The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

In Max Weber’s work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he attempts to discern a reason why Protestants continuously find themselves with far more wealth than their Catholic counterparts. In part one, Weber will attempt to formulate a reason as to why this observed phenomenon occurs, by looking at key differences between Protestants and Catholics, capitalism, and Martin Luther’s key idea of a calling that is absent in the totality of Catholicism.

Weber starts chapter one of his work by stating his argument that Protestants are more likely to be higher skilled workers compared to Catholics. He follows this by exploring the various reasons this observation may have come into being over time. On page 62, Weber begins to discuss possibilities for this economic disparity. The fact that Protestants have had a greater amount of wealth throughout history and that they pass it down more effectively is given as one possible reason why they are more successful than Catholics. Weber also observes that Catholic and Protestant parents have their children participate in different types of education, with Protestants more focused on post-school preparation. Additionally, it is observed that Catholics have a much higher tendency to continue to work as craftsmen than to move into higher management positions. Weber claims this is an unlikely relationship because, as Catholics are minorities in many places, history has shown that minorities will attempt to become dominant in business, as they will likely be excluded from politics.

Weber explores another possibility for the disparity on page 64. This possible explanation brings into account the possibility that Protestants are more concerned about material gain than Catholics, while Catholics are more concerned with religion. This, however, has not held true throughout history, as many protestant groups, including American Puritans, were much less concerned about finding enjoyment in life than many modern Protestants. Weber next looks at the converse of his previous argument. He notes that many of the most adherent Christians are also highly involved in business. However, Weber notes that not all variations of Protestantism have had the same effect on the emergence of capitalism, citing the example of Calvinism having a much greater affect than Lutheranism. Weber also claims that reformed variations have had a larger effect on the development of capitalism than non-reformed sects. Weber concludes his opening argument by stating that the reasons will not be as simple as the ones explored above and will be strictly linked to religious reasons.

Weber opens the second chapter by beginning his exploration into the “spirit of capitalism” by sharing an excerpt from one of Benjamin Franklin’s writings. In this selection Franklin puts forward many moral philosophies. The entirety of these philosophies, however, is not as much related to the typical moral goals of people, but instead to inspire a gain in profit and promote capitalism. Furthermore, the goal of gaining more money is presented as an end goal, not just to be able to purchase more necessary or desired belongings. The acquisition of more money, as long as acquired legally and honestly, can be seen as an extension of religious teachings as it is similar to having a certain calling. However, this idea has occurred in a myriad of situations and is not singularly representative of capitalism. On page 73, Weber further argues that capitalism is the natural environment in which the world operates, and like in the environment people must adapt of suffer the consequences. Weber claims that in order for this way of life to become dominant it had to be prevalent among groups of people, not just individuals. Weber believes that this phenomenon is what must be explained to truly understand the spirit.

On page 74, weber begins to look at when and where the development of capitalism began. First, Weber discusses Massachusetts in 1632, where it was observed that people were seeking profit, against the puritan ideas of the day. However, despite the religious feelings against materialism, capitalism took hold more in the religious north than in the business centered south. Additionally, the idea of capitalism saw opposition during earlier periods where it was seen as greed, but managed to survive the test, mainly through people willing to go against norms of the time. As time wore on capitalism became increasingly tolerated but still had to fight against economic traditionalism.

Weber, on page 74, chooses to not give a definition of economic traditionalism, but instead chooses to look at a few examples. Weber first chooses to look at the worker. He uses the case where workers were paid an increase wage per unit of work with the hopes of increasing productivity. However, this effort had the opposite effect, as the workers chose to earn the same amount as before, resulting in less work being done. Thus, the workers fulfilled their needs without considering how much more they could earn if they worked harder. This exemplifies traditionalism because the worker doesn’t want to move from the norm of how he has been living. Weber also explores the converse, where workers earn less for each unit of work. Theoretically, this should have the opposite effect, but in reality this may also lead to a reduced productivity level, as workers don’t have enough money to satisfy their physical needs. The lower wages also fail where some level of education is required. Additionally, Weber discusses the tendency for young women workers to have a tendency to resist change.

Continuing to look at economic traditionalism, Weber shifts his attention from the workers to the business on page 79. Weber argues that even though a business works on capitalist ideas it can still have traditional components. To support this, Weber discusses the English textile industry, where for most of history peasants would sell their woven goods to middlemen and were able to maintain a good standard of living. This business model was capitalistic in nature, however it was also traditional, as it maintained many customs, including the way the textiles were produced. This industry was changed, not by a technological advance, but instead by enterprising individuals. These individuals would select people based on what they desired in their weavings and have the weavers work directly for them. They would also interact with the customer directly, removing middlemen from the process. This allowed for the textiles to be sold at lower costs than before, in addition to being more personalized. This process removed much of the previous traditional structure, creating a process almost entirely rooted in capitalism.

Capitalism was not immediately accepted, as many people looked upon the emergence of capitalism skeptically. In order for people to succeed with new capitalist ideas they had to be somebody the people trusted, while also being absorbed by his work. Weber argues that there is no connection between the capitalist behavior of the past and religion. However, he states that a relationship between the two is typically considered to be negative, as religion abhors the gain of more material goods. On page 73, Weber discusses the United States’ desire to obtain larger and larger goods, comparing this behavior to German families who are rising on the economic ladder. However, Weber asserts that the ideal employer does not engage in this type of behavior and material seeking.

Returning to Franklin, Weber claims his ideas of capitalism came were an adaptation to a new way of thinking. Weber proceeds to say that capitalism has moved past the need for approval from a religious body and argues against interference upon the economy by religion or by the state. Weber, however, states that despite capitalism being against moral beliefs in past time periods, religion may have helped capitalism emerge. Over time, capitalism changed from a set of ideas that was merely tolerated, to eventually become amicable.

Chapter three begins on page 89 with Weber comparing the German word “beruf” with the English work “calling,” noting that both words have a religious meaning. After the Reformation, the term calling became related to work and fulfilling one’s calling was considered a moral high ground. Weber traces this term and idea to an influencer of Martin Luther. Luther then takes this idea of a calling and developed it to have the significance that in order to please God, one must fulfill their calling. Weber asserts the idea of a calling is unique to Protestantism and is not found in the realms of Catholicism. This idea gave importance and significance to a typical working life and is considered to be one of the most crucial changes brought forth by the Reformation. However, even with this drastic change, Weber believes that Luther would have been completely opposed to Franklin’s way of thinking. On page 91, Weber asserts that even though many different Protestant churches were behind the spirit of capitalism, they still had issues with some components of true capitalism, such as big companies and monopolies.

Despite Luther’s belief that his revolutionary idea of a calling was taken from the Bible, there is no mention directly of his idea, but a similar one exists. Weber also claims that the Bible takes a favorable tone towards traditional economic ideas. As time passed, Luther began to assert an increasingly traditionalist view, arguing against the acquisition of goods beyond what is needed. Luther also became increasingly concerned with obedience and submissiveness towards God, redefining a calling as something directed by God. On page 94, Weber concludes that Lutheranism does not have as much to do with the emergence of capitalism as originally thought. Weber then changes his focus the Calvinism, which he perceives to have a much more connected role in the development of capitalism. Weber asserts that it is Calvinism, not the entirety of Protestantism, which can be viewed as the main opponent of Catholicism. Using two classic works, Weber attempts to compare Calvinism to other sects of Protestantism.

In part one of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, he attempts to find a reason as to why Protestants have found themselves in far better economic situations, throughout history, as compared to Catholics. Weber examines differences in the two religions including education and the differing desire as to what line of work to go into. Additionally, he examines capitalism from both the lens of the worker and business, finally concluding with a look at Luther’s idea of a calling.

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