December 19, 2005

Protestantism and Industrialism

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 one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at December 19, 2005 11:49 AM

Would it be fair to say that Protestantism is basicly bottom-up whereas Catholicism is top-down?

The previously-mentioned Divine Right of Kings seems to me to be associated more with Catholicism and at the time of the English Civil War was approved by the Pope (God's representative on Earth). In this worldview authority is handed down from God to Pope to Kings to Nobles to ... - a society ordered by unquestionable power. In the alternative worldview authority is passed up from People to Kings who rule through consent under Law.

Under the former society, people naturally tend to work grudingly to avoid the wrath of their superiors. Under the latter the tendancy is to work for their own ends as (to some extent) players rather than peons.

PS: I believe the EU have their own version of the Divine Right of Kings. Being secular they don't invoke God but invoke the "General Will" - the Enlightened can discern the General Will and thus have the moral authority to rule the masses who don't know what's good for them. You could call this the Enlightened Right of the Elite. This is incompatible with the UK philosophy, and will, I guess, lead to a severe culture clash (at best).

Posted by: Rog at December 19, 2005 06:12 PM

It's all due to climate. All these pre-existing characteristics, what ever they are, developed as a result of the combination of the harsh conditions of a cold winter that was however not harsh enough or dry enough to prevent an agrarian economy. This would explain why Korea and and Japan picked up on the thing so quickly, while central eurasians - historically nomadic - still don't quite get it.

Any superiority in culture as it applies to survival technology gives you an advantage over your neighbors which is amplified by the harsh conditions. It's why tropical cultures remained primitive. But to take advantage of these traits it you need the conditions that an agraian culture provides - relief from constant fight for survival - in order to develop communication, educational and scientific institutions.

Posted by: namelesswonder at December 19, 2005 10:52 PM

To answer your question about Arianism within the Catar movement, it's negative. Jesus Godo has written several books on the heterodox sect and it's clear that the major influence were the Bogomils from Bulgaria as well as manichieanism that cropped up from time to time in medieval hetrodoxic religious movements
Also I wouldn't push the dividions too hard. The medieval period is really a fusion of the Germanic laws and customs with Roman laws and its imperial legacy. The key differences are
1) The southern Europeans fight for survival against islam which shaped the militarism and hardened Catholic orthodoxy
2) the abuses of medieval constitutionalism by the nobles that provoked the ordinary people to look for the king as a counterbalance
3) the rediscovery of Roman law as an ideological justification against the nobles' abuse of their constitutional prerogatives.

Mind you, the Germanic influences were totally wiped out during the Age of discovery because when Columbus discovered America or the caudillos overthrew a regime they referred to legal procedures that originated from the Germanic traditions, fused with Roman and Christian innovations.

The divine right of kings is also Germanic. The notion of a priest-king is something very deep within the IndoEuropean tribes and shows up from time to time. I think it was Le Goff who wrote les 3 ordres: chevalier, prÍte et paysan which is similar to the Indoeuropean triparate division of king, priest and farmer.
So one could argue that Germanic tribes resuscitated a very old institution within Europe that under the empire jhad withered away by the 2nd century


Posted by: xavier at December 20, 2005 07:50 AM

Sorry, the paragraph on the age of discovery should read WEREN'T wiped out.

Posted by: xavier at December 20, 2005 07:52 AM

The climatological argument needs to explain why Japan developed a high-radius-of-trust culture with substantial periods of decentralization while Korea and China developed very different models.

Also, before the Exit (industrial revolution plus constitutional government) the best a civilization could obtain was "smithian optimality" -- specialization of labor and a market economy but without mechanizal power or concentrated use of energy. This was not "primitive" but highly sophisticated, and only a small number of pre-Exit civilizations got this far. (Ming China, India, the Baghdad Caliphate before the Mongol invasion, Tokugawa Japan, late-medieval Europe, etc.) Some of these were tropical, some weren't.

Xavier has hit upon one of the big dividing lines between Anglosphere and the Continent -- the abuse of medieval constitutionalism by the nobility led to a strengthening of the Crown on the Continet (usually because the nobility was militarily inefficient and the Crown was able to appeal to national-security justifications for centralizing power -- see Downing) In England, the continuation of Anglo-Saxon institutions and the absence of a standing army permitted the merchant classes, farmers and others to restrain the nobility through exitsing constitutional means. The lack of a firm line of demarcation between the aristocracy and other classes (since they intermarried freely, unlike on the Continent) also slowed down the Crown-nobility-commons triangulation, and sometimes it bcame aristocracy and Commons triangualting against the Crown..

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 20, 2005 04:19 PM

Thanks for the response. I'd go one step further. In France and Spain for example, the Crown and the ordinary people teamed up to prevent the nobles from abusing their power and to isolate the aristocrat's frivolouness from disrupting political life with their dumb feuds. However, it was an alliance that couldn't last for long. In Spain, the crown needed the grandees' prestige to act at the viceroys in the colonies. So eventually the aristocrats recaptured power without having to sweat for it like the English counterparts. In France, the Fronde, caused Louix XIV to neuter the aristocats by keeping them in Versailles.
Unfortunately, in both countries, when it came time for the aristocrats to lead, they failed because they had no experience to deal with hard issues or how to negotiate. Thus the regimes easily broke apart under the strain of change.
I'm still optimistic that it'll nbe possible for reformers to look back at France and castile's medieval periods and see what went wrong and learn from the mistakes

Posted by: xavier at December 21, 2005 08:28 PM

In Spain, the crown needed the grandees' prestige to act at the viceroys in the colonies.

Probably more important, they needed the nobility as the officer cadre for the standing military. The alternative, which was to permit a middle-class professional officer class to develop, was too socially dangerous. (Although had Catalonia won over Castile, they might have used the urban merchant-based militias as the core of a middle-class army. Pity.) England didn't have this problem nearly as much because they were able to get away with semi-amateur armies, and the younger sons of the gentry (who were by definition commoners) formed the officer class for that. The Navy had professional middle-class officers especially from Cromwell's time on, (see N.A.M. Rodger on the "tarpaulin captains") which did spark a social revolution but a gradual one that was incorporated into England's social evolution.

I'm still optimistic that it'll nbe possible for reformers to look back at France and castile's medieval periods and see what went wrong and learn from the mistakes

That would be far more effective than merely trying to imitate foreign models.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 21, 2005 09:19 PM


Posted by: sdg at March 28, 2007 02:29 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?