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A recent discussion, with a Goodreads friend, of Western socio-economic history and the accompanying socio-economic thought brought to mind this gem of a book, read in my early college days and a germinal influence on my own thought. (In terms of its effect on my thinking, Id actually rank it as one of the most important books Ive read, and Ive upped my rating of it from four stars to five to reflect that.) Of course, my own strong personal reaction to the book will give the review below a strong element of reader response criticism, starting with where I was coming from when I read it.I was raised (long story!), in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, which proudly considered itself ultra-conservative both religiously and socio-politically. (In fact, Im a product of five years of education in the congregations parochial school --though even then, I was inclined to read a lot outside of class and think for myself.) One theme they harped on was that capitalism as we know it in the modern U.S. --that is, oligarchical, monopolistic, and operating on purely rational profit-maximizing lines devoid of ethical content-- is an essential part of Conservatism (which is absolutely good, as opposed to the L word, which is absolutely evil). A corollary of this was that the poor (with possibly rare exceptions that you could count on your fingers) were so because theyre improvident, stupid, and lazy, and that giving them any consideration fostered bad behavior and made the economy unsound. This line of thinking was then sanctified as a tenet of Christianity, Biblical economics. It would probably be fair to say that a hefty number of people then and now, both inside and outside of the Christian church and the conservative movement (which are not the same thing, though they tend to be lumped together) would define both entities in terms of this thinking. Indeed, in explaining the historical shift in Western Europe, in the Commercial Revolution of the early modern era, to this sort of economic order, replacing an older feudal system that was significantly distinct from it in many ways (and by my high school days, I was aware that a shift HAD occurred, and that the present order didnt date from Biblical times!), modern critics of capitalism tend to finger Protestant Christianity as the villain that caused the whole thing, an argument exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (No, I havent read Webers classic, but I think Ive read --and listened to, in college-- enough about it to fairly represent the gist of it.)Even as a pre-teen child, though, and even haphazardly reading the Bible once in awhile only in the King James Version (because the newer translations were, according to the church, Satanic counterfeits!), I was struck by the gaping disconnect between the content of the Bible and the content of the preaching/teaching I heard from church and school. As my own beliefs took shape in my teens, I became a Christian; and I also came to identify my own thinking as conservative, in the sense of wanting to conserve both a moral and social order of community and family handed down from long good service in the human past, and an incredibly beautiful and precious natural creation. But I had real questions and doubts about how the whole framework of capitalist Biblical economics fitted with this. That (finally!) brings us to Tawneys book.Unlike Weber, who was a sociologist, Tawney was an academic historian, a world-class expert on the social and intellectual history of 16th and 17th century England, which is the main focus of this study, his best-known work. (He was also, in the words of one recent pundit, a radical Christian, though, with academic detachment, he doesnt state that explicitly here.) Here, he disputes Webers one-sided and superficial analysis, by a careful study of the primary sources, starting with the medieval background, continuing through Luthers and Calvins actual socio-economic teachings, and the responses of the English reformers to the economic questions raised by the Commercial Revolution of their day. His thesis is that the Protestant reformers, no less than the medieval Catholic Scholastics, espoused an economic philosophy based on rejection of materialism and gain for its own sake, acutely concerned with ideas of justice and right and wrong, and explicitly favoring consideration for the poor, for workers, and for customers. (As he points out, this doesnt mean medieval society perfectly embodied these principles; but as he also points out, theory does have some significance for practice in a society, even if not as much as the theorists want it to.) This is true over the entire spectrum of economic issues of that day --enclosure of formerly common land for private profit, price-gouging, usury (an old English word meaning, like its Hebrew equivalent, charging interest on loans --the modern pretense that both words only mean excessive interest is the lexical equivalent of saying, Oh no, silly, adultery doesnt really mean marital infidelity; it just means excessive marital infidelity!), etc., all of which the Protestant churches opposed as vigorously as the Catholics, and for the same serious religious reasons. When they finally jettisoned this stance in the late 1600s, it was in response to changes that were already accomplished and entrenched in society, and accomplished because the rising wealthy commoners had emancipated their daily behavior from religious authority (an emancipation greatly aided by the break-up of Christian organizational unity --but that wasnt an effect that the Protestant reformers had aimed at.) Tawney doesnt speculate on whether the capitulation was a deliberate ploy to curry favor with the newly rich and powerful, or just an unconscious response to the new selfishness is good! zeitgeist of the day (Id personally surmise that both factors were at work). This is necessarily a summary of 287 pages of text (the rest of the 337 pages are source notes and index); but I checked out and skimmed a copy again to make sure I wasnt oversimplifying or misrepresenting from faulty memory from 40 years ago. Written for average intelligent readers (of course, educated in a more rigorous school system than ours), the style is jargon-free and conversational without being dumbed-down, and I personally didnt find it at all dry or uninteresting in any part.For me, this book was an intellectual catalyst that took my inchoate doubts and misgivings and gave them a concrete voice. I came to see that there IS a tradition of serious, intelligent Christian thought on socio-economic questions which actually reflects and applies the teachings of the Bible in concrete and practical ways; and that moral criticism of capitalist abuses can be based on this tradition, not drawn from outside of it. (Also, I came to realize for sure that the selfishness is good school is not, historically, a natural ally of the kind of conservatism I believe in; rather, its a natural enemy.) And finally, though Tawneys analysis basically covers only the early modern era, it gave me an interpretive key to understand the desire of the wealthy capitalist class to free itself from moral and religious restraint as a broad, ongoing process that continues to shape Western intellectual and economic history --a process that explains the whole elevation of first Hume and then Darwin to thrones of unquestioned authority in Establishment thought, that explains the horrors of slavery and the Industrial Revolution, that explains todays twisted globalism, and much else. Id recommend this book to any reader who wants to understand the genesis of the modern world.
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