The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Critical Essays

Max Weber


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)