The Debt of the Living: Ascesis and Capitalism

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Collins denies that our western capitalist system began only in the modern period, with the harnessing by the Calvinists of the other-worldly asceticism of medieval monasticism to secular purposes. To the extent that he opposes Weber, Collins stresses the institutional, structural requirements for capitalism; and he rejects the role that Weber gives to the individualistic money-oriented motivation that derived from Calvinist predestinationist theology.

Collins stresses the legislative, judicial, and administrative institutions which have to exist before capitalism can exist, and which capitalism must embody. Such institutions provide a combination of security and freedom, for which the Catholic Church developed the first model, above all in its monastic orders. The monks founded capitalism by producing an agricultural revolution in northwestern Europe, Collins observes, and northwestern Europe, not the Mediterranean cities, was the cradle of our modern capitalist society.

The rationality that the monks introduced into their agricultural enterprises was a specific application of a general rationality that they applied to all their activities. The innovations of the monks in architecture, in agriculture, and other areas are by now well known. This trend is to push back to medieval times the new developments and discoveries that were supposed to have come about abruptly in the modern era. The model of the abrupt transition from medieval darkness to modern luminosity has been replaced, as a result of historical studies, by a model of a continuation into modern times of an innovative mentality reaching back into the eleventh century.

So the rationality of capitalism is simply one more example of an overall rationality which entered into the whole body of life in the Middle Ages under the aegis of the Catholic Church. Let Collins speak for himself. These conditions are primarily institutional rather than motivational. And not only the institutional preconditions but a version of the developed characteristics of capitalism itself can also be found then. The crucial preconditions include the bureaucratized state, a rationalized legal system, and citizenship rights.

The significance of the Middle Ages for the last is in little dispute. Modern autonomies and corporate privileges of self-government under enacted law derive from the chartered cities of medieval Europe. What I would argue is that the Canon Law had exactly this place within the economic activities of the Church itself. And within that economic structure the key role was played by the monks. The community of monks typically operated a factory.

There would be a complex of mills usually hydraulically powered, for grinding corn as well as for other purposes. In iron-producing regions, they operated forges with water-powered trip-hammers.. In England, the entire monastic economy was geared toward producing wool for the export market. The Cistercians were the cutting edge of economic growth. The spread of Cistercian monasteries in Europe was probably the catalyst for much other economic development, including imitation in its cutthroat investment practices.

We find here. They followed a form of rational cost-accounting, and plowed back their profits into the business.

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Moreover, because they had a centrally controlled organization, they could move capital around internally from one enterprize to another, building up prospering ones and cutting their losses in unsuccessful areas. Various religious orders had a hand in the development of banking, for example the Knights Templar and the Augustinians. Many Augustinian houses became prosperous small bankers.

The immobility of capital that operated as a hindrance to economic development in the secular economy was thus circumvented to a considerable degree in the centralized features of the Church. But, to a degree, the Church provided a way of circumventing this as well. The Church and the new monastic orders were the only international organizations in Europe. Moreover they recruited freely from all social ranks. I hasten to add that the economic condition of the worker under medieval capitalism was the opposite of that of the worker under modern capitalism, at least until late in the nineteenth century.

The standard of living of the ordinary worker in the High Middle Ages was better than it would be for workers in modern times, until the last hundred years or so. As Marx points out the economic condition of the worker deteriorated down to the nineteenth century. In Eastern Europe with the so-called Enlightened despots in modern times, we find a reintroduction of serfdom.

Collins calls it a second serfdom. The Baltic trade of the Hanseatic cities was almost entirely in bulk goods, and by the late s entire countries such as Norway had become wholly dependent on imported grain. Clearly there was a mass market in some areas. In the s and s, just as the medieval economy was beginning to develop, there was a widespread movement to establish peace.

The Church thus brought about at least an approximation to a capitalist economy within the larger feudal economy of the High Middle Ages. He stresses by contrast the relative abnormality of our own individualistic laissez-faire capitalism which is aimed purely at private and personal financial advantage. But the twentieth century shows us a capitalism that is corporate and that sometimes even appears, it is said, under the guise of socialism.

But while medieval capitalism stressed the community-oriented aspects of production, it nevertheless by no means ignored individual activities. Elettra Stimilli — November 23, By Doucefleur Shutterstock. For a year, from , Simone Weil, the French philosopher and activist, worked at a fa But, however strange it may seem, it follows from the peculiar form which the Christian brotherly love was forced to take under the pressure of the inner isolation of the individual through the Calvinistic faith.

In the first place it follows dogmatically. The world exists to serve the glorification of God and for that purpose alone. The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. But God requires social achievement of the Christian because He wills that social life shall be organized according to His commandments, in accordance with that purpose.

The social activity of the Christian in the world is solely activity in majorem gloriam Dei. This character is hence shared by labor in a calling which serves the mundane life of the community. Even in Luther we found specialized labor in callings justified in terms of brotherly love. But what for him remained an uncertain, purely intellectual suggestion became for the Calvinists a characteristic element in their ethical system.

Brotherly love, since it may only be practiced for the glory of God and not in the service of the flesh, is expressed in the first place in the fulfillment of the daily tasks given by the lex naturae ; and in the Process this fulfillment assumes a peculiarly objective and impersonal character, that of service in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment.

For the wonderfully purposeful organization and arrangement of this cosmos is, according both to the revelation of the Bible and to natural intuition, evidently designed by God to serve the utility of the human race. This makes labor in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by Him.

The complete elimination of the theodicy problem and of all those questions about the meaning of the world and of life, which have tortured others, was as self-evident to the Puritan as, for quite different reasons, to the Jew, and even in a certain sense to all the non mystical types of Christian religion. To this economy of forces Calvinism added another tendency which worked in the same direction. This is not the place to analyze the reasons for this fact, or its significance for the political and economic rationalism of Calvinism.

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The source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics lies here, and important peculiarities of the Calvinistic idea of the calling were derived from the same source as well. But for the moment we must return to the special consideration of the doctrine of predestination. For us the decisive problem is: How was this doctrine borne in an age to which the after-life was not only more important, but in many ways also more certain, than all the interests of life in this world?

The question, Am I one of the elect? And how can I be sure of this state of grace? For Calvin himself this was not a problem. He felt himself to be a chosen agent of the Lord, and was certain of his own salvation. Accordingly, to the question of how the individual can be certain of his own election, he has at bottom only the answer that we should be content with the knowledge that God has chosen and depend further only on that implicit trust in Christ which is the result of true faith.

He rejects in principle the assumption that one can learn from the conduct of others whether they are chosen or damned. The elect differ externally in this life in no way from the damned; and even all the subjective experiences of the chosen are, as ludibria spiritus sancti , possible for the damned with the single exception of that finaliter expectant , trusting faith. Quite naturally this attitude was impossible for his followers as early as Beza, and, above all, for the broad mass of ordinary men.

For them the certitudo salutis in the sense of the recognizability of the state of grace necessarily became of absolutely dominant importance. So, wherever the doctrine of predestination was held, the question could not be suppressed whether there were any infallible criteria by which membership in the electi could be known. Not only has this question continually had a central importance in the development of the Pietism which first arose on the basis of the Reformed Church; it has in fact in a certain sense at times been fundamental to it.

But when we consider the great political and social importance of the Reformed doctrine and practice of the Communion, we shall see how great a part was played during the whole seventeenth century outside of Pietism by the possibility of ascertaining the state of grace of the individual. On it depended, for instance, his admission to Communion, i. Above all, practical pastoral work, which had immediately to deal with all the suffering caused by the doctrine, could not be satisfied.

It met these difficulties in various ways. So far as predestination was not reinterpreted, toned down, or fundamentally abandoned, two principal, mutually connected, types of pastoral advice appear. On the one hand it is held to be an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil, since lack of self-confidence is the result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace. In the place of the humble sinners to whom Luther promises grace if they trust themselves to God in penitent faith are bred those self-confident saints whom we can rediscover in the hard Puritan merchants of the heroic age of capitalism and in isolated instances down to the present.

On the other hand, in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace. That worldly activity should be considered capable of this achievement, that it could, so to speak, be considered the most suitable means of counteracting feelings of religious anxiety, finds its explanation in the fundamental peculiarities of religious feeling in the Reformed Church, which come most clearly to light in its differences from Lutheranism in the doctrine of justification by faith.

The highest religious experience which the Lutheran faith strives to attain, especially as it developed in the course of the seventeenth century, is the unio mystica with the deity. As the name itself, which is unknown to the Reformed faith in this form, suggests, it is a feeling of actual absorption in the deity, that of a real entrance of the divine into the soul of the believer. It is qualitatively similar to the aim of the contemplation of the German mystics and is characterized by its passive search for the fulfillment of the yearning for rest in God.

Now the history of philosophy shows that religious belief which is primarily mystical may very well be compatible with a pronounced sense of reality in the field of empirical fact; it may even support it directly on account of the repudiation of dialectic doctrines. Furthermore, mysticism may indirectly even further the interests of rational conduct. Nevertheless, the positive valuation of external activity is lacking in its relation to the world. In addition to this, Lutheranism combines the unio mystica with that deep feeling of sin-stained unworthiness which is essential to preserve the poenitentia quotidiana of the faithful Lutheran, thereby maintaining the humility and simplicity indispensable for the forgiveness of sins.


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The typical religion of the Reformed Church, on the other hand, has from the beginning repudiated both this purely inward emotional piety of Lutheranism and the Quietist escape from everything of Pascal. A real penetration of the human soul by the divine was made impossible by the absolute transcendentiality of God compared to the flesh: finitum non est capax infiniti.

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The community of the elect with their God could only take place and be perceptible to them in that God worked operatur through them and that they were conscious of it. Deep lying differences of the most important conditions of salvation which apply to the classification of all practical religious activity appear here. The religious believer can make himself sure of his state of grace either in that he feels himself to be the vessel of the Holy Spirit or the tool of the divine will. In the former case his religious life tends to mysticism and emotionalism, in the latter to ascetic action; Luther stood close to the former type, Calvinism belonged definitely to the latter.

The Calvinist also wanted to be saved sola fide. But since Calvin viewed all pure feelings and emotions, no matter how exalted they might seem to be, with suspicion, faith had to be proved by its objective results in order to provide a firm foundation for the certitudo salutis.

It must be a fides efficax , the call to salvation an effectual calling expression used in Savoy Declaration. If we now ask further, by what fruits the Calvinist thought himself able to identify true faith? Only one of the elect really has the fides efficax , only he is able by virtue of his rebirth regeneratio and the resulting sanctification sanctificatio of his whole life, to augment the glory of God by real, and not merely apparent, good works. It was through the consciousness that his conduct, at least in its fundamental character and constant ideal propositum obcedientiae , rested on a power within himself working for the glory of God; that it is not only willed of God but rather done by God that he attained the highest good towards which this religion strove, the certainty of salvation.

That it was attainable was proved by 2 Cor. Thus, however useless good works might be as a means of attaining salvation, for even the elect remain beings of the flesh, and everything they do falls infinitely short of divine standards, nevertheless, they are indispensable as a sign of election. They are the technical means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation. In this sense they are occasionally referred to as directly necessary for salvation or the possessio salutis is made conditional on them. In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves.

Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it.


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  4. This brings us to a very important point in our investigation. It is common knowledge that Lutherans have again and again accused this line of thought, which was worked out in the Reformed Churches and sects with increasing clarity, of reversion to the doctrine of salvation by works. And however justified the protest of the accused against identification of their dogmatic position with the Catholic doctrine, this accusation has surely been made with reason if by it is meant the practical consequences for the everyday life of the average Christian of the Reformed Church.

    For a more intensive form of the religious valuation of moral action than that to which Calvinism led its adherents has perhaps never existed. But what is important for the practical significance of this sort of salvation by works must be sought in a knowledge of the particular qualities which characterized their type of ethical conduct and distinguished it from the everyday life of an average Christian of the Middle Ages. The difference may well be formulated as follows: the normal medieval Catholic layman lived ethically, so to speak, from hand to mouth.

    In the first place he conscientiously fulfilled his traditional duties. But beyond that minimum his good works did not necessarily form a connected, or at least not a rationalized, system of life, but rather remained a succession of individual acts. He could use them as occasion demanded, to atone for particular sins, to better his chances for salvation, or, toward the end of his life, as a sort of insurance premium.

    Of course the Catholic ethic was an ethic of intentions. But the concrete intention of the single act determined its value. And the single good or bad action was credited to the doer determining his temporal and eternal fate.

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    Quite realistically the Church recognized that man was not an absolutely clearly defined unity to be judged one way or the other, but that his moral life was normally subject to conflicting motives and his action contradictory. Of course, it required as an ideal a change of life in principle. But it weakened just this requirement for the average by one of its most important means of power and education, the sacrament of absolution, the function of which was connected with the deepest roots of the peculiarly Catholic religion.

    The rationalization of the world, the elimination of magic as a means to salvation, the Catholics had not carried nearly so far as the Puritans and before them the Jews had done. To the Catholics the absolution of his Church was a compensation for his own imperfection. The priest was a magician who performed the miracle of transubstantiation, and who held the key to eternal life in his hand. One could turn to him in grief and penitence. He dispensed atonement, hope of grace, certainty of forgiveness, and thereby granted release from that tremendous tension to which the Calvinist was doomed by an inexorable fate, admitting of no mitigation.

    For him such friendly and human comforts did not exist.

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    He could not hope to atone for hours of weakness or of thoughtlessness by increased good will at other times, as the Catholic or even the Lutheran could. The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system. There was no place for the very human Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin. The moral conduct of the average man was thus deprived of its planless and unsystematic character and subjected to a consistent method for conduct as a whole.

    It is no accident that the name of Methodists stuck to the participants in the last great revival of Puritan ideas in the eighteenth century just as the term Precisians, which has the same meaning, was applied to their spiritual ancestors in the seventeenth century. For only by a fundamental change in the whole meaning of life at every moment and in every action could the effects of grace transforming a man from the status naturae , to the status gratiae be proved.

    The life of the saint was directed solely toward a transcendental end, salvation. But precisely for that reason it was thoroughly rationalized in this world and dominated entirely by the aim to add to the glory of God on earth. Never has the precept omnia in majorem dei gloriam been taken with more bitter seriousness. Only a life guided by constant thought could achieve conquest over the state of nature. It was this rationalization which gave the Reformed faith its peculiar ascetic tendency, and is the basis both of its relationship to and its conflict with Catholicism.