My copy of Max Weber’s book has a blurb on the back cover. It says “First published in 1905, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” is listed by the International Sociological Association as the fourth most important book of the 20th century.”
Personally, if this is true, then I would hate to read the other THREE!
Working through Weber was like an eating a piece of Melba Toast (with that god-awful MARMITE on it) that had been sitting out on the counter for a month, better yet, since 1905. Melba Toast is dry ALREADY. Time only makes it worse.
OK…I got that out of my system. Now, I proceed.
Most consider “The Protestant Ethic” to be a groundbreaking classic, with insights that still resonate today. At its core, Weber’s book explores how Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, played a pivotal role in the rise of modern capitalism. Weber’s thesis is the notion of the “Protestant work ethic.” He argues that certain Protestant beliefs, such as the idea that hard work, thriftiness, and self-discipline are signs of God’s favor. These work ethics played a pivotal role in shaping the capitalist spirit.
One hundred plus years later, others concur with many of Webers assessments regarding morality and the marketplace, all while continuing to modulate the discussion (ie: disagree and develop further thought).
Mark Valeri, in his book “Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America” provided readers a summary of his book in the opening line of the preface where he stated that, “This book explains how transformations in religious thought contributed to the creation of a market culture in early America.” Valeri asserts that “Weber’s thesis is complex enough to sustain various interpretations and applications…Nothing in this book amounts to a wholesale attack on Weber” (Valeri, 7). Yet Valeri goes on to say that “if this book serves as a corrective, then it is in part to critique this misuse of Weber [ie: how many historians have compressed Weber’s arguments into a single dictum: puritans were protocapitalists in their genes, by constitution), and complicate the narrative” (Valerie, 8). All this to say, there are mixed feelings regarding Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic” while also maintaining the ongoing importance of his influential thesis.
I observed some of these mixed feelings in reading the chapter on anxiety and assurance from Professor Clarks dissertation on “Evangelicalism and Capitalism” (which was far from Melba toast it ought be clearly noted!). 😉
Clark alluded to a debates about Weber’s thesis as well as his method, and I concur. I found Weber to make suppositions that I didn’t feel he offered adequate method. I was struck by the number of times Clark mentioned something to the effect of “Weber has misinterpreted/misread…” (for example: Clark, 83, 95). I was particularly impressed by this calling out: “Not only is it incorrect to describe Calvin in terms of this dogma, but there were also many other groups, captured within Weber’s historical net, that did not hold to this doctrine, and were directly opposed to the anti-predestination theologies, and the anti-election doctrines of Arminianism. It would seem that “The Protestant Ethic” makes no account for this, and shows no understanding of it” (Clark, 93).
OK. Gloves are off.
It’s this kind of intellectual critique that seems to be prevalent within academic ranks regarding Webers work. Then again, most threshold concepts tend to take hits like this. They are the first over the wall. They are laying foundation for others to constructively build upon, modulating the learnings, presenting signposts for understanding yet-to-be articulated.
That’s why I can truthfully say: I didn’t particularly enjoy this weeks reading, and yet I was honestly tickled by the intellectual exchange that I continually witness, from Jason Clark, Mark Valeri, David Bebbington and Mark Noll, to name but a few. Even now as I tip my toes into Karl Polanyi, I sense another coming session of “Protestant Sparring.”
Sparring is defined as “the making of motions, as in boxing, without the landing of heavy blows; as a form of training.” It’s a respectful way of developing academic growth through pedagogy. The result is the betterment of the entire intellectual community, of which, and I say this with deep feelings of imposter syndrome: I am a part of this community.
I am a Protestant Sparring Partner.
Time to lace up the gloves, and keep on training.
P.S. I read Weber, and wrote this blog post a few weeks ago, but a fresh interaction regarding this material took place just today [10.16.23]. I am with Tim Clark in Los Angeles, and he said to me something to the effect, “I’m sure you know John that the phrase ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ is really common and well known culturally.” I replied to Tim, “Actually, I had not heard the phrase until reading Weber.” Tim was shocked. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about the “Protestant Work Ethic” before reading Weber, especially since I grew up in the Midwest, specifically a small farming community in Wisconsin, which is full of hard working, church-going ‘Mericans. I was literally raised in the epicenter of the Protestant Work Ethic! Perhaps I am like David Foster Wallace’s story about a fish that encountered another fish while swimming around in the ocean. One fish asked the other, “How’s the water today?” The other replied bluntly: “What [the hell] is water?”
Little did I know, I had been swimming in the “Midwest Waters” of the Protestant Work Ethic, and didn’t even realize it.