Max Weber’s thesis as detailed in his opus, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is familiar to all students of sociology, as well as to others of the lay audience. Perhaps his theories are too familiar, too popularized for the accurate and proper representation of them. There has been much confusion concerning the work, both over Weber’s methodology and his conclusions. But in spite of all this controversy, Weber’s conclusions still stand as monuments in the field of the sociologies of religion and economic theory.
In this paper, I would like to take another critical look at Weber’s work, from my vantage-point of over half a century. In my research, I have been aided by other contemporary scholars, both defenders and opponents of the Protestant Ethic Thesis. Their arguments will also be examined, as well as any further pertinent materials. And hopefully, from amidst all these diverse opinions, some rational, cogent answers to the scientific debates surrounding Weber’s work may be ascertained.
The conflict over the validity of Weber’s thesis fall into two camps. On the one side, men such as Robertson, Fanfani, and Samuelsson denied the validity of the work in toto. On the other side were sociologists who accepted the basic premises, while adding or altering points of their own. Some in this group state that there were economic upsurges in pre-capitalistic Catholic societies (as in Belgium, Germany, and Italy), while Calvin’s own Geneva suffered for some time. Yet, they will not deny the fact that there is much validity to Weber’s conclusions. Others, such as Tawney (who set out, but failed, to give a sympathetic support to Weber’s book), had some difficulty in establishing the “connection” or transitions” between the wave of Protestant theology and Weber’s own “spirit of capitalism.” Yet, here, too, there was no negating the importance of this early sociological treatise, whether later researchers attributed the transformative mechanism to other aspects of the Calvinist traditions (such as the emphasis on individual responsibility and “this worldliness”), to the religious wars and Counter-Reformation, or to a later secularization of the Protestant and Calvinistic traditions in a pluralistic, modernized, industrialized world and the subsequent weakening of the religious impulses of the seventeenth century.
Yet there can be no denial of the fact that every sociological researcher (except the extreme negativists) states that there is a kernel of truth in the Weberian theories, even if there is general disagreement on the exact definition of that truth.
Perhaps much of the reverence for Weber’s work in The Protestant Ethic, sa well as in the rest of his sociological investigations, stems from his scientific methodology. Certainly, there would be much to this fact. Weber disregarded the previous quasi-scientific attitudes of previous “sociologists” who used their discipline for their own ends, mostly racist or to effect changes on existing societies. He added several doses of scientism, placing sociological studies on a purely scientific basis. Weber’s methods included a rigorous, meticulous analysis of empirical reality, along with verifiable interpretations and relationships. Weber knew that science was able to impose order on reality, which he considered infinite, and that these newly-established relationships would not exhaust reality. And to this end, Weber applied the normative steps of the scientific method to sociology (i.e., observation, experimentation, induction of laws, quantification, and comparison). It was this manner that Weber used to put forth his contentions resolving the debate in 19th century German scientific circles between the naturalistic and subjective methods of sociology.
But Weber went further in his research and conclusions. He insisted on an ethical neutrality in his work. This simply meant that a scientist cannot impose his own moral or partisan views on others. He sought an objective view of social relationships, of man’s actions in relation to his social surroundings. As Jasper’s stated it: “Max Weber never wearied of repeating that no empirical investigation can provide a foundation on which to determine what has value and what I ought to do.”
Freund, outlines three components of Weber’s basic methodology. In the first place, Weber sought to elaborate his concepts in the most rigorous and univocal manner possible, to avoid confusion. Secondly, he analyzed the historical and empirical aspects of reality to clarify the events or the analogies among different phenomena. Finally, there was the construction of a rational picture of a segment of the reality investigated.
Weber had his own comments on his methodology in The Protestant Ethic. In the beginning of his chapter on the connection between Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber cautions that “we can treat ascetic Protestantism as a single whole,” for his purposes in the book, but by no mean should be thought true for all purposes. Later on, Weber states that it was not his “aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and history. Each is equally possible, but each, if it does not serve as the preparation, but as the conclusion of an investigation, accomplishes equally little in the interest of historical truth.” Weber here has enunciated his use of the ideal type as an approach to the truth of a situation. He does not give a full description of the real course of events, but rather, he selected to examine the thoughts of the seventeenth-century Calvinists, whose religion differed from that of its founder.
Weber sought to present a sociology of religion, investigated int he light of scientific inquiry, in order to discover how religious conduct influences other human activities and, in turn, is influenced by them. At the same time, he took a look at the sociology of economic activity also. He saw that capitalism contained certain aspects that corresponded to the economic rationalization of society (an important factor in Weber’s view of social institutions), and that it helped to fulfill individual needs. Furthermore, Weber determined that there are six factors necessary for the proper development of capitalism, and these include the appropriation of materials, a free market, rational techniques of production an legislation, a freedom of labor (in the sense that men work for a profit motive instead of some legalistic motivation), and a commercialization of the economy. In this sense, capitalism grew along with the rationalization of Western Civilization since the Greeks.
Weber was enough of an historian to realize that there had been minor outbursts of capitalistic economics all along the way. The Roman, Chinese, Babylonian, and Indian societies had developed an embryonic form of this economic activity. Yet Weber sought to know why it was fully-blown only in Western life. And this answer he found in his analysis of ascetic Protestantism. In this manner, he stood out against the Marxist interpretations which reduced all events of civilization to their lowest economic denominators.
Of course, Weber avoided the simplistic explanation of attributing to Protestantism the sole cause of capitalistic expansion. The Protestant Ethic, according to his sociological theory, was neither the total, nor even a sufficient cause for the development of capitalism per se. However, the Protestant Ethic did provide the proper atmosphere for the development of the spirit of capitalism. In other words, Weber contends that the same milieu, the same world-view, or, in his words, the same Weltanschauung of the religious community of seventeenth-century Europe and America was somehow transformed (and Weber is not clear on this point, giving rise to many of his detractors’ arguments) into the same outlook favorable for the growth of a capitalistic economy. This, then, is the thesis for the sociological tract of the book.
Weber concentrated on certain religious groups. His choice of the Calvinists (especially the Dutch variety), the Pietists, the Methodists, and the Baptists sprang from their common background. All of these groups which he examined stressed asceticism and a kind of Puritanism. And he found that their ethical maxims and their psychological motivations were both similar to each other’s and also sufficient to establish a link between their brand of Protestantism and the “spirit” of capitalism.
Once again, it must be stressed that Weber employed his methodological device of the ideal type. He examined the writings of a group of seventeenth-century Calvinists, who had changed radically from the original thoughts of Calvin. However, he was dealing with a time period in which other factors were also significant and which tended to lend themselves to the development of a capitalistic economy. But in the field of the religious outlook, several points stood out as indigenous to Calvinism and the spirit of capitalism.
The foremost of these was the Puritan emphasis on pre-destination. This religious conviction stemmed from an emphasis on the interior life of the individual to recognize the grace of God. External sacraments and ceremonies were rejected. A rigorous personal life, adherence to the commandments, and faith were required of all those who sought salvation. But more than that, the test of being selected must come within the world, through success in business and social contact. Thus, salvation came through asceticism and success in one’s profession meant that the individual was among the elect.
Asceticism was a vital part in this development of a religious basis for the spirit of capitalism. A constant self-control and self-discipline were required of all of Calvin’s adherents. Weber claims this lead to a certain type of rationalization which was transformed into a systematic, ceaseless effort when the Calvinist individual strayed into the business and economic spheres. But even in success, he must remain ascetic, which at first might seemingly contradict the ethos of capitalism. Yet, as Weber points out, for the Protestant in business, the evil lay in enjoyment or repose, not in the acquisition of wealth. And work, no matter in what areas, if done diligently and rationally, glorified God. And so acquisition lead to more acquisition. For early capitalism, as well as for these Calvinists, the goal was not greed, but profit.
Thus, according to Weber, Protestantism provided the correct atmosphere for the development of capitalism. The Calvinistic Ethos demanded the greatest possible diligence in work, the highest possible production for the glory of God and to ascertain if one had received the “calling,” and a rejection of luxury. This, in turn, meant that all profits were not to be enjoyed or squandered, but rather turned back into the businesses, in the form of investments. And this lead to the spirit of economic activity which gave impetus to the rise of capitalism.
Weber documents his case by quoting from Protestant writers, none of whom can surpass Ben Franklin for proof of his work. Frankling is filled with the “utilitarian virtues,” the homespun sentiments that grew out of Calvinism and Puritanism, added to a practicalism and asceticism that can only arise from the psychological motivations of predestination and discipline. Together, they arrive at the genesis of a spirit of capitalism. Weber also points out the differences between Calvinism and other religions, such as Catholicism, in that the former is much more “this-worldly” and needs outward monetary success as a proof of spiritual grace, while the latter spurned material gains.
Yet, as meticulous and thought-provoking as Weber’s thesis is, there still remain points of contention. Researchers working in the past-half century have come up with varying opinions. Mitzman sees Weber’s work as an outgrowth of his own psychological need to break from his background of Calvinism on his mother’s side, and express a new-found self-liberation. Even if this be so, however, it still does not negate the possibility of Weber’s theses being valid.
Others have attacked Weber’s method and conclusions. Eisenstadt points out the problems inherent in the “jump” from an autonomous Protestant outlook into the economic sphere. He feels it was absorbed or institutionalized in some manner, but is unable (as was Weber) to point out just how this was so. He does, however, stress the importance of the Middle Class in this transition, and offers it as a quasi-explanation. Luthy opposes making a “scapegoat for the evils of progress” of Calvinism, insisting that the discipline and work ethic arose from a desire to overcome pauperism, rather than from some religious motivation such as predestination. Walzer sees the two strains of Protestantism as collectivistic and individualistic, just as Weber did. But he disagrees with the earlier conclusions. Weber stated that the individualistic strain won out and this gave rise to the spirit of capitalism, while Walzer insists (in Marxian fashion) that it was the collectivistic control that dominated. Burrell is willing to go along with Weber’s conclusions that both Calvinism and capitalism arose from and were products of the Middle Class, but he points out the problem of Scotland, which seemed to have all the religious requirements, but failed to produce a successful capitalistic society.
Tawney rejects Weber’s limited view and sees capitalism as emerging not just from Protestantism, but from the course of all religion throughout history. For him, religion was never excluded from worldly affairs, and basically agrees with the concepts of the Calvinistic “calling” and the transference of the virtues of hard work and asceticism into the economic sphere.
But it was Robertson who rejected Weber’s entire thesis. He states that the Catholic teachings of the time were identical to that of the Puritans, but Catholicism is not linked with capitalism. (Here, however, he forgets that predestination and the insistence of entering into the world were not part of Catholic theology, the two main points which gave rise to Weber’s theses. Also, Robertson ignores Weber’s remarks on the meaning of the “spirit of capitalism.” Calvinism spread and encouraged the temper of the times to become fertile and accept the atmosphere necessary for the generation of capitalism.) Robertson also states that Calvinism only reflected the capitalism of the times, which arose from the emerging bourgeois class, and that there was no religious cause for the rules of capitalism and economic individualism. (This seems to me illogical, for Tawney points out that the religious virtues played an important part in the development of capitalistic standards. And if there was no religious influence, then where did these similar determinates come from?)
And finally, Robertson errs in believing that Weber’s thesis is that Calvinism promoted greed and self-interest, which developed into capitalism. Weber did not hold this at all, but Robertson seems to act as an apologist for present-day capitalistic practices.
But if we negate Robertson’s rejection of Weber, just where does that leave us? We must recognize, first of all, the importance of Weber’s work. It was a monumental sociological treatise, the first to apply scientism to this particular discipline. We must admire Weber’s careful and meticulous analysis. And, I believe, we must accept much of his theory. Even though he has problems documenting the exact transference of the Protestant Ethic into the Capitalistic Spirit (as have his succeeding supporters), there is much validity in his work. Tawney, Eisenstadt and others have pointed that out. For modern chroniclers of our capitalistic society (both sociologists and artists such as Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, Harry Swados and others) have consciously or unwittingly turned to the Calvinistic antecedents in describing our form of capitalism: hard work, diligence, the desire to succeed (a calling or recognition of some, now-earthly, predestination?), the almost fanatic drive to acquire (at times not so much for further enjoyment, but just for the fact of acquisition), the stress of economic individualism, to the point where the poor are left to fend for themselves. These are the same “virtues” (though somewhat distorted by tim and secularization) that Weber pointed to in his work.
And so, I must end where I began: there is something to Weber’s work. I know he is basically correct, even if I cannot scientifically validate my conclusion.