The book and the man
Max Weber (1864 - 1920) is known as one of the "founding fathers" of modern sociology. He worked in the Hermeneutic tradition, which insisted that the study of man is very apart from the study of nature. Whilst nature could be understood in strict causal terms, Hermeneutics held that human behaviour had to be "interpreted" in a way that had no counterpart in the natural sciences. In Germany this was very much intertwined with the Idealist tradition, which stressed the primacy of spirit over matter. Weber is best known for his work on the sociology of religion, something he saw as a study of the rationalisation of modern society (a recurrent theme through The Protestant Ethic). The Protestant Ethic is just a small fragment (it was originally published as two magazine articles) of his study of other World religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Confucianism (he planned a study of Islam, but didn't complete it).
The Protestant Ethic was published in 1905-05 in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in Germany. It first appeared in English in 1920-21 in Weber's Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion (Gesammelte Aufsätza zur Religionssoziologie). The English translation thus contains some footnotes discussing the debate on the essay which had taken place since its first German publication.
The Protestant Ethic is highly polemical and appears to have been written with such an intent. The first thing a modern reader will notice in the Introduction is Weber's constant insistence of the "superiority" (in terms of scientific progress) of Occidental civilization. Architecture, art, medicine, scholarship - in all he esteems the Occident highest. The object of his study is one particular aspect of Occidental culture which Weber says has not developed elsewhere: modern capitalism, in the form of the rational organization of formally free labour. The emergence of this institution is the object of his study, particularly the part which the ascetic branches of Protestantism have had to play in it. Let us follow his discussion.
Capitalism and traditionalism: the importance of definition
It would be foolish to suggest that the drive to acquisition is not part of the human state of nature, but it is equally foolish to suppose that every man is engaged in a drive to acquire as much as possible (such is the nature of the rational, methodical capitalist). Nor should we regard every drive to profit as "capitalism" - the Merchant Adventurers of the Middle Ages had a conception of profit, but they were not engaged in rational, capitalistic enterprise. The attitude of the swashbuckling opportunist that laughs at all ethical limitations in the drive to booty is not the same as that of the rational capitalist. Speculators who invest opportunely in war, state monopoly and political ends do so in a necessarily irrational manner, and the conception of constantly renewed profit does not exist. Capitalism is the rational organization of labour attuned to a particular market, seeking renewed profit from this market. This thrifty bourgeois attitude shall be examined in detail below, but first we must compare capitalism to the society's and environment's it developed in, and take a brief look at the interplay between it and the "traditional" attitude.
Weber regards as "traditionalism" the attitude of the worker who does not view his labour as an end in itself, but rather the means to the end of satisfying his traditional needs. This attitude was demonstrated to Weber by the complaints of capitalists who offered piece-rates to their workers. A piece rate is an agreement whereby a worker's wages increase by increment with the amount of work he accomplishes. For instance, a factory worker might be offered one pound for every widget he produces. Say that by exerting himself fully he may produce ten widgets a week, and so is accustomed to an income of ten pounds per week. In an effort to increase the factory's output to meet a large order, the capitalist ups the piece rate to two pounds per widget. Anyone viewing their labour as an end in itself would doubtlessly keep their exertion at the same level as before, and those driven by avarice for the largest earning might increase it further - but the attitude of "traditionalism" would drive a worker to reduce his output to five widgets, hence maintaining the wage he is accustomed to. The drive of such a worker is to satisfy his traditional needs with the maximum amount of comfort. Such a labour force is not conducive to capitalist development.
An ethos of capitalism
Weber quotes Benjamin Franklin as "undeniably" expressing the "spirit of capitalism". He quotes from two of Franklin's works - Necessary Hints to Those That would Be Rich and Advice to a Young Tradesman. Weber says that these words sum up the attitude of the capitalist ethos - that the increase of one's capital is an end in itself, and in fact a duty one owes to it. Franklin implores the young tradesman to take no rest, to not neglect his duty by letting his capital sit idle. As an ethos, this is quite detached from any enjoyment of life, or any pleasure-seeking with the fruits of one's earnings. It seems in fact highly irrational - why would a gentleman wish to spend his life in pursuit of profit, and not dispose of it for his own pleasure? This was not some mere crude avarice or greed (auri sacra fames) which was distinct to the rest of society, as the romanticists of today claim. It was an ethical maxim, a duty. And from whence came this duty?
It appeared in a society hostile to it. The most highly-developed capitalistic center of the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, Florence, would have regarded a moral attitude such as Franklin's unthinkable. The aristocracy of blood only tolerated the aristocracy of capital because of taxes that could be extracted from it, and regarded it as "necessary" at best. In England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the people were inordinately proud of their commerce but opposed to the bourgeois on a personal level. There was a conception of scarce resources in the world that England must act viciously to acquire (often with the help if the Royal Navy - such activity belongs perhaps in the category of capitalist adventuring), but no particular respect was afforded to those who did it. But meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, where there was virtually no banking, a small bourgeois and little money, capitalistic activity was seen as a duty to oneself and to one's people. It is this ethos of capitalism as a calling, so alien to the world from which it sprang, which Weber considers.
Lutheranism - a stepping stone
Martin Luther first expounded the idea of a religious "calling" to fulfill a temporal duty, and Lutheranism was differentiated from Catholicism in several important ways which encouraged this. It may be considered a platitude, says Weber, that Luther stressed the importance of worldly activity in a calling as inspired by God. Catholicism of course encouraged good works, but these were of an essential irrational character - there was no need for them to be sustained for the Catholic to achieve salvation. The very human cycle of sin, repentence, absolution (through the confessional) and then renewed sin was the lot of the Catholic, and this provided no imperative for the individual to organise his "good works" in any sustained, rational manner. To Luther, worldy duty was a labour of brotherly love, and to repudiate it was to repudiate one's duty to God. To the great mass of Catholic believers, this imperative was alien - their salvation was gained through the mysticism of the Church. To a Lutheran, this salvation came between the believer and God.
But then we see, in a bizarre twist, that Lutheranism was in some way a step backwards in the rationalisation of daily life. Luther was compelled to stress the issue less and less as he saw it encroaching on sola fide (justification by faith alone), and his opposition to Monasticism (which he saw as a deriliction of worldy duties to God) was in fact a set-back for rationalism. The monks in their Monasteries had practiced the rational organisation of their deeds in a closed environment. The fact this took place in a closed environment meant that the Monastic ideal could never have led to the projection of rational action as a religious duty into the real world, but rather kept it contained. Luther's conception of the calling, as it applied to the real world, was the first breakaway from Catholic doctrine on the matter. No similar concept existed in Antiquity or Catholicism, but nor was it wholly present in Luther's teachings. Puritanism approached the matter more consistently, and the ascetic branches of Puritanical Christianity are where the spirit of capitalism sprang from.
Ascetic Puritanism - Calvinism
It is well-known that one of the fundamental features of John Calvin's theology is the doctrine of double predestination. The doctrine holds that God does not exist for the sake of men, but men for the sake of God - and God is the only being outside of normal moral law. As He is omnescient and omnipowerful, He has elected a small minority for salvation and a larger majority for damnation. To question the "darkness" of such a God is futile, for He is not subject to any human standard - we are subject to His. This creates what Weber calls an "unprecedented inner loneliness" in the individual - no act can help him attain salvation, and no priest can help him. The psychology of such a religion is to transfer the emphasis from earning salvation to convincing oneself that one is a member of the elect, and so acting outwardly as the elect would be expected of doing. Not only would this help a man convince himself that he was elected for salvation, but also to convince others, and so secure a standing in the community. The first result of this doctrine which is worthy of note is the elimination of mysticism from the world of the Calvinist. The trappings and ceremonies of the Church, in which the Catholics placed their faith, were now to be avoided like the plague - no trust could be placed in them, for this surely would be the sign of the desperate damned.
And whilst Luther had maintained that a sinner could absolve himself before God (although not through the Church), Calvinist doctrine had no such emotional discharge of sin, which was important in the psychology of the Catholic and Lutheran. No action whatsoever could be taken to absolve oneself, and the very fact one had sinned was taken to be a sign of damnation. The logical result of this was a rational organisation of one's entire life in a manner which would show oneself to be a member of the elect - an ascetic life that shunned self-pleasure and dedicated itself to demonstrating grace. And sooner or later, every believer would have to face up to the question of whether there existed absolute criteria for demonstrating a state of grace, and what these were. To many Calvinists, the answer was to be found in the glorification of God's World, which existed solely for Him. And because rational labour was not done for the purpose of brotherly love (as with Luther), but for the glorification of God, it took on an impersonal and isolated character. This encouraged as rational an organization of the social environment as possible. To ensure one's grace - to be as the Saints - required such conduct in all of one's life. This is not to say this was inherent in Calvin's teachings (he was sure of his own salvation), but was a necessary result of their use by a less self-confident generation.
So Calvinism provided the essential of proving one's faith in worldy activity, as an end in itself. To this doctrine, man must do the duty God sends him - his calling - to the glory of God, and waste no time in rest or leisure. Indolence, and thus the pursuit of wealth for its enjoyment, is alien to the Calvinist - he pursues wealth as a secondary motive, finding his goal instead in the glorification of God through his calling.
Ascetic Puritanism and capitalism
Our task is now to join the dots, and find a possible path from the above to the doctrine of Franklin. The opposition to idleness is perhaps not an expression of the maxim that "time is money", but that time wasted is time that could have been spent in God's labour. Neglecting His glorification through leisure, wastefullness, or even excessive sleep, is the cardinal sin. Even contemplation which does not bear fruit is wasteful - and Sunday is provided for that. Thus one's life must be dedicated to constant, productive mental or bodily labour. Sexual ascetism is based on the idea that sexual intercourse for personal pleasure and not for God's glory is wasteful, and sexual intercourse may only be engaged in for God's glory ("Go forth and multiply"). Neither are the rich exempted from their duty - for God's Providence has provided a calling for everyone, and he must complete it to God's glory. As society stratified into classes and the division of labour became a fact, the secular literature of the time saw this as a good in utilitarian terms. It was providing the greatest good for the greatest number. The Puritan approach was largely similar, but justified in religious terms - that such activity was pleasing to God. Regular, rational labour was held to be the most efficient way to work for God's glory.
There was another moral imperative to the making of a profit. If God had given one of His elect the chance to profit, surely He expected an individual of perfection to take it. His Providence had surely provided this opportunity for a reason, and thus it was not to be squandered. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) seemed to confirm this. The aim of this was not to make profit for the sake of onself, but for the sake of God. Pleasure seeking with this profit would be idolatry of the flesh - and the Puritans opposed any activity which seemed slothful to serve no purpose (it's a lie that they were opposed to sport per se - it was accepted as a means to achieving physical fitness).
And so, to capitalism. The idea that a man is only a trustee of God's Providence - that he must work to enlarge God's glory by taking advantage of opportunities presented to him by God, has obvious implications for the development of capitalism. Their struggle against the irrational disposal of wealth only furthered empowered their belief in the idea of its rational employment in modern capitalistic enterprise (both for the entrepreneur whose burden of wealth compelled him to employ it all the more diligently, and the labourer to work within the division of labour at his calling). The ascetic ideal of accumulating wealth but not irrationally wasting it led to concentration of capital as people sought to save it in banks (which would invest it in capitalistic activity). Thus the drive to capitalistic activity for God's glory and not personal gain was established, and the means to it followed shortly.