This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the first publication of a remarkable classic, Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The book is read, and still fiercely debated, largely for what most scholars took to be its central claim: that the peculiar drive to world mastery that capitalism represents would not have been possible without Protestantism, or, more particularly, Calvinism. The thesis was then expanded by generations of scholars into a kind of theodicy of development: why the West originated capitalism and the rest did not. But Weber's own presentation of his thesis was more careful and full of nuances that most of his commentators still miss. For one thing, as the title implied, he was more interested in the relationship between Protestant ideas and the spirit of capitalism; second, he always insisted that there was, in his resonant phrase, an elective affinity between the two rather than a robust causal relationship and third, that there could be other paths to other kinds of capitalism.
But the book itself is so full of an enchantment of its own peculiar kind and so replete with existential pathos, that its empirical claims seem almost peripheral to Weber's achievement. Thanks to Talcott Parson's odd translations, Weber was quickly assimilated into being a forerunner of American style modernization theory, rather than as an heir to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, whose engagements with the ethical rationality of the world haunt Weber's writings. The book also had a peculiar publishing history. In the English-speaking world, it was never published, or even read together with other studies of which The Protestant Ethic was only a part. In particular, Weber's two haunting essays on the 'Social Psychology of World Religions' and 'The Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions', that were meant to be part of his forays into comparative religion, would have laid to rest any attempt to read him merely as a sociologist, the discipline he is not most associated with.
I first encountered the text as an undergraduate. But it was taught by a tutor who was tone deaf to the astonishing questions that jumped out from literally every page of the text. He was more interested in Weber as a crude anti-Marxist. But despite a boring tutor, two features of the book came out stunningly. The first was Weber's insistence that we ought to wonder about even some banal features of our social world that we take for granted. The kind of methodical accumulation of capital that capitalism required is a very peculiar way of being in the world. How did this form of life ever get legitimized' How did it break through traditional restraints and passions' But most impressively, The Protestant Ethic, like all of Weber's writings, is a work that describes a monumental irony, one that serves as an astonishing portrait of the human condition.
There is the irony about the Calvinists themselves. Here was a group of people who believed in predestination, in the idea that nothing could affect one's fate. Yet their anxiety to look for signs that told them whether or not they were among the elect produced an action orientation to the world that was geared to mastering it. Second, Weber was making the still difficult to articulate claim that ideas have their effect not because of their logical properties, but through the psychologies and personalities they spawn. But there were larger historical ironies as well. In one of the most famous sentences from the book, Weber argues that for Puritans like Baxter the care for external goods 'should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a light cloak which can be thrown aside at any moment. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.' Ultimately an attempt to give meaning to the world spawned an economic system that, for the most part, weighed pitilessly on those trapped in it.
But the existential pathos multiplies with each page and each new essay Weber wrote. Modern culture was attuned to a project of rational mastery; yet rationality itself was, at its core, tied to irrational foundations. But Weber's claims about religion are most striking. For him religion, at its core, was an attempt to find a theodicy for the world: an attempt to make the world ethically rational. But the more humanity spun webs of meaning, the more we found that there was a hole at the centre of the enterprise. The more we sought to make the world ethically rational, the more it turned out to be immune to rational ordering. The differentiation of society into different spheres, each governed by its own compelling logic, made it unlikely that we could experience the world as a harmonious whole. Science was a noble activity, but there could be no such thing as a scientific account of the meaning of science. Like Nietzsche, Weber ultimately thought that it was nobler to accept the ethical irrationality of the world than to negate it in the vain hope that another more rational and less ethically dissonant world than this can ever unfold for us. For Weber, allegiance to a religion that, in the face of recalcitrant realities, claimed to make the world coherent was a sacrifice of intellectual integrity. But for him this was equally true of academic prophecy that claimed to restore moral intelligibility based on secular knowledge. But it was also true of crude naturalism that denied the force of the quest for meaning itself. We might not be able to have what we yearn for by way of meaning, but the yearning itself was not contemptible.
It is here that Weber turned to the Calvinists, not as an explanatory variable, but as an exemplar. One of Weber's favourite words was 'vocation' ' in the sense of a calling ' as signalled by the title of yet another pair of gripping essays, 'Science as a Vocation' and 'Politics as a Vocation'. While all attempts to render the world a meaningful totality are subverted by our experience, at least we could order our own personalities. One response to this loss of meaning was a retreat into subjectivism: an elevation of art and eroticism as the locus of meaning. But Weber ultimately thought that this thirst for experience would ultimately border on narcissistic self-indulgence. He himself remained too much of a Protestant to contemplate a life of easy abandon as a source of meaning.
For Weber, an individual response to modernity could recreate a secular version of what the Protestants had: a sense of calling. This requires a restored understanding of work as service, to look upon a chosen ideal, politics or science or whatever, as a calling. We can resolve the problem of meaning and identity through shaping one's self into a disciplined and coherent personality that a sense of calling requires. Weber was clear that our ideals had to be self-legitimating, which gods we choose to serve was our choice ' a prospect that is both frightening and liberating.
In a letter written to Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers describes his attempts to ask Weber why he wrote, and wrote so much. After resisting the question, Weber is said to finally have replied: 'I write to see what I can endure.' Perhaps this was fitting description from a writer who still remains an incomparable companion to the existential pathos of modernity, at least to those who have the stomach for asking the really tough questions.