Weber’s Protestant Ethic Revisited: Explaining the Capitalism We Take for Granted

Author Edmund Ruge revisits the German Sociologist Max Weber's theory of international development to see how Weber's theory, as expressed in his classic book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism are still relevant today in the field of international development. Edmund Ruge then juxtaposes Weber's theory of development with two other theories of development that were proposed by Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber illustrates a relationship between ideology and economic structure.  Though critics quickly attacked him for espousing a spurious causal mechanism, this was not his intention. Rather, he argues that Puritan ideology provided a favorable environment for the rise of capitalism. This essay will explain Weber’s central thesis before placing it in dialogue with Hegelian and Marxist modernization theories.

By selling as blessed the concepts of work and wealth as blessed, “ascetic Protestantism” – most specifically Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and Baptism – produces an environment amenable to the development of capitalism. According to Weber, this process occurs via the Calvinist concept of predestination, in which heaven is reserved for an elect and predetermined few (certudo salutis), and the rest of humanity is doomed to damnation. Each human’s fate has already been decided as blessed or condemned and neither human effort nor divine sacrament may be employed to ensure passage to the kingdom of heaven. Calvinists, therefore, live in constant fear.  As a result, they search for possible signs of their election, both in order to outwardly demonstrate their status as one of the chosen as well as to convince themselves of their own guaranteed entrance into heaven.

Calvinist behavior is thus conducive to capitalism: they work tirelessly and reinvest accumulated wealth into their endeavors.  They do this because such behavior provides a visible sign of one’s grace; confidently and constantly fulfilling one’s vocational duty to God marks you as one of the chosen.  Though such a positive view of labor seems intuitive today, it is only because we have forgotten about the major mechanism responsible for the connection between work and godliness.  This connection lies in the German word beruf, an amalgam of what today we deem one’s vocation or profession or calling. The word only appears in the Christian liturgy following the Protestant Reformation and proves difficult to translate because the idea itself has since become disaggregated.[1] (p 50).  That is, the word beruf referred to a type of practice or labor considered both one’s personal vocation and the work that one is called by God to perform.  By assiduously performing one’s beruf, a Puritan fulfills two tasks: first, he obeys a holy commandment regarding his duty on earth and, second, he demonstrates his divine election to the afterlife.  Alternately, neglecting one’s beruf and engaging in idleness amounts to shirking the will of God and displays a sure sign of damnation.

This separates Puritan society from what Weber terms “traditionalism.”[2]  According to Weber, it is human nature to only work as much as is necessary for subsistence.  Working excessively in pursuit of wages could lead to the amassing of wealth, and such a path – prior to the onset of the Reformation – was considered sinful.  Whereas Christian doctrine clearly defines riches as abhorrent (i.e., it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom),[3] and whereas the devout previously engaged in very little labor at all (as in the case of many orders of monks), Puritanism construed wealth as grace and labor as a devotion to God. Thus, it broke with contemporary ideologies and connected faith to labor. It spurred Puritans to work, articulating labor itself as a calling.

Capitalism, however, did not need ascetic Protestantism to survive.  Increased mechanization and the rise of capital-intensive labor allowed capitalism to shed its religious snares and its ideological support.  Puritans may have been the only ones that felt obliged to perform beruf-style labor with such intensity centuries ago, but the work-imperative, the calling of productivity has now fallen on the heads of everyone in capitalist society.  At last, Western capitalism has reached the point at which “man exists for the sake of business, instead of the reverse.”[4]

A large volume of criticism leveled at Weber’s The Protestant Ethic targeted his supposed causal relationship between the Protestant Reformation and the rise of capitalism.  This is an animadversion rooted in misinterpretation. Weber took pains to avoid being accused of constructing such a flimsy argument by emphasizing that his essay develops a much more nebulous theory of what Goethe called Wahlverwandtschaft, or “elective affinity.”  He borrowed from Goethe’s chemistry-born theory of human interaction and behavior to cultivate his own sociological theories regarding human motivation and its effect on history.  Viewed in the context of sociology as a whole, such a concept hardly seems to stand out.  As Weber would do in later works on religion in China and India, The Protestant Ethic seeks to parse what R.H. Tawney called “the psychological conditions which made possible the development of capitalist civilization.”[5]

Weber would go on to defend himself over the next several decades, asserting that it was never his intention to argue that the rise of Protestantism brought about capitalism.  In his own introduction that he wrote in 1920, he describes the intention of his major life’s work as one that explicates “the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic spirit, or the ethos of an economic system.”[6] This was never to say that religion triggered the ascension of an economic system, but rather that religion could play a singular role in driving human action.  Puritanism provided a framework for breaking free of traditionalist models, and resulted in a “genesis of a psychological habit which enabled men to meet the requirements of early modern capitalism.”[7] Capitalism was heretofore anathema to traditionalist society because the zeitgeist condemned work and riches.  By not only justifying, but glorifying the act of devotion to a profession (beruf), the Reformation unlocked the door to capitalist-style labor.  This is not a causal relationship but rather a fostering of conditions conducive to the progress of an economic system.  Such an argument may seem less clear-cut, but Weber was aware of his limitations and scope.  Attacks on his supposed causal model easily dismantle a much simpler argument than Weber sought to lay out.

Weber set himself apart from Karl Marx and Georg W.F. Hegel by pointing to the role of thought-systems and their effects on human behavior as historical levers. Whereas Marxist theory consistently cited material forces, and whereas Hegel pointed to peoples (i.e., the Germans or the French) as the essential blocks in question, Weber pointed to the individual as the major unit in explaining change.  His goal as sociologist is to determine the forces that drive human action via verstehen, or an emphatic understanding of human behavior. Weber thus reduces explanations of historical trends to the micro level and argues for the significance of ideas in driving humans and humans in driving change.

Weber’s second departure from Hegel, Marx, and more contemporary modernization theorists lies in his pessimism.  Hegel and Marx, though they differed strongly on the point of liberal society being the ultimate end for Universal History, agreed that humanity’s long road winds forever forward.  In Hegel’s dialectic, history climbs to higher ideas as thought systems in conflict iron out their contradictions.  For Marx, the same contradictions manifest not in ideas, but in material contradictions about the forces of production: from the fall of feudalism to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the onset of capitalism, all steps forward can be explained by a class struggle that is rooted in the material dynamics of production. Capitalism, for Marx, was also due to be overcome. Both thinkers thus elaborate triumphant, forward-facing ideologies

Weber paints a bleaker picture.  History’s “increasing rationalism and secularism” leads him to the conclusion that humans are not even heading in the right direction (Fukuyama 1992).  Writing at the eve of WWI, Weber was inclined to see history’s progression towards the given moment as a mistake.  Puritanism dispelled all sense of magic – spread a general Entzauberung, or disenchantment – by rendering the Christian sacraments ineffectual in redeeming human souls. Its belief in predestination dismissed as meaningless and pagan all Catholic use of pomp, music, and ceremony. Then the Enlightenment and the rise of science not only allowed humans to explain everything in sight, effectively killing the wonders of superstition and tradition, but also gave rise to mechanization through technological innovation. This all combined to set capitalism on an unstoppable rampage.  Capitalism shed Puritanism and “escaped from its cage.”[8] That is to say, capitalism’s ties to religious asceticism has long since fallen away. All that remains is the human imperative to work, now divorced from any ideology beyond materialism. Capitalism is, after all, an “economic system based, not on custom or tradition, but on the deliberate and systematic adjustment of economic means to the attainment of the objective of pecuniary profit.”[9] The system will continue to shackle human life until “the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”[10] This is not a happy outlook.

Weber’s pessimism rings truer today than he may have intended. Despite being over a century old, The Protestant Work Ethic reads all too familiar. Weber bemoans elements of German society in which “man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse,” and citizens are unable to justify their relentless activity with anything beyond the need to “provide for [their] children and grandchildren.“[11] Not only has capitalism continued to progress nearly uninhibited since his writing – shirking failed socialist experiments repeatedly – but its followers have now forgotten the key role ascetic Protestantism played in its rise. The idea of work for the sake of work goes unchallenged in the West, and its origins unexamined.  Now, as we witness the rise of robotics and automation, the question of “why do we work?” is inescapable. Weber’s work bares rereading, even if only to remind us not to take capitalism for granted.

Edmund Ruge (Latin American Studies; BC ’16, DC ’17) is a Boren Fellow en route to Brazil. Before attending SAIS, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique. He also holds a BA in Latin American Studies from the Johns Hopkins University.

Works Cited

Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber; an Intellectual Portrait. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

Eisenstadt, S. N. The Protestant Ethic and Modernization; a Comparative View. New York: Basic, 1968.

Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: The West and the Rest. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free, 1992.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and J. Sibree. The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1992.

Swedberg, Richard, and Ola Agevall. The Max Weber Dictionary: Key Words and Central Concepts. Stanford, CA: Stanford Social Sciences, 2005.

Weber, Max, Anthony Giddens, and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic; Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992.

[1] Weber, Max, Anthony Giddens, and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic; Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 50

[2] Ibid, p. 39

[3] Matthew 19:24, CEB

[4] Weber, Max, Anthony Giddens, and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic; Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 45

[5] Ibid, p. 8

[6] Ibid, p. 22

[7] Eisenstadt, S. N. The Protestant Ethic and Modernization; a Comparative View. New York: Basic, 1968

[8] Weber, Max, Anthony Giddens, and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic; Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 104

[9] Ibid, p. 9

[10] Ibid, p. 103

[11] Ibid, p. 45

Edmund Ruge
Edmund Ruge