet we don’t often get: Milton as a lover. They reveal a poet quite different from the imposing polemicist who infamously penned several tracts arguing for the legalization of divorce in England. There is a delightful passion in these sonnets, as Milton revels in experiencing total admiration for a woman. In Sonnet 4, for instance (here translated into English prose by Gordon Braden), an abashed Milton offers a relatable confession to his good friend Charles Diodati:
Diodati—and I will tell you with amazement—such a coy one as I who used to scorn Love and often laughed at his snares, have now fallen where an honest man sometimes entangles himself.
More than a few of us—myself included—may have been tempted once or twice to sum Milton up in stereotypes; these sonnets recall me from those tendencies, reminding me that there is more to Milton than The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and heretical theological essays. He was once merely a twenty-something offering profuse praises to a lady and struggling to speak the foreign tongue of love.
As on a rugged hill, at the darkening of evening, the experienced young shepherdess goes watering the strange and beautiful little plant which can scarcely spread its leaves in an unfamiliar place, far from its lifegiving native springtime, so on my agile tongue Love awakens the new flower of a strange language (Sonnet 3).
For all those who have been tempted to summarize Milton’s writings with derogatory phrases such as “Arianism” and “Protestant epic,” these sonnets show us a different side of Milton and force us to refine our image of the whole man. There was once a Milton, in his own words, that was merely a “young, quiet, naive lover”:
A young, quiet, naive lover, since I am in doubt how to escape from myself, I will, my lady, make you the devout humble gift of my heart. With certainty in many tests I have found it faithful, fearless, constant, graceful in its thoughts, shrewd, and good; when the whole world roars and the thunder shakes, it arms itself with itself and with solid adamant, as safe from doubt and envy, from the fears and hopes of ordinary people, as it is avid for intelligence and true worth, and for the sounding lyre and for the Muses. You will find it less hard only where Love has set an incurable sting (Sonnet 6).