Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, February 08, 2014

WEBER: The Spirit of Capitalism (Time is Money)

“Time is money” –Benjamin Franklin. It would be hard to think of a more unlikely quote than that to follow Euripides’ play about Medea. Time is money? How does that possibly tie in with Medea? And yet as Max Weber begins explaining the spirit of capitalism this connection becomes clear. Jason tries to persuade Medea that it’s in her own best interest for him to marry another woman. He uses this argument: you and our two boys will be able to live in luxury and comfort. You’ll have more economic security because I’ll be marrying into royalty. Our sons will get the finest Greek education. It’s a win-win situation. He can’t understand why Medea doesn’t want to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Jason’s argument boils down to Utilitarianism. Utilitarian values are judged strictly by their usefulness. And there’s the connection between Jason and Benjamin Franklin. Max Weber points out: “All Franklin’s moral attitudes are colored with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.” For a utilitarian, virtues are virtues because they’re useful. In that sense Jason is a utilitarian. He saw a good opportunity when Medea offered to help him get the Golden Fleece. So he took it. Then a better opportunity comes along and he wants to take that one too. For Jason this makes perfect business sense. When opportunity knocks, answer the door.
Question: how could Jason have been so wrong about how Medea would react to his proposal? Answer: Medea isn’t some business deal. She’s his wife and uses a different set of values. Max Weber wants to explore the values created by modern capitalism. He says “The capitalistic economy of the present day (1905) is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, insofar as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action.” This is true. People born into a capitalist society will “conform to capitalistic rules of action.” But this is true of any system. People born into a communist society will conform to communistic rules. People born into a socialist society will conform to socialistic rules. Weber wants to discover what kind of rules capitalism uses; what kind of people it produces. This is what he calls the “spirit” of capitalism.
Let’s first consider what capitalism is not. Weber believes “The most important opponent with which the spirit of capitalism…has had to struggle…is traditionalism.” By Traditionalism Weber means: “A man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.” In other words “people only work as long as they are poor.” If given a choice between working more hours for more money, or working less hours making the same amount of money, most people (unless they’re really poor) would choose more time off (as long as their standard of living stays the same). For Weber, this doesn’t mean people are lazy. It’s simply human nature. Most people only work because they have to pay the bills, not because work is fun. Once the house is paid off and folks have a certain amount of economic security, their interests turn to more leisure-time activities and they quit working. In the meantime, how does society convince people to work when they’d rather play? It isn’t easy. It’s kind of like Jason trying to convince Medea that it’s in her own best interests for him to marry another woman. He has to change her whole definition of what’s in her own best interests. When Ben Franklin says time is money he lays out the “spirit” of capitalism, American-style: work hard, play hard, get ahead, retire early.


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