The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

by Max Weber

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How does conspicuous consumption differ from the Protestant ethic?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Protestant ethic, as described by Max Weber, featured a strong strain of asceticism. On the other hand, there was also a belief in callings, which suggested that God intended for people to do their best in whatever their chosen occupation was. This implied that making money had divine sanction, indeed was a way to glorify God. But the ascetic tendencies of Protestant businessmen prohibited them from spending their earnings on the trappings of wealth, so they rather converted them into capital, meaning they invested them back in their businesses. According to Weber, who held Benjamin Franklin up as the embodiment of this ethic, this combination of impulses among Protestants was at the very heart of modern bourgeois capitalism:

As far as the influence of the Puritan extended, under all it favoured the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important, and above all, the only consistent influence in the development of that life. It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man.

This ethos of asceticism was the opposite of conspicuous consumption, which suggests that one makes wealth, and spends it, with an eye to impressing others. For Weber, this represents a fundamentally medieval outlook, whereby nobles sought to demonstrate their power through lavish displays of wealth. The fundamental principle that wealth ought to be pursued for its own sake, with energy, sobriety, and through careful and rational calculation, would last even after the spiritual aspects of the Protestant ethic had been largely forgotten. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial