The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

by Max Weber
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

As mentioned previously, Weber wrote his ground-breaking essay for the primary purpose of finding a fitting answer for what he, in the heading accompanying part 1, aptly termed “the problem”: Why have the predominantly Protestant nations of the world traditionally provided a much more fertile breeding ground for capitalism than their Catholic counterparts? He answers this question by underscoring a fundamental difference in the worldviews of Catholicism and Protestantism: The former religion places its greatest emphasis on the afterlife, while the latter stresses worldly life, the here and now. As Weber notes, Catholics are taught that God, who generally casts a benevolent eye upon His earthly children, will reward human goodness and adherence to Christian virtues (piety, humility, the forsaking of material wealth) with eternal salvation. Protestants, on the other hand—especially Puritans and Calvinists—learn that God views man in a rather unfavorable light, granting salvation on a strictly random basis and then only to a chosen few. They also learn that humans cannot endear themselves to the grace of God through the performance of so-called good works—a fact which ultimately renders all traditional attempts at being a good samaritan utterly superfluous.

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At this point, Weber poses another important question: How do Protestants—in the apparent absence of God’s love—find happiness and fulfillment in life? The answer, he maintains, lies within the Protestant individual, who holds his destiny in his own hands. Instead of hoping for a better afterlife, he does everything in his power to make the most of his existence on earth, thereby becoming the rugged individualist anticipated in Benjamin Franklin’s well-known Puritan adage, “God helps them that help themselves.” Weber notes that a good and productive life is defined by Protestantism as one which is totally dedicated to the attainment of worldly riches (money, property, influence, and power) through education, hard work, a disdain for anything deemed impractical and wasteful (such as art and entertainment), and—most important—a willingness to accept significant financial risk. Here it becomes evident that many Protestants believe in a direct, causal relationship between commitment to one’s work and material wealth and, as a logical consequence, between wealth and personal “goodness”—a belief characterized by Weber as the “Protestant ethic” and, beyond that, as the “spirit” of this ethic’s large-scale organized form, capitalism.

Weber asserts that the Protestant Weltanschauung, as it is outlined above, gave rise to a new breed of entrepreneurial individuals who ultimately became the founders of the present-day capitalistic economies in Western Europe and the United States. These individuals are marked by intense industriousness, competitiveness, and frugality. Unlike Catholics, they do not work to live (or merely to subsist) but instead live only to work, to produce, and to maximize profits. Weber terms the sober and utterly utilitarian life-style of these individuals “ascetic,” while defining that of Catholics, who apparently perceive no sin in pairing work with pleasure and diversion, as “aesthetic.”

Toward the end of the first part of his essay, Weber asks a final important question: What brought about the Protestant work ethic, the basis of all capitalistic systems worldwide, in the first place? The Reformation, he argues, liberated the individual from the shackles of Catholic dogma, giving him the power of economic, religious, and, in a rather limited sense, even political self-determination. Above all, however, the Reformation—with all of its rational and practical implications— gave the individual the freedom to pursue his own best interest, thus effectively motivating him to begin his relentless quest for wealth and profit. According to Weber, the Protestant ethic is also closely tied to Martin Luther’s personal assertion that the Beruf (or career calling) is the ultimate, God-inspired focus of human existence. By following this calling, the individual can, as Luther implies, not only achieve his own greatest potential but also demonstrate his Christian worth. Not to be forgotten here is that the career-minded, self-actualizing person valued in Lutheran ideology (and indeed in Protestantism in general) is also the undisputed hero of modern capitalism.

In the process of explaining the close relationship between the Protestant ethic and capitalism, Weber cites specific examples of how this ethic actually manifests itself in such capitalistic nations as Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. He begins by indicating that the Protestant emphasis on productivity and efficiency in the workplace (with no squandering of time, effort, or material) translates directly into the development of modern factory-based production facilities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. These facilities, he maintains, are exemplified by the notorious sweatshops of the nineteenth century, where an underpaid work force toiled for up to sixteen hours per day, and by assembly lines in the twentieth century, where the capitalistic dream of monumental profits through mass production was realized for the first time.

The myth of the self-made man—so prevalent in capitalism—is, as Weber points out, a further outgrowth of the Protestant work ethic, which idealizes the compulsively driven, hardworking overachiever, who has only profitability on his mind. Weber also describes the Protestant emphasis on rationality and practicality as being responsible for capitalism’s general abandonment of the arts and humanities in favor of science, industry, and technology—the traditional tools of the capitalistic corporate establishment. Finally, Weber states that the unequal distribution of wealth, influence, and power between the upper and lower classes (that is, between proletarians and corporate owners) in capitalistic societies is linked directly to the Protestant—or rather Calvinistic—belief that workers should be kept chronically poor so that they may be motivated to work longer and harder hours.

Not surprisingly, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has always met with a high degree of controversy. Some critics find Weber’s explanation for the close relationship between Protestantism and capitalism to be somewhat tenuous. Others view his contention that Catholics lack the work ethic necessary for successful participation in capitalistic economies as a personal affront. Nevertheless, the critics do seem to agree on one important point: Weber’s essay, controversial as it may be, provides an overwhelming body of evidence in support of the fact that religious ideologies (regardless of their origin) exert a considerable amount of influence on—and even serve to shape—the economic, social, and political structure of nations.

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Critical Context