February 10, 2012 9:02 pm

Anything goes

An erudite account of how the 16th-century religious upheaval paved the way for modern capitalism

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, by Brad S Gregory, Harvard University Press, RRP£25, 520 pages

There could not be a more propitious moment for a book on greed and the historical roots of capitalism. Brad Gregory shows that historians have as much to contribute to contemporary debates about business and social ethics as most philosophers or economists.

Gregory, a historian of early modern religion at the Notre Dame University (a Catholic university in Indiana), has written an elegant and extraordinarily erudite account of how, and with what consequences, the early 16th-century Reformation, in a roundabout and wholly unintended way, produced modern society.

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What is bold and unusual about The Unintended Reformation is that it comes from an explicitly Christian perspective and ends by arguing that only religion – properly understood as a doctrine of solidarity – can allow humanity to escape from the predicament of the modern, the material curse of poverty and the mental afflictions of prosperity. Gregory not only offers what is today a highly original combination of history and morality but also cogently explains why that combination is needed today.

For Gregory, the perverse outcome of the Reformation can be summed up in two contemporary American buzzwords: “whatever” and “stuff”.

First, he shows how the Reformation arose out of the incapacity of late medieval Catholic society – and especially the church hierarchy – to live up to the biblical commandments of Christ. The fiery Florentine Dominican Girolamo Savonarola had already anticipated Martin Luther in attacking the immorality, worldliness and corruption of business in Medicean Florence and the moral degeneracy of the Borgia papacy.

Again and again, Gregory insists that Christianity is fundamentally a message about living in community: deus caritas est, or as Jesus put it: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

With reformed belief, a plethora of alternative visions developed of how Christianity should be lived in practice. Gregory places a great deal of emphasis not just on the official (what he calls magisterial) Reformation of Luther and Calvin but, above all, on the radical Reformation, associated with the Peasants’ war, Anabaptists such as Thomas Müntzer, the Mennonites and the Pilgrims who fled to the New World. All these interpretations were bloodily incompatible with each other. In the wake of the Reformation, 5,000 Europeans were condemned to death for unorthodox religious belief and religious wars produced millions of deaths.

The outcome of this plurality, which led to such horrifying violence, was to shift attention away from behaviour to an internalised and individualised belief. People believed all kinds of different and incompatible doctrines but who cared as long as they all could associate peacefully together? They disagreed. Anything goes. Whatever.

The great German sociologist Max Weber tried to link what he called the Protestant Ethic with the Spirit of Capitalism. Most scholars have resisted his interpretation as Luther and Calvin were not apologists for capitalism or usury but rather took a harsher line than the papacy, which they castigated for its accommodations.

Gregory gives a modern, and much more sophisticated, update of the Weber thesis. For him, the shift that really mattered was the movement to a belief in individual motivation. What was lost was any demonstration of how love works in a genuine community, based on shared responsibilities. By being concerned with individual salvation, the Reformation opened the way to an obsession with individual enrichment – at the expense of communities, friends and families. So the world was left with the accumulation of ... stuff.

In Gregory’s scrupulous account, the Netherlands invented modernity. That meant not only religious toleration but also its flipside – material accumulation and vulnerability to speculative manias such as the financially driven Amsterdam tulip craze.

The Dutch model was then taken up during the American Revolution by figures as politically and intellectually different as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The result, as Gregory puts it, led straight to “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose”.

In a particularly striking section, Gregory explores his theme in respect to the life of the mind. The Netherlands developed the first modern university with academic superstars and laid the foundation for a teaching that deliberately eschewed any kind of morality. But universities as a source of moral thinking are especially important because, in Gregory’s view, the other ways of enforcing moral behaviour – through theocracy or the state – are self-subverting and thus doomed.

Some readers may well think that this message is not new. It is also the doctrine set out in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in which the Renaissance magician sells his soul for things basically provided by today’s internet – comic tricks (such as being invisible) and virtual sex (with Helen of Troy).

There are, of course, many more modern variants of the theme, and a cottage industry of postmodern critics likes to claim that the Enlightenment produced barbarism and butchery. Even some influential present-day Enlighteners, such as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, have acknowledged that Enlightenment claims are not self-evident and may in fact need some basis in faith or religion. Reason alone cannot produce an acceptable and universally shared ethic. Almost all this writing is philosophically abstract; Gregory, however, is strikingly direct.

The Unintended Reformation won’t have much appeal on Bond Street, Madison Avenue or the Via Tornabuoni. It warns explicitly that too much stuff will get in the way of meaningful relationships and sustainable activity. As he puts it, a “shared life of human flourishing understood in Christian terms does not depend on a 16th or 25th or 33rd pair of shoes”. But Occupy Wall Street protesters may not appreciate that they are really the heirs of Savonarola either.

Harold James is professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University. His new book ‘Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm’ (Princeton) is published this month

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