The main question of Weber’s text is: how did Protestant ethics influence the “spirit” of capitalism? This central dilemma responds to the cultural debates of Weber’s time. Weber helps to define and explain his early 20th century culture by tracing the influence of religious thought on capitalist values. Overall, he makes a historical argument for the importance of religion in contributing to capitalist culture. In particular, Weber focuses on traditional Protestant ethics and the modern “spirit of capitalism.” He defines these ethics by explaining how Protestants differed from Catholics. Amongst other differences, Protestants believed that working hard should be valued for its own sake. This meant that more Protestants were motivated to apply themselves to their secular professions than Catholics were. Weber also defines the “spirit of capitalism” as a motivation to work hard and save money not in order to survive, but in order to make a profit. Throughout his text, he will show how this Protestant emphasis on hard work helped to shape this capitalist fixation on generating profit for profit’s sake.
The core of Weber's argument is that the spirit of capitalism is an attitude that regards work as an end in and of itself. He believes the capitalist spirit exists in opposition to traditionalism—a system in which people worked only hard enough to get by. The capitalist spirit is different because it motivates people to work simply because they believe hard work is important. Someone driven by the "capitalist spirit" does not find motivation in survival, but rather in profit. This kind of attitude can be seen in its earliest form among Protestants, even though they did not technically structure their society according to what we know today as a “capitalist system.” In other words, the form of their society was not capitalist, but Weber argues that their attitude was. For example, the Protestants generally rejected excessive spending or indulgence; the Protestant worker was most focused on structuring his life around ever-more hard work.
Weber’s text moves from a more general statement of these definitions into a more specific discussion of different Protestant denominations and their particular religious beliefs. He shows how these different belief systems can be connected to the capitalist spirit of his day. For example, he discusses the idea of predestination as defined by the Calvinists. This belief that God determined everyone’s fate before they even began their lives on earth gave Calvinists an individualist attitude, since they felt that they could not rely on anyone but themselves when it came to their salvation. Weber connects this individualism with a drive to work hard and make a personal profit. Of course, such a fixation on profit would go on to be important to the capitalist spirit, as well.
Weber connects the spirit of capitalism primarily to the Protestant concept of asceticism, and contrasts this with the original Catholic take on asceticism. In general, asceticism refers to a strict and restrictive type of lifestyle. Protestants were known to order their entire lives this way, in both secular and religious spheres, because they believed that a carefully structured lifestyle was most pleasing to God. Catholics, on the other hand, mostly applied this concept to their religious lives only. For example, monks were known to limit their lives when it came to alcohol, food, sex, and anything considered an “indulgence.” In general, Catholics also believed that good deeds should be performed mainly for the sake of making up for bad deeds. Protestants were more consistent in striving to work hard and do good deeds day to day, because they believed that one’s salvation needed constantly to be proven. Unlike Catholics, Protestants did not think they could make up for a past bad deed, which spurred them to avoid such bad deeds in the first place. The dichotomy between Catholics’ individual, as-needed application of this work ethic and Protestants’ constant, collective work ethic is an important one throughout the text. Weber contrasts Catholics with Protestants to reinforce his point that it was the Protestant work ethic, in particular, that helped to shape modern capitalism.
Weber’s analysis of Calvinism, Baptism, Methodism, Pietism, and Puritanism gives more details showing how Protestant asceticism is connected to the capitalist spirit. Above all, he emphasizes the importance of Calvinism and Baptism. These were the two most distinctive denominations, meaning they differed most from one another and thus had the most unique and important contributions to the capitalist spirit. Calvinists were unique in that they believed in predestination. This belief led Calvinists to work hard for two somewhat contradictory reasons. On the one hand, they needed to distract themselves from the question of salvation by keeping occupied. On the other hand, they had to demonstrate to themselves that God had chosen them, and they believed this could be proven by a dedication to hard work and resulting good fortune. Taken together, these two approaches spurred the Calvinists to be particularly dedicated workers. Baptists, meanwhile, contributed the idea that one’s conscience was a sign from God. This belief led them to emphasize honesty in their work ethic. According to Weber, the value of honest work continues to exist amongst those with the capitalist spirit today.
Weber concludes by noting that this text is only a preliminary study. He calls for further analysis of religious beliefs and the ways in which they contributed to secular life. In his time, studying the influence of religion on non-religious sectors of society was not regarded as a serious pursuit. Weber, however, believes that spiritual explanations—such as the one linking Calvinists’ belief in predestination with capitalists’ individualism—have a lot to offer to the field of social ethics. His text makes the case that these religious influences should be noted alongside a more secular or material interpretation of history.