The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

From Academic Kids

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a book written by Maximilian Weber, a German economist and sociologist in 1904 and 1905 that began as a series of essays. The original edition was in German and was entitled: Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus. An English translation was made in 1930 and several editions have been released.

Weber wrote that capitalism evolved when protestant ethic influenced large number of people to create their own enterprises and engage in trade and gathering of wealth. In other words, protestand ethic was a force behind a an unplanned and uncoordinated mass action that led to the development of capitalism.

Cover of one of the many editions of Weber's work.
Cover of one of the many editions of Weber's work.

Book contents

It is argued that the book should not be viewed as a detailed study of Protestantism but rather as an introduction into Weber's later works, especially his studies of interaction between various religious ideas and economics.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber puts forward the thesis that Puritan ethics and ideas had influenced the development of capitalism. However, religious devotion was usually accompanied by rejection of worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addresses this apparent paradox in the book.

He defines spirit of capitalism as the ideas and habits that favour the rational pursuit of economic gain. Weber points out that such a spirit is not limited to Western culture if one considers it as the attitude of individuals, but that such individuals — heroic entrepreneurs, as he calls them — could not by themselves establish a new economic order (capitalism). The most common tendencies were the greed for profit with minimum effort and the idea that work was a curse and burden to be avoided especially when it exceeded what was enough for modest life. As he wrote in his essays:

In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of the capitalism… could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to the whole groups of man.

After defining the 'spirit of capitalism', Weber argues that that there are many reasons to find its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation. Many observers like William Petty, Montesquieu, Henry Thomas Buckle, John Keats, and others have commented on the affinity between Protestantism and the development of commercialism.

Weber shows that certain types of Protestantism favoured rational pursuit of economic gain and that worldly activities had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct — the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain.

Weber traced the origins of the Protestant ethic to the Reformation. In his opinion, under the Roman Catholic Church an individual could be assured of salvation by belief in the church's sacraments and the authority of its hierarchy. However, the Reformation had effectively removed such assurances for the average person, though Weber conceded that a "religious genius" such as Martin Luther might be able to retain such assurances.

In the absence of such assurances from religious authority, Weber argued that Protestants began to look for other "signs" that they were saved. Worldly success become one measure of salvation. Anticipating Adam Smith (but using a very different argument), Luther had made an early endorsement of the division of labor that was beginning to develop in Europe. Therefore, according to Weber's reading of Luther, a "vocation" from God was no longer limited to the clergy or church, but applied to any occupation or trade.

However, Weber saw the fulfillment of the Protestant ethic not in Lutheranism, which he dismissed as a rather servile religion, but in Calvinistic forms of Christianity.

By the time he wrote this essay, Weber believed that the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had largely gone from society. In particular, he cited the writing of Benjamin Franklin, which emphasized frugality, hard work and thrift, but were mostly free of spiritual content.

Weber also attributed the success of mass production partly to the Protestant ethic. Only after expensive luxuries were disdained could individuals accept the uniform products, such as clothes and furniture, that industrialization offered.

It should be noted that Weber maintained that while Puritan religious ideas had had a major influence on the development of economic order in Europe and United States, they were not the only factor (others included the rationalism in scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration and economic enterprise). In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the emancipation from magic, that disenchantment of the world that he regarded as the distinguishing peculiarity of Western culture.

Weber stated in the last of the endnotes that he abandoned research into Protestantism because his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, a professional theologian, had initiated work on the book The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Sects. Another reason for Weber's decision was that that essay had provided the perspective for a broad comparison of religion and society, which he continued in his later works (study of religion in China, India, Judaism).

This book is also Weber's first brush with the concept of rationalization. His idea of modern capitalism as growing out of the religious pursuit of wealth meant a change to a rational means of existence, wealth. At some point this rational ends outgrew and became unreliant on the underlying religious movement behind it, leaving only rational capitalism. In essence then, Weber's "Spirit of Capitalism" is effectively and more broadly a Spirit of Rationalization.

The essay can also be interpreted as one of Weber's criticisms of Karl Marx and his theories. While Marx held, generally speaking, that all human institutions - including religion - were based on economic foundations, The Protestant Ethic turns this theory on its head by implying that a religious movement fostered capitalism, not the other way around.

Table of content

Part 1. The Problem

I. Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification
Occupation; Religious Regulation; Work Ethic; Economic Rationalism; Protestantism vs. Catholicism; Business Spirit; Capitalist Counties; Our Focus.
II. The Spirit of Capitalism
Historical Individuality; Benjamin Franklin; Capitalist Ethos; Modern vs. Pre-modern Capitalism; Rationalism vs. Traditionalism; Ethos and Religious Idea; Idea of Calling.
III. Luther's Conception of the Calling, Task of the Investigation.
Origin of Calling; Medieval View; Luther's Traditionalism and Mysticism; Calvinism and Puritanism; Force of History.

Part 2. The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism

IV. The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism
History of Ascetic Protestantism
A. Calvinism
Predestination; Elimination of Magic; Rationalization of the World; Certainty of Salvation; Lutheranism vs. Calvinims; Catholicism vs. Calvinism; Monasticism vs. Puritanism; Methodical Ethic; Idea of Proof.
B. Pietism
Emotionalism; Spener; Francke; Zinzendorf; German Pietism.
C. Methodism
D. The Puritan Sects
Baptist and Quaker; Sect Principle; Inner Worldly Asceticism; Transformation of the World.
V. Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism
Richard Baxter; Meaning of Work; Justification of Profit; Jewish vs. Puritan Capitalism; Puritanism and Culture; Saving and Capital; Paradox of Asceticism and Rich; Serving Both Worlds; Citizenry Capitalistic Ethic; Iron Cage of Capitalism.

See also

Related books

Ephraim Fischoff - The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Social Research, Vol.XI, 1944, pp.62-68

External links

de:Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus ja:プロテスタンティズムの倫理と資本主義の精神 pt:A tica protestante e o esprito do capitalismo


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