The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Summary

Max Weber

The Work Ethic

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Weber notes that even though medieval otherworldly asceticism demanded poverty of its individual devotees, nevertheless the monasteries were subject to ongoing waves of reform because their ascetic organization of time and work paradoxically generated greater productivity, greater wealth, and, inevitably, greater materialistic temptations. A similar consequence results from innerworldly asceticism. Wealth is generated by ceaseless and disciplined work, but, unlike the monk, the Protestant laborer does not renounce property with a vow of poverty. Property presents the Puritan not with an encumbrance on the road to salvation, but rather with a task to be performed in the world for God’s glory. Certainly laborers must not become attached to their property and its fruits, but this is because they are to be stewards of God’s bounty. The idolatrous use of wealth in luxurious and leisurely activity is a constant temptation, but the Puritan resists such attachments, reinvesting and thus multiplying this borrowed bounty.

To those steeped in the traditional medieval economic ethos, such activity appears to be the unnatural pursuit of wealth as an end in itself and thus represents the height of irrationality, if not the epitome of greed and avarice. To those laboring under the new ethos, however, it is assurance of their salvation that is at stake. Either way, one thing is clear: The traditional mode of production cannot compete with the new...

(The entire section is 475 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 915 words.)