The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Summary and Analysis of Part 1, Section 1


Weber begins his first section by introducing the central dilemma that drives this work: why is it that, in the turn-of-the-century world when he writes, those in the highest economic classes tend to be Protestant, as opposed to Catholic? Initially, he presents this fact as puzzling to most thinkers of the day. In fact, it has recently been troubling Catholics, in particular. Weber quickly follows up by explaining that this trend is not easy to explain away according to other factors. For example, some people have argued that the difference is due to national differences—Catholics and Protestants live in different countries. However, some countries (like Weber's own Germany) have both Catholics and Protestants, and the differences persist; thus, nationality can't explain it. Furthermore, Weber establishes that this trend exists in all places where capitalism has structured society, especially when capitalism has been given particularly free reign to do so.

Weber goes on to examine potential historical reasons for this trend. He points out that, since the distant past, Protestants have accumulated more familial wealth than Catholics, leaving them better off in his day. However, he also explains that religious differences do not actually cause differences in economic class, but rather are themselves caused by economic circumstances. In particular, he observes that wealthiest parts of Europe, especially the cities, were those that turned to Protestantism in the 16th century. Since then, Protestants have continued to be better off because of this historical advantage.

But this still leaves unanswered an important question. Why did the richest regions turn to Protestantism? He warns that the answer to this is complicated. First, he brings up another reason one would not think Protestants would naturally be associated with wealth. While it is true that the turn away from traditional economic structures in order to embrace capitalism happened at the same time as the turn away from the existing religious structures (Catholic) to embrace Protestantism, it is important to remember that the Reformation in the 16th century was not about simply removing existing religious structures—as if less religious strictness would give freer reign to capitalist growth. In fact, the Reformation replaced a relaxed religious system (Catholicism) with a stricter one (Protestantism). Indeed the adherents of the strictest Protestant denomination, Calvinism, became especially wealthy. So how did stricter religion lead to more relaxed views about moneymaking?

The coinciding of capitalism with Protestantism leads Weber to conclude that countries with high economic development actually looked for more ecclesiastical control over their everyday lives. He backtracks to reiterate that, today, the proportion of Protestant businessmen can be explained by a history of wealth being passed on to them. However, he points out that certain trends can’t be explained by wealth alone. For example, far fewer Catholics enter into technical studies and commercial or business careers, or other middle-class occupations. Catholics tend to gravitate toward an education focused on the classics, instead, no matter what their wealth. This is another factor that could help explain why fewer Catholics participate in the capitalist economy. Similarly, Catholics tend to focus on craft work while Protestants tend to move toward factories where they can find managerial positions. Weber concludes that, thus, Protestants and Catholics must also have “distinct mental characteristics,” or different cultural tendencies based on their different religious traditions.

Weber brings up another fact that would seem to imply Catholics should be more economically successful than they are. In most countries where a minority group is excluded from politics, these minorities turn toward business, instead, in order to exercise their talents in a non-state-run enterprise. This is exemplified by Poles in Russia, or Jews in many European countries. However, for Catholics in Germany, this has not happened. Weber views this as another reason that we must turn to considering cultural explanations or different “internal characteristics,” as opposed to the historical and political situation, in order to explain the differences in wealth between Catholics and Protestants.

This leads Weber to argue that it is important to focus on which internal characteristics of each religion have contributed to this trend. He addresses the common assumption that it has to do with Catholics’ greater focus on life after death and rejection of material things. In fact, he explains that, in the past, Protestants were actually also very ascetic. He dismisses this common assumption by arguing that calling Catholics “unworldly” and Protestants “worldly” is too general to lead to any real answers about why they have had differing economic success. He then goes even further, stating that, actually, religious strictness and asceticism could be associated with capitalist commerce. In fact, some of the most pious institutions have been the most commercially successful. This has been true of all sects of Calvinism, which have been known to encourage a spirit of trade. It has also been true of the Quakers and Mennonites, who were important for industry.

Weber concludes this section with the disclaimer that it has only been a series of “provisional remarks” before getting into the body of his work. He wants readers to remember that the capitalist instinct should not be associated with the Enlightenment, since older varieties of Protestantism were very hostile to the Enlightenment but very much associated with industry. He ends by guiding readers from this more general introduction to a more specific discussion of different Christian sects.


Weber begins by acknowledging that the central argument of his book is counterintuitive. It does not seem to make sense that Protestants would be so much more economically successful than Catholics. In the first sentence, he notes that explanations for Protestants’ economic success have been a “subject of lively debate,” making clear that he is engaging in an ongoing conversation about the role of religion in shaping secular life. The first section of the text thus clarifies that Weber’s theory functions as a response to then-current understandings about how the economic and social life of his time was formed. Furthermore, his response breaks with the wisdom of his time by focusing on religion as a key factor in developing economic trends; before Weber, sociologists had not believed religious explanations to be an important factor when analyzing trends in culture, social life, and the economy.

Weber also takes up prevalent explanations for differences between Protestants and Catholics, showing what kinds of explanations were commonly used in order to point out why they were flawed. He explains that many widespread assumptions were actually associational. For example, readers might assume that because some countries were majority Catholic and others were majority Protestant, the economic disparities between them could be explained by national differences. This would be an associational explanation because it connects two facts in a causal relationship when, actually, Weber explains that the relation between nationality and economic success is simply one of correlation. In other words, this assumption isolates the wrong factors when trying to explain Protestant success; instead of linking religion and economic success, as Weber believes it should, it connects nationality with such success.

Weber also debunks historical explanations that do not go far enough in answering his central question about why Protestant countries are more economically successful than Catholic ones. He acknowledges that some readers might assume that, because early capitalist growth happened in Protestant regions, current Protestant success could be explained by a coincidental correlation that continues now only because current Protestants have inherited the wealth of their ancestors—that current Protestants were born with an advantage. Weber points out that this historical explanation does not cut very deep when it comes to addressing his question. Why were these early Protestants more successful in the first place? A second historical explanation he dismisses is one that lumps capitalism and the Reformation together on the basis that they both involved significant social change, and so were essentially the same thing. Weber will go on to show that the Reformation actually did not directly lead to capitalism, and the two movements involved a number of different values. It is incorrect to associate the two changes with one another in so straight and simple a link.

Weber’s references to other possible explanations both set up the unanswered question he intends to address, and indicate how he will attempt to address it differently. By dismissing such associational or historical explanations, Weber responds to the faulty logic of his time and inserts himself into the existing conversation by making clear that new and better explanations are needed. However, he also implies that his own argument will contain neither of these elements. In fact, he will explicitly reject logic that relies too heavily on a direct link between two factors. Instead, he will build more tentative and implicit connections between the Reformation and capitalism. For Weber, it is unnecessary and, in fact, faulty logic to explain one event by claiming it was the same as another, since that still begs the question of what they had in common. According to his worldview, certain aspects of a given historical, religious, or social movement may contribute in some degree to ones that follow. It is these more concrete, yet less one-to-one, correspondences that he will attempt to trace when showing how Protestantism contributed to the capitalist spirit.

Consistent with this style of argument, Weber makes use of many specific examples throughout this section in order to support his analysis. He references particular religious denominations and their historical roles, demonstrating that he has done careful research to support his points. For example, he uses Calvinism as an example of a particularly radical and influential denomination, which changed the religious landscape through its insistence on the concept of predestination. Weber indicates that Calvinism will be one of the Protestant denominations he will analyze throughout the text in order to show how specific Protestant beliefs helped to shape the capitalist spirit. Weber is also specific about the time period he is referencing. This is consistent with the fact that, although he does not intend to build a purely historical argument, he does intend to be thorough and accurate in his use of historical evidence. Weber will refer to detailed evidence about the Reformation and the beliefs it inspired in order to trace, in equal detail, some of the early influences on the spirit of capitalism.

Overall, however, Weber is careful to note that this section should be seen as “provisional remarks.” He does not intend this first section to fully lay out his argument for the reader, but only to introduce the topic and situate his text within a larger discussion. In this sense, he does not provide complete answers to the questions he raises; we do not yet learn how, exactly, he believes the capitalist spirit came to be, and how Protestantism specifically influenced it. Instead, Weber only begins to hint at the direction his analysis will take and provides readers with necessary background information. Toward the end of the section, Weber more explicitly guides the reader as to what to expect in the rest of the text. He notes that he will be moving from this general discussion to more specific analysis, again emphasizing that detailed examples will be an important component of his argument. However, he also clarifies that he first intends to provide further provisional remarks in his second section.