Biography of Max Weber

Max Weber grew up in a Protestant family. His mother, who was from a Southern German Protestant background, would remain a powerful moral force in his life. Weber's father also had a big influence, passing on his fondness for debate and considering historical ideas. This tension between a devout mother and intellectual father contributed to Weber's own moral and intellectual development. Weber's work focused heavily on questions of labor and the structure of society—questions more suited to secular lines of thinking. Nevertheless, he would go on to participate in organizations like the Evangelical Social Congress, which focused on social policy as it applied to workers in Germany. He was also good friends with the Protestant reformer Friedrich Naumann. Weber’s wife would later note that he identified most strongly with the Puritans, whom he believed represented a particularly ideal form of man.

In school, Weber was always an outstanding but easily bored student. He originally trained as a lawyer, and wrote a dissertation on legal history. He went on to become a scholar, focusing on modern social policy. In particular, he explored economic and social questions. He went on to marry Marianne Schnitger, a distant cousin, who was known for her feminist advocacy and later for a biography she wrote of her husband after his death. Together with his wife, Weber joined in a circle of intellectuals in Heidelberg. After his father's death in 1897, Weber began to suffer from mental health problems that pushed him to leave teaching and spend time recovering in sanitariums. This also interfered with his productivity, though he would go on to write The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism after recovering from a bout of depression.

While working on his most famous essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber had the chance to go on a transformative trip to the United States. He had always admired the American approach to capitalism for its individualist spirit and emphasis on hard work. With his wife and some colleagues, Weber was able to travel throughout the US while attending a number of conferences, and spent much of his time interacting with Americans in order to learn more about the culture. He came away from this trip with great admiration for America, but also noted many of the difficult realities of the country, where so many different ethnicities were mixed in sometimes violent ways. He was also struck by the poverty and social stratification throughout the United States. This trip would go on to inspire another essay, titled “’Churches’ and ‘Sects’ in North America,” which was published in 1906 and approached an ethnographic study of life in America. More specifically, it traced the relation between Protestants and American pluralist democracy.

At the outbreak of the first world war, when Weber was 50 years old, he volunteered for the German Army. He went on to be a vocal critic of the war, after initially supporting the Axis cause, and would later attempt to run for office. After this unsuccessful bid for parliament, he wrote the academic lecture "Politics as a Vocation" in which he the professionalization of politics and castigated all politicians for their dishonesty and incompetence. Toward the end of his life, he went back to teaching.

Study Guides on Works by Max Weber