Protestantism and Industrialism

2005-12-18

In a recent post about the causes of the industrial revolution, I asked:

Max Weber tried to explain the exit by reference to the Protestant work ethic. But why did the peoples of northwestern Europe (English, Scots, Dutch, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians) become Protestant in the first place?

In Plough, Sword and Book (pp. 106-107), Ernest Gellner provides the following reflections on Weber's thesis:

A Protestant world is one in which the sacred is absent (hidden) or, if you prefer, in which it is evenly diffused. Hence there are fewer bounds and prescriptions surrounding economic activities. Existing practices, and the combination of elements which they embody, cease to be hallowed. So the way is free to innovation and growth by means of new devices, by new combinations of elements. Instrumental rationality becomes more common and acceptable. The diffusion of moral authority, the stress on the internalized voice within each believer, rather than on the special authority of some, means that Protestant respect for codes of conduct is less dependent on public enforcement, on the anticipation of reciprocation. Hence it becomes more genuinely trustworthy, and thus more conducive to the flourishing of economic activity.

Trust becomes far more widespread, and less dependent on external sanctions. Those governed by inner sanctions will behave in a trustworthy manner without first waiting to make sure that others do so as well. This breaks the vicious circle of distrust, and sets off a kind of moral multiplier effect. If a man's motive for economic activity is the desire to demonstrate his saved status and to fulfil his calling, he is less likely to cheat than if he is activated by the desire for gain. His rectitude is not at the mercy of his anticipation of the rectitude of others. Thus Protestantism has a double (and somewhat contradictory) role: it makes men instrumentally rational in handling things, and non-instrumentally honest in their dealings with each other.

The dominant morality is one of rule-observance rather than of loyalty, whether to kin or patron, and whether political or spiritual. The spiritual egalitarianism leads to the participatory self-administration of the sect. This sets a political precedent, and provides training for participatory and accountable politics. The stress on scripturalism is conducive to a high level of literacy; scripturalism and an individualist theology lead naturally to an individualist theory of knowledge. This suggests the sovereignty of the individual consciousness; the right, and duty, of the individual to judge for himself, and to refrain from passing on responsibility to some external authority. Claims to truth are to submit to the bar of individual and symmetrical judgement: neither claims nor judges can claim special, unequal privilege.

Gellner emphasizes that, historically speaking, these attitudes are quite out of the ordinary. But which came first: the Protestantism or the free inquiry, innovative economic endeavor, diffusion of moral authority, widespread trust, non-instrumental honesty, inner rather than outer sanctions, scripturalism, rule-observance, spiritual egalitarianism, self-government, and sovereignty of the individual consciousness? Did the Germanic peoples already possess some of these attributes (perhaps in attenuated form) before adopting (or, rather, creating) Protestantism?

Consider the following story, related by Paul Johnson in A History of Christianity (pp. 125-126):

On 23 December, in the year 800, a lengthy meeting took place in the Secret Council Chamber of the Lateran Palace in Rome. Among those present were Charlemagne, the Frankish leader, the Pope, Leo III, Frankish, Lombard and Roman ecclesiastics and generals, and two French monks from Tours, Witto and Fridugis, who represented their abbot, the Yorkshireman Alcuin....

Since the disappearance of the last 'western' emperor in 478, the Christian West had acknowledged the emperor in Constantinople as the sole international authority. But his power, if legitimate, was in practice now virtually non-existent west of the Adriatic. Italy, Gaul and Germany, and Rome itself, were in the possession of the Frankish armies. Was it not an axiom of common sense, as well as a proposition endorsed repeatedly by the Scriptures, that a sovereign should rule as well as reign? Was not the great Charles the effective master of the West? ... There was, therefore, a strong case for Charles to be accorded some form of imperial dignity. He was undoubtedly the greatest monarch in the West, perhaps in the entire world. As Abbot Alcuin, who was in effect his chief adviser, had pointed out, the English had evolved a system under which the most powerful and successful of their many kings was given the title of bretwalda, and exacted homage and obedience from the others. This argument, which presented the imperial idea in Germanic terms which Charles could grasp, was again put forward by Alcuin's two delegates at the council. And it appears to have proved conclusive. Charles agreed to become western emperor, and ceremonies of homage seem to have been carried out on that day.

Two days later, in the great basilica of St. Peter's, Charles and his generals celebrated Christmas, and the Pope insisted on performing a Roman ritual under which he placed a crown on Charles's head, and then prostrated himself in an act of emperor-worship, the crowd of Romans present calling out a monotonous series of ritual acclamations. Charles was taken aback by this weird, eastern enactment, which was completely alien to anyone coming from north of the Alps, with a Germanic background. And it seemed suspicious to him that the crown, which he had won by his own achievements, should be presented to him by the Bishop of Rome, as though it were in his gift. Charles said afterwards that, if he had known what was to happen, he would have refused to attend mass in St. Peter's that day.

Here we have a telling difference between the Germanic attitudes of the Franks and the Mediterranean, almost eastern, attitudes of the Romans -- presaging in some ways the future emergence of Protestantism north of the Alps (although before then the Frankish element of French society would be submerged into more Roman ways of thinking and living).

While in part these attitudes of the Germanic tribes probably preceded their exposure to Christianity, in part they may have derived from the fact that most of the Teutons were first converted not to orthodox Christianity but to the Arian "heresy" by the fourth-century missionary Ulfilas (the OED contains a quotation to the effect that "all the other Teutonic kings [other than Chlodwig] were Arians"). As Paul Johnson notes (p. 128), "this fact quickly became the chief differentiation between the 'barbarians' and the Romans, who accepted the Trinitarian doctrine worked out by Augustine." The southern tribes were eventually de-Arianized (although one wonders if the Arian legacy of the Visigoths in southern Gaul partially resurfaced later in the form of the so-called Albigensian heresy propounded by the Cathars), but the Arian beliefs of the more northerly tribes (especially the Goths and Lombards) lingered for some time and may have combined with existing Germanic attitudes to predispose those areas to their later break with Catholicism. Among the Germanic tribes the Franks were unique in converting directly to orthodox (Nicene or Trinitarian) Christianity rather than first to Arianism -- does that difference also presage the later fault line between French Catholicism and the Protestantism of Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland? Only further research will tell (much of this is purely speculative on my part).

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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