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How time became money

September 20, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Max Weber

Max Weber

The phrase “work ethic,” and the idea that Catholicism and Protestantism are somehow linked to dissimilar economic cultures, have become commonplace. But if these were all that Max Weber’s Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) contained, it would not be worth reading; it might be a “classic of sociology” in the sense of an exemplary early application of the “science,” but it would nevertheless be long since superceded.

But many of Weber’s arguments are, I believe, worth more than what scientifically-minded sociologists are able to cash them out for. Most importantly, he argues that, while analysis of objective data is not to be dismissed, it is on its own incomplete; we cannot understand a historical process objectively, but require imaginative investment. And this because–contra Marx–economic motivations do not determine all historical development; rather, culture and ethics, while shaped by economic structures, play an equally large role shaping the economy in return.

Hence the Protestant Ethic does not focus on what one might think; Weber does marshal a decent amount of evidence for the claim that Protestantism correlates with capitalism (though even today the point has not been conclusively determined), but the bulk of his argument attempts to explain how this happened. He attributes it to a shift Calvinism brings about in the ethical perception of monetary acquisition; this shift accidentally creates a capitalist economy that gradually replaces the Protestantism from which it emerged. The crucial datum, for Weber, is not the amount of money made through rationalized industry, but the shift from fourteenth century Catholic Dante’s comparison of usury to sodomy (both being forms of unnatural reproduction), to eighteenth century Protestant Benjamin Franklin’s claim that making money from other money was a moral imperative:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. […] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.


Weber’s argument for why Calvinism brings about such a shift is complex, but it’s fair to say, I think, that he sees Calvinism as distinctive primarily in its rationalism: its rejection of any explanation that does not conduce to optimization. Here are two key instances of the argument:

(1) Other-worldly asceticism, as found in monasteries, was condemned for its uselessness. Not, as we might think, because it’s useless practically speaking; Calvinism does not assume the value of practicality, it argues for it. Rather, because it does not in fact maximize production of its stated goal. Monasteries do not produce spiritual perfection; rather, they function as symbols of spiritual perfection, as “signs of contradiction,” and they perform this function whether or not the monastics perfect themselves. This symbolic structure–symbolic because of its lack of optimization–Calvinists equated with hypocrisy. Hence Calvinism encouraged this-worldly asceticism: sacrificing, not by withdrawing from the world, but by working without rest in the world, doing the Lord’s work. And this very encouragement resulted in the elevation of practical efficacy as a sign of spiritual value.

(2) Calvin espoused a theory of strict predestination, in which human freedom played no part in determining who was saved and who was damned. He did so, Weber says, because it is the only possible rational, mysticism-free theodicy. (Note: I’m not sure I buy this argument.) And what are the psychological effects of such a belief? One might think, at first, that this would result in moral indifference: if my fate is already sealed, why try to change it? But in fact, Calvinists (though not Calvin) concluded that, while perhaps one can do nothing about it, it must be possible to know whether one is saved or damned, since, after all, there is already a fact of the matter. And because we cannot be true to ourselves without knowing who we are, it becomes imperative to know. And since there’s already a fact of the matter, it can’t change–if you’re damned now, you’re damned no matter what you do–it becomes imperative to avoid at all costs the production of proof against one’s salvation, and to seek at all costs the production of proof for it.

So (1) success in this world is the best proof of success in the next work; and (2) proof of success in the next world is ethically imperative, since the fact of the matter is already determined–we are the only ones ignorant about it. Combined, these give the result that success in this world is ethically imperative, and must be rationally maximized.

And because our time in this world is limited (and no one had yet imagined that the limit could be raised), success in this world could only be maximized by maximizing the rate of production: the amount of money earned in a fixed amount of time.


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