Sociology 250

February 7-10, 2003


Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism


Numbered quotes from Weber are from “Max Weber on Social Action and Protestant Ethic.”


1. Background.  


Weber had been studying the role of the serfs and the day labourers (who were no longer serfs) in northeastern Germany where feudal estates still survived in Weber's day. Weber found that often serfs would do everything they could to rid themselves of their status as serfs, in order to obtain freedom.  This freedom was mostly illusory, because this free status often led to poverty.  By freeing themselves from serfdom or the estates, the peasants generally became wage labourers, their income and security often declined, and life became more uncertain. 


Weber argued that the concept of freedom was an important aspect of the serfs’ desires and decisions.  This was not a simple influence of the idea of freedom in the abstract, but emerged in a specific social and economic context, that of peasants on German estates when feudal forms were disappearing and market influences were being felt.  That is, there was a clash between ideas of “deference and patronage on the one hand, and an attitude of economic individualism on the other.”  (Giddens, p. 124)   Weber argued that sociologists should “examine the possible bearing of deep-rooted social and economic changes upon the nature of value held by the members of a given stratum or society.”  (Giddens, p. 123).  Weber considered himself as social reformer, who was attempting to understand how change occurs.


Following this study, Weber became interested again in the role played by religion.  He had studied this earlier, and thought that this might help explain some of the processes of  social change.  In 1904 and 1905, Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as two essays.  These were later collected together (1919), and a new introduction published by Weber.  This is the form in which the book is currently published.  Giddens (pp. 131-2) notes that in writing these essays, Weber was trying to counter naive historical materialism (of some Marxist writers), whereby Calvinism is considered as simply a reflection of economic conditions.  Weber argued that it was not possible to construct a single comprehensive model of the origins of capitalism, but looked on these essays as providing insight into factors associated with the development of the capitalism system of organization.


This work was also part of Weber's studies of other world religions – examining and analyzing “divergent modes of the rationalisation of culture, and as attempts to trace out the significance of such divergencies for socioeconomic development.”  (Giddens “Introduction,”  p. 5).  Each of the other religions was associated with a way of life that made dynamic economic activity unlikely to develop.  For example, Hinduism and Confucianism “set as an ideal the harmonious adjustment of the individual to the established order of things.”  (Giddens, “Introduction,” p. 6).  This attitude and behaviour was scarcely inducive of the type of activity that would lead to economic expansion.  Adams and Sydie note that Weber was also interested in explaining how the rationalization that developed with capitalism resulted in disenchantment and loss of meaning (Adams and Sydie, p. 178).   Some of these trends toward rationalization and an “iron cage” that limited freedom had their origins in religion, specifically Protestant religions, where meaning, values, and beliefs were strong.   Weber attempted to explain this paradox.


2. Introduction. 


Weber asks why certain developments occurred in Western civilization which did not occur elsewhere, but which had universal significance, that is these developments affected much of the rest of the world.  He points out that science in India was well developed, but the method of experimentation was not used.  In non-Western societies, historical scholarship existed, but it was not systematic.  Western law, or rational jurisprudence, was Roman in origin.  Weber even considered western music to have become rational.  The western state developed a written constitution, trained officials, and an administration bound to rational rules.


3. Definition of Capitalism. 


The subject of Weber's investigation is capitalism, and Weber defines this as more than just an impulse to acquisition, because even this impulse exists among physicians, noblemen, soldiers, gamblers, etc. (Protestant, p. 17).  See quote 6.  For Weber, capitalism is more likely to “be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.  But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.” (Protestant, p. 17).


This definition of capitalism represents an ideal type for Weber, that is, a concept which is “never discovered in this specific form” (Giddens, p. 141) in reality, but is an abstraction and combination of a number of observed features.  As one studies history and society, it is necessary to construct “concepts which are specifically delineated for that purpose.” (Giddens, p. 141)   History demonstrates various patterns, in this case, rational and continuous accumulation.  This occurs at many times and places, among different types of people, but is most fully developed in modern western society.  Weber’s ideal types are in some sense similar to concepts such as the division of labour and organic solidarity of Durkheim, or Marx’s surplus value and labour power.


Compared with Marx, Weber both broadens and narrows the definition of capitalism.  He considers all forms of money making through trade and exchange to represent capitalist activity, while Marx tended to define capitalism as a mode of production or fully developed system of capital accumulation.  At the same time, Weber narrows the definition of capitalism, identifying it with peaceful free exchange, so that acquisition by force, e.g. piracy, is not part of capitalism.  For Weber, rationality in the form of using balances, and the development of a monetary system, with measurement in money, is part of this.  Rational, capitalistic acquisition is the systematic use of goods and services so that the balance at the end exceeds the capital originally invested.  This method has existed since Antiquity, but to be properly carried out, must be highly developed, requires the use of money, and methods like double entry bookkeeping.  For Weber, Marx's primitive accumulation of capital (dispossession of the peasantry and concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a few) was not an essential part of capitalism, but an expression of non capitalistic forms, perhaps even detracting from, rather than assisting in, the development of capitalism.


For Weber, a rational or systematic approach to economic activity means that that economic actors consider which of the several different possible courses of action they will take.  Each course of action has consequences, either positive or negative, and decisions concerning action are not made on the basis of tradition, religion, or by invoking magical powers.  Rather, in a rational capitalism, actors are problem solvers and calculate balances of gains and losses so that action yields the greatest expansion in money.  This is efficient, producing the greatest possible balance at the end, the process has a beginning (investment) and an end (return), is not chance or haphazard, and is coherent and considered.  Weber argues that the west is the only place where this rational type of capitalism developed on any scale.


4. Institutional Bases for Capitalism


Weber argues that there are many institutional developments that are necessary in order for capitalism to emerge (Adams and Sydie, p. 178).  These include (i) the development of the Western city, with a trading structure independent of the surrounding rural areas; (ii) separation of the productive enterprise from the household; (iii) Western law, including the separation of corporate and personal property; (iv) the nation state, with a bureaucracy that could take care of necessary state activities; an organized territory under unified control of a single ruler or government, so that there was a unified framework within which commerce and capitalism could develop; (v) double entry bookkeeping, allowing business to keep track of all items and determine a balance; allowing rational calculation of all the inflows and outflows, leading to an analysis of where the profit or loss occurs, and what is the source of profit;  (vi) “the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labour.” (Protestant, p. 21).


Weber does not spend much time analyzing these institutional prerequisites for capitalism, considering these as given, and established by earlier analysts.  In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber was primarily concerned with the influence of ideas, most specifically religious ideas, in the development of capitalism.


While Weber considers the capitalistic labour market to be important for the development of capitalism and has profound structural consequences for society, he provides little analysis of this in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  In quote 7 he notes:   “Exact calculation – the basis of everything else – is only possible on the basis of free labour.” (Protestant, p. 22)   Giddens notes that “only in the West, and in relatively recent times, has capitalistic activity become associated with the rational organisation of formally free labour.  By ‘rational organisation’ of labour here Weber means its routinised, calculated administration within continuously functioning enterprises.  ....    a disciplined labour force, and the regularised investment of capital.”   (Giddens, “Introduction,” p. 3).


Weber is attempting to understand how these became highly developed in Western societies and what was it about Western society that led to the “ability and disposition of men to adopt certain types of practical rational conduct.”  (Protestant, p. 26).   In previous societies, “magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas of duty based upon them, have the past always been among the most important influences on conduct.”  (Protestant, p. 27).   These earlier forces may have blocked the development of the capitalist spirit.  In quote 8, Weber states that the book is an attempt to show “the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic spirit, or the ethos of an economic system.  In this case we are dealing with the connection of the spirit of modern economic life with the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism.” (Protestant, p. 27)


Note on Ascetic.  The word ascetic refers to self denial or self discipline, perhaps abstinence, austerity, or religious self denial.  This term was used to refer to the monk or hermit in Greek, and came to be used for the monks in medieval society, who devoted themselves to God, denying bodily and worldly pleasures.  For Weber, the ascetic tradition, idea, and practice had a long and important history in Western society.


Weber argues that the asceticism of Protestantism had different implications than what it did in earlier societies and the middle ages.  Unlike the religious asceticism of earlier periods, Protestantism was a worldly asceticism, in that “the highest form of moral obligation of the individual is to fulfil his duty in worldly affairs. This project religious behaviour into the day-to-day world, and stands in contrast to the Catholic ideal of the monastic life, whose object is to transcend the demands of mundane existence.” (Giddens, “Introduction,” p. 4).


5. The spirit of capitalism


Weber defines that the Protestant ethic is the combination of dedication to disciplined work and acquisition, along with a life of denial of pleasure and spontaneity in enjoyment of life.  In words similar to those of Marx, he regards this as a reversal of the normal human condition (quote 9):


the summum bonum of this ethic, the strict earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, ... is thought of ... purely as an end in itself, ... . Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view, is evidently as definitely a leading principle of capitalism as it is foreign to all peoples not under capitalistic influence. At the same time it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.   (Protestant, p. 53).


Weber argues that this set of motives is not natural in any sense, and people fight against adopting this set of motives:


This is an example of what is meant by traditionalism. A man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. (Protestant, p. 60)


Weber notes that industry and commerce existed for many centuries using traditional methods, with traditional ways of life and methods predominating.  These methods of conducting activities began to change.  Suddenly, increased supervision over the activities of labour were undertaken by employers, a shift to expansion of output on the basis of lower prices took place and, in general, the leisurely ways of conducting business gave way to the competitive struggle.


“And, what is most important in this connection, it was not generally in such cases a stream of new money invested in the industry which brought about this revolution ... but the new spirit, the spirit of modern capitalism, had set to work.” (Protestant, p. 68).


This is the crucial development, the spirit of capitalism, “the rational pursuit of gain” (Adams and Sydie, p. 178) began to be instilled in the minds of business people and entrepreneurs.  While this began to alter the manner in which productive activity was carried out, Weber was primarily concerned with the origin of this spirit.  He argues that it was more than the change in economic and social structures that caused this.  Rather, thinking, acting, and behaving also changed, requiring a change in traditional methods and manners of thinking and operating.


Once this spirit and capitalism became established, this spirit and manner of operation were imposed on others.  Competition forced other business people to behave and operate in much the same manner as those who applied this spirit most dutifully.  Historically, capitalist expansion, imperialism, and desire to overcome economic backwardness have created this spirit through much of the world.   For Weber, the crucial issue was the origin of this capitalistic spirit.  Weber finds the answer in Calvinism and the Protestant ethic.  Note that Weber is not interested in all the theological teachings of these different religions.  Rather, it is the question of the religious beliefs which led to psychological sanctions, where these “gave a direction to  practical conduct and held the individual to it.” (Protestant, p. 97).


6. The Calling


Weber argues that the Reformation was not the result of historical necessity (as Marx argued), and the capitalistic spirit not merely the result of the Reformation and its effects.  Rather, Weber regards the Reformation as emerging independently of economic factors but examines the ways that ideas from the Reformation are connected with the capitalistic spirit. 


Weber introduces the concept of the calling “a religious task set by God” (quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 179) is absent from antiquity, other religions, or Roman Catholicism.  The calling is a product of the Reformation, and is a Protestant notion.  The idea of the calling is that the individual must fulfil the obligations of his or her position in the world in order to be acceptable by God.  Unlike the monk, whose duty was to be otherworldly, denying the self and the world, the fulfilment of one's duty in worldly affairs was the highest form that the moral activity of individuals could take.


While this concept was first developed by Martin Luther (1483-1546), Luther was not all that friendly to capitalism or the capitalistic spirit, and the traditional view came to dominate Luther's teachings.  In contrast, the teachings of Calvin, Wesley and others were also concerned with the salvation of the soul, but these teachings had consequences that were unforeseen.


Weber argues that for reformers such as Calvin, the Puritan sects, and for men like Menno, George Fox, and Wesley (quote 10):


They were not founders of societies for ethical culture nor the proponents of humanitarian projects for social reform or cultural ideals.  The salvation of the soul alone was the centre of their life and work.  Their ethical ideals and the practical results of their doctrines were all based on that alone, as were the consequences of purely religious motives.  We shall thus have to admit that the cultural consequences of the Reformation were to a great extent, ... unforeseen and even unwished-for results of the labours of their reformers.  They were often far removed from or even in contradiction to all that they themselves thought to attain.  (Protestant, p. 90).


It was in the teachings of John Calvin and the Calvinists that Weber saw the clearest expression of the calling in a manner that had connections to the development of the capitalistic spirit.





7. Calvinism


The teachings of John Calvin (French and Swiss, 1509-1564), and the churches in the Reformed tradition form the main group of Calvinists.  The best known groups are the Huguenots of France, the Calvinists of Geneva, the Reformed churches of Holland, the Puritans of England and New England, and the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and North America.


The complete set of Calvin's doctrines, and how these created the personality type that was so important to Weber, cannot be discussed in detail here.  However, a few aspects of Weber’s analysis of Calvinist theology and practice give one an idea of how Weber connected these with worldly asceticism and capitalist accumulation.


Calvinism has several major doctrines.  It views grace as irresistible, has a rigid doctrine of predestination, and originally had a theocratic view of the state.  Calvinist doctrines look on God’s will as sovereign, and church should not be subject to the state (although it did not frown on a church dominated society).  The doctrine of predestination is especially important, “stressing the absolute sovereignty of God’s will, held that only those whom God specifically elects are saved, that this election is irresistible, and that man can do nothing to effect this salvation.”  (Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 428).


Weber notes that Calvin's interest was solely in God, and people exist only for the sake of God.  Only a few are chosen and the rest are damned.  Human merit or guilt plays no role in whether or not one is elect.  This doctrine produced “unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual.” (Protestant, p. 104).  The individual Calvinist's connection with God was “carried on in deep spiritual isolation.” (Protestant, p. 107) e.g. Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. Weber notes that this is not the spirit of enlightenment, but is a pessimistically disillusioned type of individualism.


No one could save the individual, no priest, not the Church, no sacraments.  “This, the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments ... was what formed the absolutely decisive difference from Catholicism.” (Protestant, p. 105).  Weber regards this as the logical conclusion of the elimination of magic, that is, a rational development in religion.


For Calvin, people are on earth only to glorify God.  The duty of the Christian was to show God’s glory in a calling.  This meant doing one’s daily tasks, and this often mean fulfilling the job in a rational organization.  Quote 11 on Calvinism:


The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. ...  Brotherly love, ... is expressed in the first place in the fulfilment of the daily tasks given. ... This makes labour in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by him. (Protestant, pp. 108-9).


The Calvinist Christian was concerned with the question of whether he or she was one of the elect.  Since this caused suffering on the part of the individual, two forms of pastoral advice were given.  See quote 12 on predestination.  First, it was “an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil, since lack of self confidence is the result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace. ... a duty to attain certainty of one's own election and justification in the daily struggle of life.” (Protestant, p. 111).  Second, “in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means.  It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace.” (Protestant, p. 112).  This contrasts with Lutheranism, whereby God promises grace to those who trust in God.


Faith was thus identified with the type of Christian conduct which glorifies God.  Works were not a means of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation.  “In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves.” (Protestant, p. 115).  But this is not done through occasional good works, or a gradual accumulation of points toward salvation, “but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned.” (Protestant, p. 115).  This means that the Christian must have a life of good works, there is no room for the “very human Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin.” (Protestant, p. 117).  This resulted in a consistent method for daily life, and the Methodists also fit this pattern.


8. Effect of Worldly Asceticism


Weber notes that in the medieval world, asceticism drove the individual farther and farther from everyday life.  With the Reformation, every Christian had to become a monk in everyday life, and through the whole life.  To this, Calvinism added  (See quote 13):


the idea of the necessity of proving one's faith in worldly activity.  Therein it gave broader groups of religiously inclined people a positive incentive to asceticism.  By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, it substituted for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world. (Protestant, p. 121).


Weber goes on to discuss other Protestant movements – Methodism, Pietism and Anabaptism. Several common elements stand out.  (i) State of grace marks off the possessor from the degradation of the flesh and the world.  (ii) This state could not be ensured by magical sacraments, the relief of confession, or individual good works.  (iii) This needed proof in individual behaviour to supervise the person's own state of conduct and have asceticism.  (iv) It was necessary to have rational planning of the whole of one's life, in accordance with God's will, and this was required of everyone (not just saints). Christian asceticism led to freeing the world, now it went into the market place of life and undertook to penetrate daily routine.


In the last chapter of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber reviews the doctrines of the Puritans.  In addition to the points made earlier, some of the Puritan writers also comment on the type of work that ordinary people should carry out.  Weber comments that in the view of the Puritan writers, “irregular work, which the ordinary labourer is often forced to accept, is often unavoidable, but always an unwelcome state of transition. A man without a calling thus lacks the systematic, methodical character which is ... demanded by worldly asceticism.” (Protestant, p. 161).  For the Puritan God demands “rational labour in a calling.” (Protestant, p. 162).


Weber then connects this with the division of labour which emerged and expanded as industrial capitalism developed. The profit-making of the businessman justified his activities, and the fixed calling the work of the worker in a highly developed division of labour.


With respect to wealth, the attitude was one of responsibility for that wealth, and responsibility toward possessions, “for holding them undiminished for the glory of God and increasing them by restless effort.” (Protestant, p. 170).  Consumption, especially of luxuries, was to be restricted.  Thus the acquisition of wealth was not restricted, but the rational expansion of wealth was tolerated or encouraged, as willed by God.  What was discouraged was the irrational use of wealth.  Together these teachings acted to assist the accumulation of capital by encouraging the ascetic compulsion to save.


9. Summary of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 


Weber's approach connects the emergence of some Protestant religions with the psychological changes necessary to allow for the development of the spirit of capitalism. The Protestant idea of a calling, with worldly asceticism  is an independent force, one which was not created by the change in institutions and structures (e.g. money, trade, commerce, etc.) but emerged entirely separately as an unintended consequence of the Reformation.  These new ways of thinking and acting undoubtedly played a role in changing the view of people who became capitalists and workers.  How important this was as a factor in the development of capitalism, compared to the changes in the institutions and structures cannot really be determined.  However, since Weber's view of the inner motives for the capitalistic spirit are connected closely with the nature of capitalism, as Weber views it, these religious factors must have exercised considerable influence.


The influence of ideas in history, the method of ideal types, causal pluralism and probability, and the connection of the study of history and sociology can all be seen in an examination of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism from the viewpoint of Weber's methodology.  In addition, his view concerning the rational nature of capitalism, and the factors important in developing this, can also be seen.




10. Some Criticisms of Weber's Approach


a. Narrow concepts.  The concepts used by Weber are very narrowly defined.  Capitalism itself is a different concept than what Marx used, and the capitalistic spirit is a fairly limited concept.  The notion of rationality seems to play a much greater role in Weber's writings, to the extent that anything he regards as irrational is not capitalism.  This defines away many of the characteristics of capitalism.


b. Catholicism and capitalism. With respect to religion, some have argued that Catholicism, especially in the period before the Reformation, was not all that inhibiting toward capitalistic activity. As evidence, it can be noted that many of the early capitalist developments occurred in the Italian city states, and these were Catholic areas.  In addition, many of the Protestant groups do not seem to fit Weber's model.  The Calvinists and Puritans are really the only two groups who fit the model closely, although the Methodists also fit the pattern to some extent.  However, the other groups either do not fit, or their doctrines may be misinterpreted by Weber, e.g. the Anabaptists, with their more communistic views.


c. Empirical evidence.  Is Weber's empirical evidence correct?  For New England, parts of England and Scotland, Holland and Geneva, Weber may be in large parts correct.  However, other areas of Catholic dominance also achieved considerable early capitalist successes, for example, parts of Germany, France, and Italy.


d. Direction of causation.  Which direction does the causal connection go?  Weber continually asserts that the religious doctrines were separated from the economic aspects, but does not really disprove the Marxist view that the changes in religion occurred because of economic necessities.  The new religions probably did develop on the basis of spiritual considerations only, but they did not remain spiritual only for very long.  Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, and many others were heavily involved in political activities and pronouncements.  The interests of the bourgeois class may have acted to help encourage the development of the Calvinist religious views and encouraged their widespread influence.




Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge, 2001

Giddens, Anthony and David Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict:  Classical and Contemporary Debates, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982).  HT675 C55 1982


Last edited February 7, 2003


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