Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was one of the seminal works of the twentieth century. An analytic sociologist as well as an economist, Weber’s scholarly interests and accomplishments transcended any individual academic discipline, and his book includes not only sociology and economy but also history, political science, theology, and psychology.
What Weber attempts to discover in this work is the connection between the economic system of capitalism and theological ideas of the sixteenth century Protestant reformer John Calvin and his Calvinist followers. He begins with the long-held observation that in Weber’s Germany, Protestants rather than Catholics were to be found as business leaders, skilled laborers, and heads of its capitalist enterprises, and he theorizes that the reason was to be found in their religious beliefs.
Weber discusses what he calls “the spirit of capitalism,” using several aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin, such as “Time is money” and “Money is of the prolific, generating nature.” This, the author argues, is not mere avarice, but rather the belief that it is the ultimate duty of individuals to increase their wealth, which he calls the ethos of capitalism. He admits that capitalism has manifested itself in most civilizations, including Europe in the Middle Ages, but those civilizations lacked the ethos or spirit that Weber finds is at the core of modern capitalism.
This root of the ethos of capitalism is what Weber famously refers to as a “calling,” a new concept that emerges from the Protestant Reformation. It is religious in origin—an individual is called by God—and applies both to owners and managers as well as workers and laborers. Just as an individual is called to work in a particular occupation or profession, a person is called to make money. This, Weber argues, is connected to a commitment to asceticism, not the asceticism of medieval monks but an ascetic life in the world rather than the monastery. Measured economically, the acquisition of money does not manifest itself in living a more luxurious or comfortable life in a material sense but rather in believing psychologically that one has fulfilled one’s calling, a calling ordained by God.
Weber states that Martin Luther employed the idea of a calling, but Luther was a traditionalist, so his use of the concept was more conservative than revolutionary, in that individuals were to accept their lot as it was given by God rather than change their circumstance. The author also discusses Protestant pietism, John Wesley’s Methodist movement in England, several Baptist sects, and the Quakers, but finds his Protestant-induced spirit of capitalism best revealed in the consequences of the ideas of Calvin, notably the concept of predestination. Because of his omniscience and omnipotence, God knows all, and he has elected some for salvation, with the remainder, probably the majority for Calvin, damned to hell. The church and its sacraments cannot save one, because an individual’s final destination has already been determined since the beginning of time, given the nature of God’s foreknowledge. According to Calvin, human beings are in the world only to increase the glory of God, and they do this through the fulfillment of what God has called them to do.
Given the stakes—heaven or hell for all eternity—the question of whether one was among the elect was of a burning concern with a deep psychological dimension, but hints or clues of one’s election might be evidenced by the successful application to one’s calling, or occupation, in this world. Conversely, Weber claims that Luther’s conception of the religious life was more medieval in its quest to seek God through a mystical faith rather...
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than a rational method for transforming one’s life through fulfilling one’s calling. For the Calvinists, including the Puritans in England and England’s North American colonies, successful work did not result in salvation, but it could well be a sign of salvation. As Weber notes, in practice this led to the belief that God helps those who help themselves. As Saint Paul said, “He who will not work shall not eat.” Luxury for its own sake is a “sin,” as is wasting time. In England, the Puritans closed the theaters and attempted to restrict Sunday sports, and for Calvinists/Puritans, sexual relations were acceptable only for the conception of children, not for enjoyment in their own right.
Modern capitalism is also a product of the rational use of capital in economic enterprises as well as the rational organization of labor, neither of which Weber claims existed before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Calvinism demanded not just the occasional good works within a religious institutional framework but rather a rational program, a unified system, a life of good works. Paradoxically, although the seeds of the Protestant ethic were planted in the religion of Calvinism, where the central imperative was the afterlife and whether it would be heaven or hell, in time the connective root to religion was severed, but the reward of fulfilling one’s calling became an ethical end in itself, based more on habit and cultural tradition than conscious reflection.
Weber’s thesis remains relevant as well as controversial a century after its publication. However, it has been widely noted by critics writing in an age when the social sciences have become more “science” than “social” that The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is overly impressionistic, lacking the hard quantitative data that could validate its claims.