Critical Essays Franklin and the Spirit of Capitalism


Representative of the suspicion and occasional hostility with which the twentieth century has sometimes regarded Benjamin Franklin is Max Weber's treatment of him in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this study Weber argues that a capitalistic economic system depends on the unnatural inclination of the workers to increase their productivity. He states that this accelerating productivity does not derive from love of money but from love of labor itself. And further, that love of work, or pride in one's occupation, is instilled most effectively by ascetic Protestantism. The Calvinists, Methodists, and Baptists, Weber felt, shared an ascetic attitude toward the world, a suspicion of spontaneous pleasure, and a conviction that man could best serve God by working effectively at his 11 calling." That out of this affirmation of work for its own sake (an "unnatural" love to other men who generally work only so hard as is necessary to provide themselves with what they need) came an affirmation of such virtues as honesty, frugality, and caution, which in turn produced the dependable labor force necessary for a successful capitalistic system. Weber went on to argue that though the original religious zeal that produced these attitudes flagged, the attitudes themselves remained. The best spokesman for such secularized asceticism, he says, was Benjamin Franklin. In his pamphlet, The Way to Wealth, and in the Autobiography, Franklin voiced most blatantly and naively his convictions that man should be diligent in his calling so that he might earn money for the good of society.

Those who have carefully read the Autobiography will recognize the grain (or bushel) of truth in Weber's argument. Franklin made amply clear that he believed a man's first duty was to tend to his own business, and that virtues such as industry and frugality were the best aids to financial prosperity. If Weber chooses to define these attitudes as the spirit of capitalism, then he builds a strong case when he argues that Franklin expressed that spirit as clearly as anyone who ever wrote.

Those who have read their Weber more carefully than their Franklin have often been repelled by the image of a man so engrossed in amassing profits that he seemed to have little more than the profiteer's mentality. They have forgotten that Franklin desired wealth not with an insatiable lust, but rather regarded it as the best insurance of honesty and independence. Because Franklin assumed that men were reasonable, he assumed that others would recognize as easily as he had when they had made enough money for comfort, and would then turn to more important concerns such as dispassionate scientific inquiry, as he did. Franklin recalled the long hours he had worked when first establishing a trade because he was proud he had been able to leave his trade so early. Hard work, to Franklin, was the most efficient path toward leisure. He assumed all would understand that excesses of work were as unreasonable and undesirable as any other kind of excess.

It has been rather fashionable in the twentieth century to view Franklin condescendingly as the patron saint of shopkeepers, primarily concerned with hoarding pennies and denying pleasures. One need only say that such a view ignores the man's temperament and practice, the facts of his life and the statements he recorded. His range of interests, inquiries, and accomplishments remains unmatched in both quality and variety. The zest with which he lived, the happiness he said he experienced, the skeptical humor with which he viewed himself and others, belie the portrait of him as the secular prophet of a joyless, otherworldly, money-grubbing religion of work.

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