Review Essay: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber


Jerry Moses

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber in his book has two themes; one is to establish a historical link between the growth of the Protestant religious doctrines and the development of modern capitalism. The other is to establish a line of continuity between the protestant ethical maxims and the path of development taken by Western capitalism in its regulation of economic conduct by the imposition of restraint and rejection of luxury. The fundamental aim of his study was to outline the impact of John Calvin’s religious doctrine and a series of practical motives and religious precepts that became incentive to the regulation of life.

Weber’s begins his introductory chapter called the “Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification” in which observes the religious demographics of the population in Europe. He observes that most people in highly skilled and trained professions were Protestants. He also takes note of the fact that a large number of the richest and most economically developed areas turned protestant in the 16th century. A majority of the wealthy cities were protestant.  He brings to light certain aspects of the Catholic faith that he believes were the reasons for the lesser demonstration of Catholics, he found that the Catholics emphasised on learning of languages, Philosophy and history while the Protestants chose more technical fields of study. Catholics preferred more skill oriented jobs and were lifelong craftsmen whereas Protestants engaged with industry and moved up the career ladder to become factory managers. The Catholics in Germany were however an exception to this proposition.

Weber points out that though faiths exhibited unbearable form of control on the believers life, the reformists contented that the church had too little domination over life rather than too much. Protestants sought economic rationalism as an inner quality which was criticised as being material by the Catholics, While the Protestants criticised the Catholics for their “other worldliness”. Weber asks the question that whether earning one’s living under capitalism can ever have an inner affinity? He postulates a two part solution for this, one there has to be business sense and the second, a strong sense of piety.

In the second chapter Weber tries to define the phrase “The Spirit of Capitalism”. He provides an illustration of the spirit of capitalism by reflecting on Benjamin Franklin’s piece on Money, Credit and Man. Weber is not concerned with the capitalism of the Ancient and Middle ages that which occurred in China, India and Babylon. He is interested in Modern Capitalism that occurred in Western Europe and America. Thus the acquisition of money coupled with the idea of saving was the root of Franklin’s thought. As long as a business is carried in a legal manner the acquisition of money manifested competence and proficiency.  The duty to have a vocational calling was not an idea only in modern capitalism but it became a social ethic of the modern capitalistic culture, Weber argued that it was during this time that the capitalist economic world order turned to a vast cosmos into which a person is born. He felt that any trader in order to be successful in the market eventually had to adhere to this ethic of capitalism. In one of the examples he states how the economic traditionalism when people wished to live as they have been accustomed to and to earn as much as required gave way to capitalistic ideas, in a traditional market the customers had their orders placed via letters to the peasants and subject to availability they would collect their orders  by travelling to the city, this practice however was slowly replaced by the introduction of an agent where he would travel to the villages and find goods as per the customer preferences and would deliver it to the customers themselves.  He advocates importance to the frame of mind that Benjamin Franklin propagated in his article.

The third Chapter is concerned with “Luther’s Conception of the Calling”, which forms an important aspect of the vocational ethic as it served as a good motivator to keep people engaged in their work. The word calling means a task given by God. It carried with it the notion of duty and piety to one’s individual work. The concept of the calling was a product of Reformation period, for the first time the worldly activities acquired a moral justification and attained religious significance; it was a concept that was alien to the Catholic faith. Luther developed these ideas in the course of the first decade of the reform activities. Weber however believes that Luther did not have the spirit of capitalism and that he was a traditionalist. Thus, the idea of the calling in Lutheranism was of limited importance to his study. What he meant was that the development of capitalism cannot be derived directly from Luther’s attitude to the worldly work. It is in this context that he highlights the importance of Calvinism.

The Fourth Chapter is called “The Religious foundations of Worldly Asceticism”.  In this chapter he discusses the major forms of ascetic Protestantism i.e., Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism and Baptists. He discusses Calvinism in great detail as it forms a fundamental part of his analysis for the birth of the ascetic life. The fundamental doctrine among the Calvinists was the doctrine of predestination, that is the belief that the world has been segregated into two, the ones who are going to heaven and the ones who aren’t. Therefore, living an ascetic life in the worldly activities became an important aspect of the faith as it was the only way one could reassure themselves of their salvation. It dominated their thoughts and actions. The important aspects of Calvinism was the methodological organization of lie, testifying to belief in the worldly vocational calling, a puritan goal of leading an alert, conscious and self aware life, Rejection of the importance of sacraments and emotional aspects of culture and religion. Calvinist interaction with god was carried out in spiritual isolation even when one belonged to a specific church; it advocated a systematic self control and provided no opportunity for forgiveness of weaknesses. Calvinism thus according to Weber had magnificent consistency and it encouraged systematic living.

The above Calvinist values stands in contrast to the Catholics who believed in redemption through confession and attaining salvation through sacraments, which were a mechanism that compensated one’s own shortcomings. Lutheranism, on the other hand did not give importance to the doctrine of predestination, its believers advocated the availability of grace. According to Weber, this left no push in Lutheranism and thus it had lesser penetration of asceticism. Pietism on the other hand according to Weber had still stricter rules of the organized life in one’s calling but not everyone was predisposed to have that experience. The focus of the Methodists according to him was of emotional character especially in America. The belief in undeserved grace and the certainty of forgiveness were the foundation of the Methodists; difficulties remained within the Methodists because the doctrine of predisposition was muddled by the concept of Christian freedom. The Baptists, another form of the Protestants believed in the personal awakening of an individual, such members were to avoid the worldly pleasures. They also propagated the notion of living life with the basic necessities or with as much required, this was not in keeping with the capitalistic notion of growth.

The final chapter seeks to link the aspect of asceticism and the spirit of capitalism. He reflects on the writings of Richard Baxter (a puritan) in his final chapter, who writes of his moral objection to idleness and relaxation as they keep away the faithful from pursuing the righteous life. Baxter propagates the need for mental and bodily hard work and considers wasting time as a sin in itself.

Weber argues that asceticism’s disengagement with the pleasures of life was most conducive to the capitalistic way of life. He felt that a life with pleasures pulled people away from their work and calling. The puritan concept of using money only for the service of god was another ascetic character that guided the notion of the Protestants.

In conclusion Weber talks of the other areas of life which the concept of asceticism could have influenced that is not yet studied. He also contends that there could be many other factors influencing the spirit of capitalism and that his interpretation should not be studied as the single theory of causal explanation of culture and history.

My thoughts:

The Protestant Ethic was an interesting read because Weber not only builds his arguments throughout his book but he also constantly guides the reader along by explaining what he does not intend to say. This is a characteristic feature of this book, it thus avoids the pitfalls of the reader interpretation i.e., often readers read by trying to understand what they think the author is saying. This helps to clarify a lot of the ideas that he presents for example he states that he does not intend to say that the rise of capitalism is a result of the reformation period in the Catholic Church. Another thing that he states that helps to understand his theory is that he is only concerned with the analyses of modern capitalism and not with that of the ancient and middle ages that occurred in India, China and other places.

Weber’s arguments are well thought through and his linking of values to the understanding of capitalism is what impressed me most about this book. Normally when one thinks about capitalism one just thinks about the effects of it and all the economic characteristics associated with it not necessarily the mechanism of capitalism in terms of values and ideas shaping it. I however disagree with the notion that only Calvinist principles were driving a work ethic that is conducive to the growth of capitalism, Weber himself in the end of the book restates this very claim. Weber’s guiding principles in which he defines the Calvinist principles are the necessity of a business ethic and peity, I agree with this understanding, but I don’t think that this is only vehicle for the growth of modern capitalism. Overall, The book is a good read, especially if you are interested in understanding the link between religion and economics or just interested in reading prominent work in Sociology.

… …. ….

Jerry Moses is a student of M.A (IR, Semester I) at SOUTH ASIAN UNIVERSITY.

N.B. The review essay has already been submitted by writer as TERM PAPER.



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