Franklin’s Spiritual Capitalism

ben-franklin

When we think of capitalism, we often think of greed and base materialism. We rarely, if at all, think of capitalism as being spiritual in any way. However, Max Weber comes to a very different conclusion in  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . Weber traces modern American capitalism back to its roots in Puritan religious ideas during the Protestant Reformation and reads Benjamin Franklin’s sermon on hard work and frugality with a new perspective. Weber concludes that Franklin’s aphorisms do not reflect greed or any crass desire to simply accumulate more things. They reflect the pursuit of high Puritan ideals such as thrift, piety, and diligence. Making money through hard work has a spiritual, even religious, significance, a pursuit of higher ideals, an affirmation of higher truths and a metaphysical significance of life.

Weber writes down Benjamin Franklin’s sermon in its entirety on page eight. It is small and quaint, anything but grandiose, but it is rich with aphorisms illustrating Franklin’s worldview. “Remember, that  credit is money . If a man lets his money lie in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest as I can make of it during that time.” Franklin reminds. “  The good paymaster  is lord of another man’s purses… never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse forever.” Franklin advises. “The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, makes him easy six months longer…” and then Franklin warns, “Beware of thinking all you own that you possess, and of living accordingly. It is a mistake that many people have fallen credit into.”  [1]

Not everyone saw Franklin’s sermon in a virtuous light. For example, Kumberger, a contemporary of Weber, condemns Franklin of base materialism ond hypocrisy in  The Man Tired of America . “They turn cattle into tallow, and people into money.” He claims. Franklin’s virtues are only virtuous because they are useful to him, and if they no longer help him get richer he will discard them for new ones. He carefully portrays an appearance of modesty only so that he may advance his social status. These American “virtues” are hypocritical to Germans and in dictating his sermon Franklin exposes his hypocrisy for all to see.  [2]

Weber disagrees with Kumberger, explaining why Franklin’s maxims reflect higher spiritual values, not greed. Franklin completely rejects any unearned, uninhibited enjoyment. His aphorisms emphasize frugality in not only one’s money but also one’s actions to an extreme. He compares actions and the time one spends as equivalent to the money they own. A man who diligently works from five to eight, for instance, already has a lender’s money since his diligence earned the lender’s confidence. “After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings.”  [3]  As far as Franklin is concerned, time is money, and time not spent on work is wasted money.

Franklin strongly reflects Puritan religious values, albeit in a secularized form. When read under with a good grasp of Puritan doctrines, Franklin’s aphorisms even suggest a form of human fulfillment beyond the accumulation of wealth. Usefulness is a virtue in itself, and Franklin discovered this truth from a revelation from God. The purpose for making money is not to own or possess things but to prove to God one’s usefulness and frugality. Hedonistic and, ironically, practical motives are gone. Making money through hard work is a form of religious good work, and one keeps up with the good work by making more money.  [4]  Franklin speaks of money having a “  prolific, generating nature . Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on.” [5]  Franklin refers to a positively reinforcing loop where making money raises one’s self-worth, usefulness, and discipline, allowing them to make even more money. It is the secular equivalent of good works proving one’s worthiness to God, positively reinforcing them to do yet more good works.

Weber goes further, examining the very language of Franklin’s capitalism. He pays careful attention to word “vocation”. In its modern definition, “vocation” means a person’s career, but this innocently secular world has religious roots. “Vocation” derives from “vocare”, meaning “to call” in Latin. In its original religious meaning, “vocation” meant one’s calling to do God’s work on earth. Puritans used Calvinist doctrines to merge people’s secular professions with religious work. A person who has a worthy and lucrative profession was “selected” by the Calivinist God to emerge victorious over others. God designated him as one of the “elect” destined for salvation, and his wealth was proof of his good works.  [6]  Weber even goes so far as declaring the notion of one’s callings “the alpha and omega of Franklin’s morality”.  [7]

Likewise, the Protestant founder Luther infuses a person’s calling with both a worldly and spiritual significance. To Luther, the diligent following a secular calling is to fulfill one’s spiritual duties. It is the highest form of moral activity. According to Weber, “the German word ‘Beruf’, and even more cleatly the English word ‘calling’, carry at least  some  religious connotations – namely those of a  task set forth by God”. Weber explicitly identifies how Medieval Christians associated religious significance to everyday secular labor, an association emphasized by the Puritans.  [8]  Luther in particular believes, as paraphrased by Weber, “the fulfillment of innerworldly duties is absolutely the  only  way to please God, that this and  only  this is God’s will.”  [9]  As contradictory as it sounds, to Puritans, capitalism is a spiritual work.

Franklin’s frugality and diligence, his mindfulness of money is in essence a spiritual calling or quest. His attains money not because of greed, not obtain things externally, but to validate himself internally. He does not speak of God but nevertheless his a sermon shows a deeply held need to prove himself as useful, diligent, frugal, worthy, and virtuous. Franklin speaks of earning people’s esteem and trust, as being seen as a reliable and virtuous person, very closely with earning money. The good paymaster earns a lender’s trust and respect alongside future loans. The man who works with his hammer from eight to five secures a creditor’s a confidence the same way. Being an honest man increases your credit.  [10]  Franklin is a sort of Protestant Dale Carnegie, where winning friends and influencing people connects to earning money, which in turn connects to worldly and spiritual worthiness.

Works Cited

Weber, Max, Peter Baehr, and Gordon C. Wells.  The Protestant Ethic and the “spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings . New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

[1]  Weber, pgs. 9-10

[2]  Weber, pgs. 11-12

[3]  Weber, pg. 9

[4]  Weber, pg. 12

[5]  Weber, pg. 9

[6]  Weber, pg. 13

[7]  Weber, pg. 13

[8]  Weber, pg. 28-29

[9]  Weber, pg. 29

[10]  Weber, pgs. 9-10

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