Calvin settles in Geneva

Calvin's theology had a massive impact on science, technology, enterpreneurship, and social cohesion. Later on, it became Calvinism, and hugely impacted the economic, cultural, and political development of the United States.

Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija's study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

Map and caveats

This tour, which starts with Calvin’s theology and thinking,  is inspired by Max Weber’s book, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Although written more than a century ago, as the result of his search for the cultural origins of capitalism, this book is still one of the most influential sociological works on the interplay between religion, culture, and the economy. 

Calvin’s initial ideas, the two pillars of his social thinking – human agency and responsibility – as they were implemented and interpreted, got tilted in the USA to focus more on the former, human agency.

As Weber wrote: 

We are not considering the personal views of Calvin, but Calvinism, and also in that form to which it had developed at the end of the 16th and in the 17th century in large areas of his dominating influence.

So, Calvin's insight could prove to be valuable in our current search for a balance between technological growth and human core values.

Geneva

Nothing is more dangerous than to be blinded by prosperity.

Calvin

Five centuries ago, John Calvin settled in Geneva and started preaching.  From his sermons grew Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism.

Calvin’s contribution to theology and philosophy is multi-faceted, as shown during the series of events celebrating the 500th anniversary of his birth back in 2009.  His legacy is controversial to this day. He is often criticised for authoritarian ruling and the austere morality of, for example, banning dancing.  Here, we outline a few aspects of his work that have the most direct relevance for tech-humanity interaction.

Calvin was an innovator and a critical thinker. He challenged many established truths of his era and created a bridge between Protestantism and modernity. 

The cornerstone of Calvin’s theology, Predestination, states that human efforts cannot bring salvation, only God’s grace can.

Although Calvin’s Predestination teaching did not link human efforts to salvation, he called on believers to glorify God throughout their life by their deeds. At first, he talked about moral deeds, but later, he started to talk about other kinds of deeds, such as those done at work. On this basis, Calvinism developed a theological justification for hard work, wealth, and a capitalist economy, as observed by Weber. 

Calvin was a strong supporter of individual actions and entrepreneurialism as part of a work ethic. However, he was also aware of the danger of wealth concentration for social stability.

Humility and modesty were important in Calvin’s theology. He also called for intervention on behalf of the weak as well as for banking ethics which is committed to justice and the global good. 

Stückelberger, C. (2009). No interest from the poor. Calvin’s economic and banking ethics.

His teachings are especially important now, when there is a big difference between rich and poor that threatens the social stability of many societies around the world. The growing wealth of the tech industry widens inequalities. For example, in 2022, 8 of the 10 richest companies in the world came from the tech sector. 

Calvin’s thinking could help in finding a balance between the freedom of action and making sure that everyone’s basic needs are met. 

He, like other Protestant thinkers, was enthusiastic about science and knowledge. If we want to change society, we have to understand it first. This has been the main theological reason for why Protestant societies all over the world have supported science and technology. Calvin lived at a time when science and discovery were taking off. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama made big steps forward in geographical discoveries in the late 1500s. And in 1543, Copernicus's shift in astronomy happened. 

At the same time, Calvin called for moderation and caution in using scientific advances, which were later echoed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Even today, this line of scientific caution is still important because AI, biotechnology, and other advances in science and technology have a profound impact on society. 

Calvin also argued for universal education, including for girls, which was a very revolutionary proposal in the sixteenth century. Later on, another Genevan, Rousseau, put education at the centre of his philosophy. 

Today, five centuries later, universal education is still not universal.

The United States

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, via Scotland and the Netherlands, Calvin’s idea crossed the Atlantic Ocean to find new life on the American continent. Even in a symbolic way, Calvin’s copy of the Bible crossed the ocean on the historic Mayflower voyage. On the new continent, Calvin's ideas grew into what is now called Calvinism, with all the similarities and differences from his original ideas. 

The centrality of individual freedom and work ethic in Calvin’s work garnered additional relevance. Individualism has become a key pillar of the US political, economic, and social systems. Calvinism had a critical influence on the inclusion of human rights in the American Constitution, according to Georg Jellinek. This theology has emphasised that every person is valuable and worthy on their own, and that freedom and self-determination are critical for personal and societal prosperity. 

Self-making and personal responsibility have become pillars of social ethics. The delicate balance between individuals and community, carefully crafted by Calvin, started tilting towards the centrality of individuals.

Personal endeavours in business and technology were almost limitless  with the hope that sometime/somehow an invisible hand would ensure that individual action was in sync with societal interest. As we realise more and more, the invisible hand exists only in specific political and economic contexts. A careful reading of Adam Smith’s opus shows that his concept of the invisible hand should be taken with the utmost caution.  

With a few exceptions, Calvin's teachings on community responsibilities, which were at first very important to small groups of purists in the new land, started to lose their importance. Yet, social justice was supported by Walter Rauschenbush (1861–1918), a key figure in the Social Gospel movement. Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), one of the richest people of his time, spoke out against inheriting wealth and in favour of sharing it. 

Silicon Valley 

The departure from Calvin’s carefully balanced individual agency and societal responsibility went far in the Silicon Valley tech developments. Individualism prevailed over social responsibility, especially with the fast tech growth there over the last two decades.

The long glorious phase of Silicon Valley innovation and growth is increasingly tarnished with stories of the selfish elite, tax evasion, manipulation of the market, etc. 

A more balanced approach to society and business could be a benefit for the tech industry. It would also help to 'uplifting' their social roles.

Here, Calvin’s initial idea of freedom and responsibility, combined with Geneva’s rich philosophical heritage, as discussed in Section 3 of this text, could provide a backdrop for re-establishing a balance between technological development and societal responsibilities. 

Thus, in a way, after a long journey, the core ideas and dilemmas of modernity could return home for new elaboration.