ESA Inventory

6.The Work Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism

Roger B. Hill, Ph.D.
© 1992, 1996

During the medieval period, the feudal system became the dominant economic structure in Europe. This was a social, economic, and political system under which landowners provided governance and protection to those who lived and worked on their property. Centralization of government, the growth of trade, and the establishment of economically powerful towns, during the fifteenth century, provided alternative choices for subsistence, and the feudal system died out (Webster Encyclopedia, 1985). One of the factors that made the feudal system work was the predominant religious belief that it was sinful for people to seek work other than within the God ordained occupations fathers passed on to their sons. With the Protestant Reformation, and the spread of a theology which ordained the divine dignity of all occupations as well as the right of choosing one's work, the underpinnings of an emerging capitalist economic system were established.

Anthony (1977) described the significance of an ideology advocating regular systematic work as essential to the transformation from the feudal system to the modern society. In the emerging capitalist system, work was good. It satisfied the economic interests of an increasing number of small businessmen and it became a social duty--a norm. Hard work brought respect and contributed to the social order and well being of the community. The dignity with which society viewed work brought dignity for workers as well, and contempt for those who were idle or lazy.

The Protestant ethic, which gave "moral sanction to profit making through hard work, organization, and rational calculation" (Yankelovich, 1981, p. 247), spread throughout Europe and to America through the Protestant sects. In particular, the English Puritans, the French Huguenots, and the Swiss and Dutch Reformed subscribed to Calvinist theology that was especially conducive to productivity and capital growth (Lipset, 1990). As time passed, attitudes and beliefs which supported hard work became secularized, and were woven into the norms of Western culture (Lipset, 1990; Rodgers, 1978; Rose, 1985; Super, 1982). Weber (1904, 1905) especially emphasized the popular writings of Benjamin Franklin as an example of how, by the eighteenth century, diligence in work, scrupulous use of time, and deferment of pleasure had become a part of the popular philosophy of work in the Western world.

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