Puritanism and Prosperity

JUNE, 1926

BY REINHOLD NIEBUHR

I

AMERICAN prosperity is rapidly becoming the most important fact and the most difficult problem in the international life of the Western world. Europe is so deeply in debt to us that she can repay our loans only by reducing the standard of living in the various nations for generations. Our wealth is so enormous that its power is making itself felt in the economic life of both Europe and South America in a way that practically defies every reasoned control. In spite of extravagant standards of living we are producing a billion dollars more wealth annually than we consume and are increasing our foreign holdings each year by that amount. An English economist recently prophesied that at the present rate of increase American investments in the outside world would exceed the combined wealth of Germany and France by the year 1950. However generous we may be with government debts, these foreign investments in private enterprise are bringing high dividends which will seem justified to the American by the risk involved, but which will increasingly appear from the perspective of impoverished Europe as the exorbitant tribute that a wealthy economic empire is pressing out of poor dependencies. Any cursory glance at the journals of Europe must convince even the most heedless American that tides of hatred, mixed with envy, are rising against us in the world, which bode no good either for us or for the peace of nations.

The development of sufficient social intelligence and moral imagination to control the vast and intricate economic relationships that modern inventions have made possible and inevitable is an urgent duty which the entire world faces, but of all nations it is most urgent for us; for our nation, which is economically most powerful, is also politically most inept. We are a land of industrial experts and political novices whose limitations are the more dangerous for being so little understood among us. When we insist that the problems of the modern world can be solved by a ‘businesslike settlement’ we are merely saying that we want a simple solution which does not take into account those complex and illusive factors with which politics deals and with which we, in our political simplicity of mind, are so impatient.

Our prosperity will increasingly become a primary problem in domestic morality as well as in international relationships. We have built the first civilization in the history of the world in which wealth and prosperity have become the portion of the common man. In all previous civilizations the robust virtues have been maintained by a large middle class living in genteel poverty, in which it was protected from the vices which flourish in extravagance on the one hand and in abject poverty on the other. The finest values of the spirit ought to flourish there where men are most emancipated from the urgent necessities of the struggle for bread; but men easily convert this emancipation into a new kind of slavery and become obsessed with the instrumentalities of life in such a way as to rob them of both virtue and culture. Whatever we may be able to do in the future to make wealth serve the interests of the spiritual life, it must be confessed that the past does not encourage the hope that the finest virtues can be maintained except where there are large classes who are challenged to heroism by life’s handicaps, but are not tempted to despair by insurmountable difficulties.

Whatever may be the consequences of our wealth upon either the morality of individuals or the destiny of the nation, it may be more profitable to search for the source of our prosperity than to speculate on its possible effects; for we may find in its source the secret of our limitations in dealing with it and a clue to the solution of the problems with which it confronts us. There is, of course, nothing mysterious about many of the sources of our prosperity. In common with other Western nations we made fruitful use of modern science and by her aid unlocked the storehouses of nature. If we are more wealthy than they, that is due partially to the uncommon opulence of nature on our continent and partially to the happy fortune which gave us a continent to ourselves where economic life is not hampered by the irrelevancies of national boundaries or shattered by the periodic national conflicts which have devastated Europe. It may be, too, that the American climate has given our people a superior energy and that immigration has supplied us with a stock of workers highly selected for a daring and enterprising spirit. All of these explanations may have some validity, but they are not sufficient to explain the total facts.

For an adequate explanation of the whole phenomenon of American prosperity we must examine at least one other factor which has hitherto been hardly noted in the study of economic life—the factor of religion. There have been many economic determinists who have insisted that, all cultural and religious life could be explained in terms of economic circumstance; but few students of society have made a thorough study of religious life as the root of economic phenomena. Only one, the German sociologist Max Weber, has made a detailed study of this relationship. His conclusion that Protestantism is the main root of the modern capitalistic spirit, and that, of all forms of Protestantism, Puritanism has been most successful in encouraging business enterprise, has particular significance for American life, for America is at once the most Puritan and the most prosperous of all Western nations.

II

It is not difficult to note that the prestige and dignity of the business man in the modern world are in striking contrast to his position in the ancient world, in which business enterprise was frequently in the hands of slaves. The low place that Plato gives to the tradesman as well as to the artisan in the ideal caste-system of his Republic is typical of the social ideas of the whole ancient world, in which only soldiers and philosophers were honored. If it is understood that the soldier was permitted to beguile his leisure in the intervals between battles as a landed aristocrat, and that cultural and religious pursuits were closely allied so that the place of philosopher and priest came finally to the same thing, the ideals of classical antiquity are substantially identical with those of mediæval antiquity, in which priest and knight were the real aristocrats. Practically the only exception to this general rule was to be found in the mediæval Italian citystates, in which, in the words of a contemporary, ‘they stoop to bestow the sword belt and honorable rank upon youths of inferior rank, or even upon laborers in despised and mechanical trades, who among other people are shunned like the pest.’

As the mediæval cities grew, commercial enterprise received a certain amount of social recognition, but on the whole the traditional attitude toward all secular tasks was maintained until the time of the Reformation. The new spirit in modern business is really a by-product of the doctrine of the Reformation of the ‘sanctity of all work,’ a doctrine which was sharply outlined in Protestantism’s conflict with monasticism. This emphasis on the sanctity of all work destroyed the ethical dualism that was so characteristic of the Middle Ages, and made the ethical resources of the religious life, which had been previously exploited only in monastic seclusion, available for business enterprise. The first direct result of this change was a higher type of honesty, without which the intricate credit relationships of modern business could not be maintained. In this connection the large place which such classes as the Dutch Huguenots had in the rapidly developing international commerce is highly significant. There were many classes more wealthy than they, but they captured business because of their reputation for honesty both among possible customers and among the underwriters of their projects. With a higher type of honesty came also a greater diligence; for the traditional odium attached to business enterprise was destroyed, and it became possible for a self-respecting person to give himself completely to commercial pursuits without diminution of social prestige or of moral self-respect.

It would, however, be unfair to suppose that modern commerce was altogether the fruit of the superior virtues of Protestantism. It was partially the fruit of Protestantism’s moral limitations. The same religious tendencies that gave a wholesome sanction to secular enterprises gave an unwholesome sanction to secular motives. Profit-seeking became morally respectable. The bibliolatry of Protestantism and the consequent prestige of the Old Testament restored the old Hebraic idea that prosperity was an indubitable proof of sanctity. The mediæval ethical restraints upon profit-seeking were destroyed, and a secularized economic life inevitably produced the law of supply and demand and the conviction that nothing but commercial prudence could finally restrain the avarice of producers. There is to-day in the Teutonic nations, which are largely Protestant, a different type of business honesty than in the Latin nations, which are still partially rooted in the Middle Ages, and the real clue to this difference is to be found in varying religious ideals and ideas. Much detailed analysis would be required to make this difference clear, but it may be briefly summed up in the statement that Protestant nations are at once more honest and more greedy than their neighbors — more honest in the details of a business transaction, but more intent upon the ultimate profits of the transaction.

Everything that has been said applies to Protestantism in general, but these general traits of Protestantism were accentuated in Puritanism and in the religion of the sects that developed the new ethic of business far more consistently than either Anglicanism or Lutheranism. The State churches, both Anglican and Lutheran, maintained a world view much more akin to that of the mediæval world than the moral idealism of Puritan sectarianism. The proof that the spirit of modern industry and commerce, with their unashamed secular ends, is closely related to religious ideas may easily be found in the contemporary life of Europe. Protestant Prussia is industrial and Catholic Bavaria is largely agrarian; Protestant Scotland is industrial and Catholic Ireland is agrarian, while Protestant Ulster is again significantly industrial. In England the commercial middle classes have been closely identified with the Nonconformist, largely Puritan, sects, while the landed aristocracy is still the bulwark of the Established Church.

In all the nations of Europe, even in nominally Protestant countries, the mediæval spirit is still powerful. The significance of America lies in the fact that our business life developed under sanctions wholly Puritan. In Germany, until the very period of the World War, great industrialists were admitted to the court only if they held reserve commissions in the army — if, in other words, they became partially identified with the military aristocracy. In England it has been customary until quite recently for industrial magnates to buy country estates, identify themselves with the traditional landed aristocracy, and attempt, if possible, to obscure the commercial sources of their new wealth. Not infrequently these pseudo country squires have made a significant change of religious allegiance from a sect of Puritanism to the Established Church.

III

America is the only nation of the Western world that developed the new attitude toward business totally unhampered by religious and moral traditions which date back to mediæval and classical antiquity. Completely emancipated from these ancient scruples against business enterprise, we have been able to give ourselves to commercial and industrial tasks with a passion unknown to Europe. That is the real secret of our phenomenal success. The sanctification of secular tasks is certainly not wrong in itself; the moral limitations of our American civilization are due to the complete sanctification of secular motives as well as secular tasks. The religious traditions under which we grew to national maturity may have been adequate for the moral needs of the middle classes of Europe; they gave them moral selfrespect and the power to overcome poverty and to challenge autocracy. But they are no longer adequate to our present situation, and the moral limitations that inhered in them from the beginning are becoming more and more obvious. Our Puritan virtues have lifted us to power and privilege, but they lack the social imagination to guide us in the use of our power, and they are wanting in the cultural assets to prompt us to a right use of our privileges. Our Babbittry is in reality Puritanism gone to seed — a fact which is not lost on the critics of our contemporary civilization who instinctively recognize some affinity between our religious traditions and the moral and cultural limitations of our national life.

Puritanism is in a sense a religious sublimation of the traditional virtues of the middle class — the virtues of sobriety, honesty, and thrift. As the middle class rises to power and position by means of these very virtues it tends to develop a Puritan paganism in which the sins of the senses are abhorred and the sins of the mind are embraced. American business life has been dominated for a few generations by these Puritan pagans, who knew how to combine a meticulous private morality with an unashamed passion for profit and power. This combination of virtues and limitations has produced a wealth so vast that it tends to destroy the original Puritan virtues and finally to produce a pure paganism that shuns neither the sins of the senses nor the sins of the mind. The much lamented divergence of the younger generation from the virtuous standards of the fathers is merely the final stage in the disintegration of American Puritanism. The moral limitations of Puritanism seem to have made such a disintegration an inevitable fate.

Mediæval religion had two different strategies in dealing with the weaknesses of human nature and the sins of society. On the one hand it made an easy compromise with them and produced the easy-going morality against which Puritanism revolted. On the other hand it maintained in monasticism a sense of conflict between the moral ideal and the sins that lurk in all natural human relationships and instincts.

Puritanism insisted that victory was possible, and that neither compromise nor perpetual conflict with a seemingly invincible foe was either necessary or desirable. It made a brave bid for victory. But it made the fatal blunder of underestimating the strength of the opposition. It saw the foe on only one front and fought so successfully there that it was beguiled into premature complacency and defeat on other fronts. Puritanism has therefore issued in a different kind of moral compromise, which has in it a touch of hypocrisy because it is not known to be a compromise. That is the hypocrisy which is producing the reaction of cynicism among the critics of our Western, and particularly of our American, civilization; for cynicism is an inevitable reaction to hypocrisy. To defeat this criticism and destroy its force we need a new orientation of our moral idealism. We need a religion and an ethic which know how to deal with greed as well as with dishonesty, and which have effectual restraints upon the paganism of power and pride as well as upon the paganism of licentious pleasure.