Summarizing Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

April 26, 2013

An appreciation for the richness of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism cannot fully saturate the reader without a basic knowledge of Marx, for it is against the latter’s claims that Weber speaks. Marx’s historical materialism, which predicted the demise of capitalism at the hands of the proletariat, rested on the assertion that every society’s beliefs, politics, and relationships of every other kind were superficial to its mode of production. Weber’s book is a refutation of this notion through an argument for the influence of ideas on the course of history–specifically, an argument for the influence of various forms of Christian Protestantism on the phenomenon of capitalism at the time of his 1905 publication.

Weber describes throughout the book the history of the post-Reformational Christian concept of the “calling”–a religious calling where one has to work in an occupation not for one’s own pursuits but for God’s glory–and how this concept developed into the modern capitalist spirit. His aim is to make a connection with Benjamin Franklin’s secular wisdom that served as a classic model of the capitalist ethic. For Franklin the individual’s duty is to work toward increasing wealth as an end in itself. Moral precepts are desirable because of their utilitarian value: honesty is useful because it brings credit. Punctuality, hard work, moderation, amiability, are good insofar as they help to build wealth. Ultimately, however, wealth-making is not necessarily for individual pleasure but as for its own sake.

The relevantly influential branches of Christian Protestant denominations were markedly ascetic. How then did they become compatible with capitalistic pursuit? The Puritan at least was God’s steward for the things given him, and the more his wealth increased the more responsibility he had. Yet his duty was tireless labor in a calling; combined with the restriction on consumption and luxury, this worked toward the acquisition of wealth. “The fight against the lusts of the flesh and the desire to cling to outward possessions…[was] not a fight against wealth and profit, but against the temptations associated with them.” This was no less true for the Quakers, who prospered in the furniture industry in North Carolina while maintaining a “sober simplicity” and practicality.These different denominations are relevant to Weber to the degree that they take after Calvinism’s apparently original contribution of the concept of the calling. The complete doubt in Calvinism as to whether or not one had been predestined to be part of God’s kingdom eventually inspired the notion that, although one is powerless to secure salvation, he can look for a sign that he is among God’s elect. And as one shall “know them by their fruits”, success in a calling was a sign of salvation. Like the other ways of thought, Calvinism simultaneously upheld strict asceticism, though arguably for different philosophical reasons.Here the rational and disciplined organization characteristic of modern capitalism owes its origins. Continual and systematic labor in a secular calling for God’s glory, which produced wealth, was tempered with a restraint on consumption, resulting in “the creation of capital through the ascetic compulsion to save.” Moreover, “the inhibitions which stood in the way of consumption of what had been acquired favored its productive use: as investment capital.”

This was integral to the rational conduct of life born from Protestant asceticism, and carried over as a constituent of the capitalist spirit as Franklin expressed it. Franklin’s work ethic, however, lacked the religious element of the calling. The religious element from which the modern capitalist spirit developed, according to Weber, was eroding.

Weber had thrown down his argument against historical materialism. Near the close of The Protestant Ethic, his own predictions for capitalism do not anticipate a revolution. They are arguably more telling:

“The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling–we, on the other hand, must be. For when asceticism moved out of the monastic cells and into working life, and began to dominate innerworldly morality, it helped to build that mighty cosmos of the modern economic order (which is bound to the technical and economic conditions of mechanical and machine production). Today this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.”

Weber cautions that the future is not so determinate as the Marxist holds. But he suggests that if things continue as they have, as reflected in the dissolution of religious aims into wealth-acquisition for its own sake, modernization would be a descent from rationally-pursued life conduct with non-rationally-chosen ends, to rationally-pursued conduct without ultimate aims valued for their own sake. Modernization would forsake ends-in-themselves to be pursued, consequently becoming an age infused with a sense of meaninglessness. Perhaps, he speculates, modern men will be “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart.”


10 Responses to “Summarizing Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”

  1. 12kilroy Says:

    I must admit, I never really thought about the uniquely Reformed spin on the concept of vocation as being or providing some re-assurance of salvation.

    It strikes me (on its face) as somewhat inconsistent. Mostly because it provides a means by which one can work – not to gain salvation, perhaps, but to prove it. [That doesn’t, in any way preclude that being the logic involved in people’s actions, but it does lead me to wonder whether this represents a kind of capitulation of Reformed thought in practice.]

    • I didn’t know the concept of the vocation as a calling had a defined origin until Weber. Strangely, Today I still hear certain Christians talk about their calling. They speak of their secular occupations as bringing glory to God; I’ve never understood how that actually plays out into action.

      • 12kilroy Says:

        Sometimes things happen for a particular reason but have consequences or effects that are quite different – some good, some bad.

        In this case, the issue was the Protestant – specifically Calvinist / Reformed view of Catholic practice (which may or may not have reflected actually Roman Catholic theology. Prior to the Reformation, people were viewed as either secular or religious depending on what they did – someone who became a priest or took religious orders was regarded as having a calling – that was higher than that of others. For many Protestants, this amounted to a two-tiered Christianity. There were the normal, every day Christians, then their were the religious – better – Christians. Protestants hated that concept. Because they emphasized God’s role in salvation – grace and sovereignty – and minimized the role of individuals (our contribution to salvation), they tended toward a kind of egalitarianism, at least in terms of religion. Thus, a person could be called into a “secular” or “sacred” role with equal validity and virtue.

        What was important for them was that whatever your role, you did what you did with all you heart – as to the Lord. People believed they were called to specific roles, by temperament, by personality, by talents, by circumstances, and by God’s leading. These roles were essentially equal, but how one performed them became all important. It creates a great emphasis on the importance, value, and dignity of all work.

        What Weber does that is so to demonstrate how this combines with the habits encouraged within those religious frameworks of living. They worked, but they weren’t doing this solely to acquire wealth. They event went so far as to reject many of the trappings of luxury. The result, of course, was that this sort of frugal living combined with an emphasis on work would tend over time to increase wealth – especially from one generation to the next.

        • I can see how the reformation would represent a shift from medieval religious hierarchy to equality among the “body of Christ.” More like the original church I imagine. That would explain the more communal aspects of later denominations like the Quakers.

          Weber pulls it off well. He spends pages on historical references to how this idea developed and played out in action, and then his conclusion is both backed up and already intuitive to experience.

          I’d like to read more about the reformation and the differences between denominations.

      • 12kilroy Says:

        The thing you said that intrigued me so much was that they were attempting to succeed in their ‘calling’ to prove to themselves that they were among the elect. When the entire process is in God’s hands, not man’s, there exists a particle of uncertainty about one’s own ‘status’. I don’t think this is at all a necessary derivation of Reformed doctrine, but it does tend to happen.

        It seems to me that if I can work to prove to myself that I am ‘saved’, that is not so different from working to save myself. At least in practice – the effect is the same as the effect the Reformation really was opposing.

        • Weber notes that in The Protestant Ethic. The theological implication in Calvinism, he says, was that man could do nothing to assure himself eternal life. But with the birth of the idea that, although you couldn’t do anything to get salvation, you could observe “signs” that you were among the elect, there was simultaneously a contrary psychological implication: people were effectively working to earn by works their own redemption.

      • 12kilroy Says:

        I apologize for the long response – but I find the idea a little fascinating.

        As to your specific question, I think how it plays out is this. The New Testament advises Christians to do whatever they do as if they were doing it for the Lord. In Reformed thought there was an emphasis on the fact that what one does as a Christian reflects on Christ. Their use of “the city on a hill cannot be hidden” idea reflects how they viewed things. So if a Christian does a shoddy job at something, and it is known that she is a Christian, then Christ is made to look bad. [This, at least, is self-evidently true – as we see it applied widely.] On the other hand, if she is known for doing a great job at something, that too reflects on Christianity and not just her.

        It is more complicated than that, I think, but that is the short form. Basically, anything a person does that is not on its face immoral can be an opportunity to bring glory to God.

        Today, without thinking, people use the same language. What they mean is that they have a sense of calling – that God wants them in a certain occupation or to do a certain thing, and that this is an opportunity to bring glory to God.

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