Sociology 318

November 6 – 8, 2002

Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – section 1

1. Background

Weber’s early writings concerned technical analyses of legal issues in medieval trading enterprises and Roman land tenure. Giddens notes that these are rather obscure in their substantive content but "manifest a concern with … the nature of capitalist enterprise, and the specific characteristics of western European capitalism" as well as "the complicated nature of the relationship between economic structures and other aspects of social organization" (Giddens, pp. 120-1). While Weber may have been sympathetic to some aspects of the Marxist approach to the study of society and history, he rejected a crude economic materialist approach. In writings after this, Weber examined stock exchanges, arguing that they were means by which "the rational conduct of the market" can be extended (Giddens, p. 122).

In 1892 Weber published a study on agricultural labour in eastern Germany. In this work he examined the role of serfs and day labourers (who were no longer serfs) in northeastern Germany where feudal estates still survived. 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 and tenuous or temporary employment. 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. For Weber, "this cannot be explained in sheerly economic terms, but is partly a result of a question for personal ‘freedom’ from the patriarchal ‘relationship of personal dependence’" (Giddens, p. 123).

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 values 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. xiv). 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 in Weber, p. xv). 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 (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. "Author’s 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 argues that

This part of the "Introduction" can be considered in various ways. At one level, Weber’s statements can be considered ethnocentric, typical of the view of western Europeans of the time – that is, considering Europe as modern, rational, and progressive while other regions of the world were traditional and backward. Another approach is to take Weber’s analysis as a statement of fact – that is, that certain developments occurred in Europe and while the seeds or representations of these are found in other societies, these did not develop in the same manner as in other regions of the world. In any case, Weber argues that the developments that occurred in the west were universal in their effects, and it is difficult to argue against this.

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. (Weber, p. xxxi). Weber argues

Capitalism may even 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. (Weber, p. xxxi-ii).

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.

Weber both broadens and narrows Marx’s definition of capitalism. Weber 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 – "(formally) peaceful chances of profit" (Weber, p. xxxii) – so that acquisition by force, e.g. piracy, is not part of capitalism. Weber argues that "acquisition by force (formally and actually) follows its on particular laws" (Weber, p. xxxii). In this approach, 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, rationality involves "calculation in terms of capital," "systematic utilization of goods or personal services," and balances where the result is a greater sum than at the beginning (Weber, p. xxxii). That is, 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. Weber notes that "only gradually did the activities of even the large merchants acquire an inner cohesion" (Weber, p. xxxiii).

For Weber, a rational or systematic approach to economic activity means 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

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, at a crucial point 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. He notes: "Exact calculation – the basis of everything else – is only possible on the basis of free labour." (Protestant, p. xxxvi) Giddens notes,

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. xxxvi).

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." (Weber, p.xxxix). 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." (Weber, p. xxxix). These earlier forces may have blocked the development of the capitalist spirit. 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." (Weber, p. xxxix)

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. xii).

Weber’s argument is that, at a crucial time and place in western society, this ethic of asceticism and devoted attention to activity in one’s calling in daily life was an important feature in changing people’s approach to economic activity. Diligence in work and use of money signified a change from the earlier, traditional, haphazard forms of enterprise and work, to a rational, calculated, systematic, and devoted attention to balances and careful management of money. The result of this was to assist in the creation of groups of people who devoted themselves to acquisition, but in a rational and self-disciplined manner, that is, to renewing and expanding their capital, rather than consuming it in the form of luxuries.

5. Religious affiliation and social stratification

Weber begins by asking why it is that owners, skilled labourers, and technical and commercial workers in enterprises that are "overwhelmingly Protestant" (Weber, p. 3). These are not related merely to national differences in relative proportions of Catholics and Protestants but this occurs both within and across countries, has continued over time, and has historical origins. Weber asks, "why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church?" (Weber, p. 4). He argues that the answer is not an easy one. While forms of behaviour that moved away from traditional economic practices and toward more capitalist forms might be related to development of secularism, this explanation does not work in this case. That is, when regions of Europe became Protestant, there was no less control by the church over people’s lives and actions – this was a substitution of one set of teachings for another and, if anything, ecclesiastical or church control was greater in Protestant than Catholic areas (Weber, p. 5).

Weber discusses various other aspects of differences between the two religious groups, arguing that the principal explanation of this difference must be sought in the permanent instrinsic character of their religious beliefs, and not only in their temporary external historico-political situations. (Weber, p. 7). For example, he argues that explanation is not in "more or less materialistic or at least anti-ascetic joy of living, but in its purely religious character" (p. 11).

The groups he focusses on are the Calvinists, Pietists, Quakers, and Mennonites. Weber observes that many great capitalists came from clergy families and, in many cases, "an extraordinary capitalistic business sesnse is combined in the same persons and groups with the most intensive forms of a piety which penetrates and dominates their whole lives" (Weber, p. 9). He also notes that Mennonites were tolerated in Prussia because of their industry, even "in spite of the absolute refusal to perform military service" (weber, p. 11).

6. The spirit of capitalism

Weber begins his discussions of the spirit of capitalism by quoting Benjamin Frankin (1706-1790). He treats these sayings of Franklin as expressions of the "duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself." But this is not just a way of increasing fortune or carrying on activities, "but a peculiar ethic" (Weber. p. 17). Franklin’s approach was utilitarian, with honesty, punctuality, industry, and frugality being virtues because they are useful to the individual and his or her pursuits. Weber argues that this ethos was lacking in capitalist enterprises in the ancient world, the middle ages, and in eastern countries. He even contrasts Franklin’s utilitarian approach with that of Jacob Fugger (1429-1525), the German merchant banker who is sometimes considered to be one of the first capitalists of the modern era. For Fugger, making money was daring and a personal inclination but "morally neutral" (Weber, p. 17), whereas it was a virtue for Franklin.

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:

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. (Weber, p. 18).

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. (Weber, p. 24)

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. That is, a more rational, considered, or calculated form of activity began to replace reliance on traditional wages, profits, methods of work, and business practices.

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. ( Weber, pp. 30-31).

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. And it is not merely individuals who are affected by this but "a way of life common to whole groups of men" (Weber, p. 20).

Weber observes that there was no shortage of greed, avarice, and unscrupulousness in money making in earlier times. But these were not representative of "the attitude of mind from which the specifically capitalistic spirit as a mas phenomenon is derived" (Weber, p. 22). In order to establish the new spirit, a struggle with traditional economic forms occurred. For example, piece-rates for work may undermine attempts to expand capital because workers may not wish to work more hours but quit work once they reach a target income (Weber, pp. 23-4). Similarly, attempts to keep wages low may prevent the development of more productive and efficient forms of labour, so that the habit of diligent and continous work in a calling may not develop among workers (Weber, p. 25). Another examples used by Weber is antagonism toward Methodist workmen, not so much because of their religion, but because of their diligent and methodical attitude toward work. Further, the adoption of the capitalistic spirit "was not generally peaceful"– there was often "a flood of mistrust, sometimes of hatred, above all of moral indignation." (Weber, p. 31) Perhaps this is Weber’s "primitive accumulation"!

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. In fact, in Massachusetts, where Franklin was born, "the spirit of capitalism was present before the capitalistic order" became established (Weber, p. 20). Here Weber directly attacks the materialist approach, arguing that it was not the change in form of economic activity that created the capitalist spirit but that it was this new ethic that led to new forms of conducting business.

Weber argues that when this spirit develops "it produces its own capital and monetary supplies as the means to its ends, but the reverse is not true" (Weber, p. 31). That is, an expansion of wealth does not ordinarily produce a capitalist spirit. As evidence, Weber cites Florence of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, where capitalism and finance were highly developed and much wealth was amassed. But there, the making of money and the attitudes that accompanied it "was considered ethically unjustifiable, or at best to be tolerated." In contrast, in Pennsylvania, the same attitudes and activities were "considered the essence of moral conduct, even commanded in the name of duty. To speak here of a reflection of material conditions in the ideal superstructure would be patent nonsense." (Weber, p. 36).

Further, the Reformation did not inevitably result from economic changes. That is, "historical circumstances … cannot be reduced to any economic law, and are not susceptible of economic explanation of any sort" (Weber, p. 49).

Once this spirit and capitalism became established, this spirit and manner of operation were imposed on others. Weber describes how the capitalistic economy of his time forced enterprises to adopt the same spirit and form of activity, and how this economic system "educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest" (Weber, p. 20). That is, competition forces 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, since the manner it later operates cannot be regarded as an explanation of its origins. Weber finds the answer in Calvinism and the Protestant ethic and 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." (Weber, p. 55).

Weber also argues that the development of rational methods more generally were not the source of the new spirit. As evidence he argues that rationalism develops at different rates in different parts of social life (Weber, p. 37). He considers it necessary to find the specific origin of the rationalism of the capitalist spirit. From this he turns to the calling.

7. 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 English "calling, a religious conception, that of a task set by God" (Weber, p. 39) is absent from civilized languages, antiquity, Catholicism, or German mysticism. Weber argues that the concept of the calling was a new idea, a product of the Reformation, and a Protestant notion. The concept of calling that was new involved "the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume" (Weber, p. 40). This gave "every-day worldly a religious significance" (Weber, p. 40) and the individual was to 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, obtaining salvation by denying self and the world, for Protestants fulfilment of one’s duty in worldly affairs was the highest form that the moral activity of individuals could take. In fact, Weber argues that Martin Luther (1483-1546) reversed the earlier Catholic approach. That is, Luther came to consider monks’ renunciation of the world as "selfishness, withdrawing from temporal obligations. In contrast, labour appears to him [Luther] as the outward expression of brotherly love" (Weber, p. 41). While Weber considers Luther’s claims poorly argued, "this moral justification of worldly activity was one of the most important results of the Reformation" (Weber, p. 41).

While the concept of calling was first developed by Luther, he was not all that friendly to capitalism or the capitalistic spirit, and a more traditional view of economic activity came to dominate Luther’s teachings – opposition to capital and profit-making and acceptance of one’s occupation and work "as a divine ordinance, to which he must adapt himself" (Weber, p. 44). Such a view was not conducive to a radical shift in approach to economic activity, rather it led to "obedience to authority and the acceptance of things as they were" (Weber, p. 45).

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 quotes Milton (p. 47), arguing that "this powerful expression of the Puritan’s serious attention to this world, his acceptance of his life in the world as a task" expresses a view different from Lutheranism or Catholicism.

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

They were not the 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. (Weber, p. 48).

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. That is, the teachings of these writers were not directed toward ethical culture, humanitarianism, social reform, or cultural ideals. But the unintended consequences of their teachings included spurring on the development of the capitalistic spirit.

8. Religious foundations of worldly asceticism

At the end of section I, Weber notes that the Reformation was not the only factor in creating the spirit of capitalism or capitalism itself, since there were capitalistic forms of organization prior to this. What Weber examines is whether "religious forces" contributed to "the qualitative ofrmation and the quantitative expansion of that spirit over the world" (Weber, p. 49).

Weber then begins the second section (chapter 4) with a discussion of the four forms of ascetic Protestantism – Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and Baptist sects.



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

Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971

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

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London, Routledge, 1992.

Last edited November 8, 2002

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