Ascetic Harmony

I talked with a friend of mine recently who works in upper management of a major company. Officially, companies have a dedication to bottom line. But appearances can leave out part of the story. My friend talked of how different aspects of the company need to cooperate to achieve the goal of expanding customer base, increasing profit, and so on. It became obvious that certain programs advanced certain departments failed to work in achieving these goals. But in high-level meetings, this could never be said outright. He mentioned that he spent the better part of an hour on one slide for a presentation, and particularly one sentence on that slide where he had to say that ‘X’ hadn’t worked without actually saying it directly.

In the end he attempted a solution by bypassing direct criticism and instead left out mention of the program in what his team had accomplished. Not good enough–he had several rounds of post-meeting meetings to ‘clarify’ the situation.

We may think such behavior odd for a business in competition with others. Reading Philip Mansel’s new biography of Louis XIV, entitled King of the World, provided an interesting insight into this behavior. Essentially, the upper level of management at this particular company–and no doubt many others–functioned like a court, where etiquette and harmony trump the achievement of certain objectives. Or, rather, we might say that harmony, order, and gentility were the objective.

Though I have read some other things about Louis XIV before, Mansel provided an important insight I had not considered. For Mansel, Versailles existed primarily because Louis loved Versailles. It served as a grand passion for him. I and others often focus on the particular political ends Louis achieved partially as a result of Versailles, such as his centralization of government, control over the nobles, and so on. But I can’t stand medieval historians who say that the French built Chartes to increase trade in the area–an utterly absurd statement. But the same holds true for Louis. One might build a road to aid trade, but not a cathedral, which is essentially how Versailles functioned. Only acts of “love” can truly take root. Just as the Gothic cathedrals gave impetus to the shape of culture for 250 years, so too Versailles launched France into a place of prominence for perhaps 150 years, give or take.

The lens of “emotional attachment” through which Mansel viewed Louis makes a lot of sense. We see Louis elevating his illegitimate children in rank above certain other nobility, in defiance of custom. Was this a mere political ploy? One can also see him as acutely interested in the harmony of his family, though perhaps not necessarily as a devoted father. Louis also elevated the status of many women at court to never before seen heights. Again–a political, cultural move, or one rooted in his definite fondness for at least certain women? Mansel looks at the wars of Louis XIV, and again sees his actions rooted in a somewhat irrational longing, rather than clear-headed policy.

Though Louis had his significant failures we have to see him as overall a very successful monarch, at least in the sense of creating political stability and vaulting France into prominence in Europe.

But as we all know, coupled with the “romantic” side of Louis came strict and unusual etiquette. One could commit a grave offense for trivial matters such as knocking at the door in the wrong manner, or sitting in the wrong chair, or failing to open both doors for a Countess instead of just one, and so on. We see this passion for harmony and order throughout the grounds of Versailles, both inside

and out.

We should not see this as pure self-indulgence–the rigorous etiquette shows that. Many other anecdotes exist about the behavior of the nobles in Versailles, especially as it relates to money. One of the few activities at Versailles that all could engage in more or less equally was gambling. Before reading Mansel, I saw this primarily as a means of control, with the ebb and flow of fortunes exchanging hands serving to weaken the nobility. Now, I see it more so as a gift from Louis which allowed everyone present to engage in aristocratic disdain for money. The gambling tables created a sense of harmony in that winning or losing mattered little in comparison to display of aristocratic virtues and conviviality.

Indeed, perhaps we can see court behavior at Versailles as a kind of rigorous self-abandonment–one leaves their estates, some of their family, their customs, and their fortunes to join together as one happy family.

Not long after Louis’ death in 1715 a new kind of ethic arose, one ably elucidated by Max Weber in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was certainly a genius, and a German one at that, which makes his prose quite dense. But, despite the significant criticisms leveled at this seminal work over the last century, I’m convinced his core points remain standing.

Early in the work, Weber cites a letter of Ben Franklin to his son to show the new Protestant ethic, at its face a radical departure from the nobles at Versailles just 30-40 years earlier. Franklin writes,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, though he spends only 6 pence on diversions, ought not to reckon that as his only expense.  He must think of what he could have made through labor, rather than what he lost through diversion.  

Remember that credit is money.  If a man lets his money in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time.  This amounts to a considerable sum, if a man can make use of it.  Remember that money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more.  The more there is, the more is produced.  He that kills a breeding sow destroys not just the cow but her offspring unto the generations.  

Remember this saying, “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse.”  He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, raise all the money his friends can spare.  This is sometimes of great use.  After industry and frugality, nothing raises a man more in the world than punctuality in all of his dealings. 

The most trifling actions that can affect a man’s credit are to be regarded.  The sound of your hammer on the anvil at 5 in the morning and 8 at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy 6 months longer; but if he hears your voice in a tavern when you should be at work, he will demand payment in full without fail and without delay.

Keep an exact account of all you owe and all payments coming to you.  You will then notice well how even trifling expenses add up against you, and you will discern what might have been.  You will grow wise with little effort.

One might see here a self-indulgent of luxury, of riches for the sake of riches. But we see here a similar sense of self-abandonment as at Versailles, with different tools directed at different ends. We must live frugally, arrive punctually, etc. so that . . . ? Weber sees the connections between Protestantism–especially the Calvinistic stripes–and Capitalism, in the following ways:

  • The grace of God, and hence, salvation, can never be earned. Forms, ceremonies, etc. are not aids but distractions to proper devotion. We should ascetically remove all such distractions, lest we indulge ourselves and think that any ceremony has any efficacious quality.
  • But how to know that we are truly elect? We can do the works God has commanded us to do. These works, of course, cannot save us but can witness to others of our convictions.
  • Since God orders all things providentially, and is no respecter of persons, all activities can serve as a means of displaying Christian virtues.
  • In the old Catholic world, different seasons of the year called for different levels of piety and devotion, and different practices. But–aside from unnecessary ceremony–this is a crutch, allowing one to “get off easy.” Just as God is no respecter of persons, He is no respecter of time or space. Everything at all time deserves our full attention and best effort.

This “worldly asceticism,” as Weber calls it, creates capitalist economies. Of course, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but Franklin’s pursuits have money only as a byproduct. The real goal is virtue and “election.”* The aristocrat and the capitalist both disdain and embrace the world, but in different ways for different reasons.**

One can see how harmony might come about as a result of Louis XIV. Instead of having aristocrats fight each other and the king, he brought them together and unified them through their enchanted surroundings and ritualized behavior. We know this world could not withstand the mulititude of changes that arose almost right after Louis’ death, but it has an internal consistency. One problem–Louis’, while outwardly pious, made the highest end his own Disneyland.^ Unlike the medieval construction, Louis’ France could not “scale up” high enough to include enough particularity throughout his realm. We are now in the midst of wondering whether or not our world can create enough harmony to sustain our civilization. The capitalist ethic, like our political system in general, is built on the idea of mutual opposition and competition (between companies or branches of government) creating enough unity through this clash of mutual self-interest (i.e., Madison’s “Federalist #10). We shall see.

Many conservatives were surprised, even blindsided, by the fact that so many corporations adopted woke policies. Weber would see this as a natural byproduct of “worldly asceticism,” a form of self-denial to create harmony. Like Louis’ Versailles, even slight, trivial missteps assume grand proportions. But like Louis’ construct, it cannot scale to include enough particularity. Their god is too small.


*Some critics of Weber point out that capitalism existed long before Protestantism. True–in the sense that people have sought profit and traded with others since time immemorial. However, I think it no coincidence that modern Democratic capitalism was created by both Dutch Calvinists (New York, Amsterdam, the Vanderbilts) and Scotch/English Low Country Calvinists (Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie, London, and Boston).

**Seen this way, it makes total sense to me why many Americans wanted to keep Catholics out of America up until the late 19th century. The issue goes beyond religious difference and into two very different ideas of cultural formation. As it turned out, they need not have worried, as the American system soon captured Catholics and most other immigrants.

^Versailles and Disneyland have much in common. They both have immaculate landscaping, and seek to create a kind of alternate universe. Some years ago I knew someone who had worked at Disneyland as a landscape supervisor. The pay was good, but he grew weary of the job due largely to the severe etiquette involved, such as

  • Tools always had to be lined up parallel to each other on the ground
  • Golf cart drivers always had to have two hands on the wheel
  • Regular band-aids could not worn for cuts. Disneyland supplied their own flesh-colored ‘invisible’ band-aids.
  • Workers could not really talk to each other while working in public view–they needed to be as invisible as possible (much like household servants in all of those British dramas).

Trade Off

One of the great strengths of one of my former bosses involved his ability to see that the pie never extended unto forever. Everything one did in the classroom came with costs and benefits. Whenever trying something new, consider what that meant one would conversely not do, and judge the consequences. We see little of this thinking on either side of the political aisle today. When looking at issues, one should consider not just the benefits it would bring, but also consider which costs and drawbacks one can live with most reasonably.

The words “free trade” are a major coup for laissez-faire capitalists. Even those against such practices have to stand against something “free.” One can understand what the term means in one sense–that no barriers should exist between those who want to exchange something. But, the term obscures the fact that no trade is “free.” In every trade, one gives up something, and the term “free-trade” might not clue us into this fact.

In his book, Global Squeeze author Richard Longworth argues that the global “free trading” market which opened up in the post-Cold War era hurt us much more than it helped. We have exchanged much more than we thought in the bargain. This in itself is nothing remarkable–many books have argued likewise. What drew me to the book initially was that

  • He predicted many of our economic and resulting political concerns today (such as the rise of ethno-nationalism, populism, etc.) way back in 1998, when virtually everyone else saw only one side of the new globalism. At the same time,
  • I felt that this was not just a lucky guess, because he clearly understood the nature of trade-off’s even in “free trade,” and most of all,
  • He asked questions that no other economics book I’ve read asked, such as, “What is an economy for?”

That question we rarely ask. We want a “good” economy, but we have no clear idea what a “good” economy means. While I have no impression that Longworth has a conscious understanding of the patterns and symbolic structure of reality, his book helped me see economics within this frame. So, with apologies to all who find where I begin a bit odd . . .

Theologian Dumitru Staniloae wrote concerning St. Maximos the Confessor

Some of the Fathers of the Church have said that man is a microcosm, a world which sums up in itself the larger world. Saint Maximus the Confessor remarked that the more correct way would be to consider man as a macrocosm because he is called to comprehend the whole world within himself, as one capable of comprehending it without losing himself, for he is distinct from the world. Therefore man effects a unity greater than the world exterior to himself whereas, on the contrary, the world as cosmos, as nature, cannot contain man fully within itself without losing him, that is, without losing in this way the most important reality, that part which more than all others gives reality its meaning. The idea that man is called to become ‘the world writ large’ has a more precise expression, however, in the term macroanthropos. 

The term conveys the fact that in the strict sense the world is called to be humanised entirely, that is, to bear the entire stamp of the human, to become panhuman, making real through that stamp a need that is implicit in the world’s own meaning, to become in its entirety a humanised cosmos in a way that the human being is not called to become nor can ever fully become, even at the farthest limit of his attachment to the world where he is completely identified with it, a cosmosised man. The destiny of the cosmos is found in man not man’s destiny in the cosmos. This is shown, not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge and not the reverse, but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way.

Taking this view of man and the cosmos as my premise, I argue that we should interpret our experience of the world and derive meaning through the lens of what it means to be human, a composite being of body, soul, and spirit. This does not mean that all truth is relative or subjective–far from it. Rather, it is a perspective that recognizes that, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). God creates the world through the Logos, who is Christ (John 1). Ultimately then, Christ is not the image of Adam so much as Adam is the image of Christ, mysteriously “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

So for things to have intelligibility and proper functionality, they should scale to human experience (I realize that I am about to take a massive leap from this premise which I have not done a lot to prove, but . . . :)*

We have to trade things to live, in a sense, both in our bodies individually and in the body social. We have to take in food, water, and so on. We are not autonomous or self-sufficient. Longworth agrees, giving us examples of cultures that have no trade that end up drab, and lifeless. One might think of the ancient Spartans, and the more contemporary Soviet Union. But we can’t just take in anything from anywhere, for any reason–“trade” is not an inherent good, but a contingent one. If we trade too much, even of a good thing, it will be bad for us. One can drown even by drinking excessive amounts of water–too much water brings a flood. In addition, for reality to make sense to us, ideally at least, we should have some connection to those we trade with. Personal contact and personal relationships help let us know if we have a fair trade or not, one that pleases both sides.**

In sum, for an economy to work as it should, it should benefit all sides involved, and benefit them in a way that preserves meaning and coherence. Nations should trade, just as people should trade oxygen for carbon dioxide.

While Longworth does not engage in these kinds of symbolic connections, they do form the unspoken background to his foundational question of, “Whom is an economy meant to serve?”

We come into the world and into a family, if not sociologically, at least biologically. A family economy, then, primarily should serve the family. But it gets tricky, because no family should only concern itself with itself. When this happens, one gets The Godfather saga. Christian teaching pushes outwards towards those on the fringe socially and economically, but we need balance. A mom or dad who devoted too much of their energies to those outside the family would erode the very foundation of their well intentioned actions. Here, C.S. Lewis’ great principle of “First and Second Things” directly applies, which runs something like,

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.^

Many have discussed the lack of connection we have to what we purchase. We have divorced the thing we buy from who made it, where it was made, and so on. Many have spoken of a “meaning crisis” in our culture and surely the fact that what we trade for and consume has no “context” for us contributes to this dislocation. However, Longworth doesn’t address this, and altering this societal condition remains impossible for almost everyone. We can focus then, on what we can fix, at least on a national level.

Longworth points out in multiple ways how our globalized economy violates the “First and Second Things,” principle. The “nature” of capital seeks out the most efficient way of doing business, so naturally labor would migrate out of the country. We anticipated this in part economically, but not at all sociologically. Longworth mentions that many African-American families (to take one example) rose to the middle class in part through blue-collar jobs in inner-cities. These jobs offered stability and helped build distinct local neighborhoods. As these jobs left, these communities eroded (something seen by Jane Jacobs way back in the 1960’s–this is not NAFTA’s fault alone). Just as we can see the distortions of Marxism as a reaction to the distortions of industrialism, so too we can see racial identity politics as the current distortion to try and correct for the distortions of the market. We can bring it back to the family concept. If your plumber brother really needed work, but you had a 20% discount coupon for some other guy you didn’t know, and hired him instead of your brother, you could expect family difficulties.

As Longworth points out, the medieval peasant always had work, but rarely had prospects for growth. Now, we have the opposite problem of the possibility of growth for all, but no promise of work.

Many today fear the presence of national populism, but here too Longworth had prescience. When we exhale deeply we will inhale in a like manner. One can look at the Hapsburg dominions of the mid 16th century . . .

and compare it with modern European global trading connections

The discontinuities lack coherence on both examples. The Hapsburg holdings don’t make sense, and most students recognize this immediately at some level. They then rarely root for them in any of their various wars. Starting around the mid 17th century, we saw the beginnings of concentration of identity into national states, partly as a reaction to the wars involving the Habsburg dominions. The trade map above concerns Europe primarily, but the principle applies to other regions. Start neglecting meaning and coherence in the family, and look for the kids to try and recover that meaning in ways the parents might not like–look no further than the relationship between the EU and Hungary.

Our modern free trade policies evolved for various reasons in the wake of W.W. II. Free-trade could legitimately serve (perhaps) as a means to combat communism in part because the vast majority of major players shared many in things in common:

  • Common cultures and religions
  • Similar pools of labor and technological access
  • A common political goal

Japan participated in this as well, which posed problems for the U.S. in particular. Japan had different cultural and political goals, which led to more protection of its labor force and different economic practices. However, Japan’s labor pool was small enough not to erode and distort the system. With the entrance of China and India, however, things changed dramatically. Economist Richard Koo commented in the early 1990’s

The free trade system has lasted this long only because China and India are not in it. The U.S started this system after the war and other countries joined in. Japan is not a full member even yet–Japan is certainly not a free-trader. But if the problem is just Japan, it’s tolerable. But if China plays the game as Japan has done, the system will not last without safeguards. With the 3rd world entering–there is no end to the potential problem.

Trade in finance may prove an even bigger problem than trade of goods, and again, Longworth showed remarkable foresight here. Bartering goods has a direct coherence to it. You give me your apples, I give you my wheat. But bartering is cumbersome, so we go to money. But in the early stages at least, one could exert a degree of control over money and give it a degree of coherence in a local context–i.e., the money that “works” in a given place is the money with the king’s head on it. That too, limits us, so we went to a more universal, though still concrete, “gold standard” to determine the value of money and limit its movement at least partially. Then Nixon abandoned the Bretton-Woods arrangement and broke from the gold standard, which pushed money into an even further abstraction. Non-national currencies in the cloud are the inevitable conclusion to this process, a process which–however many it benefits materially–pushes us further away from meaning and coherence in our exchanges with each other. I am not one to often quote Keynes approvingly, but he understood–perhaps subconsciously–the necessary symbolic balance of trade, stating,

I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than maximize economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel–these are things which of their nature should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever reasonably possible. Above all, let finance be primarily national.

But nations cannot control the flow of money because they cannot control trade. Merely trying to control currency movement by the elite, therefore will not work and only hurt the “everybody else” in the economy.

The bigger question, however, of “Can we stop this?” relates strongly to the question, “Do we want to stop it?” Here it gets difficult for all of us. Longworth rightly says that technology is not the problem. The internet obviously has the ability to “actualize” many of the trends Longworth saw developing, but the shift had begun decades before the internet entered society. For Longworth, the root lies in trade, but I say, let’s go one deeper–what in our cultural leads us to practice trade as we do?

Democracies foster a sense of individualism, which maximizes opportunities for the self vis a vis the group. Democracies tend towards dynamism, which bodes ill for stability. For example, a recent study shows that

…democratic rule and high state capacity combined produce higher levels of income inequality over time. This relationship operates through the positive effect of high-capacity democratic context on foreign direct investment and financial development. By making use of a novel measure of state capacity based on cumulative census administration, we find empirical support for these claims using fixed-effects panel regressions with the data from 126 industrial and developing countries between 1970 and 2013.

Aye, there’s the rub. To change how trade works, we may have to change more than just trade.^^


*Suggesting any kind of absolute relativism is the last thing I mean to do, but unfortunately I fear I may not be explaining it well. By ‘human experience’ I don’t mean anything at all that humans might experience. We experience many things that are obviously wrong and bad for us. I mean then, something akin to a union of Heaven and Earth that is supremely Christ Himself, then the Virgin Mary, the saints, and so on down the line. Of course man himself was meant to function as a union of Heaven and Earth originally in creation. One can see this in the very structure of our bodies. Some animals soar above the earth, some slither under it (fish). Most every animal has all of its appendages on the ground, whereas we have two on the ground, with our intellect–our ‘heavenly’ aspect on the commanding heights above us. Our heart unites the two.

**For those that used to trade baseball cards, think of those times when you might see when you drove too hard a bargain for the “Mutton Chop Yaz” in the face of your friend. Unless you were Comic Book Guy, hopefully you adjusted the cost so that you prioritized your relationship and avoided taking advantage of him.

^In seminary many years ago I heard several cautionary tales along the lines of:

  • Young, energetic pastor and young family come to the church
  • Young pastor becomes popular and receives lots of affirmation from church. He throws himself into his work at church–glory and acclaim can be like a drug.
  • But because of this, he spends less time at home, where things are inevitably more mundane. His wife eventually grows resentful and distant.
  • Wife leaves husband, which makes it impossible for him to keep his job at church. Thus, he loses both the “first thing” (family, in this case), and the “second thing” (job) all at once.

^^Supposing the accuracy of the study, one can react in the following ways:

  • Inequalities in wealth are such a bad thing that if democracy contributes to it we should overthrow it.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not good, but perhaps it is one of the costs we must endure to have the greater good of democracy.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not always bad–and in fact can sometimes become a positive good. The wealthy (individuals or companies) can dramatically advance society in important ways, etc. We cannot avoid hierarchy.

As to #1–I would wonder what we would replace it with. Certainly most modern replacement ideas involve a revival of Marxism which we should reject out of hand. The other two make more sense to me, but I am still not satisfied. I feel that if a solution to the problem exists, it exists outside the system itself, and this would mean letting go of some aspects of our modern world as it relates to culture, politics, etc.