- The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit Of Capitalism by Max Weber



Max Weber (1864–1920) was brought up in a prosperous, cosmopolitan, and cultivated family that was well integrated into the political, social, and cultural establishment of the German bourgeoisie. His parents represented two conflicting poles of identity between which their eldest son would struggle throughout his life: worldly statesmanship and ascetic scholarship. Educated at the universities of Heidelberg and Berlin, Weber was trained in law, eventually writing his thesis on Roman law and agrarian history.

Weber’s philosophical worldview was informed by the deep crisis of the Enlightenment project at the end of the 19th. century in Europe. This was characterized by the intellectual revolt against positivist reason, a celebration of subjective will and intuition, and a neo-Romantic longing for spiritual wholesomeness. In other words, Weber belonged to a generation of imitators who had to struggle with the legacies of Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche. The philosophical backdrop to his thoughts are kantian in epistemology and ethics. 

Weber shared the (neo)-Kantian dichotomy between reality and concept: reality is irrational and incomprehensible, and the concept is an abstract construction of our mind. Our cognition is logical and all reality exists within cognition, so only a reality that we can comprehend in the form of knowledge is rational. Weber's acceptance of the Kantian dualism shaped the methodological strategy employed in the study of social reality. The mind may have material premises, but the activities of the mind are unique to it. As an object separate from empirical reality, the reasoning mind confronts that reality as a object alien to itself. In the study of society, as in the study of physical objects, events are never understood in their entirety. The mind is not capable of grasping the totality of history. Therefore, the social world requires interpretation. 

According to Kantian ethics transformation of the self is a crucial benchmark of moral autonomy. It should be done with the purpose of serving a higher end, that is, the universal law of reason. Self-transformation is now linked to a higher law based on reason, or an “ultimate value” as Weber calls it. The ethical focus of Kant and Weber is really the same, though one was a philosopher and the other a sociologist.

Weber's sociology is also influenced by Karl Marx. Both of them provide a scientific and systematic study to society. But their approaches and methodologies are different in various ways. Marx believes that the economy is the base of everything in a vision of economic determinism. He believed that economy is the substructure in society which existed independently. On the other hand, all other matters or all other institutions, individual relationships are superstructure which depend on the substructure, the economic base. According to Marx, every society has modes of production, means of production and ownership of that production. He applied it to all other social data. Capitalist societies have two opposing and contradictory classes: the haves and the have nots.

Max Weber applies a multidimensional view to understanding and studying society. He classified it not only by economy but also through various other levels like life chances, market position, and consumption. 

Marx and Weber also studied class structure but in different ways. Karl Marx considers there are only two classes that exist in society: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. The bourgeoisies own the wealth, control the means of production, and are also the owners of production; the proletariats are the poor working class who only get minimum wages for their hard work. The capitalist exploits the working class to make more money and profit. Marx said that these societies are always in conflict with each other.

On the contrary, Max Weber provides us with a fourfold classification of class. There are propertied upper class, white-collar workers, petite bourgeoisie, and manual workers.

Both authors also diverge in methodology. Marx took a conflict approach to study the structure os society. His methodology is widely known as dialectical materialism, popularly named historical materialism. Weber adopted an interpretive methodology. He believed that we must explore society's hidden meanings and to do that we must interpret them. Weber believes that an ideal type helps the sociologist to interpret and contrast the actual or real one in its common characteristics and attributes..

Both Weber and Marx were influenced by the darwininian concept of evolution but interpreted it differently. Weber held that in the historical process of development the main causal link did not go from the material conditions of economic reproduction to the sphere of institutions and culture, like Marx, but rather in the opposite direction. Weber saw in the evolution of capitalism a gigantic process of rationalisation concerning not only economic activity but society as a whole. On this basis he developed his forecast of a progressive bureaucratisation of the state organisation and the productive process, with the growth of middle ranks of clerks and technicians, a forecast that attributed crucial importance to the middle classes, thus contrasting with the process of proletarisation predicted by Marx. 

On the origins of capitalism, Weber also took a different path from Marx, maintaining that a crucial role was to be attributed to the assertion, with Protestantism, of a specific culture favourable to concrete engagement in society, against the ascetic attitudes of the medieval Catholic church and the CounterReformation. He claimed the ascetic-capitalist entrepreneurship could be traced to Lutheranism and Calvinism, particularly the idea of calling, or “the divine vocation to pursue a particular path in the world where the duties imposed by God were to be fulfilled.”. This calling was understood by him as part of the fate of Calvinist predestination. No one could be certain whether they are saved or damned, whether they are among the elect or reprobate. This resulted in a feeling of inner loneliness of the individuals because they felt God was distant and unintelligible and they were not certain whether they were saved or damned.

However, according to Weber, Calvinism also provided an answer to this: believers cannot be sure whether or not they are saved, but there are signs that indicate that they are elected by God. Success in life became a sign of divine approval: 

"In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves. Thus the Calvinists, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned."


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was published in 1905.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the concepts developed in the book. Weber opens by noting that in capitalist countries in the West Protestants tend to make up the majority of business owners and employers, that is those individuals who have most succeeded within a capitalist economy. He notes that there is a particular disparity between the economic status of Protestants and Catholics, which many writers have explained by arguing that Protestant attitudes tend to be more materialistic, while Catholics tend to avoid worldly concerns. However, Weber notes that the opposite has historically been true, with Protestants being associated with an ascetic lifestyle. As such, Weber believes that a more in-depth analysis of Protestantism is required to understand its connection to capitalism.

Chapter 2 explores the notion of the “spirit of capitalism”, characterised by Weber as "a complex of elements associated in historical reality which we unite into a conceptual whole from the standpoint of their cultural significance." Through writings by Benjamin Franklin and some other sources, Weber argues that capitalism is characterized by a specific work ethic and attitude toward money. For Weber Franklin's attitudes illustrate capitalism's ethos. Franklin writes that time is money, that credit is money, and that money can beget money. He encourages people to pay all of their debts on time, because it encourages the confidence of others. He also encourages people to present themselves as industrious and trustworthy at all times. 

"A way of thinking like that of Benjamin Franklin was applauded by an entire nation. But in ancient medieval times it would have been denounced as an expression of the most filthy avarice and of an absolutely contemptible attitude."

Weber says that this philosophy of avarice sees increasing capital as an end in itself. It is an ethic, and the individual is seen as having a duty to prosper. However, the spirit of capitalism also sees any enjoyment of these riches as morally suspect and advocates that individuals should instead lead an ascetic lifestyle. 

The ideal capitalist entrepreneur, Weber wrote, is person who:

"Avoids ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition which he receives. His manner of life is…often… distinguished by certain ascetic tendency… He gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well.” 

However, capitalism is a vast system that forces the individual to play by its rules in a survival of the fittest, the economic interpretation of Darwin's biology promoted by Herbert Spencer.

"The extra money appealed to [the worker] less than the reduction in work; he did not ask: How much can I earn in a day if I do the maximum possible amount of work in a day? But, how much must I work in order to earn the same amount […] that I used to earn and which covers my traditional needs?"

Chapter 3 moves on to discuss the religious ideas of Protestantism, especially with regard to how they connect to ideas of work and money. Weber begins by analyzing the teachings of Martin Luther, who is widely seen as having launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Weber argues that the notion of having a “calling” stems from the teachings of Martin Luther, who sought to locate morality in the believer’s daily life. The idea of a calling is a product of the Reformation. Its originally comes from giving worldly activity a religious significance. People have a duty to fulfill the obligations imposed upon them by their position in the world. Luther’s writings emphasized the importance of what Weber calls this-worldly work and saw the act of working within one’s vocational calling as a duty commanded to individuals by God.

"The monastic style of life is now not only completely worthless as a means of justification before God (that much is self-evident), [Luther] also sees it as a manifestation of unloving egoism and an abdication from secular duties. In contrast, labour in a secular calling appears as the outward expression of Christian charity."

However, it cannot be said that Luther actually had the spirit of capitalism. The Bible itself suggested a traditionalistic interpretation and Luther himself was a traditionalist. There is another branch of Protestantism with a clearer connection - Calvinism. Weber makes his starting point the investigation of the relationship between the spirit of capitalism and the ascetic ethic of the Calvinists and other Puritans. However, he does not argue that the spirit of capitalism could only have occurred as the result of the Reformation. Weber's goals are more modest. He wants to understand whether and to what degree religious forces have helped form and expand the spirit of capitalism, and what aspects of our culture can be traced to them. 

Chapter 4 traces the development of this notion of the calling, exploring how later Protestant sects further emphasized the importance of work. Weber explains that he is interested in 

"the influence of those psychological sanctions which, originating in religious belief and the practice of religion, gave a direction to practical conduct and held the individual to it." 

Central to Weber’s analysis is the Protestant doctrine of predestination, according to which individuals are predestined for either heaven or hell. Calvinists believe that God preordains who are saved and who damned. They arrived at this idea from logical necessity. Men exist for the sake of God and to apply earthly standards of justice to God is meaningless and insulting. To question one's fate is similar to an animal complaining it wasn't born a man. Humans do not have the power to change God's decrees, and we only know that part of humanity is saved and part damned. 

"This doctrine [of predestination], with all the pathos of its inhumanity, had one principal consequence for the mood of a generation which yielded to its magnificent logic: it engendered, for each individual, a feeling of tremendous inner loneliness."

Weber argues that Calvinism must have had a profound psychological impact. In what was the most important thing in his life, eternal salvation, each person had to follow his path alone, to meet a destiny already determined for him. No one could help him, and there was no salvation through the Church and the sacraments. There were no means at all to attain God's grace if God had decided to deny it. 

It became psychologically necessary that they acquire some means of recognizing people in a state of grace. Two such means emerged. First, it was considered an absolute duty to consider oneself to be one of the saved, and to see doubts as temptations of evil. Secondly, worldly activity was encouraged as the best means of gaining that self-confidence. Calvinists believed that God worked through them. Being in a state of grace meant that they were tools of divine will. Faith had to be shown in objective results. Calvinists looked for any activity that increased the glory of God. Such conduct could be based directly in the Bible, or indirectly through the purposeful order of God's world. Good works were not a means to salvation, but they were a sign of having been chosen.

"Above and beyond this, however, work is the end purpose of life commanded by God. The Pauline principle “He who will not work, shall not eat,” applies absolutely and to everyone. Unwillingness to work is a symptom of the absence of the state of grace."

Calvinism advocated tireless work as a way for anxious believers to gain a feeling of certainty that they had been chosen by God for salvation. Weber also discusses the Protestant baptizing sects, such as the Quakers, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects who advocated an ascetic lifestyle and avoidance of material pleasures.

Chapter 5 describes how Protestantism helped to develop the spirit of capitalism. Weber analyses the writings of English Puritan Richard Baxter such as his Saints’ Everlasting Rest, or his Christian Directory. Baxter is suspicious 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 since 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 labour is an acceptable ascetic technique in the Protestant tradition, and because labour 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 labour, and to take 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.

Weber attempts to clarify the ways in which the Puritan idea of the calling and asceticism influenced the development of the capitalistic way of life. First, asceticism opposed the spontaneous enjoyment of life and its opportunities. Such enjoyment leads people away from work in a calling and religion. Weber argues:

"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 of goods from traditionalist ethical 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 labour was a sign of God's blessing.

The Puritan outlook favoured 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. Weber says that "The religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness." However, these religious roots left its more secular successor, a good conscience about acquiring money, as long as it was done legally. The religious asceticism also gave the businessmen industrious workers, and assured them 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.

"If we may sum up what has been said so far, then, innerworldly Protestant asceticism works with all it force against the uninhibited enjoyment of possessions; it discourages consumption, especially the consumption of luxuries. Conversely, it has the effect of liberating the acquisition of wealth from the inhibitions of traditionalist ethics; it breaks the fetters on the striving for gain by not only legalizing it, but […] seeing it as directly willed by God."

Asceticism helped build the "tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order." People born today have their lives determined by this mechanism. Their care for external goods has become "an iron cage." Material goods have gained an unparalleled control over the individual. The spirit of religious asceticism "has escaped from the cage," but capitalism no longer needs its support.

In conclusion, Weber mentions some of the areas that a more complete study would have to explore. First, one would have to analyse the impact of ascetic rationalism on other areas of life, and its historical development would have to be more rigorously traced. Furthermore, it would be necessary to investigate how Protestant asceticism was itself influenced by social conditions, including economic conditions. He says, "it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of history."


Religion and the “Capitalist Spirit”

Weber, argued that organized religion plays a dominant role in shaping society. He traces the connection between Protestant theology—especially that of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Baxter—and the development of the “capitalist spirit,” the individualistic compulsion to work and profit and grow, even when one’s financial needs do not demand it. Weber notes that the capitalist spirit is different from capitalism itself; many people may live in capitalist economies, yet do not devote their entire lives to work and profit, and thus are not compelled by the capitalist spirit. Weber argues that Protestant theology is primarily (though not entirely) responsible for developing the capitalist spirit across Europe and America, demonstrating that religion plays a formative role in non-religious aspects of society.

Weber observes that since the Protestant Reformation, Protestants have occupied far more business leadership and skilled labour roles than non-Protestant Christians within the same communities, indicating that their differing religious views impact the non-religious aspects of their lives. According to Weber, in every European and American country with multiple Christian denominations, Protestants inevitably rise to the highest positions of leadership, wealth, and expertise. He notes that this “social stratification” has become a subject of great concern for many Catholic communities, as they fall behind economically and thus wield less influence in society. This stratification parallels differing temperaments between Catholics and Protestants, even within the same nationalities and communities. Weber quotes, “The Catholic… is more calm; his acquisitive drive is lower” than the Protestant. Catholics favor the peaceful, “subsistent” life; Protestants favor the successful, “acquisitive” life. The characteristic differences between denominations seems to imply that their religious views also shape temperament and economic outcomes.

Weber argues that Protestants’ success in capitalist enterprise originates in their theology’s relatively new (compared to Catholic theology) ideas about work and salvation, thus modeling how people’s religious beliefs shape their personal ethics, even around non-religious subjects such as economics. Weber posits that the greatest driver of Protestantism’s capitalist spirit is the belief that God made human beings to work. This concept of work as a divine duty—which Protestants refer to as their “calling”—is foreign to Catholicism, originating with the German monk Martin Luther, who led the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Contrasting with the Catholic belief that one serves God in church or by entering the clergy, Protestants believe they glorify God by simply labouring in their occupations to the utmost of their ability. According to Weber, this shifts the Protestant paradigm about the nature of work itself. Under this new concept, Protestants’ work becomes the end rather than the means—instead of working to live, they live to work. As Weber goes on to show, this religiously motivated belief makes them ideal capitalists, since they orient their lives around labour and profit, thus demonstrating the connection between religious ideology and real-world implications.

Weber further posits that Protestants’ belief that hard work is evidence of a righteous life makes them “austere” and “serious,” far more “methodical” in their lifestyles than their Catholic neighbors. He recalls that many Protestant leaders advise their followers to keep daily journals so that they can better monitor and organize their own behavior. Weber argues that this, too, lends to the Protestants’ formidable capitalist spirit, since not only do they work ceaselessly, but they also approach their work (and their spirituality) analytically, making them ideal employees and even better managers and investors, keen to continuously scale their skills and profits to larger degrees. Protestant theology thus values ambition and discipline, which in turn makes Protestants fierce capitalists; their tangible economic outcomes are driven by intangible religious ideals.

Weber notes that after three centuries, Protestantism’s capitalist spirit endures in many non-religious people, and thus exerts such significant influence on society that it structures the lives of the non-religious as well. In the founding years of the United States—a country “where capitalism is at its most unbridled”—Protestant theology was a foundation for American society since most citizens were Puritans, Baptists, or Methodists. Because of this, Weber argues that their Protestant capitalist spirit is interwoven throughout American society. Even hundreds of years later, the country’s imagination is focused on creating profit at massive scale. American businessmen are publicly revered. However, Weber also notes that “the kind of people who are inspired by the ‘capitalist spirit’ today tend to be, if not exactly hostile to the Church, then at least indifferent.” This asserts that religion, particularly Protestant Christianity, has such a powerfully formative impact that it shapes entire countries, even for those citizens who have shed their religious heritage.

Weber remains largely neutral while analyzing how Protestant religion shapes Western society. However, he describes the capitalist spirit as an “irrational […] way of conducting one’s life, whereby a man exists for his business, not vice versa,” indicating that he bemoans the spread of obsession with work and profit.

The Protestant "Calling"

It was the initiator of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic monk, Martin Luther, who developed the concept of calling. He was critical of the separation between the secular and religious worlds and stated that the best way to do God's work was to perform your own work to the best of your ability. This was your calling. All work was then divine when performed by Christians and, according to Weber, this contributed to the 'rise of capitalism' since all work became a divine moral responsibility. In turn this encouraged the idealisation of money-making and brought about tolerance of inequalities. Weber suggests that monasticism contributed to Catholicism’s decidedly un-capitalist position, since it discourages the faithful from gathering earthly positions or participating in the competitive marketplace. Luther broke from tradition by deciding that such removal from the world is effectively “evil,” a rejection of God’s creation.

Weber argues that, for Protestants, this shifts the role of one’s occupation from simply a way to earn money and feed themselves to their divine duty, the reason God created them in the first place. Economic activity became an end in itself,” the primary means by which they serve God. Consequently, Weber argues:

 “‘productivity of work in the capitalist sense of the word was given a powerful boost by this exclusive striving for the kingdom of God through fulfillment of the duty of labour as calling.” 

That is, Protestants’ religious fervor translated into economic success as well, since secular, for-profit work and spirituality became inextricably linked.

However, Weber argues that Luther’s idea of a calling relies on the idea of God’s sovereignty and thus establishes classism and inequality, which are also enablers of the capitalist spirit. As Luther develops his concept, he teaches that every legitimate occupation is quite simply of equal value because God sovereignly placed each person in their particular occupation. Weber argues that this furthers the shift away from Catholic monasticism, which emphasizes service to the poor. In pursuing their calling, Protestant Christians become less concerned with self-sacrifice and social good, and more focused on pursuing whatever profit-making work they may happen to have, since that is the way to please God. Additionally, wealthy Protestants can be comforted by the assurance that unequal distribution of this world’s goods was the special work of the providence of God which suggests that wealth inequality is some part of God’s divine plan. Business owners who are immensely wealthy while their neighbours starve can now interpret their money-making as a calling, too. Weber suggests this feeds into the capitalist spirit by freeing profit-makers from their scruples about the poor, traditional charity, or economic inequality, and justifying their focus on profit.

Although Weber attributes a significant aspect of the capitalist spirit, both good and bad, to Luther’s concept of the calling, he is careful to point at that this never appears to be Luther’s intention. He notes that Luther even criticized capitalist mechanisms such as interest and usury. Rather, Weber argues that the effects of Luther’s calling are unintended “consequences of purely religious motives,” realized long after his death.


It was the French theologian John Calvin who developed the set of doctrines known as Calvinism. Among the most notable was the doctrine of predestination, which states that all of humanity is utterly wretched and God simply chooses a small minority to grant salvation to, damning the rest as they deserve. Beyond Calvinism, this doctrine went on to influence many subsequent Protestant traditions, particularly the Puritans. Weber argues that Calvinism’s doctrines play an outsized role in developing the modern capitalist spirit, especially through the doctrine of predestination which encourages an austere, individualistic, and methodical approach to life, conducive to capitalist enterprise.

Calvin’s doctrine of predestination teaches Protestants that their salvation is never certain, that they are constantly being put to the test by God, creating a deep insecurity within them and an obsession with their own performance. As Weber relates, Calvin’s doctrine of predestination teaches that God decides which people are granted salvation and which people are damned, even before they ever exist. Unlike Catholicism or Lutheranism, where one can earn salvation through repentance, Calvinism teaches its followers that their salvation is completely beyond their control.

However, the doctrine also teaches that the “elect,” those destined for salvation, will manifest their elected status by a virtuous life of “tireless labour.” By committing themselves to unceasing work and carefully monitoring their own virtue, Calvinists can provide their own “self-assurance” that they must be among the elect, since their lives reflect what a Christian life should look like. Weber states that this results in the Calvinists and the Puritans, who inherited the belief, constantly feeling as if they must prove their salvation to themselves and each other, based on how faithfully they labour through life. Weber suggests that this insecurity results in an obsession with work, along with Luther’s concept of “calling” and rigid virtuosity. While the Catholic can be lax in their daily life, since they can always repent and regain their good standing with God, the Calvinist approaches life and work with a severe rationality and an intensely “methodical” approach, even keeping journals to track their own spiritual and occupational progress. When Calvinists work and abstain from pleasures and emotions, they are not only being obedient to Calvin’s ideal of God, they are also proving that they are among God’s elect and will be saved from hell, since good works are “indispensable as signs of election.”

Along with obsession with performance, Weber argues that Calvinism’s predestination creates an inner loneliness which results in the pessimism and individualism that pervades the capitalist spirit. Calvinists believe that neither church nor community nor sacraments can bring salvation, only God’s grace. Weber remarks that this loneliness creates a strong-willed individualist, mentality unique to Calvinist traditions, contrasting especially with Catholics, who believe that they stand united together before God. Weber finds this pessimistic individualism throughout Puritan theology as well, since it descends directly from Calvinism. In the famous Puritan allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, lives in the City of Destruction (symbolizing damnation) with his wife and children. However, he feels compelled to go to the Celestial City (symbolizing salvation). Leaving his crying wife and children behind him, Christian puts his fingers in his ears and runs away from them, not even considering their safety or well-being until he himself is safe in the Celestial City. Weber states that this story perfectly articulates the mood of the Puritan, or Calvinist, believer who was basically only concerned with himself, and had thoughts only for his own salvation, suggesting a selfish level of individualism in the belief system. Weber notes that Catholics tend to oppose striving after material gain which exceeded one’s own needs, since it only seemed possible at the expense of others, and must therefore necessarily be regarded as reprehensible. However, his analysis of Calvinist individualism suggests that concern for others is largely eliminated through Calvinist thinking. Striving after gains, even at other’s expense, is no longer reprehensible, since the only people Calvinists must answer for is themselves.

Weber argues that Calvinism’s obsession with performance and pessimistic individualism are significant contributors to the development of the capitalist ethos, since succeeding in a capitalist economy requires ceaseless and methodical effort, as well as a certain level of apathy toward other people. These traits moved through Calvinism into subsequent traditions, such as the Presbyterians and especially the English Puritans, who shaped early American culture and fostered its intensely capitalistic national attitude. Overall, Weber is not kind to Calvinism and its doctrine of predestination, describing what he calls “the pathos of its inhumanity.” Nevertheless, he recognizes Calvinism as uniquely “logically consistent,” which explains its influence in Protestantism and its dominant role in developing the capitalist ethos.

Puritan Asceticism

Weber suggests that the another major contributor to Protestantism’s “capitalist spirit” is the development of a new form of asceticism, or self-discipline and avoidance of any form of indulgence. Since Martin Luther rejected Catholicism’s monastic asceticism, a new concept of asceticism needed to take its place, one that did not frown upon Protestant work or wealth. Weber suggests that no group developed this new asceticism as well as the English Puritans, who embrace the ideals of both Martin Luther and John Calvin. By examining English Puritan asceticism, Weber argues that Protestantism produced a concept of asceticism that enabled them to dominate as capitalists and created the modern middle-class, yet also eliminated much of the vibrancy from Western culture.

Building on Luther’s concept of the Protestant “calling” and Calvinism’s belief that hard work is the only evidence of salvation, the Puritans adapted the concept of asceticism to encourage hard work, saving, and investment. Weber suggests that since the Puritans cannot use the traditional model of asceticism which demands forgoing wealth and possessions, they change it. To this end, Puritan theologian Richard Baxter taught that idleness, rather than wealth, is the true sin. Within this paradigm, wealth is only sinful if one stops to enjoy it, thereby embracing leisure rather than glorifying God by working. Weber notes that because idleness is a sin, even the wealthy are expected to work regardless of whether they need the money. When the Puritans amass wealth but are not allowed to spend it on any form of sinful luxury, which would be considered idleness, the only due course is either for them to save it or reinvest it in their own businesses. Both of these actions are conducive to the capitalist spirit and allow people to grow their wealth even more. Weber argues that Puritan asceticism thus opposes enjoyment and consumption while further liberating the acquisition of wealth from the inhibitions of traditionalist ethics, making them ideal capitalists, since they only spend money to make more money.

Weber notes that Puritan leaders like Baxter also preach their hyper-productive brand of asceticism as a way to avoid sin and sensuality, which makes them culturally dry but efficient workers. Baxter writes that asceticism, being constant work, helps people avoid sensuality and instinctual enjoyment of life, which again denotes leisure and which the Puritans regard as sinful. Weber suggests that this becomes yet another way in which Puritan asceticism reinforces the value of hard, constant, physical or mental work. However, Weber states that the Puritans’ aversion to sensuality or pleasure make them dour, almost culture-less people. He notes that Puritans detest artistic expression such as theater or fashion, leaning instead toward conformity in all things and promoting plain utility. In Weber’s view, this makes the Puritans even more suited to capitalist endeavors, since uniformity and standardization in business encourage productivity and dependable profits.

Weber ultimately argues that Puritan asceticism established the middle class, the height of capitalist enterprise since it eliminated the distinction between nobility and peasantry, though this comes at the cost of the loss of culture and the rise of materialism. According to Weber, Puritan asceticism’s constant and dependable creation of wealth “always benefited the tendency toward a middle-class, economically rational, conduct of life.” However, with this heightened rationalism and resistance toward artistic expression or truly enjoying one’s life comes a loss of vibrant culture. Additionally, although Puritan asceticism tries to ward off materialism, Weber argues that it ironically brought about the greatest materialist age in human history. He states, 

As asceticism began to change the world and endeavored to exercise its influence over it, the outward goods of the world gained increasing and finally inescapable power over men, as never before in history.” 

Weber thus argues that Puritan asceticism, as a major contributor to Protestantism’s capitalist spirit, created an intensely anti-ascetic world driven entirely by profit, growth, and material wealth.

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