The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Summary and Analysis of Part 1 Section 3


In this section, Weber introduces Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and weighs his contributions to the Protestant outlook that shaped the spirit of capitalism. First, however, Weber begins by bringing attention to an important difference between how Protestants and Catholics conceived of work. He explains that the word for “calling” in both English and German implies that a given task has been determined by God. Because this term gained its new meaning only in 16th and 17th century vernacular translations of the Bible, like Luther’s translation into German and the King James Bible in English, it did not exist in this same religious sense for Catholics (for whom religious doctrine was transmitted only in Latin). Weber believes this split in the etymology of “calling” points to a key difference between Protestants and Catholics: Protestants associate their worldly labor with a “calling” from God, unlike Catholics, for whom professional and religious life are separate. Weber will go on to show how this idea of a calling helped Protestants to develop a capitalist spirit that eluded Catholics.

Weber argues that this integral concept of the “calling” originated with the Reformation. He explains that Martin Luther first introduced the idea that fulfilling one’s duty through secular callings was the highest possible achievement of moral activity in one’s lifetime. This is a very Protestant idea—it goes against the Catholic emphasis on a version of asceticism that rejects anything related to material life, and emphasizes instead that one can live a life pleasing to God only by fulfilling earthly duties. In fact, Luther rejected the monastic style of life that was popular amongst Catholics at the time. He insisted instead on pursuing legitimate professional occupations, instead, as the best means of living a life according to God.

Nevertheless, Weber goes on to warn that Luther should not be regarded as a direct inventor of the capitalist spirit. In fact, Luther would have rejected many of the ideas found in Benjamin Franklin’s treatise. For example, he would object to the idea of capitalism in the first place, because it creates stark social segregation on the basis of economic class. Overall, he would agree with the value of working hard, but not with the idea that working to make money was a worthy pursuit. Weber explains that both Luther’s interpretation of Christian doctrine and the Bible supports a traditionalist interpretation of society, instead of one in line with the capitalist spirit. According to Luther, everyone should focus on earning their own living, only insofar as they need to in order to get by, and should not pursue profit for its own sake. Because Luther did not allow for the benefits of making a profit, he also did not entirely account for the capitalist spirit as Weber defines it.

Luther’s take on the calling emphasized, instead, the concept of fulfilling one’s duty according to one’s specific station in life. He believed that all occupations were equal, as long as they were in line with the social and economic class one had been born into. This system would entail a lack of movement throughout different stations or economic classes; if one is born poor, Luther believed one should be content with remaining in this general economic class while working hard only for the sake of valuing hard work itself. Luther justified this system with the belief that one’s calling was assigned by God, making the idea of providence, or fate, particularly important to his philosophy. While the notion of one’s worldly life being fated or predestinated would become a key part of the capitalist spirit, we can already see how Luther’s rejection of class mobility—which is what seeking a profit would entail —is inconsistent with Weber’s idea of the capitalist spirit, since it did not allow for social mobility.

Weber goes on to clarify that his readers should think of Luther, then, only as an early precursor to the concept of the capitalist spirit. Weber now turns to other forms of Protestantism that contributed further to the origins of this spirit. This brings Weber to Calvinism, a form of Protestantism that was particularly controversial because it not only broke with Catholicism, but also differed from other forms of Protestantism at the time. Calvinists believed that one’s treatment in the afterlife, and God’s ultimate judgment of every individual, was determined in advance of one’s life on earth. However, by observing one’s fortune, or ill-fortune, in the course of a lifetime, this judgment could be guessed at. For example, if someone was particularly unlucky throughout their life, Calvinists would tend to assume this meant they must have been determined to be a bad person. The opposite would be true for those who had worldly success—i.e., in the emerging capitalist world, those who made a lot of money. Weber notes that Calvinists thus had a very different ethical framework from other religious denominations. Thus Calvinism could be worth investigating as another source of the capitalist spirit.

However, Weber interrupts this line of inquiry to warn against certain assumptions. It might sound like, in this section, Weber is showing how religious leaders developed a capitalist spirit. But Weber cautions that just because these thinkers developed an ideology that ended up supporting capitalism, does not mean that they were intentionally developing a "capitalist spirit." Far from it: in their own minds, these leaders were working out the question of the salvation of souls, and did not at all consider how the ethic they developed might make people wealthy. Weber’s analysis thus intends to find accidental or incidental connections between religious thought and the eventual development of a capitalist spirit. He acknowledges that this may seem like a weaker base of evidence, but defends it on the grounds that such incidental causes of new ideas are common throughout history.

Weber concludes the section by clarifying that historical analysis is not the primary purpose of his study. Instead, he considers history only insofar as it can shed light on the development of the ideas he is interested in. In particular, he warns his readers that he does not intend to closely analyze the Reformation. He only intends to trace the development of modern material culture, and to consider the Reformation’s contributions to this. This means that he is not trying to prove that capitalism was an inevitable consequence of the Reformation, or that it could not have existed without it. In fact, many aspects of capitalism arose before or independently of the Reformation. Instead, Weber is trying to show that the Reformation was partially responsible for shaping the capitalist spirit that he is interested in investigating, and intends to continue tracing these connections.


In this section, Weber includes new kinds of analysis. He begins by closely analyzing the word “calling” itself. He traces the definition back to its origins in a Protestant translation of the Bible, and uses this etymology to argue that Protestants were particularly concerned with the concept of a “calling” in a way that Catholics were not. This provides a new kind of evidence for Weber’s hypothesis. Previously, he had relied on tracing different economic trends. Now, he turns toward explaining how they came about in the first place, and does so by drawing on evidence such as etymology, Biblical passages, and Luther’s writings. He gets even more specific by honing in on a particular word, instead of analyzing an entire passage, as he did with Benjamin Franklin’s article. For Weber, even one word associated with the Protestant ethic can help to explain the resulting spirit of capitalism.

Weber’s analysis shifts both time periods and scope in this third section of the text. In his second section, he began by defining the modern spirit of capitalism and spoke specifically about Benjamin Franklin. In this section, he goes back in time to the Reformation and original Protestant translations of the Bible. His analysis both reaches back farther in time and is deepened by this shift. For example, he mentions Luther’s emphasis on inner-worldly duties as an example of a new attitude that shifted cultural thinking toward a more individualistic, work-centered culture. Weber is able to speak in more specific terms about Martin Luther’s thinking, and more specifically isolates ways in which this thinking contributed to certain aspects of the capitalist spirit.

Weber also includes a brief analysis comparing Paradise Lost by Milton to Dante's Divine Comedy. The quote he includes from Milton, a 18th century English writer who embraced Puritanism, represents one of the only longer quotes he includes in his text, and is meant to illustrate the Puritan attitude in general. The passage describes people reflecting on their expulsion from Paradise, and describes them considering their worldly deeds and the value of finding a Paradise within oneself. Weber uses this passage to show “Puritan worldliness,” meaning the value they place on viewing life as a task to be accomplished. It allows him to demonstrate the ways in which the Puritan attitude was different from Lutheranism and Catholicism. It also represents yet another piece of older and more specific evidence made use of in this section.

Toward the end of the section, Weber explicitly guides readers about how they should approach his analysis. More specifically, he warns them against expecting a historical analysis. He does not intend to do “purely historical work” in this text, but rather to focus on tracing the origins of the capitalist spirit, in particular. This means that his work should not be approached as a serious historical study of the period, but rather as a specific discussion of this concept of a capitalist spirit. Along the same lines, he cautions readers against believing that the early Protestants were concerned with developing a capitalist spirit. He acknowledges that their contribution to this spirit was, in fact, incidental. Thus, his analysis should not be seen as a direct link between the capitalist spirit and Protestantism, but rather a tentative connection between the two.

Weber’s specification that he is not drawing a direct connection between the capitalist spirit and Protestantism also allows him to support more tenuous analyses of these two concepts. Because he does not intend to prove that Protestantism directly led to the capitalist spirit, he only has to show that they are somehow related. This reduces the burden of proof placed on Weber throughout the text. He is able to point to certain tentative connections and magnify their importance, without needing to also show that one led directly to another.