Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

by R. H. Tawney. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. l926. xiv+285 pp. $3.50.
WHATEVER influence religion may exert in the private life of individuals, even the most superficial observation must convince the student that its tenets do not seriously affect economic society. Its ethical impotence in the field of complex social and economic relationships is so well established by history and custom that even the most ambitious protagonists of religion take it for granted. Professor Tawney, who revealed a marked genius for evaluating ethical implications of economic theory and practice in his Acquisitive Society, has undertaken in his new book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, to trace the historical influences which persuaded Western civilization to develop an economic life in such marked contrast to the ideals of a religion which it affects to believe.
Professor Tawney’s treatise is a brilliant analysis of the interplay of religious and economic forces in the life of our Western world since the beginning of the sixteenth century. He does not wholly agree with the thesis, usually associated with the name of the German sociologist, Max Weber, that the secularization of Western economic life and the rise of capitalism were due to the Protestant Reformation. The conviction which he elaborates is rather that the growing complexity of economic life, even preceding the Reformation, made the maintenance of the old ethical restrictions on economic greed, expounded by Thomas Aquinas and recorded in canonical law, increasingly difficult. An ethical social idealism, no matter how valid, which expressed itself specifically in terms gained from the experience of village trade was simply unable to discipline the new international commercialism, with its vast and intricate relationships. Economic life became secularized, therefore, with no law but that of prudential self-interest to guide it, chiefly because Christian idealists were incompetent to fashion new instruments of control when they discovered the old ones impotent. ‘The paroxysm of virtuous fury,’ says Tawney, ‘with which the children of light denounced each new victory of economic enterprise as yet a new stratagem of mammon disabled them for the staff work of their campaign, which needs cool heads as well as a stout heart.’ The reformers, both Luther and Calvin, were as vehement as any papist in their denunciation of economic greed, and attempted to maintain the canonical prohibition of usury even while they abhorred the canonical law. Yet the secularization of economic life proceeded apace, not only because Catholics and Protestants alike failed to comprehend the intricacies of a new capitalistic commercialism, but also because incidental characteristics of the Reformation aggravated the tendency toward a morally autonomous commercial life. Luther gave religion a quietistic turn which removed it as an effectual agent of ethical idealism in the life of society, and out of Calvinism sprang an individualism and an emphasis upon prudential virtues which may not have been designed for but which admirably suited the economic interests of the rising commercial middle classes.
The book is a delightful piece of literature as well as an authentic and scholarly treatise in social science. It gives the reader an historical perspective without which it will hardly be possible to understand some of the dominant characteristics of our contemporary civilization,
REINIHOLD NIEBUHR