Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of the Novel

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber famously argued that there is a connection between the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Certainly Protestantism arose and modern capitalism rose shortly thereafter, and no doubt the breaking of the central power of the Catholic Church broke ground for the rise of secularism and the separation of church and state, church and art, and church and economy. Thus, regardless of whether one finds the source in the Protestant ethic or in the incredible changes in Western European culture that resulted from the rise of Protestantism, there is little question that Protestantism was important for the rise of the Modern Era.

One of the things that emerged with and from the Modern Era is the modern European novel (which includes those novels influenced by the European novel, including the American novel, the Latin American novel, the postcolonial novel, etc.). The modern novel has been called bourgeois art, which in many ways admits the connection between the rise of the novel and the rise of the bourgeois class that was only possible with the rise of capitalism. Might the novel, then, be a product of Protestantism as well?

Such is the thesis of Joseph Bottum. He argues that the strength of the novel has followed the same arc as the strength of Protestantism. As Protestantism rose, so did the novel. As Christianity, including Protestantism, has weakened, so has interest in the novel. It may be that similar processes are affecting interest in Christianity, including Protestantism, and interest in the novel together, but this would only reinforce their connectedness. The renaissance period of the Modern Era saw the final proliferation of the novel, a bang of final experimentation before the novel fell out of favor.

This may imply there is a style for each era. Perhaps there is. Film for the Postmodern era. The novel for the Modern/Enlightenment era. The romance for the Medieval era. Tragedies during transitions. Comedies, poetry, and epics scattered throughout (though epics are the statement of an era during its peak, the affirmation of an era's world view). Whatever art form will arise post-Postmodern era one cannot recognize or know until after the transition to that era is at its peak and the the seeds of the new era are already fully planted. But it will be tied in with the cultural forces affecting the structures of the economy, governments, scientific inquiry, philosophical inquiry, technological innovation, etc.

I am myself unsure what the new genre could be or look like. I feel drawn away from novel writing (what I originally wanted to write) and toward writing tragedies. I write a great deal of poetry. But I haven't found the big new genre quite yet. It's not likely I will. I'm probably, at best, a transitional writer (but so was Kafka, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Racine, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, so I'm in good company). Discovering the new genre will likely be the purview of others. But that new genre will arise, and it will replace film as the dominant narrative form. That won't mean the death of film any more than film was the death of the novel, or the novel the death of romance, but it will mean film and television will become as minor as the novel has become in the past half century or more.


  1. The first modern novel was Cervantes' Don Quijote. It arose in the Catholic Spain of the Counterreformation. And his author was a devotee of the Virgin Mary who fought at Lepanto in defense of the Christian faith vs the Muslim Turks, a battle during which all Christian warriors prayed the Rosary before going into battle. And in his later years, the author of Don Quijote became a lay brother of the Franciscan order. He requested to be buried in the convent of the Trinitarian Friars, an order that had paid the ransom to rescue him from slavery to the Muslims of Algiers. Moreover, the pioneers in the development of Capitalism were the Catholic republics of Northern Italy during the late Middle Ages. And the pioneer theoreticians were the priests of the School of Salamanca, in sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain. And the picaresque novel, which led to Mark Twain, The Tin Drum, etc., began even earlier in Spain with Lazarillo de Tormes. For all this see Literature and the Economics of Liberty, ed. Paul Cantor land Stephen Fox. Sorry Max Weber. (BTW what does the above entry on Nepal have to do with Troy's post?)

  2. The author addresses Don Quijote. Historically, Don Quijote was a satire of the then-popular romances. Milan Kundera points out that Don Quijote was only included into the history of the novel later, by those who were influenced by it. The author addresses the "Catholic" novel and points out that they have always tended toward being loose and baggy, much like Don Quijote and Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel.

    The author also points out that there have been "novels" prior to the modern European novel, but they are not really the same as what arose in the Modern Era.

    One can note that The Odyssey influenced James Joyce's Ullyses, but that doesn't make The Odyssey a novel.

    I will also note, though, that Murray Rothbard pointed out that Adam Smith was hardly the first to theorize about free markets, but that Catholic priests at Salamanca had written on them long before. Does that mean that Adam Smith is any less important as an originator of modern economics as a science? Does that mean capitalism didn't really take off in the Protestant countries first? Hardly. The same is true of the origins of the novel, I think. Spain has this weird outlier origins status on these two areas, but it was in the Protestant countries that both capitalism and the novel took off and took the forms we see today.