The Problem with the Protestant Work Ethic
We are all insane because of it. All the evidence I need.
Max Weber - born in Germany in 1864 - was a sociologist, a historian, philosopher. While he was growing up in during this time in his native Germany he was able to witness the industrial revolution happening in real time. Factories going up, assembly lines being started, farms becoming mechanized. Being so close to all this commotion he was able to come to some interesting insights as to the nature of capitalism & those who take part in it.
Weber had assumed that those who were deeply religious tended to shun the world, to keep as far away from it as possible, preferring an ascetic life, closer to nature, closer to God’s creations in a states of prayer, meditation & gratitude, seeking things higher than man. This distance has been maintained by believers because they are people who are often suspicious & skeptical of all man’s doings, whether it be business, politics, entertainment or the economy.
Unlike what he had seen before, Weber noticed that after the Protestant Reformation Protestants, Calvinists specifically, looked at work & industry with a new attitude he had never seen from a religious group have before.
While devout believers were skeptical, Protestants seemed to embrace the ways of man.
According to Weber, the Protestant God is a silent God who is strict, silent & demands justice, he keeps his intentions & his thoughts unknown until the final day of judgement. So until that day of judgement Protestants are left to deal with a constant sense of dreadful anxiety and uncertainty, always worried about if their God approves of their efforts.
For example, Weber noticed how Calvinists believed in predestination, meaning that heaven only has X number of open seats, and if you aren’t on the guest list then you’re toast. This belief of predestination led them to spend their whole lives anxiously trying to prove to God that they were worthy of one of these celestial seats. How they thought to prove themselves was through work & industry1.
With this work ethic came less free time to do what one pleased, less free time. The festivals & feasts we see in Orthodoxy & Catholicism hardly existed, if at all, in this new Protestant Capitalist state of mind because God doesn’t like idling.
For Weber, there were certain countries and cultures that would never be able to embrace this capitalistic mindset because they weren’t anxious enough or guilty enough. They didn’t feel the need to prove themselves by working hard, the believed in miracles, they wanted to celebrate now instead of investing for a better economic future. This is the kind of culture we should want. It turns out these guys have had it figured out this whole time.
But for Westerners & our culture, having an ethic of work has been one of the main foundations of life, we hang on to the belief that if you work hard everything else will fall in place. This belief - once unquestioned - now seems to be fading. (Thank God). And the more uncertain our collective future is, the more unappealing a life of constantly spinning your wheels becomes. It is getting more difficult to be enthusiastic about “working” since the return on work seems to be diminishing.
The myth that hard work & industry are the keys not only to material success but to spiritual enlightenment as well, is being busted in real time.
As a sidenote: For now, I’m not interested in whether capitalism or Protestantantism caused this “work ethic”, all I am interested in pointing out is how obvious the two seem to dovetail, and how this affects us today.
In his book “The Culture of Narcissism”, Christopher Lasch talks about how this Puritan Protestant mindset spilled into other areas of life in the 19th and 20th centuries. “In the nineteenth century, the ideal of self-improvement degenerated into a cult of compulsive industry.”
This cult of compulsive industry was only interested in information if it meant it gave you an advantage in the markets. Everything was about the holy and untouchable markets. If it didn’t give you some kind of edge in the markets it was cast aside, the wisdom of the ancients and practical & other useful knowledge was not seen as useful in this sense.
As Lasch puts it, “the nineteenth century attempted to express all values in monetary terms.”
Lasch continues, “[He] valued the good opinion of others not as a sign of one’s usefulness but as a means of getting credit. “Uncompromising integrity of character is invaluable.” …. Charity was a moral duty because “the liberal man will command patronage, while the sordid, uncharitable miser will be avoided.” The sin of pride was not that it offended God but that it led to extravagant expenditures. “A spirit of pride and vanity, when permitted to have full sway, is the undying cankerworm which gnaws the very vitals of a man’s worldly possessions.””
This is, objectively, a boneheaded way to see the world. It just is.
This belief gave everything a monetary price, and since everything had a price, everything could be negotiated. There should be some things that should never have a price, making them non-negotiable. Something has to be holy! No?
I am certainly no theologian, but I think enough time has passed on this experiment that we can now safely say that this belief is unsustainable at this scale. We are collectively the kid on a bike who is going so fast he starts to feel his handlebars wobble back and forth. We work way too much doing work we all hate, but when busyness is how you prove your worth then wheel spinning is what you are going to get. At a point, work becomes inappropriate and unnatural. The protestant work ethic is not compatible with the life of a flâneur.
This need to constantly be proving oneself by being a busy comes from a deep & profound sense of insecurity2. Everyone is anxious & insecure because they think their worthiness is attached to some kind of checklist of things they’ve accomplished. No wonder why we are all driven to the brink of being mentally ill, we have made up this fictitious idea of worthiness and let it ruin us. This way of living is certainly not compatible with anyone who prioritizes their mental well-being.
I don’t think the West will overcome it’s mental sickness until it can grow out of this belief. We Westerners basically need to learn how to do nothing again.
Besides, a much healthier way to live is to know how to relax while there is still work to be done.
AND NARCISSISM?!?! HELLLOOOO.