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.

Weber's critique of Marx in the Protestant Ethic

Noung has outlined Weber’s main argument in the Protestant Ethic in his excellent writeup. My purpose in this writeup is not to offer another description of Weber’s classic work. I focus on one of the most interesting aspects of the Protestant Ethic - Weber’s historical method and his critique of historical materialism.

Historical materialism
Historical materialism is the conception of history formulated by Marx. The clearest exposition of it is to be found in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and the German Ideology. A somewhat more simplistic materialist theory is presented by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.

According to historical materialism, ideas - and indeed everything in the superstructure - is determined, at least in the ‘last instance’, by the economic base. The German Ideology is worth quoting on this point:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. … The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. (p. 64)

It is this theory of ideas being reflections of material circumstances and more generally the doctrine that there is one fundamental causal factor in history that Weber challenges in the Protestant Ethic.

Weber’s historical method
Marx asserts that there is one fundamental causal factor in history, the economic base. Though Weber does not deny that the economic has often been of crucial causal importance in history, he denies that it is always the ultimate causal factor. There are many possible factors which may in any particular historical case be the decisive one. What the decisive factor is in a given historical situation is left for empirical research to determine. The question cannot be answered a priori.

This methodological pluralism is at the heart of the Protestant Ethic. The point of the work is not to show that Protestantism ‘caused’ capitalism, but rather that it was a significant factor in its development. Weber does not deny that the economic had a crucial role to play in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. He is merely arguing that an economic reductionist account of the transition is inadequate.

Weber’s diversion from Marx’s approach is perhaps clearest his insistence that ideas should be taken seriously as causal factors in history. For Marx, causation always runs ultimately from the economic to everything else. Weber asserts that ideas can have a profound influence on the economic sphere itself.

Weber reverses the direction of causality that Marx presents. For Weber, a certain ideology or world view is a necessary precondition for a mode of production.

In order that a manner of life so well adapted to the peculiarities of capitalism could be selected at all, i.e. should come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to whole groups of men. (p. 20)

For capitalism to succeed, groups within society had to adopt ways of life compatible with it. Those ways of life were not caused by capitalism, rather they enabled its rise.

What kind of world view does capitalism require? Weber argues that the elimination of traditionalism is crucial. This is well covered in the above writeup, and repetition is not necessary. Suffice it to say that traditionalism means that workers are complacent with their standard of living. They cannot be induced to work harder by the introduction of piece rates, for instance. This kind of populace is not well suited for capitalism, since capitalism requires a constant improvement in productivity. In capitalism, profits are continually reinvested - something that doesn’t make sense to people who only want to uphold their current standard of living.

Capitalism requires that

Labour … be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling. (p. 25)

Such an attitude does not come about simply because the economic base requires it (for a functionalist account of Marx’s theory of history which argues that “bases get the superstructures they need because they need them” see G.A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence). Rather,

… such an attitude … can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education. (p. 25)

The spirit of capitalism makes capitalist activity intelligible. Where the spirit does not exist, capitalist activity makes no sense. This is essentially the reason why the spirit of capitalism is a precondition of capitalism itself.

… it is just that (the bourgeois lifestyle) which seems to the pre-capitalistic man so incomprehensible and mysterious … That anyone should be able to make it the sole purpose of his life-work, to sink into the grave weighed down with a great material load of money and goods, seems to him explicable only as the product of a perverse instinct … (p. 33)

Weber does not simply present a theoretical argument against historical materialism, he also presents empirical evidence. He places considerable importance on his example of colonial Massachusetts. According to Weber, the spirit of capitalism was present in Massachusetts before the advent of capitalism itself.

There were complaints of a peculiarly calculating sort of profit-seeking in New England, as distinguished from other parts of America, as early as 1632. It is further undoubted that capitalism remained far less developed in some of the neighbouring colonies, the later Southern States of the United States of America, in spite of the fact that these latter were founded by large capitalists for business motives, while the New England colonies were founded by preachers and seminary graduates with the help of small bourgeois, craftsmen and yoemen, for religious reasons. In this case the causal relation is certainly the reverse of that suggested by the materialistic standpoint. (p. 20)
… in the backwoods small bourgeois circumstances of Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, where business threatened for simple lack of money to fall back into barter, where there was hardly a sign of large enterprise, where only the earliest beginnings of banking were to be found, the same thing (rational capitalist accumulation a la Franklin) was considered the essence of moral conduct, even commanded in the name of duty. To speak here of a reflection of material conditions in the ideal superstructure would be patent nonsense. (p. 36)

Weber or Marx?
Especially in American social science, often hostile to Marxism, Weber has been presented as the ‘bourgeois Marx’, the more acceptable of the two profound social theorists because of his more conservative politics. In terms of historical methodology, Weber is also seen as more acceptable, since he seems to be less reductionist. So, is Weber's critique of Marx succesful?

This is one of the classical questions of the social sciences, and I do not pretend to have an answer to it. The most profound differences of Marx and Weber do not lie in empirical investigations - which could be verified or falsified by further investigation - but in the theoretical foundations of their historical method. Weber seems the more attractive theorist, since he repudiates Marxist reductionism which most of us would reject. I think his critique of Marx is persuasive, though I doubt the controversy can be ultimately decided. Marx is not as reductionist as is often thought. For instance, in the Eighteenth Brumaire he describes a situation where the state has considerable autonomy from class forces in society. And even in the Preface, considerable latitude is left for the superstructure to exert causal influence in history. So, is Weber right in arguing that a certain world view is a necessary precondition of the rise of capitalism or Marx in arguing that such a world view is merely a consequence of the development of capitalism? Personally, I do not think there is an answer. The problem cannot be resolved by looking at historical facts, since it is precisely about how such facts should be interpreted. However, even if this question is unaswerable - or because of that - it is one of the most fascinating problems in the social sciences.

Howell, D. (2004) Seminars on Marx's theory of history and the Protestant Ethic (York, University of York)
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1974) The German Ideology (London, Lawrence & Wishart)
Weber, M. (2001) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London, Routledge)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.