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John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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John Patrick Diggins, a provocative academic who writes primarily on American politics, has the happy faculty of raising your interest without entirely satisfying it. His latest book seems at first glance a departure from his previous work, but it isn't at all. For in Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy, Diggins offers an intellectual biography of a seminal figure of our century -- and tries to make the case that Weber's ideas offer an alternative to an "American political culture almost innocent of irony and tragedy" that suffuses the country as the century comes to a close. Diggins first raises our interest with the biographical aspects of his book: Its portrait of Weber the man gives dignity and stature to Weber the intellectual. But the case he makes for Weber's relevance ultimately doesn't satisfy For while Max Weber was unquestionably a great social scientist, perhaps the greatest we have seen, he had a profoundly flawed understanding of how America came to be, the ills that beset her, and where we can go to find a cure for those ills.

Weber died in Germany in 1920 at the age of 56. His work, translated and championed by the leading American sociologist Talcott Parsons, has had an enormous influence in American universities, an influence that extends beyond the books professors read to the classes they teach As a result, most people know something about his ideas -- charisma, the Protestant ethic -- even if they do not know his name.

Weber was profoundly troubled by the increasingly bureaucratic organization of the modern world. He believed bureaucracy was imposing dull routine, mediocre careerism, and legalistic overcaution not merely on bureaucrats but also on the rest of us. Bureaucracy is rational, all too rational, but it is directionless and therefore mindless. Indeed, for Weber, all of reason is mindless in the same way. For reason cannot tell us what to value; it can only arrange facts.

Social scientists and practical Americans believe the distinction between facts and values implicitly favors facts. Facts are true, after all, while values may be just so much hot air. Weber popularized the idea of the "fact- value distinction," but he derived an entirely different meaning from it. Facts are true, he said, but they are dead. They come to life only when they can be connected to a deeper and less rational force -- by how much people value them. Values are therefore more powerful than facts because they inspire people. Here, as elsewhere, we can see the direct influence of his (and our century's) philosophic master, Friedrich Nietzsche.

While the stated purpose of the social sciences is the passive, objective description of the world, Weber could not quite stay within * their frontiers. We can best see his struggle against the bonds of objectivity when we consider what charisma meant to him. Weber coined the term "charisma," an act for which the American people have honored him by using it as vaguely and enthusiastically as he himself did. With "charisma," Weber was making an effort to describe a fact -- the strikingly irrational appeal of a strong leader. But he also wanted to identify a means of escape from the dead arm of bureaucracy that concerned him so much. And thus he imbued the fact of charisma with the value he attached to the inspiration provided by a great leader.

Indeed, if Weber was a great social scientist, it was because his social science was itself concerned with the question of greatness. Diggins maintains that Weber upheld the "spirit of tragedy," a mature outlook that combines both the passion of a tragic hero as he acts and his chastened sobriety after he fails. But since Weber himself never really defines tragedy in his works, Diggins must do it for him.

Here is Diggins's description of tragedy: Tragedy occurs when competing ideals come into conflict. These conflicts force us to face spiritual challenges that seem insuperable. At these moments, reason has nothing to say to us. If we wish to pursue greatness, we have two choices. We can either ignore the conflict by embracing one ideal with passion -- the path to greatness Weber called the "ethic of intention." Or we can submit to the torture of the conflict by following the second path to greatness through a sober and dispassionate "ethic of responsibility." The first is tragedy as passion, the second tragedy as sobriety. Alas, ideals are harder to come by in a world in which everyone has the ability to separate facts from values. We look to reason for answers, but reason cannot prove an ideal true. And if we have no ideals, then those ideals cannot come into conflict, and greatness becomes impossible. Our sophistication about facts and values leads not to heroism, but instead to unearned satisfaction with petty goals easily accomplished.

For his description of a culture without heroes, greatness, or ideals, Diggins offers Weber as a prophet of the sophisticated unease that seems to characterize life in the United States these days. Weber was fascinated by America -- his best-known book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is in part a study of Puritan culture. He visited the States only once, in 1904, and traveled a route similar to the one taken by Alexis de Tocqueville when he came in the 1830s. At one point, Diggins says Weber may be a better guide to our country today than the author of Democracy in America.

Diggins does not elaborate on this point, and it is understandable that he doesn't, because a serious comparison between the two does not favor Weber. " With Max Weber, liberalism prepared itself for modernity," Diggins concludes. One might say in response that, with Tocqueville, liberalism was given an early warning against the sort of passionate hand-wringing, contrived tragedy, and male boasting we find in the work of Max Weber.

Look first at The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which has had huge and undeserved success. According to Weber, the Protestant ethic was first instilled in Puritan times and over time gave capitalism its guiding "spirit." Capitalism needed that spirit because, in Weber's view, plain self-interest is not enough to compel a society's devotion to the capitalist system. Weber acknowledges that Protestantism itself is not devoted to making money; instead, he says colonial America was driven by a corrupted version of Calvinism, according to which financial success in this world is a sign of salvation in the next. What capitalism required and the Protestant ethic produced was a doctrine of "worldly asceticism" -- you must make money, but you must neither enjoy it nor be swayed by the pursuit of pleasure.

This theory simultaneously deflates and inflates human intentions. Weber interprets all religion as worldly, as if it were not an aspect of human nature to seek something higher than the mundane. And since he thinks the successful pursuit of worldly interests requires self-deceptive obsession, the only way a person can become serious and successful is to be a fanatic. Weber admires America because it is crazy about something, and disdains it because that something is money.

Weber offers up the works of Benjamin Franklin as the best example of irrational "worldly asceticism." That is an astonishing misreading. The discoverer of electricity was no ascetic; if anything, he was an epicurean. And far from being overly serious on the topic of money, Franklin's wonderfully canny writings are full of amusement at human weakness and ambition. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber confuses John Calvin with Franklin and does justice to neither.

Compare Weber's confusion with the calm good sense of Tocqueville. The French author also lays stress on the Puritans, whom he calls America's " point of departure." But Tocqueville is more interested in the way the Puritans brought democracy to the new world than he is in describing the ways they irrationally repressed pleasure. The Puritan influence, Tocqueville shows, was succeeded by the founding of the nation that established the uniquely American doctrine of "self-interest well understood." It was this doctrine, and not "worldly asceticism," that Ben Franklin passed along to his fellow citizens. Self-interest does not have to be glorified as, or mistaken for, God's command to stir democratic citizens to action in their own behalf. Democracy itself has a tendency toward honest materialism.

Democracy, according to the undemocratic Weber, is not actually rule by the people. It is rule by bureaucratic organizations, above all political parties, which claim falsely to represent the people. Modern democracy is governed by the idea that society must or should be controlled by reason, Weber says. And since such control must be organized in a rational manner, those who do the organizing -- the bureaucrats -- have the power. The bureaucrats in a democracy even organize and control the body politic that is supposed to rule them.

Tocqueville does not deny that America is subject to the same enfeebling tendencies as other democracies, and, like Weber, he deplores the effects of a large, impersonal government that encompasses our lives and leaves little for us to do on our own. Indeed, Tocqueville had analyzed the role of Big Government half a century before Weber even began writing. Big Government, Tocqueville explains, is not a feature unique to modern democracy. Rather, it was the creation of French kings centuries before and was governed by the very principle of rational control Weber describes. Tocqueville shows that Big Government, though born of reason, is in truth unreasonable. People desire it because in a democracy each individual feels weak and isolated, in need of a protector and a "tutor." But in trying to control every risk to which human beings are subject, Big Government promises too much and finally makes itself ridiculous. The people both submit to it and rail against it; they did so in the 1830s, and they do so today.

To turn away from the temptation of Big Government, Tocqueville seeks moderate, reasonable remedies, such as voluntary associations, religion, and decentralized administration. Weber, on the other hand, goes looking for tragedy resulting from some mighty clash of persons or nations that might give democratic life meaning. Indeed, Weber maintained that a class of men he called "master peoples" had an innate calling for world development -- which suggests that he was not only no friend of democracy, but perhaps something more sinister.

Weber's impact on Germany has been much discussed since 1945. His idea of the "master peoples" was not racial in character, but it was intoxicating, especially to Germans licking their wounds after 1918. Even more intoxicating was his notion of charisma and its mutation of greatness into something excessive, irrational, and undemocratic. Charisma is a copy of heroism for times too sophisticated -- or too feeble -- to believe in heroes. It is primarily defined by its mysterious effect on those who are dazzled by it. A charismatic figure does not have to have great qualities; he need only be thought to possess them by mass audiences, who are poor judges. The ambivalent meaning Weber gave to charisma suggests that it combines the willfulness of a fascist bully like Mussolini and the superficial charm of a democratic smoothie like Clinton. It denotes phony greatness, which is the stuff of phony tragedy.

Weber did not see how deeply he had cheapened heroism when he separated it from excellence and made it a performance art. Weber fretted about "the castration of charisma" by bureaucracies and other forces, a phallic image that suggests charisma really is nothing more (and perhaps something less) than manliness.

Tocqueville, like Weber, felt the absence of greatness in democracy, and he too criticized the bourgeoisie for the pettiness of its ambitions. But he was wary of democratic vanity and demagoguery -- which resemble nothing so much as Weber's charisma -- because he thought these vices would be likely democratic responses to the flatness of democracy. He was also aware of the genuine danger to democracy from the tyrannical pretensions of great men. The idea of charisma treats these pretensions as though they were only rhetorical overstatements, and therefore it cannot warn us against the actual tyrannies that might follow.

It may be a tragedy that democracy and greatness are in tension.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University.