The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Imagery

Cattle into tallow

This image comes up in the second section of the text, after Weber introduces Benjamin Franklin's sermon on saving and making money. Ferdinand Kurnberger, who wrote a Portrait of American Culture, criticises Franklin's text for promoting a society in which people turn "cattle into tallow." This image illustrates the idea of taking any possible resource and turning it into something more practical or capable of making money. In this instance, it would be a living cow into a kind of fat that can be used to make candles or soap. Kurnberger's evocation of the image is meant to point out the evils of capitalist society in America, where people think only of material goods. However, it can also be used to represent Franklin's practical attitude toward making money, which includes the idea that even small and seemingly unprofitable goods can become profitable if one has the right attitude. According to Weber, this defines the "spirit of capitalism."


Weber’s image of the putters-out helps to illustrate the concept of traditionalism, and how it can shift to a capitalist spirit simply through a change in attitude. Weber describes the putters-out initially approaching their profession in a simple way, aimed only toward making sure they can get by in life. No one attempted to outcompete others, but rather cooperated in order to make sure that everyone could do the minimum amount of work needed to get by. Weber then illustrates how they could transition to a capitalist motivation: if a few men decided to focus more on profit by attempting to save some of their money or shift their business model towards one in which they kept a greater share, then others would be motivated to do the same by this new sense of competition. However, Weber makes clear that this shift would not take place because of more money entering or exiting the putters-out system, but only because of a change in perspective brought about by these few divergent members.

God as Bookkeeper

Weber illustrates the Catholics’ treatment of the relationship between the sinner and God by referring to the image of God as a bookkeeper. This image implies a relationship in which God keeps track of man’s good and bad deeds, and man is responsible for “paying him back” by making sure that the balance tips in favor of good deeds. Weber’s use of this image helps to clarify the absurdity of Catholics’ approach; by reducing God—an all-important, all-powerful force—to a bookkeeper, he shows how flawed Catholics’ approach to God can be when it includes this kind of relationship.