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How to adapt the “theology of work” to Succession-era capitalism

How would you feel about working like a Lutheran or a Cistercian?
A man with a beard embodying the Protestant work ethic.
Wiki Commons / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • In 1904, Max Weber proposed the idea that certain Protestant virtues were responsible for the comparative wealth of certain nations.
  • It's generally assumed that historic religious beliefs — from Cistercian to Lutheran — form the background virtues and values we all adopt in the workplace.
  • Here we look at ways to adapt the puritanical mindset to our own work-lives.

In 1904, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In the book, Weber argued that the paragon of “modern capitalism” was someone who “shuns ostentation and unnecessary show, spurns the conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social esteem in which he is held… He gets nothing out of his wealth for his own person.”

Weber died in 1920 and sadly never got to see Succession, The Real Housewives, or Bling Empire. He never popcorn-crunched his way through Leo’s The Wolf of Wall Street. I bet he didn’t even have a favorite Kardashian. If Weber were alive today, he’d be hard-pressed to see much that “shuns ostentation.” But we live in a different time, and the skyscrapers shadowing our cities are built on a very different ideological foundation.

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When Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic, he was motivated to answer one unignorable question: Why were some countries, with similar demographics and raw material deposits to their neighbors, so much wealthier than them? Why did a select few nations come out of the industrial revolution to dominate the modern G20? Well, for Weber, it was down to a protestant work ethic. Weber believed that the theological milieu after Martin Luther’s Reformation inspired North European protestant nations to take on certain capitalistic virtues: hard work, asceticism, and a sense of vocation. The reason why some countries work so hard is because a German monk hammered a list of grievances onto a church door in Wittenberg five hundred years ago.

What exactly was Weber’s position? How true did it turn out to be? And how can we all apply some puritanical thinking to the workplace?

Calvinists and Cistercians working 9-5

You have been born into a particular zeitgeist. The time you are in and the country you were born in will have established certain values and elevated some of them as the most important. If you have ever traveled to a different culture, you will know the truth about this. Individualism vs. collectivism, humility vs. assertiveness, directness vs. tactfulness, or hospitality vs. privacy — all are examples of different people’s attitudes toward life. What determines those values? For Weber, it’s religion.

A religion will establish certain norms and virtues as being greater than others. Within Christianity, running tangentially to the seven deadly sins are the seven capital virtues, such as “chastity,” “temperance,” or “kindness.” And, according to the thesis of The Protestant Ethic, when Christianity had its reformation, there wasn’t just a schism in the church; there was a schism in key values.

Weber believed that Protestantism — especially Puritanical Protestantism as seen in Lutheranism or Calvinism — established two work-friendly virtues: asceticism and vocation. Asceticism is the conscious self-denial of fasting, cold showers, and meat once a week. It’s a modest diet to get through a modest life. Because life should be about glorifying God — a constantly observant and highly judgmental God.

Secondly, vocation. Puritan Protestants often believed in some kind of predestination. This is where God has selected a few lucky individuals as his “elect” to go to heaven. It also means that God is one to micromanage things. So, if you’re lucky enough to have a job, then that’s God’s will. You should do all you can to keep faith in God’s will and work yourself to exhaustion, because to do anything less would be to denigrate God. Glorify God through appreciating and nurturing the gifts he has given you.

Weber was certainly an armchair sociologist in one sense. He hoped to conduct follow-up research on his thesis but never did. But, there is some modern evidence for what Weber theorized. In 1997, Jones et al. discovered “positive correlations between Protestant ethic values and internal locus of control (self-discipline), hard work, honesty, and belief in a just world.” And a 2016 paper did highlight examples where Protestantism definitely impacted capitalistic success. But it’s likely true that Weber oversimplified the matter.

In 2018, an international team of economists argued that yes, religion does impact societal attitudes toward work, but it wasn’t Protestantism. It was the Cistercians. The Cistercians were a group of Catholic monks who sought a return to the strict interpretation of the monastic “Rule of St. Benedict,” which was all about hard manual labor, austerity, and glorifying God. The pockets of capitalistic success are more correlated with historical Cistercian influence than puritanical Protestantism. And so, the team concludes, “the values which Weber associated with Protestantism had in fact been promulgated several centuries earlier.”

Weber in the workplace

Whether it was the Protestants or Cistercians who got there first is historically and sociologically interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily detract from Weber’s central thesis: some religion has given some people certain values, and these values make them work hard and get richer. So, what can we learn from Weber about Protestant ethics? How can we bring a bit of Luther into the office?

Reframe your office experience. The Protestant mindset saw life as a gift from God to be respected and trusted with. They saw a job as a vocation, and God’s agency was in everything — from your salary to who you sit next to in the office. Even if you’re not a Protestant, there’s a beneficial psychological framing here: grasp opportunities. Say yes. Make the most of everything in life. On Big Think+, we have a range of videos from CEOs, professors, authors, and Hollywood actors about how to reframe experiences in the workplace.

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Be the best you can be. The key virtue of the Protestant ethic is not gaining capital but being able to gain capital. It’s not about being rich, but being really good at your job (which just so happens to make you rich). There’s good wisdom to apply here. In many workplaces, it can seem like there are a series of milestones to reach. Every organization will have a hierarchy to climb, and we’re encouraged to keep one eye on the next job title at all times. Titles, for title sake, are vanity. Luther and Calvin would argue that you should seek to simply be as good as you can at your job. Around the same time as Weber, the American poet Douglas Malloch wrote a poem called “Be the Best of Whatever You Are.” It starts:

“If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill,
Be a scrub in the valley — but be
The best little scrub by the side of the rill;
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.”

Malloch’s poem goes on to say that we all have our jobs in life, we each fill certain roles, and we often can’t be like others. But what we can do is be the best we can be. Whatever your job is, take pride in it and do it as well as you can.

Stay classy. The Protestant ethic wasn’t the one buying seven bottles of Dom Pérignon with an expensive watch, a fast car, and a suit worth more than an average person’s annual salary. The Protestant ethic “shuns ostentation and unnecessary show.” Even if we enjoy a tiny bit of ostentation now and then, there’s a deeper point to appreciate: live within your means. Save before you spend. Warren Buffett is one of the richest men in the world. But he still lives in the same house he bought in 1958 for $31,000. Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, always flew economy class, drove an old Volvo, and had employees write on both sides of the paper. It’s not about being miserly and draped in a Spartan cloak of thorns. It’s about staying classy and staying close to the earth.

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