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Webers Protestant Ethic Essay

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An analysis of Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”


The writing of Weber indicates his sensitivity to diverse cultural meanings and his ability to find an ‘ethos’ or ‘geist” i.e. a spirit is largely indicative not of repudiating Marx’s economic analysis of society, but rather of rounding off Marx’s writings whilst valuing empathy, or understanding – ‘verstehen’ – in Weber’s native German. One of the primary questions that arose, for me, was why and where does this “rounding” off of Marx with empathetic understanding of the human condition emerge from?

Weber’s life can be told as a fascinating story of affluent birth, mental suffering, elitist and intellectual companionship, student political participation and a lot of historical facts compiled together. However, the key aspect of his life which influenced his writing of the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” was his immediate family background – his mother was a Protestant Christian belonging to the Calvinist school of thought. The second influence was the German intellectual tradition before and during Weber’s time – most importantly Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” and the linkages between historical changes and the economy and other social institutions along with Weber’s close association with Verein fur Soziapolitik (Association for Social Policy) which worked on progressive social reform without the radical revolutionist ideals of Marx, influenced the subject and the style of Weber’s writing of the “Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism” which was first published as a two part article in 1904-1905 in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, of which Weber was one of the editors.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904- 05) is thus, the result of Weber’s study of American society and its religion. It incorporates anthropological observations of Weber, something of a rarity in sociological method before Weber’s work about the same. At its most basic, The Protestant Ethic argues that the development of capitalism in the West was not a product of economic forces alone, but depended partly on the religious value the ascetic Protestants gave to their work.

This review of primary literature has two objectives. First, it will summarize Weber’s arguments in The Protestant Ethic in the order in which they are presented and in his voice. Second, it seeks to understand why The Protestant Ethic is considered by many to be Weber’s magnum opus, and why it is foundational to the discipline of sociology.


► Author’s introduction to the text:

Weber’s introduction to the text presents the themes of rationalization, bureaucratic political organization, the characteristics and origins of modern capitalism, and the limits of the study. Chemistry, scientific experiments, classic art, systemic studies in the university and architecture are defined in the West- and not the East- as rational. Weber begins by making this fundamental distinction between Eastern and Western society, emphasizing the “rational, systemic and specialized” methodology of the Occident. Second, he discusses how a state with a “rational, written constitution, rationally ordained by law, and an administration bound to rational rules or laws, administered by trained officials is known, in this combination of characteristics” only in the West. This “rational structure of law and administration,” or bureaucracy, is, as he argues further, foundational to Western capitalism.

This capitalism is “identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational capitalistic enterprise” and it is not, as Weber emphatically states, driven by mere “unlimited greed for gain” that is “not in the least identical with capitalism and still less its spirit”. At its most basic, capitalistic action then, is “one which rests on the expectation for profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange” and it becomes “rational” when there is a careful calculation in terms of capital, so that, at the end of each business day, the cumulated money assets (the fiscal value of resources in possession) exceeds the value of the capital (the “estimated value of the material means of production used for acquisition in exchange”). “The most important fact,” of rational capitalism according to Weber, “is that always a calculation of capital in terms of money is made” with an ever-present concern for the bottom line.

Weber notes this formal, technical capitalism is a novel phenomenon consisting of several preconditions. The rational structure of law as a model and support for the economy has already been mentioned. “Rational business book-keeping” and “legal separation of corporate from personal property” allow for careful calculation and rational industrialization of the former domestic enterprise, respectively. Also essential is the development of wage labour, or labour market, for “exact calculation-the basis of everything else-is only possible on the basis of free labour.”

Finally, Weber raises the question of why this rational capitalism arose exclusively in the West. Apart from “rational technique and law” he notes that “the ability and disposition of men to adapt to certain types of rational practical conduct” is crucial. Dispositions are formed in large part by religious ideals, which play a role in “the development of an economic spirit or the ethos of an economic system.” This leads Weber to focus in the American case on “the connection of the spirit of modern economic life with the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism.” Weber is first to admit that by focusing on the influence of ascetic Protestantism on modern capitalism, he is treating “only one side of the causal chain”. This shows his commitment to a multi-faceted understanding of social phenomena, where neither ideals nor material conditions dominate. Furthermore, Weber mentions that he is not a specialist and especially his use of translated materials require him, as a writer, “to make modest claims for his work.”

► Part I: The problem

i. Chapter 1: Religious affiliation and social stratification

In this chapter Weber has three primary objectives; observe the dominance of business and capital by Protestants, discuss the cultural differences between Catholics and Protestants, and argue that ascetic values and capitalistic acquisition are, counter-intuitively, correlated.

He begins with “the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labour, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant.” This was at the time, according to Weber, true even across bounds of nationality, and could be explained through historical circumstances: He posited, particularly the fact that the wealthiest areas “went over to Protestantism in the sixteenth century” thereby giving the Protestants industrial collateral. But why were these most economically developed districts prone to Protestant Reformation to begin with? While it may appear that freedom from economic tradition in these areas would encourage a questioning of religious tradition and authority, it must be noted that, on the contrary, the Protestants rebelled to only be restricted later. There was too little Church supervision of life, for them. This “rising bourgeois middle class…not only failed to resist the unexampled tyranny of Puritanism, but even developed heroism in its def...

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