The Protestant work ethic is a biblically based teaching on the necessity of hard work, perfection and the goodness of labor. Protestant preachers preached on the goodness and the necessity of labor and its efficacious effect for humans personally and on Christian society as a whole. Protestant preachers saw this as a salve or a correction for original sin.
The term was first coined by Max Weber who was the “youngest” of the German Historical School. It is part of old American culture of the 1800's and is seen by some Americans as one of the cornerstones of national prosperity.
The Protestant work ethic is based on teachings and concepts in the Old Testament especially, Genesis and Proverbs.
Man was created in the Garden of Eden and God commanded him to "cultivate and keep". (Septuagint Genesis 2.15) This was man's first job — to work in a garden as a farmer would. After this God gave another commandment to Adam and Eve that they could eat of every tree in the garden but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve broke this law of God. In Christian teaching this breaking of God's commandment is called Original Sin. It caused Adam and Eve to break communion with God and to be thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, God punished all three protagonsists involved in this transgression -- the serpent, Eve and then Adam. For the first two, God laid the punishment upon their persons but with Adam, God cursed the ground so that from then onward Adam had to work for food. He laid on this punishment: (Septuagint Genesis ch. 3)
- "(18) Because thou hast harkened to the voice of thy wife, and eaten of the tree concerning which I charged thee of it only not to eat — of that thou hast eaten, cursed is the ground in thy labours, in pain shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. (19) Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. (20) In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread until thou return to the earth out of which you were taken, for earth thou art and to earth thou shalt return."
Protestant ministers saw that this was not only a punishment meted out to man for his disobedience but also as a means for correcting and benefiting man as a sort of medicine. To work the ground was divinely ordained and a necessity because of man's act of disobedience and state of sin.
This teaching is further buttressed in the Protestant idea that "Idle hands are the devil's workshop". They taught that man is to keep busy in order to keep from doing evil.
They also sought to better their community by teaching and exhorting that work is good. It brought about economic prosperity. In this, they found support in Proverbs 10.4 (Septuagint) which says "Poverty brings a man low: but the hands of the vigorous makes rich". Again, Proverbs 6.6 attacks those who are lazy:
- "(6) Go to the ant, O sluggard; and see and emulate his ways, and become wiser than he. (7) For whereas he has no husbandry, nor any one to compel him, and is under no master (8) he prepares food for himself in the summer, and lays by abundant store in harvest. Or go the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she is engaged in her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health, and she is desired and respected by all: though weak in body, she is advanced by honouring wisdom. (9) how long wilt thou lie, O sluggard? and when wilt thou awake out of sleep?
They endeavored to impart a work ethic that encapsulated work as both materially and spiritually beneficial. Laziness is a sin and not proper to Christian character. Work was seen as both occupying a person's time to prevent him from sinning and lazying around, a boon to the economic well-being of the family and society, and as a necessary consequence due to original sin.
The spirit of the Protestant work ethic is captured in the Swiss-Germans' saying Arbeit macht frei.
- "Behold, I have seen good, that it is a fine thing for a man to eat and to drink, and to see good in all his labour in which he may labour under the sun, all the number of the days of his life which God has given to him; for it is his portion". Ecclesiastes 5.17
- "Whatsoever thine hand shall find to do, do with all thy might; ...". Ecclesiates 9.10
- The Parable of the Talents. Matthew 25:14-30.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905, Eng. trans. 1930) Max Weber argued for an intimate, causal connection between a Calvinist ascetic ideal and the rise to prominence of capitalist institutions. Weber held that the devotion to work and rational conduct that was one of the fundamental elements of capitalism and modernity derived, at least in part, from the Puritan effort to turn work into a spiritual vocation:
- One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born — that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate — from the spirit of Christian asceticism. . . .
- The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the indificuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint like a cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.' But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.
Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism — whether finally, who knows? — has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfilment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport. (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958], pp. 180-82).
Weber himself was not a great admirer of this ethic. He wrote:
- Of the last stage of this cultural development, it might truly be said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.' (Ibid., p. 182).
For an expanded commentary of Weber's thought, see The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. and
[Robert W. Green (ed.) Protestantism, Capitalism and Social Science: The Weber Thesis Controversy.]
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