Michael Walzer’s The Revolution Of The Saints: The Discipline Of Work And The Discipline Of Faith

Fittingly perhaps, I just finished reading Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints: A Study of the Origins of Radical Politics (1965). Walzer’s subject is Calvinism on the continent and Puritanism in England. His aim is to shed fresh light on what crucial role Puritan theology, ideology, and conduct played in the creation of a Puritan saint who would then be a political protagonist in the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Since reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which Calvinist thought made possible the birth of the modern world in general, Total Work in particular. Weber’s concern, of course, is with the correlation between the spiritual-intellectual development of Calvinist thought and practice and the full birth of modern capitalism. By contrast, Walzer’s aim is to examine how Puritanism in particular, arising during a time of great historical transition, could have created the modern revolutionary subject. Needless to say, Walzer’s, like Weber’s, is a tour de force.

In this brief book review, I mean to key into features that no doubt Michel Foucault, a theoretician of discipline, might have also observed in his own fashion. So:

1. Walzer’s psychological observation is that Puritans felt particularly unsettled, during the late sixteenth century and the early decades of the seventeenth century, because they experienced first-hand, in fits and starts, the dissolution of the traditional order, one that had been defined by hierarchy (specifically, the Great Chain of Being), the body politic, and the patriarchal family. Their social anxiety must have been great, Walzer believes, for they felt keenly unsettled.

2. Puritanism fed their unsettledness even as it provided them with a way of making sense of the world. The signature shift, for Puritans as well as for nominalists, was away from the intellect and in the direction of the will. God’s will was primary, and the elect are those living in accordance with divine will.

3. The primacy of the will–first God’s and next humans’–was realized through “the discipline of work” as well as through the “discipline of faith” (219). Why the discipline of work? Because everywhere Puritans saw disorder and chaos, and nowhere was this more evident than in the newly emerging “lumpenproletariat” (my word here, not Walzer’s) who, forced to leave the countryside, flooded the city and its environs. Poverty-stricken, many lived hand to mouth while others took to theft. “Idleness,” especially as it pertains to an inner dissolute condition, became the target of Puritans, who wished to order their own souls in a godly, disciplined manner. And why the discipline of faith? Because the Catholic monasteries and the Anglican parishes were likewise decadent and therefore what was called for (a term I’ll return to in a moment) was nothing less than the construction of congregations not based on family or loyalty but rather on utter devotion, vigilance, and conscience.

4. It is to Calvinism, much less so to Lutheranism (as Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic), that we should give credit for the creative reinvention of the calling. In Puritans’ hands, Walzer notes, the “particular calling” referred to that life-long particular “office” where one carried out one’s business with diligence, exactness, and conscientiousness while the “general calling” was precisely the Puritan faith that one was steadfastly drawn to and henceforth a part of. Through a particular calling, one might hope, and expect, to expunge whatever idleness and chaos might otherwise defeat one. Making money was, in a sense, beside the point.

5. Both particular and general callings were, as we would say today, intentionally self-transformative; both were constitutive elements of a devout spiritual practice. Toward what end? Toward the reformation of manners more generally, toward the reformation of man himself more particularly. In other words, in a time of great unsettledness, what dawned was a New Man in a “new world of discipline and work” (301). Crucial, above all else, was “finding the master within”: this “self-conquest” (315) was the essence of Puritanism.

6. And this self-conquest, Walzer believes, one marked by an inner war against the Devil, was always also political. Freed from the binds of the traditional order and subject only to the will of God (which will he believed he ever aligned himself with), the revolutionary saint was willing and able to act with the martial and political discipline needed to help overturn the old order completely. The hero, if such be the right word for it, is Oliver Cromwell. In the “Conclusion,” Walzer finds good reason to compare the revolutionary saints of the English Civil War with the Jacobins of the French Revolution and the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution.

Though, in the final pages, Walzer watches the figure of the revolutionary saint give way to the calmer figures of the bourgeois and the liberal, it’s hard not to see how the discipline of work nevertheless crept ever onward, insinuating itself into the very makeup of the world that you and I inherited and that many take to be “just the way things are.”