The 'Protestant Epic’ and the 'Spirit of Capitalism’:
A Few Thoughts on Max Weber and Gaddis
' Novel JR
by Anja Zeidler

"We were a Quaker family after all, where you just didn't do things that didn't pay," (4) Julia Bast ends her short narrative about Father and the first time he played the violin to which his father had once set a rude end. For her and her sister Anne Bast this serves as justification, it expresses a principle that is not to be questioned, a heritage of their forefathers. "Father," who had left his parents' home "after that business of the violin" (my emphasis, 4) to become a music teacher, had (despite a certain rebellious behavior) adopted the way of thinking manifested in the "Quaker maxim" and passed it on to his daughters and sons. His Faustian wish "to own as far as he could see in any direction" (4), though, expresses a slight but significant shift which has taken place: He no longer seeks transcendence in the realm of religion, as his ancestors would presumably have done, he seeks it in the realm of economy. Significantly, in his daughters' memory he comes to life in connection with the jingling of his silver dollars:"I can hear him now […] how he jingled when he walked. " (3)  Father is not the preacher, whose main tool would have been the Word, he is a music teacher, who uses money as a tool of education: "He'd have his pupils rest the quarters […] on the backs of their hands when they did their scales." (3) 

Later on in the novel the youngest offspring of the Bast family, composer Edward Bast, choses words which echo the shift to the 'new religion,' but here, certainly, any quest for transcendence has disappeared. Nevertheless, Edward Bast, who is talking to Jack Gibbs about a business trip from which he has just returned, uses words that once carried highly religious overtones, at least among one religious group which is quite significant in the American context:"[…] it was just a, just sort of an errand," Bast describes his job for JR. 'Errand’ implied for the Puritan settlers of New England the believer’s journey to God and the communal calling to the New World. For Bast, of course, this meaning is no longer alive, economy has taken the place of religion and Bast is talking about a business trip, no more no less. 

The history of the Bast family echoes a connection Max Weber establishes in his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism between the spirit of capitalism and the rational way of life practised within various groups of ascetic Protestantism. Weber uses the expression "spirit of capitalism" to describe "that attitude and mentality which seeks profit rationally and systematically," (II, P27) which strives after profit for profit’s sake only. The earning of more and more money is an end in itself, the "acquisitive manner of life" is life's ultimate purpose, which is "completely devoid of any […] hedonistic admixture." (II, P 15) As sole motivation it expresses "what is - seen from the view-point of personal happiness - so irrational about this sort of life, where a man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse." (II, P34) Weber detects the origin of such attitude (the origin of the irrational element in it in particular) in the dogmas of various sects of ascetic Protestantism, Quakerism being one of many. One can see clearly that Julia Bast’s "You just didn't do things that didn't pay" (my emphasis) is an ethical obligation, a question of belief that cannot be scrutinized or queried; that it is - in its nature as self-evident truth - an expression of the irrational Max Weber diagnoses for both the spirit of capitalism and ascetic Protestantism. In their own judgements Anne and Julia follow the doctrine that any kind of work must be profitable: "His work is always money going out not coming in, […] What it would cost to do his Philoctetes! […] even these awards seem to cost twice what they bring in" (65). This is, more or less, all they have to say about their brother's work composing music. Still very much alive here is also "the Puritan prejudice against artistic creation – an invalid calling that was considered frivolous at best, at worst sinful and sacriligious," as Steven Moore describes it (1989, 71). David Davidoff's judgement on art, "a luxury I can't afford" (540) is a faint echo of such an ethic, which was still very much alive for Wyatt's ancestors in The Recognitions: "Anything pleasurable could be counted upon to be, if not categorically evil, then worse, a waste of time." (R, 13) 

Jack Gibbs – half-drunk on the train with Amy Joubert – has his own nonchalant way of specifying things: "Protestant ethic have to justify your own existence […] make a million" (477, see also 575). Success in one’s professional life was understood as a secure sign of God's grace and a visible reward for the pious person. In order to reach the religious state of grace Calvinism as one line of ascetic Protestantism therefore demanded a pious life, "a systematized sanctity of one’s professional life." For the individual this meant "an incentive methodically to supervise his own state of grace in his own conduct, thus to penetrate it with asceticism. This rationalization within this world, but for the sake of the world beyond, was the consequence of the concept of calling of ascetic Protestantism" (IV, P74). It is rationality and systematization which bind together the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. In the face of such irrational rationality Amy Joubert gets very emotional: "Doesn't sing doesn't dance doesn't smoke or drink or run around with women, doesn't even…," (212) she mutters in the presence of Beaton, drawing a picture of her uncle John Cates, for whom "anything pleasurable," any "spontaneous enjoyment of life" (V, P19) is indeed a waste of time; even in hospital he doesn't allow himself a break. In John Cates the spirit of capitalism finds its purest expression. He describes his work ethic in words that show where the roots of such thinking, such philosophy lie: "Don't see me in a damn backyard pool do you? Don't see me taking vacations do you? Somebody don't spend every damn minute working to hold the whole damn thing together" (711). In agreement with John D. Rockefeller he declares "laziness as the source of all evil" ("The Rush," 34). "Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God," Max Weber says at the end of his book. "Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins." (V, P4) John Cates is indeed what another analyst of capitalism, the early Karl Marx, had called an "ascetic but productive slave [of the] science of marvellous industry, […] a science of asceticism […] a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Third Manuscript, Human Needs…P7).

It was Max Weber’s aim to point to the origin of the particular philosophy and special attitude towards life that characterizes the spirit of capitalism. He identified the Protestant ethic of the Calvinist type, to which the early settlers of the North American continent had adhered, as of that same spirit, a spirit and thus outlook upon life that is distinguished by methodism and rationality. As shown, Weber's thesis can be used as a tool to understand one aspect of the novel’s own brilliant analysis of capitalism and its spirit. It is all compressed in JR’s first line where the symbols of old and new religion clash; but the new symbol – money – wins over the old – the Word -- and speaks "in a voice that rustled" like paper money. 


Steven Moore‘s William Gaddis of 1989 and 1981 can be found in the Bibliography on this site.

Quotations from Max Weber refer to the English version found on the web at
with chapter and paragraph indicated in parenthesis, e.g. (V, P7).

The quotation from Marx can be found on the web at
and references are to this English translation.

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