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Lecture 12—The Soul of the Modern World: Weber’s Protestant Ethic Thesis

April 23, 1999



Max Weber (1864-1920)

I. Weber’s Protestant ethics thesis is that at the core of the modern world is an ethic with religious roots and secular spirit of capitalism. In other words, there is a complex of cultural and technical disciplines, which embody a form of rationality—a logic—peculiar to capitalism in its specifically modern form.

Weber agreed with Marx that capitalism had material preconditions and that it produced class conflict, but he insisted that the emergence of capitalism required an unprecedented moral outlook, that is, the "rational asceticism" of the 17th century Calvinist sectarians.

Modern capitalism emerges as an unintended social consequence of otherworldly interests.

Weber’s sees his Protestant Ethic essay as a contribution to understanding the way ideas become effective forces in history.

II.  The Spirit of Capitalism (pp. 48ff) embodied in Ben Franklin:

Time is money, credit is money, money is of the prolific generating nature, pay punctually and exactly, keep an exact account for some time both of your expenses and your income, etc.

The spirit of capitalism is n attitude which seeks profit rationally and systematically, not simply a way of making a living.

Capitalism is rooted in "a peculiar ethic": the duty of the individual to increase his or her capital.

Earning money becomes an end in itself.

Earning money, "so long as it is done legally," is the result and expression of virtue and fluency in a calling: the core of Franklin’s ethic and the moral core and basis of capitalist culture.

In Franklin there is a utilitarian strain but ethical quality of sermon he preaches to Yuppies of his day is unmistakable and that is the characteristic thing.

III. Asceticism

Innerworldly Asceticism: asceticism practiced within the world.

Otherworldly asceticism tends to withdraw from the world into the monastery.

Asceticism doesn’t need to flee from the world in order to be ascetic.

Economic Rationalism: the modern concept of industry is colored by a Christian influence that comes from monastic asceticism.

It is in this conception of industry that origins of capitalist ethos are found.

IV. Main point of Weber’s essay

"An ethic based on religion," he says, "places certain psychological sanctions on the maintenance of the attitude prescribed by it. Only in so far as these sanctions work, which is often very different from the doctrine of theologians, does such an ethic gain an independent influence on the conduct of life and thus on the economic order."

V. Traditionalism and the Lutheran Idea of the Calling

Difference between capitalist & precapitalist spirits hinges on "traditionalism."

The Lutheran Idea of the Calling breaks through traditionalism.


Rationalization: increasing application of rationality to all institutions and areas of life (e.g., the economy, politics, family, religion, education).

Rationalism: methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of increasingly precise calculation of means.

Weber stresses: what is necessary for capitalism—not sufficient but necessary—is the relationship of a man or woman to his or her calling.


Both the German word Beruf and the English word calling carry and unmistakable religious conception.

The idea of the calling gave everyday worldly activity a religious significance.

Moral justification of worldly activity is one of the most important results of the Reformation.



Calvin complements Luther’s work, at least in terms of providing the ideological underpinnings for the emergence of capitalism.

Weber makes clear that he doesn’t mean that Protestants consider anything like the spirit of capitalism as the end of their life work. Indeed, the spirit of capitalism is not the Protestant ethic. It is a distortion of the Protestant ethic.

Their only concern was the salvation of the soul.

Their moral ideals—and the practical results of their teachings—were based on that central concern, "and were the consequences of purely religious motives," Weber stresses.


VII. Moral Practices & Dogmatic Roots of Principal Forms of Ascetic Protestantism

1) Calvinism (Weber’s focus)

2) Pietism

3) Methodism

4) Baptist Sects

VIII. Social Psychological Consequences of the Doctrine of Predestination.

"a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness"

Psychological sanctions which gave a direction to practical conduct.

Crucial problem for Weber: the "The question, Am I one of the elect?" is bound to rise for the believer and to force all other interests into the background. "How," in other words, "can I be sure of this state of grace?"

Pastoral counseling: have faith, work hard to avoid fear of damnation.


Rational Puritan asceticism brought human action under constant self-control with a careful consideration of their ethical consequences.

Most important practical idea of Puritanism: active self-control.

Purpose of Puritan Asceticism: to lead an alert, intelligent life.

Most urgent task of Puritan Asceticism: the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment.

Most important means of Puritan Asceticism: to bring order into the conduct of its adherents.

Most important social consequence of Puritan Asceticism: a systematic rational ordering of the moral life as a whole (126).

Weber’s main claim: one of the fundamental elements of the spirit of capitalism and even of all of modern culture is "rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling" grew out of "the spirit of Christian asceticism" (180).

The essential elements of the spirit of capitalism are the same as what Weber called Puritan worldly asceticism, "only without a religious basis, which by Franklin’s time had died away. The spirit of capitalism is not, however, the Protestant ethic. The spirit of capitalism is an egregious distortion of the Protestant ethic of transforming the world according to God’s will.

Pp. 181-182.