The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

by Max Weber
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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, without a doubt the most widely recognized work by the preeminent German sociologist Max Weber, takes the form of a book-length scholarly essay published in two parts—of roughly one hundred pages each—titled “Das Problem” (the problem) and “Die Berufsethik des asketischen Protestantismus” (the ethic of the calling in Protestant asceticism). Each part is further divided into a number of subparts (or sections) and is accompanied by an extensive body of notes—84 for part 1 and 309 for part 2—in which Weber not only cites his sources but also elaborates on many of his arguments by providing a plethora of detailed and often-lengthy examples and explanations. Taken together, these notes serve to elevate the essay from a mere collection of sociological assertions to a well-argued and painstakingly documented example of modern research in the social sciences—an example embracing Weber’s oft-stated and, in terms of present-day sociology, highly visionary belief that all studies of man and society should be firmly rooted in the scientific method (valid experimentation, statistical documentation, and the like).

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When Weber republished The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as part of his Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Religionssoziologie (collected essays on the sociology of religion) in 1920 and 1921, he expanded the already monumental aggregate of notes to incorporate the various criticisms of his fellow sociologists and, additionally, supplied the essay with a short preface outlining several of the most important responses to the work since its first appearance in 1905. These responses included Felix Rachfahl’s Kalvinismus und Kapitalismus (1909; Calvinism and capitalism) and Lujo Brentano’s Die Anfange des modernen Kapitalismus (1916; the beginnings of modern capitalism), which implied among other things that Weber was the first to hypothesize a direct relationship between Protestantism and capitalism. Contrary to the assertions of Weber’s critics, however, this relationship had—as Weber himself acknowledges—already been variously postulated since the inception of Protestantism in the early sixteenth century. Indeed, Weber wrote his famous essay with the express intent of explaining, not simply stating, the fact that capitalistic economic systems tend to exist in areas of the world where the rise of Protestantism with its attendant religious, economic, and social ideologies has been most pronounced. Not surprisingly, he chose the highly industrialized nations Germany, England, and the United States, which pair free-market economies with large Protestant populations, as the major focus of his study.

In addition to explaining the complex relationship between Protestantism and capitalism, Weber’s work is aimed at describing the sociological basis of the Protestant faith while at the same time demonstrating the importance of the rising (Protestant) middle classes in Germany, England, and the United States for the economic, social, and political development of the Western world. In addition, Weber stresses the significance of the Reformation as the actual catalyst behind the emergence of capitalism as a modern economic system. Not to be overlooked here are the work’s comments on Protestant religious life in the United States, which Weber no doubt hoped would provide his European readers with valuable insights into early American history.

In the first part of his essay, Weber outlines the ideologies underlying the Protestant work ethic, which include a utilitarian frame of mind, an ascetic life-style, and a strict career orientation. He ends this part with the important observation that many of these ideologies were products of the Reformation, which by extension is responsible for the emergence of capitalism as a living embodiment of the Protestant ethic. In part 2, written after his tour of the United States in 1904, Weber elaborates on some of the specific religious beliefs common to the numerous Protestant sects of Europe and especially of the United States and, beyond that, provides an informative introduction to the ascetic life-style traditionally associated with the Protestant ethic and thus also with capitalism itself.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is written in a clear and concise manner, utilizing straightforward, nontechnical language. The tone is decidedly neutral (that is, never polemical), and all arguments are constructed in a highly logical and thus easily comprehended fashion. Weber doubtlessly intended this work not only for experts in religion or sociology but also for all individuals who desire a background in the complex interrelationship between the Protestant work ethic and the practical and theoretical bases of modern capitalism and between religious ideology and the social, political, and economic structure of society.

Context

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Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, and certainly one of the most brilliant and influential social thinkers of the twentieth century, was essentially unknown in the United States until the 1930 publication of Talcott Parsons’s translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Having first published the work in 1904-1905, Weber produced a revised edition shortly before his death in 1920. The book was Weber’s entry into a number of contemporary debates, and this multidimensional quality contributes to its status as a classic. For example, with his book, Weber took a stand in an important methodological debate of his day known to historians of the social sciences as the Methodenstreit, or the struggle over method. In this debate between those who believed the social sciences should follow a method more in line with the natural sciences and those who argued for a method based on the historical approach to human phenomena, Weber demonstrated the possibilities of the latter with his groundbreaking historical analysis of the rise of modern capitalism.

On another front, Weber argued that religion had been a decisive determinant in Western economic development, thus disputing Marxist analyses that reduced ideological expression to primarily economic determinants. Perhaps most important, Weber entered into the debate concerning the nature of modernity itself. In his presentation of the “spirit” of the modern capitalist system, Weber attempted to present a clear and sober analysis of the origins, prospects, and cultural and personal costs of modern economic life.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was only a small part of Weber’s published and unpublished work. In order to place the book in the context of Weber’s wider outlook, Parsons took an essay that Weber published in 1920 as an introduction to a separate set of sociological studies of religion and society and placed it at the beginning of his translation under the title “Author’s Introduction.” In that essay, Weber argued that only by way of the comparative study of cultures can the Western world historically comprehend itself and its own unique development, because what counts as “rational” is relative to the values and goals that structure a person’s or group’s action. Action that is rational from the perspective of consistent devotion to one value or goal may be completely irrational in the light of other values or goals. What is of special interest to Weber is how a sense of obligation to live consistently with a given set of values can emerge in the first place, how changes in what people consider to be rational can occur, and how contradictory goals and values intersect in people’s lives, such that unintended consequences take developments in surprising directions.

Protestants and Modern Capitalism

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It was commonly accepted among historians of Weber’s day that territories with Protestant roots seemed to have outpaced Catholic territories in capitalist development. Moreover, in religiously mixed territories, Protestants seemed to outnumber Catholics in both the business classes and the stratum of skilled and technically trained workers. After considering and discarding several possible explanations for these phenomena—for example, that Protestants enjoy less ecclesiastical control than Catholics and are thus freer to innovate and to pursue their economic interests, or that Catholics are more otherworldly and less materialistic than Protestants, who tend to be more progressive and life-affirming—Weber presents his own thesis.

Weber’s position is not that modern capitalism was invented by the Protestants he discusses, nor that modern capitalism is the only sort of capitalism there is. Rather, Weber’s view is that modern capitalism is the unique product of a complex web of material, technological, and ideological conditions. This leads him to oppose as too simplistic any Marxist causal overemphasis on the material substructure of human life. For Weber, as essential as material, political, and technological conditions are for the explanation of any social development, no explanation is complete that fails to take into account the meaning that people ascribe to their actions. People are motivated by the values they hold, and their actions play a causal role in historical change. It is this feature that Weber highlights in his book. He wants to understand what it is about Protestantism that seems to motivate people to act in ways that are congruent with the rationality required by modern capitalism.

A Calling

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Referring to the writings of the eighteenth century American Benjamin Franklin, Weber argues that what is most distinctive about modern capitalism is not that it is characterized by greedier, more adventuresome capitalists than in previous eras, but rather that modern economic life is pervaded by the notion that it is one’s paramount duty to work proficiently in one’s “calling.” When Franklin admonished his readers that “Time is money,” he was expressing not merely a shrewd business maxim but an ethical stance toward life. This stance emphasized subordination of one’s own interests to the interests of one’s calling or one’s business, diligence and discipline in economic matters, and abhorrence of idleness in both oneself and one’s money. Modern capitalism emerged in part because sufficient numbers of people renounced the traditional estimation of work as a mere means to maintain an accustomed way of life and instead adopted this ascetic ethic in their everyday working lives. They, like Franklin, came to think of careful reinvestment and relentlessly methodical labor in one’s vocation as a testimony to one’s moral and social worth. These people were bearers of the modern capitalist spirit. However, who were they, and where did they acquire this notion of calling?

Weber’s argument is that Protestantism produced not capitalism, but rather this notion of a calling. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, with his doctrine of salvation by faith alone, undercut the medieval system of religious callings represented by various monastic orders and elevated service to others in secular callings as the primary arena for the practice of Christian love. However, it would be subsequent Protestant denominations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that would become the bearers of the new economic outlook, especially Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the various Anabaptist and Spiritualist sects. Weber singles out these denominations because of their emphasis on what he calls “innerworldly asceticism.” Whereas medieval asceticism was primarily otherworldly—practiced within monastery walls—these Protestant groups required that their members give evidence of their faith by leading disciplined and diligent lives of service in the world by way of their secular vocations.

Weber thinks that of these groups, seventeenth century Calvinism produced the most intense incentive toward innerworldly asceticism. This was because the Calvinist emphasis on the doctrine of predestination, which holds that God has already determined from eternity who will be saved and who will be damned, cut off the traditional means of relief from salvation anxiety. No action, no experience, no magical intervention, no priestly mediation can alter one’s eternal fate, forever sealed by God’s primordial and inscrutable will. Calvinist Puritans were left with no avenues for the achievement of salvation. Nevertheless, there was one avenue left for assurance of their predetermined status: self-observation of one’s relentless activity, proficiency, and diligence in one’s calling. Inefficiency and wastefulness of one’s time and one’s assets were a sure sign that one was not one of the elect. Holding beliefs that were functionally equivalent to predestination, the other three Protestant groups also managed to inculcate in the faithful—although to a somewhat lesser extent than Puritanism—the same notion that diligence in one’s calling provided proof of one’s favorable status before God.

Weber’s Legacy

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Since its publication, nearly every aspect of Weber’s thesis has been the subject of rigorous and relentless debate. Did Weber properly interpret Ben Franklin? Did he correctly interpret the various religious authors he used for his sources? Was his interpretation of the Protestant idea of calling accurate? Did he miss evidence that showed that modern capitalism may have developed much earlier than the so-called capitalist spirit appeared? If it did, does this negate his thesis? Is it true that Protestant territories were more advanced economically than Catholic ones, or was Weber taken in by the residual anti-Catholicism of Germany’s earlier Kulturkampf? Did Weber ignore or misconstrue other sources of the capitalist spirit? Were the monasteries of medieval Western Christendom in fact seedbeds for economic asceticism? Is Weber’s emphasis on the study of motives and meaning sufficient, appropriate, or relevant for his topic? Did Weber correctly identify the unique characteristics of modern economic life?

On all these issues, Weber has his detractors and defenders. In this respect, perhaps one of the greatest achievements of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been the expansive debates it unleashed about the historical emergence of modernity. However, the book’s continuing appeal cannot be explained only by the suggestiveness of its historical thesis. Many readers of the work find in its pages searing and haunting psychological, cultural, and philosophical insights into life in the modern economic system. They may well catch a glimpse of themselves in Weber’s anxious and lonely Puritans or ponder Weber’s sober appraisal of the human future. For many, there is something uncannily familiar in Weber’s portrait of the Puritan’s search for ultimate assurance through ceaseless rational efficiency and relentless productivity in a disenchanted and rationally inscrutable world.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Albrow, Martin. Max Weber’s Construction of Social Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Excellent extended introduction to most of the elements of Max Weber’s social theory, including his personal, historical, and intellectual background. Carefully organizes and clarifies the many complicated thematic strands of Weber’s work.

Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. An older, but useful extended overview of Weber’s sociological works.

Brubaker, Rogers. The Limits of Rationality: An Essay on the Social and Moral Thought of Max Weber. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984. Careful and persuasive presentation of Weber’s profoundly influential concept of “rationalization” in its various forms. Presents Weber as an ethicist and analyst of modernity and its crises.

Collins, Randall. Max Weber: A Skeleton Key. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1986. Superb brief introduction to Weber’s life and thought as well as to some of the critical issues in Weber scholarship. Excellent starting point for further study.

Delacroix, Jacques, and Francois Nielsen. “The Beloved Myth: Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in the Nineteenth Century.” Social Forces 80 (December, 2001). The authors criticize Weber for his failure to offer sufficient empirical evidence for his thesis.

Diggins, John Patrick. Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 1996. A passionately and clearly written account of Weber’s life as well as of his ethical and political perspective. Uses Weber’s lifelong interest in the United States as a vehicle to explore his relevance to late twentieth century American thought and history.

Lehmann, Hartmut, and Guenther Roth, eds. Weber’s Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Excellent collection of scholarly essays covering a wide range of late twentieth century assessments of Weber’s famous Protestant ethic thesis.

Morrison, Ken. Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought. London: Sage, 1995. Provides an accessible and careful survey of Weber’s key works in sociology and methodology. Includes a helpful glossary of Weberian terminology.

Novak, Michael. “Max Weber Goes Global.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 152 (April, 2005). Novak argues that the Catholic tradition also contributed to the rise of modern capitalism.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. Rev. ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1996. A stimulating, troubling, and highly readable application of the Weberian concept of rationalization in an analysis of the “iron cages” of late twentieth century life.

Swatos, William H., and Lutz Kaelbar, eds. The Protestant Ethic Turns One Hundred. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2005. A valuable series of essays assessing the Weber thesis at the time of its centenary.

Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926. Tawney turns Weber’s thesis on its head, arguing that Protestant Calvinism was a consequence of the emergence of modern capitalism rather than its cause.

Weber, Marianne. Max Weber: A Biography. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Wiley, 1975. A haunting and profound account of Weber’s life and times, amounting to an insightful intellectual portrait of Weber and post-World War I Germany by an intimate and intellectually astute participant.

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