the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism


  • While Marx’s historical materialism held that all human institutions – including religion – were based on economic foundations, many have seen The Protestant Ethic as turning
    this theory on its head by implying that a religious movement fostered capitalism, not the other way around.

  • “[6]: 19  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 British economic thought was rather a step backwards since it espoused the labor theory of value, which had already been proved incorrect by the School of Salamanca.

  • Another reason for Weber’s decision was that Troeltsch’s work already achieved what he desired in that area, which is laying groundwork for comparative analysis of religion
    and society.

  • [6]: 102–104  What Weber argued, in simple terms: • According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German:
    Beruf) with as much zeal as possible.

  • In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, investigated a part of the detachment from magic, that disenchantment of the world that could be seen as a unique
    characteristic of Western culture.

  • In the book, Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant (particularly Calvinist) 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.

  • Though it may be true that predominantly Protestant countries, such as the Netherlands and England, were the first economic successes of the modern era, there is little relationship
    between religion and economic success.

  • “In an early era, Protestant asceticism and dedication to work, as noted both by Wesley and Weber, seem to have been important patterns of action contributing to economic

  • Looking farther east, you’ll see that none of the economic successes of East Asia have anything to do with any form of Christian religion, so there is not much support for
    a special relationship between Protestantism and economic success there, either.

  • [12] However, it is possible that the Protestant “work ethic” reinforced or legitimized these legal measures within a larger cultural context.

  • [16] Other criticism[edit] It has recently been suggested that Protestantism has indeed influenced positively the capitalist development of respective social systems not so
    much through the “Protestant ethics” but rather through the promotion of literacy.

  • The strict ascetic self-discipline that has been successfully institutionalized in the Pentecostal congregations, the readiness to work more and with greater effort and to
    take less leisurely attitudes lead many Pentecostal Christians to believe that their new faith in God is supported by their economic successes.

  • [7]: 55  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.

  • Protestant work ethic in Weber’s time[edit] By the time Weber wrote his essay, he believed that the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had largely gone from society.

  • [6]: 9–12  The Reformation profoundly affected the view of work, dignifying even the most mundane professions as adding to the common good and thus blessed by God, as much
    as any “sacred” calling (German: Ruf).

  • From a psychological viewpoint, the average person had difficulty adjusting to this new worldview, and only the most devout believers or “religious geniuses” within Protestantism,
    such as Martin Luther, were able to make this adjustment, according to Weber.

  • Weber maintained that while Puritan religious ideas had significantly impacted the development of economic systems in Europe and United States, there were other factors in
    play, as well.

  • That is to say, at some point the Calvinist rationale informing the “spirit” of capitalism became unreliant on the underlying religious movement behind it, leaving only rational

  • [8] Weber shows that certain branches of Protestantism had supported worldly activities dedicated to economic gain, seeing them as endowed with moral and spiritual significance.

  • [13] Other recent scholarship continues to find valid Protestant ethic effects both in historical and contemporary development patterns.

  • After defining the “spirit of capitalism,” Weber argues that there are many reasons to find its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation.

  • It revealed, among other insights, that there were significant differences between Catholics on the one hand and (white) Protestants and Jews on the other hand with respect
    to economics and the sciences.

  • The inability to influence one’s own salvation presented a very difficult problem for Calvin’s followers, who, in Weber’s view, considered it an absolute duty to believe that
    one was chosen for salvation and to dispel any doubt about that: lack of self-confidence was evidence of insufficient faith and a sign of damnation.

  • [6]: 90  The Baptists diluted the concept of the calling relative to Calvinists, but other aspects made its congregants fertile soil for the development of capitalism—namely,
    a lack of paralyzing ascetism, the refusal to accept state office and thereby develop unpolitically, and the doctrine of control by conscience which caused rigorous honesty.

  • His idea of modern capitalism as growing out of the religious pursuit of wealth meant a change to a rational means of existence, wealth.

  • Kirby argues that it is difficult to draw parallels between contemporary neo-Pentecostals and Weber’s ascetic Protestants, specifically because the former group of practitioners,
    many of whom espouse Prosperity theologies, often do not exhibit the same commitment to “sober economic virtue” and “rational bourgeois economic life” as Weber’s Calvinistic Puritans.

  • […] At any rate, many pious persons there interpret their transition from the Roman Catholic church to Protestant Pentecostal congregations in terms of a moral idea that
    promises long-term economic gains through strong innerworldly asceticism.

  • For him, this general fact was not related to Protestantism and so capitalism came largely by force and not by any vocational training regarding an inner-worldliness of Protestantism.

  • For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the
    modern economic order.

  • In other words, the Protestant work ethic was an important force behind the unplanned and uncoordinated emergence of modern capitalism.

  • Weber identifies the applicability of Luther’s conclusions, noting that a “vocation” from God was no longer limited to the clergy or church, but applied to any occupation
    or trade.

  • [10][11] Rather than Protestantism leading to capitalism, it may be the case that individuals and communities who were more prone to capitalism were also more likely to adopt

  • This attitude is well-noted in certain classes which have endured religious education, especially of a Pietist background.

  • In his conclusion to the book, Weber lamented that the loss of religious underpinning to capitalism’s spirit has led to a kind of involuntary servitude to mechanized industry.

  • He cited the writings of Benjamin Franklin, which emphasized frugality, hard work and thrift, but were mostly free of spiritual content.

  • Weber moved beyond Protestantism with his research but would continue research into sociology of religion within his later works (the study of Judaism and the religions of
    China and India).

  • [7]: 57  Origins of the Protestant work ethic[edit] Weber traced the origins of the Protestant ethic to the Reformation, though he acknowledged some respect for secular everyday
    labor as early as the Middle Ages.

  • This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism,
    not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.

  • [11] Economic criticism[edit] The economist and historian Henryk Grossman criticises Weber’s analysis on two fronts, firstly with reference to Marx’s extensive work which
    showed that the stringent legal measures taken against poverty and vagabondage was a reaction to the massive population shifts caused by factors such as the enclosure of the commons.

  • [7]: 54–55  He further noted that the spirit of capitalism could be divorced from religion, and that those passionate capitalists of his era were either passionate against
    the Church or at least indifferent to it.

  • This recognition was not a goal in itself; rather they were a byproduct of other doctrines of faith that encouraged planning, hard work and self-denial in the pursuit of worldly

  • [6]: 23  Desire for profit with minimum effort and seeing work as a burden to be avoided, and doing no more than what was enough for modest life, were common attitudes.

  • Criticism Methodology[edit] Weber’s causal claim that the Protestant ethic led to capitalism has been criticized for endogeneity problems and case selection problems.

  • In the absence of such assurances from religious authority, Weber argued that Protestants began to look for other “signs” that they were saved.

  • In explaining urban growth in early-modern Europe, specifications compatible with human-capital versions of the neoclassical model and endogenous-growth theory are rejected
    in favor of a “small-world” formulation based on the Weber thesis.

  • Weber states in the closing of this essay, “it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation
    of culture and history.

  • The ‘spirit of capitalism’ does not refer to the spirit in the metaphysical sense but rather a set of values, the spirit of hard work and progress.

  • To view the craft as an end in itself, or as a “calling” would serve this need well.

  • To emphasize the work ethic in Protestantism relative to Catholics, he notes a common problem that industrialists face when employing precapitalist laborers: Agricultural
    entrepreneurs will try to encourage time spent harvesting by offering a higher wage, with the expectation that laborers will see time spent working as more valuable and so engage it longer.

  • As such, scholars have suggested that what Weber observed was in fact “anti-Polish discrimination” visible in the different levels of income, savings and literacy between
    Germans and Poles.


Works Cited

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(2006) ‘The Beginnings of Capitalism and the New Mass Morality’ Journal of Classical Sociology 6 (2): July
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economics, capitalism: Putting the Protestant Ethic to work”. Religion. 49 (4): 571–591. doi:10.1080/0048721X.2019.1573767. S2CID 182190916.
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