Weber – The Protestant Ethic

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1905 [EN 1930]


Page numbers from the Dover Publication 2003 edition.


Jan Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c.1658


The Spirit of Capitalism

A series of contemporary statistics and common sense (35-40), Weber says, clearly shows the cohabitation of Protestantism and capitalistic enterprise. Western civilisation had apparently intersected a spirit of capitalism [SOC]. The spirit is exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s maxims. SOC is not just an instrumental strategy, but an ethos. (51) Money is not the end-point, but a method. (53) SOC was not merely about the domination of greed as vice (virtue) over all else: too many had been greedy before it for this to be true. Unscrupulous adventurism, in fact, stands with state-protected, traditional enterprises, not early capitalism. SOC was about the rational calculation of action in terms of mathematical profit (18-9, 62).

Labour must, on the contrary, be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself… [this] can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education. (62)

Specifically, then, SOC describes the ascetic attitude of work for its own sake (72), rather than capitalist business. A large bank might easily be run in a ‘traditionalistic’ spirit. (65) Yet this decoupling complicates the historical explanation. If capitalist activity was not irrevocably tied to SOC, how did it arise and become dominant?


The Calling

Weber responds through a history of the calling as a theological notion. Luther’s calling is here notable: it gives moral primacy to worldly labour, reinventing a forgotten Hebrew term on the way. (81) At this point, the notion remains rather traditional. Luther’s ‘Pauline indifference’ to worldly gain blocks any strong connection between the importance of labour and the importance of profit. (84-6) Lutheran calling would be reappropriated through centuries of Calvinism to form SOC; but the site of this reappropriation is primarily theory (theology), rather than practice. (87-91)

Weber’s case for this Calvinist trajectory begins with Calvin’s predestination. Bringing the righteous and sovereign nature of God to its logical conclusion, he claimed there is an elect for Heaven – those chosen to be saved – and no worldly deed, good or evil, can alter this divine registry. (102) The result was a pensive and lonely flock. Who could be sure of salvation, if nothing in the world could indicate it? (104) Yet even as the causality between good deeds and salvation were decoupled, the importance of worldly deeds was renewed. One would do good not for oneself but truly for the glory of God – in majorem gloriam Dei. (108) And in any case, something of a compromise developed after Calvin: though the elect is absolute, all of us must act goodly as if we were the elect. (110-1)

…however useless good works might be as a means of attaining salvation… nevertheless, they are indispensable as a sign of election… God helps those who help themselves. (115)

This paradoxical commitment to worldly deeds drives the theological, indeed spiritual, rationality of capitalism. In a classic confessional economy, the Catholic lives ‘hand to mouth’ in a loose tally of sin and repentance. Put glibly, a haphazardly (un)regulated daily life is punctuated by confessional ‘resets’. Meanwhile, the Calvinist develops a rigorous and unrelenting portfolio of good deeds (115-7) – a labour which is inherently eternal, given the inability of even the best lived life to ‘qualify’ for salvation.

The objective of this system was to produce a disciplined man, one who might live actively and vigorously without deviance… that is, with a monk’s restless and unforgiving disposition. (121) This powerful asceticism turned to the Bible for ideal norms of conduct, and began to derive a rationalised Christian life: strict self-monitoring according to a gradient of norms/sin. (124) The paradox is retained: it is Calvinism’s unforgiving view on predestination which makes worldly discipline an unending, infinite affair. Lutheranism, “on account of its doctrine of grace, lacked [such] a psychological sanction of systematic conduct to compel the methodical rationalisation of life.” (128)

Other denominations would achieve ultimately similar linkages, whereby individuals’ spiritual worldviews fed in, habitually, affectively, logically, to an ascetic mode of worldly living. German Pietism is thus presented as a more emotional variant, which focuses on present satisfaction through repentant conduct. (137-8) Similarly, Methodism – American methodism in particular – emphasised that confidence in salvation can only come through a powerful and emotional revelation. Good works could not cause a spiritual rebirth or certitudo salutis, but it could be the means towards it. (140-1) In both cases, a more graceful God nevertheless compels the channeling of spiritual-emotional affect into ascetic rationality.

The emotional act of conversion was methodically induced… the emotion, once awakened, was directed into a rational struggle for perfection. (143)

Finally, Baptist sects – the Mennonites, the Quakers – emphasised ascetic work as the method towards and signature of belonging in a ‘pure’ church, a rebirth in God away from secular life. This suspicion of worldly ambitions dampened the original Calvinist sense of the ‘calling’, but the pressure towards daily, disciplined work did not lighten.

The paradox, as we noted earlier, is that a largely non-negotiatiable electhood is tied so closely with the obligation to continuous, constant good conduct. In each of the above cases, the difficulty of becoming elect / reborn is precisely what fuels the infinitude of worldly labour. The result is “a rational planning of the whole of one’s life in accordance with God’s will.” (153, emphasis mine)


Wealth and Profit

So much for hard work, for ‘labour’, in the general. But for such individual industry to properly fuel capitalist enterprise, a powerful orientation to, and valuation of, profit must be instilled. Yet how to reconcile this development with Christianity’s long love of the poor?

Weber argues that wealth was often dangerous not in itself, but only because of its effects – such as idleness and waste. The key change is this: Monastic orders, Thomas Aquinas, or even Lutheran calling had pushed for diligent labour only as much as one and one’s community needed. Now, the Puritan interpretation lets loose a more infinite kind: to be profitable is, in itself, to the glory of God. (161) Wealth is not dangerous, but properly gotten and wielded, a proud signature of the good Christian soul. (163) The idea of ‘moral’ wealth and the ‘duty’ to earn became widespread. (176-7)

Good wealth, of course, had to be wielded appropriately. Once again, the Protestant Ethic attacked culture and leisure only insofar as it bred idleness and waste. Refinement per se was not an evil. Sport, for instance, is appreciated for the physical exercise it provides. Honest and rational consumption was as laudable as clean profit. Still, wealth was recognised as a key temptation in this ethical trajectory, as Weber shows through ministerial texts in the period. John Wesley laments that “wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.” (174-5)



By Weber’s own time, he argued, the spiritual heart of the capitalist ethic had already been evacuated. But the shell remained. If the theological catalysts had faded away, the elements they had welded together remained: wealth as a signature of moral vigour, the prideful place granted to labour and profit. Unmoored from their original source of legitimacy and reason, the profit motive proceeds on its own momentum. Wealth becomes not just an indicator, but an essential goal.

In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport. (182)