Thursday, October 1, 2009

Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism By Max Weber


Max Weber is one of the most influential thinkers in the field of “Sociology of Religion”. Weber’s thought in the sociology of Religion extends to Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism etc.
Weber in this thesis links the spirit of modern capitalism to the rise of the Protestant faith. He does not attribute the rise of capitalism merely because of the rise of Protestantism but links the influence of Protestant ethics on the growth of capitalism.
Weber always knew that accumulation of wealth was not new to the civilization of man; he also knew that the spirit of capitalism existed much before its modern, western appearance. He traces it to other civilizations of antiquity such as the Chinese, Indian, Roman etc but the reason that he denies there was any rise in capitalism in a vast scope was because rationalism was alien to those civilizations. There was no organized logical way of building systems. He also acknowledges the fact that modern inventions such as the printing press was invented by the Chinese much before their European counterparts but it failed to make impact because they were alien to the Greek way of thought that emphasized on empirical, systematic accumulation of knowledge. He also acknowledges that Machiavellian ideas were prevalent in ancient India but the reason it had minimal impact was due the fact that it did not have any empirical evidence of success. This can be also applied to other fields such as ancient medicine, concept of universities in Islam and China. According to Weber, Western civilization is the most successful because of the scientific mathematical and logical approach towards knowledge. Knowledge is tested in stringent scientific laboratories and only appropriate knowledge was applied. This was not so for other civilizations.
With this background in mind, Weber links Protestant doctrines especially those of effectual calling of Luther, double predestination of John Calvin, and the Puritan asceticism into the growth of modern capitalism. He also has an interesting approach to Benjamin Franklins Calvinistic upbringing. He believes that Catholicism did not have any great impact on Capitalism because it was more traditional religion and preserved the antiquity of the past. Whereas the Protestant, were more recent and active sect and were looking forward to apply their ‘this worldly theology’ into practice.

Weber does have a lot of critics but he always emphasizes on his limited scope of study. He also believes that what is rational for one man might not be rational for the other, nevertheless both their ideas would seem perfectly rational, and such is the scope of Weber’s study.


In this chapter Weber promotes the idea of the capitalist inclination of the Protestant faith linking tracing its origin’s from the past. He talks about a major theological difference of Catholics and Protestants that translate into differences in their approach towards life. He noticed a trend in Hungary when it came to the approach of both Catholics and Protestants in education. While the Protestants took to specialized education to fill the technical void in society the Catholics were more traditional in their approach, they took to art.
Weber introduces the idea of economic rationalism that is the organized form of economics. In ancient times people who dealt with money often promoted unscrupulous activity and this was seen as stealing by the masses whereas after rationalism in the Western thought and the Protestant morality applied to this the accumulation of wealth became reasonable not tyrannical.
Weber also believes that the capitalistic tendencies in modern Protestants existed in an uninvolved form in the era of Dutch Calvinism. The Spaniards noticed that Heresy promoted trade. The Heresy here refers to Dutch Calvinism.
The French Huguenots and the American Quakers were also known for their wealth. In East Prussia Fredrick Williams I tolerated the Mennonites because they were indispensable to industry although they refused to volunteer in the army.
Weber also believes that there are two things a person can do “Either he eats well or sleeps well”. The Protestant believes in eating well whereas the Catholic believes in an undisturbed sleep. The Protestant invests his reinvests his money and is a restless businessman whereas the Catholic prefers security and is not interested in an action packed life.


The spirit of capitalism is much more vibrant than the accumulation of wealth; it deals with the principles and the moral philosophy behind wealth making. Weber takes the aid of Benjamin Franklin to prove his point. Benjamin Franklin lays emphasis on honesty, punctuality, industry and frugality as being the key to leading a successful life not merely accumulation of wealth. This Weber believes is because of his Calvinistic upbringing. When asked if it is necessary or justifiable to accumulate wealth Benjamin Franklin would quote from proverbs saying “Seest thou the man diligent in business? He shall stand before kings.”
Weber makes a radical statement here, he says “The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos in which a man is born and which presents itself to him at least as an individual as an unalterable order of things in which he must live.” He also says that Capitalism encourages economic survival of the fittest.
Weber then talks about traditional labour, he believes that increasing wages will not increase productivity not because there is no desire to make wealth but traditionalists do not because they do not desire wealth but because they do not want to change the way they live. In order for them to be effective labourers, labour should be an end a calling.
In another illustration he deals with the differences in the business practices of a traditional entrepreneur and a modern one filled with the spirit of capitalism. The traditional entrepreneur has traditional labour, traditional ethics, traditional way of expanding and a traditional way of providing services. He has a constant stream of customers whom he serves and his fame spreads through the word of mouth. He works for an appropriate time and spends the rest of his time in leisure. During business seasons he puts in more effort.
The modern entrepreneur filled with the spirit of Capitalism has a vibrant labour force; he inspires them and encourages them to give their fullest. He meets his customers himself and caters to their needs in the way they want it to be not they way it is. (Henry Ford when he said that people can have any colour they want as long as it’s black, while this is the traditional approach, the modern entrepreneur would personally supply his customers with any colour they desire). The modern entrepreneur does not take time for leisure, he works with all the time he has. Thus the traditional entrepreneur is displaced. This discipline Weber believes is only due to the fact that they have ingrained into their mind that their work is their calling that is the end. This coupled with ethics makes the Protestant a deadly business competitor and a force to reckon with.


If I knew Christ was coming tomorrow I would still plant a tree today- Martin Luther
Weber looks at the word ‘calling’ and concludes that it has a religious connotation. He believes that this word is widely prevalent in the Protestant circles but absent from traditional Roman Catholicism. This was because Luther’s conception of calling was different from anything that existed before. During Luther’s time the traditional view of religion was monasticism but Luther radically changed this. According to Luther people have a duty to fulfill the obligations imposed upon them by their position in the world. Martin Luther developed this idea; each legitimate calling has the same worth to God. This "moral justification of worldly activity" was one of the most important contributions of the Reformation, and particularly of Luther's role in it.
Weber believes that the early Christians did not have a ‘this worldly’ calling rather they were waiting for the immediate return of Christ, this is found in the writings of St Paul. This was the traditional approach. Although Luther looked to be Biblical he differs here.
Thus, Weber concludes that the simple idea of the calling in Lutheranism is at best of limited importance to his study. This does not mean that Lutheranism had no practical significance for the development of the capitalistic spirit. Rather, it means that this development cannot be directly derived from Luther's attitude toward worldly activity.


In this chapter Weber studies the various Protestant sects as follows:-
• Calvinism
• Pietism
• Methodism
• The Baptist Sects

Calvinism stresses the complete ruin of humanity's ethical nature against a backdrop of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. It teaches that fallen people are morally and spiritually unable to follow God or escape their condemnation before him. It is seen as the work of God (divine intervention) in which God changes their unwilling hearts from rebellion to willing obedience.
In this view, all people are entirely at the mercy of God, who would be just in condemning all people for their sins, but who has chosen to be merciful to some. One person is saved while another is condemned, not because of a foreseen willingness, faith, or any other virtue in the first person, but because God sovereignly chose to have mercy on them. Although the person must believe the gospel and respond to be saved, this obedience of faith is God's gift, and thus God completely and sovereignly accomplishes the salvation of sinners. Views of predestination to damnation (the doctrine of reprobation) are less uniform than is the view of predestination to salvation (the doctrine of election) among self-described Calvinists
In practice, Calvinists teach sovereign grace primarily for the encouragement of the church because they believe the doctrine demonstrates the extent of God's love in saving those who could not and would not follow him, as well as squelching pride and self-reliance and emphasizing the Christian's total dependence on the grace of God. In the same way, sanctification in the Calvinist view requires a continual reliance on God to purge the Christian's depraved heart from the power of sin and to further the Christian's joy.

The direct originator of the movement was Philipp Jakob Spener. Born at Rappoltsweiler in Alsace on 13 January 1635, trained by a devout godmother who used books of devotion like Arndt's True Christianity, Spener was convinced of the necessity of a moral and religious reformation within German Lutheranism.
He made six proposals as the best means of restoring the life of the Church:
1. The earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia ("little churches within the church").
2. The Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church
3. A knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement
4. Instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
5. A reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life
6. A different style of preaching, namely, in the place of pleasing rhetoric, the implanting of Christianity in the inner or new man, the soul of which is faith, and its effects the fruits of life.

Methodism represented a combination of emotional yet ascetic religion with an increasing indifference to Calvinism's doctrinal basis. Its strongest characteristic was its "methodical, systematic nature of conduct." Method was primarily used to bring about the emotional act of conversion, and the religion had a strong emotional character. Good works were only the means of knowing one's state of grace. The feeling of grace was necessary for salvation.

The Baptist Sects
The Baptist sects (Baptists, Mennonites, and Quakers) form an independent source of ascetic Protestantism other than Calvinism; their ethics rest on a different basis. These sects are unified by the idea of a believers' church, a community of only the true believers. This worked through individual revelation, and one had to wait for the Spirit and avoid sinful attachments to the world. Despite having a different foundation than Calvinism, they too rejected all idolatry of the flesh as a detraction from the respect due God. They believed in the continued relevance of revelation. Like the Calvinists, they devalued the sacraments as a means to salvation, which was an important form of rationalization. This led to the practice of worldly asceticism. An interest in economic occupations was increased by their rejection of politics; they embraced the ethic of "honesty is the best policy."

Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism

In this chapter Weber deal’s with the ascetic nature of Protestantism and its influence on Capitalism. For example the influence on Calvinistic asceticism would be that in order for a person to know if he is the elect he would have to look for signs and success in worldly affairs and the approval of society would be sign enough of his election.
Weber then refers to the writing of Richard Baxter. The writings of Richard Baxter are a good model of its ethics. In his work, it is striking to see his suspicion of wealth as a dangerous temptation. His real moral objection though, is to relaxation, idleness, and distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life. Possessions are only objectionable because of this risk of relaxation; only activity promotes God's glory. Thus, wasting time is the worst of sins, because it means that time is lost in promoting God's will in a calling. Baxter preaches hard and continual mental or bodily work. This is because labor is an acceptable ascetic technique in the Western tradition, and because labor came to be seen as an end in itself, ordained as such by God. This does not change, even for those people who are wealthy, because everyone has a calling in which they should labor, and taking the opportunities for profit that God provides is part of that calling. To wish to be poor is similar to wishing to be sick, and both are morally unacceptable.
The Puritans on the other hand also add to the spirit of capitalism because they do not believe in the enjoyment of life. Weber argues saying "That powerful tendency toward uniformity of life, which today so immensely aids the capitalistic interest in the standardization of production, had its ideal foundations in the repudiation of all idolatry of the flesh." Furthermore, the Puritans rejected any spending of money on entertainment that didn't "serve God's glory." They felt a duty to hold and increase their possessions. It was ascetic Protestantism that gave this attitude its ethical foundation. It had the psychological effect of freeing the acquisition if goods from traditionalist ethics' inhibitions. Asceticism also condemned dishonesty and impulsive greed. The pursuit of wealth in itself was bad, but attaining it as the result of one's labor was a sign of God's blessing.
Thus, the Puritan outlook favored the development of rational bourgeois economic life, and "stood at the cradle of the modern economic man." It is true that once attained, wealth had a secularizing effect. In fact, we see that the full economic effects of these religious movements actually came after the peak of religious enthusiasm. "The religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness." However, these religious roots left its more secular successor an "amazingly good" conscience about acquiring money, as long as it was done legally. The religious asceticism also gave the businessmen industrious workers, and assured him that inequality was part of God's design. Thus, one of the major elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, rational conduct based on the idea of a calling, was "born" from the spirit of Christian asceticism. The same values exist in both, with the spirit of capitalism simply lacking the religious basis.


To conclude Weber did justice to his work linking the Rise of Capitalism to Protestant ethics but it is not the sole reason why Capitalism developed. There are countries where Capitalism flourishes but they have no Christian let alone Protestant population and a great example would be Japan. Weber did have a lot of critics but his work is path breaking and influential in Sociology.

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