Maybe Weber’s thesis works better with Arminianism than Calvinism

18 Dec

I have suggested in a recent comment on this article regarding Weber and Calvinism, though shooting from the hip a bit, that Arminianism may work better for Weber’s thesis than Calvinism, since it is more conducive to an exalted individual both in theology and society. Looks like someone else agrees.

From Roland Boer:

For the sake of the following argument, I would like to grant the premises of Max Weber’s idealist argument: religion and culture (superstructure) are causative agents in socio-economic change. As is well known, Weber argued that Calvinism acted as a crucial vanishing mediator for capitalism. It provided the cultural, behavioural and religious framework that enabled capitalism to establish itself and gain ground. He looked in particular to the Netherlands, where the first commercial empire was established in the sixteenth century, and then to England, where the Puritans enabled a similar feat some time later. Frugal living, hard work, self-discipline, delayed satisfaction and reliance on the inscrutable grace of God – these and more were the factors that enabled the accumulation of primitive capital and then the expansion of the new system. Then, having achieved its task, Calvinism retired or vanished from its preeminent role.

Weber is of course wrong, but I would like to suggest he is wrong even if we accept his premises. Why? It was the Arminian heresy and not Calvinism that provided the cultural framework for capitalism. The reason is simply that the key agents in establishing capitalism in the Netherlands – or the United Provinces as it was then called – were Arminians, not Calvinists. Let me explain, by focusing on the thought of one of the earliest theorists of capitalism, Hugo Grotius (1683-1645). The crucial elements turn out to be the assertion of a free-willing individual, who has the power to choose good or evil, and to accept or reject God’s grace.

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I have, for the sake of my argument, granted Weber’s methodological assumptions, but even according to those assumptions he has missed his target. Those who took up a Reformed position (Calvinists) were not the agents of the Dutch commercial empire. They tended to come from the poorer, peasant and new working class areas of the United Provinces, precisely those that had been so enamoured with the radical and revolutionary currents of Anabaptism not so long before. Instead, it was Arminianism that was popular among the commercial ruling elite, among whom Grotius was a leading ideologue. Here are to be found the entrepreneurial doctrines of the free willing individual, the agent responsible for good and evil, the one who is powerful enough to resist even God’s grace. Men of this ilk were thoroughly offended by the Calvinist position that all their strivings, all their good works, counted as nothing before God. After all, was not the wealth and power they had created also good? In this light, it is perhaps better to speak of the Arminian ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

Read it all here

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