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John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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.