Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a study of the relationship between the ethics of ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism. Weber argues that the religious ideas of groups such as the Calvinists played a role in creating the capitalistic spirit. Weber first observes a correlation between being Protestant and being involved in business, and declares his intent to explore religion as a potential cause of the modern economic conditions. He argues that the modern spirit capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and pursuing profit as virtuous. Weber’s goal is to understand the source of this spirit.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a discussion of Weber’s various religious ideas and economics. Weber argues that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. While Weber was influenced by Karl Marx, he was not a Marxist and even criticizes aspects of Marxist theory in this book.
According to Weber, only in the West does valid science exist. Weber claims that empirical knowledge and observation that exists elsewhere lacks the rational, systematic, and specialized methodology that is present in the West. Weber argues that the same is true of capitalism—it exists in a sophisticated manner that has never before existed anywhere else in the world. When capitalism is defined as the pursuit of forever-renewable profit, capitalism can be said to be part of every civilization at any time in history. But it is in the West, Weber claims, that it has developed to an extraordinary degree. Weber sets out to understand what it is about the West that has made it so.
RELIGION AND ECONOMY
In analysing the relationship between the world’s religions and the economy, Weber developed a typology of the paths of salvation;
ASCETICISM is the first broad type of religiosity, and it combines an orientation toward action with the commitment of believers to denying themselves the pleasures of the world. Ascetic religions are divided into two subtypes;
- Otherworldly asceticism: involves a set of norms and values that command the followers not to work within the secular world and to fight against its temptations.
- Inner worldly asceticism: was of greater interest to Weber, because it encompasses Calvinism. Such a religion does not reject the world; instead, it actively urges its members to work within the world so that they can find salvation, or at least signs of it. The distinctive goal here is the strict, methodical control of the members’ patterns of life, thought, and action. Members are urged to reject everything unethical, aesthetic, or dependent on their emotional reactions to the secular world. Inner worldly ascetics are motivated to systematize their own conduct.
Whereas both types of asceticism involve some type of action and self-denial, MYSTICISM involves contemplation, emotion, and inaction. Weber subdivided mysticism in the same way as asceticism.
- World-rejecting mysticism: involves total flight from the world.
- Inner worldly mysticism: leads to contemplative efforts to understand the meaning of the world, but these efforts are doomed to failure, because the world is viewed as being beyond individual comprehension.
In any case, both types of mysticism and world-rejecting asceticism can be seen as idea systems that inhibit the development of capitalism and rationality. In contrast, inner worldly asceticism is the system of norms and values that contributed to the development of these phenomena in the West.
Weber found that under the influence of Protestant religions, especially Puritanism, individuals were religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation with as much enthusiasm as possible. In other words, hard work and finding success in one’s occupation were highly valued in societies influenced by Protestantism. A person living according to this worldview was therefore more likely to accumulate money. Further, the new religions, such as Calvinism, forbade wastefully using hard-earned money and labeled the purchase of luxuries as a sin. These religions also frowned upon donating money to the poor or to charity because it was seen as promoting beggary. Thus, a conservative, even stingy lifestyle, combined with a work ethic that encouraged people to earn money, resulted in large amounts of available money. The way these issues were resolved, Weber argued, was to invest the money—a move that gave a large boost to capitalism. In other words, capitalism evolved when the Protestant ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment.
In Weber’s view, the Protestant ethic was, therefore, the driving force behind the mass action that led to the development of capitalism. Importantly, even after religion became less important in society, these norms of hard work and frugality remained, and continued to encourage individuals to pursue material wealth.
Throughout his book, Weber emphasizes that his account is incomplete. He is not arguing that Protestantism caused the capitalistic spirit, but rather that it was one contributing factor. He also acknowledges that capitalism itself had an impact on the development of the religious ideas. At one level, this is a series of studies of the relationship between ideas (religious ideas) and the development of the spirit of capitalism and, ultimately, capitalism itself. At another level, it is a study of how the West developed a distinctively rational religious system (Calvinism) that played a key role in the rise of a rational economic system (capitalism).