The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Quotes and Analysis

"In these cases the choice of occupation and future career has undoubtedly been determined by the distinct mental characteristics which have been instilled into them and indeed by the influence on them of the religious atmosphere of their locality and home background"


This quote establishes Weber's belief that historical or political explanations are not enough to account for the primacy of Protestants amongst the highest economic classes of society. Instead, Weber believes that "distinct mental characteristics" of these two groups—Protestants and Catholics—play a major role in determining their economic success. By "distinct mental characteristics," Weber is referring to the differing attitudes, tendencies, beliefs, and habits instilled in these groups by their respective religions. These two religions are associated with some differences in the atmosphere of a given home or community, and it is this difference in atmosphere that Weber believes shapes a difference in attitude between Protestants and Catholics.

"These few examples suffice to demonstrate one thing: the 'spirit of labor,' 'the spirit of progress,' or whatever one likes to call it, the awakening of which is customarily attributed to Protestantism, must not, as tends to happen today, be understood in an 'Enlightenment' sense"


Weber dispels the common assumption that Enlightenment values are responsible for explaining the "spirit of labor" that defines capitalist society. For many of Weber's contemporaries, the Enlightenment seemed synonymous with capitalism because both emphasized the importance of the individual. However, Weber argues that the "spirit of labor" existed before the Enlightenment, and was actually tied to religious denominations that did not emphasize the individual so much as they emphasized the importance of piety and strict religious control over a society. This is one of Weber's central points, and one that was most revolutionary given that it did broke starkly with the common sense of Weber's time.

"The idea, so familiar to us today and yet in reality far from obvious, that one's duty consists in pursuing one's calling, and that the individual should have a commitment to his "professional" activity, whatever it may consist of, irrespective of whether it appears to the detached observer as nothing but utilisation of his labor or even of his property (as 'capital'), this idea is a characteristic feature of the 'social ethic' of capitalist culture. Indeed, in a certain sense it constitutes an essential element of it."


This quote illustrates Weber's central point that the idea of pursuing one's professional calling out of a sense of duty defines the capitalist spirit. He points out that this concept is not actually a natural one, but rather something that came out of the writings of men like Benjamin Franklin, who elevated moneymaking to a "duty." In so doing, these thinkers trained individuals to believe that moneymaking was a moral pursuit. This kind of attitude defines a sort of "social ethic" that exists in capitalist culture, meaning that it shapes the morals of a given capitalist society.

"Here a well-developed sense of responsibility is absolutely indispensable, along with a general attitude which, at least during working time, does not continually seek ways of earning the usual wage with the maximum ease and the minimum effort, but performs the work as though it were an absolute end in itself—a 'calling.'"


This quote demonstrates one of Weber's central ideas regarding the development of the spirit of capitalism. Weber believes that the idea of work as a "calling," which was first introduced by Protestants in Luther's time, helped to lead to a capitalist ethic. He describes the fact that this attitude toward work as an end in itself, or a calling, was not prompted by increasing or decreasing the wages of a given group of workers. In fact, doing this has no effect on peoples' attitudes toward work. The important question is how one approaches the idea of work—whether as a duty, or as something to be done simply for getting by in life.

"He shuns ostentation and unnecessary show, spurns the conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social esteem in which he is held. His conduct of life, in other words, is often characterized to a certain degree by a form of asceticism like that which emerges clearly in the "sermon" of Franklin which we previously quoted. We shall have to pursue the historical significance of this phenomenon, which is not unimportant for our purpose."


This is how Weber describes the "ideal type" of a capitalist entrepreneur. Those who are consistently successful, according to Weber, tend to be those who are humble and work hard without seeking recognition. In a sense, this can be characterized as an ascetic approach to life, since it involves the rejection of unnecessary pleasures even though it also involves an accumulation of wealth. Weber makes clear that this kind of ascetic attitude is present in Benjamin Franklin's text, since he counsels his followers to reject excess in order to reliably accumulate capital. It is also a kind of attitude that will be important for the rest of Weber's analysis of the history that led up to the capitalist spirit.

"But what was definitely new was the estimation of fulfillment of duty within secular callings as being of the absolutely highest level possible for moral activity. It was this that led, inevitably, to the idea of the religious significance of secular everyday labor and gave rise to the concept of the calling."


This quote emphasises the idea of the calling as something central to moral precepts. Once again, Weber makes clear that this concept was a new one introduced by Protestantism, and hadn't existed for Catholics. It is important because it allowed for Protestants to contribute to secular social ethics through their religious beliefs; in other words, the belief in fulfilling a calling in order to please God also led Protestants to work very hard in their secular professional lives. This led to the influence of the Protestant religion on the economic ordering of society. According to Weber, it represented one of the central origins of the capitalist spirit.

"Their ethical goals and the practical effects of their teaching are all anchored firmly here and are the consequences of purely religious motives. And we shall therefore have to be prepared for the cultural effects of the Reformation to be in large measure—perhaps even, from our particular point of view, predominantly—unforeseen and indeed unwished for consequences of the work of the Reformers, often far removed from, or even in virtual opposition to, everything that they themselves had in mind"


This quote serves as Weber's warning to readers that they should not interpret his analysis of the Reformation as a claim that it led directly and consciously to the capitalist spirit. Instead, Weber believes that the Reformation had certain effects on thinking that incidentally contributed to the creation of the capitalist spirit. It is thus important to remember that Protestants themselves were focused only on their own religious motives. They would not necessarily approve of capitalism as a system, and would be surprised to hear that they had contributed to a capitalist ethic. Readers should thus regard Weber's analysis as an exploration of "unforeseen and indeed unwished for consequences" of these religious beliefs.

"This doctrine, with all the pathos of its inhumanity, had one principal consequence for the mood of a generation which yielded to its magnificent logic: it engendered, for each individual, a feeling of tremendous inner loneliness. In what was for the people of the Reformation age the most crucial concern of life, their eternal salvation, man was obliged to tread his path alone, toward a destiny which had been decreed from all eternity."


Here, Weber discusses the ways in which the Calvinist belief in predestination shaped a new and particular attitude. He believes that the Calvinists' belief that their salvation was determined beforehand and was completely out of their hands led to an individualist attitude. More specifically, this attitude was one that regarded other people as unhelpful and unnecessary in the path to salvation. Later, Weber argues that this pessimistic, individualist approach would help contribute to a capitalist ethic by encouraging people to work hard for their own sakes, without thinking as much about collaboration with others.

"The consequence of this systematization of the ethical conduct of life, which was enforced by Calvinism (unlike Lutheranism), is the permeation of the whole of existence by Christianity"


Weber argues that Calvinists also contributed the concept of "systematizing" an ethical approach to life. He believes this kind of systematization was absent from Lutheranism, which was less firm in its ideas about salvation and repentance. Because Calvinists believed they had to work hard and pursue their professional calling in order to distract themselves from the question of their salvation, they turned this approach to work and salvation into more of a rational system. Within this system, everyone worked hard for the sake of the work itself. Weber believes that this kind of systematization meant that Christianity penetrated even into the professional spheres of life, whereas before there had been more of a separation between work and church.

"What is really reprehensible is resting on one's enjoyment of wealth with its consequences of idleness and the lusts of the flesh, and particularly of distraction from the striving for a 'holy' life. And it is only because possessions bring with them the danger of this resting that they are dubious."


Here, Weber refers to Baxter's condemnation of wealth and clarifies that it was actually more specific than a general rejection of wealth. In fact, Baxter only disapproved of wealth insofar as it could tempt men to cease working hard and become idle. This quote shows how the Protestant ethic separates itself from traditionalism, in which men work only enough to get by in life and do not regard hard work as an end in and of itself. In traditionalism, the purpose of wealth is to provide for one's enjoyment; there is no other reason to work. In the Protestant ethic, it is precisely—and only—this "usefulness" of wealth that is dangerous, not the greed that would be needed to amass it. This quote helps to demonstrate how English Puritanism also contributed to the idea of the capitalist spirit through its approach to asceticism, though it may have seemed to be opposed at first glance.