A Tangled Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism

In The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber opposes the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism and relates the rise of the capitalist economy to the Calvinist belief in the moral value of hard work and the fulfillment of one’s worldly duties.

My Review

I came into this not knowing any of the dialogue around Weber’s philosophy, or its significance to understanding history, sociology, religion, or any of that. I came out of it knowing a little more, but only enough to say I am aware of Weber’s argument (which has been hotly contested as well). I was just interested in the connection between capitalistic systems and Calvinism. Which is random, but I’m not the person who wrote a whole essay and a bazillion notes about it, so address your concerns to Weber.

Now sit down while I badly discuss and probably grossly misrepresent Weber’s argument.

The Discussion.

From the blurb, one expects the bulk of the argument to focus on Calvinism and its direct influence on capitalism. And of course, Weber did identify Calvinism and its doctrine of “perserverance of the saints” as a significant philosophy that contributed to the meritorious “working out” of salvation through a “calling” to which God had divinely elected people. In that capacity, the working of a trade became a service for God, a function of salvation, and a tangible marker of an individual’s election. But Weber doesn’t limit his approach–he goes back into historical German work ethics, the birth of Protestantism in all its forms and offshoots, the contrast between its popular, individualistic doctrine and traditional Catholic ethics which intertwined in feudalistic societal structures.

At a time when Catholic thought elevated an ascetic lifestyle and complete rejection of the material world–possessions, work, and societal connection–as the ultimate spiritual achievment, protestantism sought to spiritualize the mundane. Where working a trade or being involved in community was seen by the Catholic church as a necessary evil in order to live on earth, detracting energy and focus from purely spiritual pursuits, protestants began to practically apply biblical tenets to change the view of work, even secular work, from something completely amoral to something that was actually an individual’s service for God.

Max Weber

Weber also identifies Puritan philosophies of a divine “calling” to your occupation as something that contributed to the development of work being its own reward, rather than simply a means to live. The logic was that if God calls some people to preach, doesn’t he equally call some people to be smiths, merchants, weavers, or what-have-you? Therefore, anyone with a “secular” job should treat it as God’s calling on their life, and do it with that consciousness always in mind, therefore doing the best that they can at it. This had the practical effect in some cases of making virtue of necessity. Where before people would commonly only work as much as they had to in order to live, now work was becoming the end as well as the means. The key to it is that it is exclusively for God’s glory, not for selfish gain or luxurious enjoyment. However, the implication is that if you do work hard for God’s glory, he will show his acceptance of your offering by making you have return on your work. So the more spiritual you are, the more materially rich you will be. You can see where the problems might arise.

But what about protestantism, and Puritan beliefs in particular, motivated people to see work this way, after years of keeping vocational life and spiritual life compartmentalized? Part of it comes down to the Calvinist doctrines of election and perseverance of the saints, wherein God has chosen people according to his divine sovereignty and those chosen will (no ifs, ands, or buts) demonstrate their election, or “calling,” throughout their life. Remember how we just referred to a person’s vocation as their “calling”? Well, that’s where conceptually, a person’s earthly work gets conflated or even identified with their eternal salvation. Suddenly, it becomes a matter of eternal significance just how well you do your job.

Another motivator for this psychological shift on the perspective of work within protestant circles, according to Weber, lies in their focus upon personal, individual relationship with God, rather than membership in a corporate (sometimes state-imposed) system of worship, such as the Catholic church was. It was the difference between individuals taking personal responsibility versus relying on a church and its go-betweens to ensure salvation; in protestant faith, you can’t be saved by default of birth, family, or association. Therefore the onus was now on the individual to exemplify their internal spiritual regeneration by an irreproachable lifestyle, rather than their membership in a church and professed adherence to its doctrine. This was not usually presented as a “works” gospel, though it could be misreprented or misapplied as such. The function of the “calling” is that is decidedly after salvation that the works take place. With few mental gymnastics, this could be interpreted as some species of “maintenance”, though the degree to which an individual is required to demonstrate their prior salvation through good works (or if they are required to at all) is something that is greatly debated within protestant thought.

However, regardless of ultimate spiritual significance, the importance placed on individual integrity and responsibility is something that carried over on the largescale into the secular work of protestants who began valuing financial independence and good business reputation. In a way, they replaced the spiritual importance of good works and penance with enterprise. A psychology of individualism rose dramatically as Puritans left England in pursuit of a land where conscience was king, and an individual’s religious beliefs could not be mandated by the state. And there are definite pros to that–for one thing, people are freed from potential exploitation by corrupt or misguided leadership, while also being held to personal account for their own vices and virtues. However, when the philosophy of ambition takes over leaving the restraining motivation of spirituality behind, capitalism runs rampant into greed and materialism.

Weber doesn’t believe it is circumstantial that the most significant capitalist nation in history arose from the industry started by Puritan settlers. At the very least, a correlation must be admitted, if not causation. But how? Some of it may be the simple drawing out of initially innocuous doctrines designed to motivate Christians to live good lives to more extreme applications. Along with the idea of “calling” comes the attendant concept of an assigned station in life. So, while Puritan doctrines are putting some of the onus on the individual, they are simultaneously reaffirming the notion that some people cannot rise above their station in life, because that’s not their “calling.” Which looks like feudalism by any other name. It’s tricky–because in order to be a successful landowner, you have to have tenants who work the land, right? That’s not to say you’re better than them in God’s eyes, just that you have a different calling. You might be generous and say this is recognition of different abilities, aptitudes, and motivations, but it can easily become less an acceptance of the necessity for diversity and more of a rebranded classist system.

When this gets into capitalism… well, if the underpaid workers who have to labour 12 hours a day are doing their job “to the glory of God” and that’s making my revenues go up, who am I to question God? I can’t refuse his blessing on myself, nor can I rob my workers of potential blessings they might yet receive by my paying them more or letting them work less. Because work and money are the ultimate spiritual currency.

And in some cases, it was. Weber recounts that affiliation with certain religious groups or a church actually conferred a good business reputation. In some churches in the United States historically in order to become a member you had an extensive audit of your business practices. If anyone was caught in underhanded or shoddy dealings, they couldn’t retain membership. It became such a mark of reliability that it was nearly impossible to get anyone, religious or not, to do business with you unless you were a member of a respectable church. In a sense, it is admirable that churches were self-regulating in such a way that was positive and transparent, but it also opened the door to a lot of self-serving businessmen trying to bag membership any way they could so they could be successful in their town or neighbourhood. And I would imagine that slowly destroys the integrity of what is supposed to be a primarily spiritual community.

Of course, Weber is not arguing that protestantism birthed capitalism. Capitalistic ideas existed long before, though there were no significant capitalist societies. Even within Protestantism thought there is significant disparity of conditions favourable to capitalistic systems. Calvinism and the groups with similar philosophies, like Puritans, did much more to influence the growth of capitalistic society than for instance Lutheranism and its attendant branches, which focused much more on the gracious aspect of God before and after salvation and as such is hesitant to prescribe a system of ethics that must be obeyed. Other groups were more ascetic in their lifetyles, remaining apart from society or even living communally among themselves, and would not hold public office because it is part of this world’s secular system.

However, Weber does think the ethics associated with the rise of protestantism did create a particular mindset in individuals which then contributed to capitalism taking firm hold of the areas where protestantism was most formative, such as North America and parts of western Europe. Weber is also not arguing that religion is the only influence–it is simply the factor he is considering in his paper. Neither is Weber arguing that capitalism is evil and Protestants are to blame. Capitalism, like any other political/economic/societal system, has its ideal form, and its practical one: what it would be like if it worked in perfect theory, versus how it has actually developed. In fact, Weber credits much of the more universally respected qualities that became attendant on capitalism–such as good effort, honesty, fairness–to its religious influences. Which makes sense that it would work that way if the religion is doing anything close to what it’s supposed to.

There is a lot more to this discussion, and a lot more detail and nuance to Weber’s analysis, but I have to stop somewhere, and I think I’ve given a fairly decent overview of what I understood of his writings on this.

The Conclusion.

So, what was my takeaway? Apparently I need to read more Weber, or more turn of the 20th century philosophy works. It encouraged me to think in more gradient ways about systems, their complex histories, and contributions to the makeup of our world today. I came into it expecting direct lines of cause to effect (read: “cause to blame for effect”) and instead I saw a lot of nuance. Sometimes the thing you least expect has the most unexpected impact on the future. I was impressed with how accurate a lot of Weber’s projections about society were to how things panned out–he wrote this in 1905. I appreciated the balanced treatment of his topic, acknowledging other factors and fields of study while also keeping himself mainly confined to his chosen angle, which was complex enough. I do still think Christians need to stop rationalizing materialism by emphasizing that it’s “the love of money that’s the root of all evil, not money itself” and start asking ourselves why we feel the need to clarify that so emphatically.

The edition of the book that I read was a translation of Weber’s original 1905 essay. While the language is quite dense, it is worth while to focus on small portions of it a little harder in order to understand Weber’s points. Also, though I have some knowledge of protestant theology, I don’t feel like it would be too confusing even to someone who has less knowledge of it than me. Weber is very good at defining his terms, clarifying points, and explaining the theology he’s dealing with, so don’t let that part of it daunt you. This edition also included some notes about the critical reception and Weber’s responses to them, which were unfailingly entertaining.

If you have ever been troubled by the obnoxious question of whether Jesus would be a communist or a capitalist were he on earth today, completely ignoring that he himself taught and practised a whole different way of life, I can’t promise this book will help clarify it for you. The New Testament gospels would, but I’m not reviewing them at the moment. (Hint: Jesus never said, “By their sound business practice, you shall know my people.”) This book will, however, give you an appreciation for the development of Protestantism, theology, historical work ethics, and the surprising psychological factors at play in a meritocractic system.

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