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

Dr. Dan Johnson

SOC285 Foundations of Sociological Thought

Historical, Biographical, and Intellectual Context

Weber lived from 1864 [1] to 1920. He died of a pneumonia. [2] Throughout this time period he lived in Germany. He was born in Erfurt, Thuringia [3] to parents who were different in their understanding of how to live. His mom was a Calvinist, frugal and ascetic in her minimal indulgence in luxuries, and his father was a statesman. [4] His father regularly spent time at bars, playing pool and drinking beer.

Weber excelled academically, though he didn’t fit well into the athletic segments of his school. There he wrote historical essays at age 12 and 15. He was an avid reader. Moving to college, Weber went to Heidelberg University [5] , where he studied law for two years. He spent time in fraternities, fencing and drinking, then he studied at Berlin and Goettingen, where he studied law even further, and eventually became a practitioner of law. [6]

In between his time at Heidelberg and his time studying in Berlin and Goettingen, he spent a year serving in the military. During this military time, he was located in Strasburg. [7] During his time in military service he continued to exercise his intellect. He wrote letters with his mother throughout his life, including this time in the military. [8] He was tired of the intellectual dullness of soldier life, and sought drink to numb his restless mind. He spent a few summers after this year in the military working again with the military.

He spent a few summers with his Protestant cousins, the Baumgartens, living with them and being influenced by them. [9] He would have conversations and spent time leisurely with these family members. He began to read much theology while in the company of the Baumgartens.

After graduating, Weber went on to work in Germany’s academic system, where he worked on a PhD in legal and economic history, which he earned in 1889 at age 25. [10] In 1896, age 31, he accepted a chair of the historical school at Heidelberg. [11]

He married Marianne Schnitger [12] in 1893 [13] at age 29, after his undergraduate education, after a few years in love with another woman faded. His wife, Marianne [14] , had similar intellectual passions as Weber, and as such they wrote letters to each other that were passionately admiring. Weber would wax eloquent praising her intellect [15] , and they would write back and forth sharing ideas. She remained faithful to him and finished his Economy and Society after his death in 1920.

Throughout his whole life he struggled with mental disease. At times this debilitated him, keeping him from his lecturing or researching. From 1892 through 1902 he did not work at all. [16] He did not lecture or publish. He worked with his wife to manage these problems, and he tried to keep his anxiety and depression away from the knowledge of the public. The climate at that time regarding mental illness was very harsh; he may have been more heavily doubted if his mental illness was widely known.

Throughout the course of The Protestant Ethic, Weber references Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832) [17] , who seems to have had a large impact on him. Goethe was a poet with philosophical ideas. He wrote Faust, a play about a character, a German mythical character who was a scholar that was dissatisfied with life. [18] He wanted unlimited knowledge and pleasure, so he exchanged his soul for what he desired. Faust was likely familiar to Weber. It is one of Goethe’s most famous works.

Some of his professors exemplified major influences on the scene, like August Meitzen, a “prominent political economist of the time”, who was involved in politics as well as academics. [19] He defended part of his habilitation against Theodor Mommsen. [20] Mommsen was an expert in Roman Law [21] , and Weber’s habilitation was on Roman law and agrarian history. Weber saw rationality in Roman law which he argued paved the way for modern law. [22]

Ernst Troeltsch, who became “one of Weber’s greatest friends and intellectual companions, and who for a time lived in the Weber household.” [23] He was fascinated by the modern revolution, especially its implications for Christianity. [24] Troeltsch was many disciplined. He had his hand in many disciplines, but the common thread that ran through each was history. In his understanding of modern times, he wrote that “historiography is practiced in a new intellectual context marked by [the] characteristic… [that] the modern conception of nature omits reference to metaphysics.” Furthermore, he “was constrained by a rigid nineteenth century understanding of scientific law in the sense of an inflexible principle that governs conditions and does not allow for exceptions.” [25] Troeltsch’s understanding of scientific law may have prevented him from considering some scientific laws, phenomena, or principles that would have fallen outside of his understanding of history.

During the time that Weber was writing the U.S. provided a major example of capitalism. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber references him as, or, the U.S. as intensely taking on the character of sport because of its competitive capitalistic nature.

Summary of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism flows through a few cycles. It begins with the way different religions end up giving ethical economic imperatives to its followers. This sets them in a specific stratum economically. There then is at the end a move to examining the connections between the religiously motivated group, the religiously motivated ethic and the work ethic that seeks to gain money for its own sake. Before that, Weber spends some time looking at Benjamin Franklin. Franklin provided an example of the spirit of capitalism, with his witty aphorisms. I’m going to walk through and briefly summarize each of these main points.

With the beginning, Weber looks at a few different religions, and the way that their beliefs connect to their economic ethical lives. The Hindu person may come back as a frog, or may leave this world forever. This can decrease their commitment to this world. The person who is Protestant may believe in the bodily resurrection back to this world, and thus work here has some value. Get to work! Is going to be a more common phrase among people who majorly hold Protestant views, like America (although it has already given a poor situation). These people will work harder in order to improve their conditions later, because their work here has a sign of faith.

However, once we move along, we find that Calvinism was a particular strand of Protestantism which had a much greater degree of effect. This is because one cannot be guaranteed of their salvation. If someone wants to know if they will be saved and be with God, the only way to find out is by death. This creates an anxiety and sense of loneliness in the individual. There are passages held on to by Calvinist that were written by St. Paul. The verse that exhorts believers to put their hands to work, and that no one who doesn’t work shall not eat. Those who don’t eat shant work. That’s a work ethic. And with a shunning of all indulgent pleasures, because you wouldn’t want to take a risk of whether or not you’re going to be saved. This is some of where the sense of drive comes from – the anxiety about not knowing whether or not one will be saved. Then, when a virtuous life (virtue being hard work and little indulgence), results in large economic sums, a person ends up making the association that those who are most virtuous have wealth, therefore wealth becomes a sign of approval by God. The key term Weber draws out to describe this is ascetic Protestantism.

Luther conceived the notion of calling. In this idea each person comes to a particular place, or finds themselves in a place where they “are called”, and it is to that station where they ought to stand and hold their ground. Working in that calling is helpful to God. Luther developed this notion in his first years as a reformer. Coming out of a monastery, he could contrast labor in the world with work in the monastery. He saw that the labor was a form of love to others. Where did the idea of contributing to the world come from? What about the idea that work in the world was valuable? And not just work in the mind. Also, where are Scriptural bases, interpretations? Where are other places ideas might come from? Luther drew the concept of calling from writings in the New Testament where Paul describes the coming return of Christ. This concept aided in people’s contentment to work in their job while they waited for his return. They didn’t need to move their jobs. As Luther moved out into the world, he became higher valuing of labor and physical work. This transformation likely occurred as he saw people working more and more, and then he came to appreciate the work.

Weber is interested in the action and results of a few major religious movements which have the protestant ascetic: Calvinism has this in that it leaves people wanting more, Methodism, Pietism, and “the sects growing out of the Baptist movement.” [26] He observes these things not by examining the content of the beliefs, but by examining the behavior that flows out of these religions. If he sees someone working hard and saving lots of money, that will be a sign of the Protestant ethic. The Protestant ethic values diligent labor. It is a sign of favor from God.

Calvinism produced a Protestant ethic by the doctrine of predestination. Calvinism has five major doctrines: TULIP. Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. [27] The unconditional election and limited atonement make for unknowable salvation. People do not know if they are saved or not when they’re Calvinists. Unless they’re John Calvin, he, being charismatic, did have assurance of salvation. How does Calvinism portray the Protestant ethic? Weber is most concerned with the “historical significance of the dogma”. [28] What consequences did this idea have on the development of historical events? The most significant aspect of this was the feeling of loneliness that it inculcated in the individual. Individuals were told even to trust no one else but God. These rules for conduct came from Puritan individuals who were Calvinists. This isolating factor would end up driving people to the extreme of working to please God. Somehow this ends up leading to a Protestant ethic. The sense of magic was eliminated from forms of life. Puritans did not play music at their funerals for the purpose of keeping out any sense of a belief in magic somehow creeping in –that is, attributing salvation as somehow earned or accessed through a ritual or practice. That was heresy and had to be avoided at all costs. What does the life of the Christian then look like? If it’s not signified by magical ritual, what does this life subsist of? It was required to evidence the change made by a gracious gift of salvation. People longed for assurance of salvation, but they could not find it in the actions of other people. Priests would not do. They did believe that a particular lifestyle evidenced transformative grace having been applied to that soul. So, the Puritans developed a regularized, routinized life. “By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, [Calvinism] 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.” [29] So there were then created a group of people who understood themselves as better than the rest of the world. These people were no longer a high group who detached themselves from the world, but now were a part of it.

Critical Reflection on Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

What Weber presents is logically sound. He concludes that what follows from a spirit of capitalism, rather, what a spirit of capitalism comes out of, is a protestant ethics. Certain beliefs end up changing behavior, and that behavior becomes a certain way. However, I’m going to state that it is illogical, what Weber is saying. It does not follow from the statement that someone believes God is with those who are wealthy, that then people will end up working in a way towards wealth. Simply because they believe God blesses people with wealth does not mean that their actions will follow, that they will end up living a diligent, hard-working and frugal life.

Marx would explain the development of the new work ethic of capitalism by pointing to the change in the relations between the producers and the consumers. What follows is the change of structure of society. It instead, that is, the fact that the protestant ethic came up at a time when Puritans were taking what Calvin said to an extreme, it follows that during that time there were other changes in the economic relations of the world.

Is Weber’s work empirically valid? Weber used sources of historical documents of beliefs and practices. So, he referenced the lack of singing that is present among Protestant Pietists, puritans, so that they would not conjure up any belief in the magical transmission of salvation. The sources he used were empirically valid. One can easily look at these historical documents and see that life was the way that Weber described, that is, if we have faith in the reliability of the documents. We can have faith in these though. There is not much reason for the authors of these documents to as a whole, as a group of authors, falsify this biographical information. There may be one author in the bunch that falsified, but here I’m going on Weber’s judgment that he used reliable documents.

Since this text has been written, we can see even more now that people have tended to become specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart. It can be seen in the subway tracks in the blank expressions of people on the subway cars. If they had more that they were living for, if they had spirit greater brightness would appear on their faces. But society as a whole has a pressure that it puts on people to move forward and be efficient with time. Corporate and business America have been major creators of these pressures as byproducts of their extreme pursuit of profit. They provide a strict closure on people. There is a push for these pressures to be removed. That push is led by Christians and others who are valuing rest, and recognizing that though the world has been made for us, it is not ours to save. But when the doctrine of assurance is preached, then we can see people settling into a less of a craze for capitalism and its competitive final ends.

Concerning the evidence presented by the writer, that Luther’s conception of calling affected change in history, Weber presents information about the change in Luther’s spirit, and the process of him reading the Bible to find this idea of calling, and then he places that on people. In Luther’s spirit there was a change. In this change he found new life. The piling of wealth people began to declare as a sign of God’s favor, I wonder if taking success as a sign of God’s favor corresponds with patterns in myself, sometimes unrecognized. Explain the buildup of wealth not with the asceticism that people are claiming, or, Weber is claiming must be attributed to him, but rather, explain it by saying that people simply had more money at this time. During the 1800s and the coming of the revolution in law and sexuality. People made more money and worked harder why? So that they could be close to other people. They wanted to live luxurious lives.

One place Weber falls short is declaring that by looking at church writings he can conclude the beliefs of people in the pews. He examines a theological text and uses that to make assertions about the populace. This is a problem because he does not know that population with expertise. People in the pews may not have believed all that they were taught, and especially not all that they believe, at least, if they read more than I did. People believe based on many factors today–preaching, family beliefs, not just based on the theologians’ writings. Though familiarity with those may have been more common back then, it is not as common now. And now people do not on a whole read texts and doctrines of the church, the Roman Catholic catechism for example. I wish that more people would do this. So, it does not follow to say that people on a whole believed what was written about in the theological texts of the time. If Weber would have demonstrated that there is a connection between those texts and what the preachers was preaching, then there could be a more convincing argument there, but to say that without this extra bit of historical background about how connected preachers were to the academic theological and even church writings is missing a detail that would help convince the reader of this aspect of reality he’s trying to state.

Marx would have disagreed with Weber’s idea that the conception of the idea of calling, and then the doctrine of predestination combined with that notion, would end up producing an intense economic ethic in people. Marx believed that life was organized not based on ideas, but that ideas flowed out of the way life was organized. So, with changing economic relations at the base of society, there would eventually be different ideas. So, here, the idea that the economic ethic that works and earns but does not spend, that that came out of an idea, rather than a set economic relation which people could interact with and experience? That’s a stretch. However, ideas can give people different experiences. People can experience life differently based on the ideas that they have. And an idea can come from things other than economic structures. What about in a conversation between two people in a library over a library book? Marx might say that the idea of that book, even though unfamiliar to the unlearned person, it still came out of the economic organization of that group.

[1] Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber 3

[2] Ibid. 23

[3] Ibid. 3

[5] Ibid. 6

[6] Ibid. 9

[7] Ibid. 7

[8] Ibid. 8

[10] Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber. 9

[11]   Ibid. 11.

[12] Ibid. 10

[13] Ibid. 10

[15] Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber

[16] Ibid. 13-14

[20] Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber, 10.

[23] Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber, 11.

[25] Ibid.

[26] 53.

[28] The Protestant Ethic. 58

[29] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, 74-75

I wrote this paper for a Gordon College sociology class, Foundations of Sociological Thought. You can find the syllabus below.