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Cover of The Spirit of French Capitalism by Charly Coleman
The Spirit of French Capitalism
Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment
Charly Coleman

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March 2021
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Hardcover ISBN: 9781503608436
Paperback ISBN: 9781503614826
Ebook ISBN: 9781503614833

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Shortlisted for the 2022 Oscar Kenshur Book Prize, sponsored by Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Indiana University.

How did the economy become bound up with faith in infinite wealth creation and obsessive consumption? Drawing on the economic writings of eighteenth-century French theologians, historian Charly Coleman uncovers the surprising influence of the Catholic Church on the development of capitalism. Even during the Enlightenment, a sense of the miraculous did not wither under the cold light of calculation. Scarcity, long regarded as the inescapable fate of a fallen world, gradually gave way to a new belief in heavenly as well as worldly affluence.

Animating this spiritual imperative of the French economy was a distinctly Catholic ethic that—in contrast to Weber's famous "Protestant ethic"—privileged the marvelous over the mundane, consumption over production, and the pleasures of enjoyment over the rigors of delayed gratification. By viewing money, luxury, and debt through the lens of sacramental theory, Coleman demonstrates that the modern economy casts far beyond rational action and disenchanted designs, and in ways that we have yet to apprehend fully.

About the author

Charly Coleman is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of The Virtues of Abandon: An Anti-Individualist History of the French Enlightenment (Stanford, 2014), which was awarded the 2016 Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies.

"With deft analysis and compelling exposition, Charly Coleman unearths the neglected yet highly significant contributions of French Catholic theology to the growth and development of capitalism. He helps us grasp why, amid supposed disenchantment and the brute materiality of modernity, commodities continue to hold such sway and consumption still promises us salvation."

—Devin Singh, Dartmouth College

"The Spirit of French Capitalism is a brilliant, provocative book that deserves a wide readership. Charly Coleman compellingly argues that to understand the genesis of modern capitalism, we need to understand how economic visions of unlimited consumption and plenitude arose out of the 'economic theology' of the Catholic Reformation. Delving deep into theological debates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Coleman traces surprising connections to the period's economic thought—and economic practice as well."

—David A. Bell, Princeton University

"Coleman's book offers a valuable example of research on the connection of theological notions and religious practices, on the one hand, and the field of French political economy during the 17th and 18th centuries, on the other. The main contribution is definitely to clarify the long history of the semantic crossing between theological and economic representation, opening the way to future interdisciplinary research carried out between theologians and historians of economic thought. "

—Maxime Menuet, Journal of Economics, Theology and Religion