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Capitalism & Heresy: Finding freedom through self-awareness?

How did Protestantism contribute to the development of Capitalism? What can Nietzsche teach us about the value of self-awareness?

The Difference between Hatred and Denial

In certain polytheistic traditions, there arise tales and instances of mere humans chastising their gods by depriving them of worship. A god without worshippers is a tree falling in a forest; Godhood is contingent on being worshipped. Monotheism, at least of the Abrahamic variety, disputes this. An all-transcending god does not need worship, this tradition posits: the opportunity to worship is God’s gift to us. That is a modern way of theologizing it, anyway.

The original biblical texts are much blunter. The Jehovah of the Old Testament recalls Julius Caesar of Lucan’s De Bello Civili. In the account, the godlike dictator defies his mutinous legions with the analogy that all the rivers in the world could dry up and the sea would not be diminished one inch. In any case, methinks the deity doth protest too much.

One need not be an atheist to perceive how religions evolve as a worldly phenomenon. Rebellion against religious systems, either an entire tradition or simply its conception of the divine, is always intertwined with rebellion against some tenet of society. Religion played an important role in the development of ancient political and economic systems, with the so-called “divine right of kings” undergirding monarchic rule. The American and French revolutions of the late 18th century were, in this sense, rebellions against religious as well as political authority.

The free market theories of Adam Smith that so influenced America’s founders were, in their own way, religiously heretical. Into the early twentieth century, the Catholic Church dismissed every form of government except monarchy as heresy, including the “heresy” of Americanism – democracy. Note that heresy is always applied as a label by someone else (except the metacognitive heretic, naturally): the upholder of tradition. The problem with heretics is not that they necessarily deny the divine but that they distort the divine.

Free trade is so universal nowadays that few doubt its efficiency. This did not, however, become the case until the early 1800s. Until then, many European countries adopted a mercantile approach intended to maximize export and minimize imports, by implementing protectionist economic policies. Part of the “divine right” allowed kings to establish tariffs, taxes, and other barriers in order to raise revenue, mainly for their own benefit.

The theological concept of misotheism (defined as “hatred of God or the gods”) has been applied to the aforementioned pagan rebellions against their deities, but also to the work of many influential modern writers – the Marquis de Sade, Mark Twain, Elie Wiesel…Writers, that is, from post-revolutionary societies, with strong personal beliefs about human freedom and modern sociopolitical systems. Revolution is ingrained in human nature – we resent what transcends us. Divinity and wealth, with their potential limitlessness, transcend all. Humanity’s relationship with each is defined by the resistance of the finite against the infinite. Infinity is always a void, terrifying but offering the imagination space to self-actualize. Here, we find ourselves by creating ourselves.

A Battle between Two Myths

Creation myths are common to most religious traditions. The notion that existence was created imbues the human experience with purpose and destiny. All things are as they are for a reason, generally conceived of as a good reason. There have always been secular myths alongside religious. However, the myths engendered during and after the Enlightenment revolutions have a distinctive flavor – the doctrine of Manifest Destiny is a particularly atrocious example.

Foremost among the capitalist myths, however, is that of the Self-Made Man. This is the individual who pulls themselves up “by their bootstraps” and, through brains, ability and determination, self-actualizes into a successful entrepreneur with unlimited potential. The term is outmoded but the Self-Made Man remains the foundation stone of capitalist philosophy. This mythic figure embodies the ideals of libertarianism, objectivism, and laissez-faire economics. In its heyday, the phrase was used to refer to magnates like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The blasphemous character of the Self-Made Man is right there in the name. To be self-made is to be not God-made. Industrialization exponentially extended human power over nature, prompting the anti-Newtonianism of William Blake. We play God at our own peril.

It is no coincidence that this blasphemous myth originated in America, the country which remains the most religious in the developed world. American culture has always been rooted in Protestantism, the greatest heresy of all time.

The Protestant ideal of liberating the Bible, the Word of God, into the hands of all believers has always belied the inescapable pitfalls of exegesis. The louder individual Protestants shriek that their individual interpretation of the Word is exactly what God meant, as though no interpretation were in fact required, the louder the Protestant doth, ahem, protest too much. These are, ironically, the same people who most loudly trumpet their hatred of dogma.

Catholicism, for all its dogmas, remains a fundamentally collectivist institution. The dispersion of doctrine is its flexibility. Interpretation invariably places the interpreter above what is being interpreted. By giving every believer a Bible, Protestantism created a vacuum in which every potential interpretation becomes equally valid and biblical authority is bound to erode.

This is why, according to Max Weber, it was the “Protestant work ethic” which produced modern capitalism. Protestant culture is individualist by default. In Europe, this tendency has remained constrained by tradition and by practical limitations. In America, from colonial times, it was free to explode in myriad forms across a vast geographical vacuum from sea to shining sea.

Given the diversity of Protestant beliefs, it is no wonder the Self-Made Man emerged in the era of expansion without raising any eyebrows. One myth can be easily incorporated into a larger mythos, however antithetical, when everything is on the table. The individualism unleashed by Protestantism created the Enlightenment, which is the mother of capitalism. All are self-perpetuating revolutions.

An Ecumenical Truce

When Nietzsche said God is dead, he may not have intended the statement to become an immortal embodiment of misotheism. The most influential philosopher of modern times was as complicated as the era he articulated. There is a reason he put those words in the mouth of a fictional madman.

Toward the end of his life, he would embrace atheism as a liberating force. Before that, however, according to Academy of Ideas, “Nietzsche experienced first-hand the misery of living in what he believed to be a godless world; it was a world with no transcendent purpose and thus no meaning, in which mankind had no special place in the scheme of things.”

What Nietzsche perceived is that the war against the void is as full of creative potential as it is ultimately futile. Capitalism strains to reach the unattainable economic ceiling while heresy writhes in the straitjacket of inescapable doctrinal traditions. Both wars are unwinnable.

This is not a condemnation. It is a respectful word of caution.

The reality of human limitations means we cannot reach too far without overreaching. Nor, with our large brains and boundless imaginations, can we never reach at all. It takes all kinds to make a world. Constructive pluralism means cooperating to find the good in all perspectives, and to recognize the bad. This is where ecumenism comes in.

Ecumenism is defined by Britannica as a theological movement which “seeks to recover the apostolic sense of the early church for unity in diversity, and it confronts the frustrations, difficulties, and ironies of the modern pluralistic world.” Ecumenism means realizing the limitations of one’s own perceptions.

I have long described myself as a Catholic atheist. This means I cherish Catholicism’s collectivist values, even as, like Nietzsche, I cannot believe in God, and champion the liberation of the human mind from dogmatism. It means I reject the myth of the Self-Made Man, but I believe life should be a process of self-creation.

It means I am neither capitalist nor socialist. My Bernie-cratic sociopolitical ideals reflect the influence of the Scandinavian welfare states. But I am also an American.

The pursuit of political and economic stability does not mean one must cling to the center of the political spectrum. Vast diversity is inevitable in human affairs, and it is through the free expression of a diverse range of sincere, complex political views that a stable form of progresscan be achieved.

This does not mean the death of capitalism or of heresy. It does, however, mean embracing our own self-awareness. Self-awareness is modernity. Social media has accelerated the process, but it has always been the hallmark of scientific progress.

As the Academy of Ideas explains, Nietzsche believed God is dead not because God had been proven not to exist (which he acknowledged is unprovable) but because the psychological origins of religion had become self-evident. Self-awareness is scary, hence the cognitive dissonance endemic in modern life. This is the fear we must overcome in order to be free.

Daniel Lyons

Daniel is studying political science at Washington State University Global Campus while working full time in the Seattle area. He is interested in history, literature, international cinema, and abstract painting.