of the rest of western Europe and of the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) lived longer and was better off than his ancestors had been. He was also far richer than the average African, Asian, or Latin American.
Explaining why the Industrial Revolution started in England and why it was western Europe (and not some other part of the world such as China) that jumped ahead is the great enigma of economic history, one that has interested historians and social scientists alike. What was it that gave western Europe -and Britain in particular - a head start on the path of capitalist economic growth?
Given the central role that Christianity has played in European history, one might look to religion for the answer. The best-known attempt to connect Christianity and capitalist growth is no doubt Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this famous work, Weber did not say Calvinism caused the Industrial Revolution; rather, he posited a more subtle link between Calvinism and capitalist growth. At bottom, his argument was that the teachings of Calvin and of Puritan divines unintentionally helped legitimate capitalist behaviour. In particular, they encouraged savings, investment, and the relentless pursuit of profit, all of which Weber considered hallmarks of capitalism. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination left anxious believers looking for some sign that they had been saved. That sign would come from success as a capitalist, and capitalist behaviour would be reinforced by Protestant injunctions against idleness and extravagant consumption.
Much inkhas been spilled over the Weber thesis, which has had a particularly strong appeal in sociology and among historians who work on Great Britain and New England. But it has encountered less success among historians of early modern religion, particularly those who work on continental Europe. They actually find an ethos similar to Weber's Protestant ethic in Counter-Reformation Catholicism and argue that both Calvinism and post-Tridentine Catholicism shared a common commitment (despite all their other differences) to the sort of disciplined behaviour associated with capitalism. If they are correct, then Weber's argument may reflect not a perceptive reading of the evidence, but his own psychology and the political attitudes of his milieu. From contemporary theology and Bismarck's battle against Catholicism, Weber had imbibed the belief that Protestantism was the better religion for modern society. But he also admired English and American Puritanism as a bulwark against the debilitating authoritarianism he despised in Germany. From there, the step to inventing the Protestant ethic was a short one indeed.
Weber's proponents would of course disagree. They would contend that Weber's critics have mangled his argument, which did not connect
Was this article helpful?