1560 and all that.

1560 And All That.

Four hundred and fifty years ago John Knox led the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the Reformation. His vision was based on ideas he imbibed at the feet of Calvin in Geneva. In this year of new beginnings, it also time for the rebirth of Calvin’s forgotten virtue of thrift.

Max Weber, the father of German sociology, made much of the role of Calvinism in the rise of the modern capitalist economy seeing it as a religious response to the needs of the emerging 16th-century middle class.

Calvin found scriptural support for his theological position that “worth is determined less by the amount one spends than by the wisdom with which one discharges responsibilities as a steward of God.”

Apart from the Netherlands and Switzerland, Calvinism found little acceptance elsewhere in Europe, but it brought to Scotland the virtues of prudence and temperance. Thrift was not seen not as miserliness, but the judicious use of assets, and the “avoidance of waste.”

The Scots believed that without thrift there is no provision for the future and that with thrift came long-term economic planning and the building of families and charitable institutions. Certainly Scottish Presbyterianism valued industriousness as a high human virtue.

But Calvin also decried those who had “grown mad with an insatiable desire of gain” believing that people should “show gratitude to God for the gifts he has been bestowed by giving of them in turn.”

This concept of grateful generosity was later transplanted to America and became the bedrock of its philanthropy, which de Tocqueville highlights as one of the nation’s most defining characteristics.

During the Scottish Enlightenment intellectual leaders such as Adam Smith and David Hume took up the same theme. Smith’s reference to the “invisible hand” in The Wealth of Nations was actually a reflection of the Calvinist theology of his day.

Smith argued that “economics and ethics cannot and should not be decoupled. The economy depends on trust, and that trust is embedded in the virtues of the individual and contracted in the rule of law.”

Though Calvin held that insatiable desire was “a source of unhappiness and spiritual instability”, capitalists have been successful in presenting unbridled materialism as the driver of economic growth. The word “spendthrift” is hardly used anymore and the thrifty are portrayed as miserly and unable to enjoy the fruits and pleasures of this life.

Few modern illusions have riveted the public imagination as overwhelmingly as Hollywood’s version of the American Dream with its emphasis in high consumption, compulsive acquisition, and instant gratification.

Yet experience would suggest that unleashing unquenchable appetites inevitably leads to corruption and decay, both personally and collectively. De Graff and Naylor in their book “The All-Consuming Epidemic” describe “affluenza” as a “painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition leading to debt, anxiety, and waste.” 

And just as things are discarded after casual use, so people are cast off if they lose their capacity to participate in the cycle of consumption. Sadly, in a consumerist culture, people too are consumed.

An antidote would surely be a resurgence of Calvin’s concept of thrift. It has supporters in every age and culture. Confucius equated virtue and a moral life: “He who does not economize will have to agonize.” The Greeks also addressed the connection between virtue and happiness, expressed in Delphic mottos such as “nothing to excess” and expanded by Aristotle into an entire moral philosophy.

While it is fashionable to poke fun at 19th-century society, the Victorians did have roots, obligations and responsibilities. Every man had a responsibility to his wife and children, to his community, to his nation, and he was expected to take all of these responsibilities seriously and to put them ahead of self-interest.

Temperance and self-restraint were seen as virtues and a person chronically in debt was someone whose honor was in jeopardy. Those who were constitutionally unable or to postpone self-gratification were held in low esteem.

Our consumer society, with its orgy of stale delights, provides an impoverished life to its members. It is a life without much happiness, because the old ideas of duty, sacrifice, and responsibility have been discarded, and love has lost is its place at the center of things.

The remedy is not more state action, more welfare programs, another bailout, more interference and regulation from above. It comes from people once again taking charge of their own lives, seeking to live in a state of responsible stewardship over all the resources within their control, saving for the future, and giving to those in need.


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