The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Summary and Analysis of Part 2 Section 1


In this section, Weber explains the religious foundations for the capitalist spirit by describing Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and sects arising from the Baptist movement. All of these movements were connected in some form, and one often grew out of another. Although Calvinism and the Baptist movement were originally most opposed, over time Baptism moved closer to Calvinism. Even the most important of dogmatic differences, like beliefs about predestination, were often combined and confused. Though Weber does analyze these denominations separately, his argument invokes a general “Protestant ethic” because of the ways in which these denominations all overlapped.

Guidelines regarding moral conduct, in particular, were often shared across denominations. These kinds of guidelines are particularly important to Weber’s central argument about how religious ethics influenced capitalism. Thus, the intermingling between denominations raises the question of how best to analyze these confusingly mixed groups. Should scholars only consider the behavior demonstrated by members of a given congregation, while ignoring a denomination’s original stated philosophy, in order to most accurately gauge its members’ actual beliefs? Weber points out that, actually, it is important to consider the stated codes of conduct of different denominations in order to trace the connections they built between morality and the afterlife. He wants to focus on the “psychological drives” that defined behavior, instead of analyzing only the behavior itself. These kinds of drives originated from religious beliefs. Thus, it is important to consider different denominations’ original philosophies in spite of their similarities.

Weber considers these different denominations one by one, beginning with Calvinism. The central doctrine of Calvinism is the idea of “election by grace,” meaning that God only extends his salvation to certain people. Weber argues that this belief led to a widespread sense of loneliness among Calvinists; if God chose everyone either for salvation or for damnation, and nothing anyone did on earth could change this, then everyone was fundamentally alone in facing their personal destiny. This reality led to a disillusioned sense of individualism. In other words, no one else could be trusted, because it was impossible to know whether someone else was chosen for salvation or damnation. This differed from the more positive individualism of the Enlightenment, which emphasized the importance of thinking for oneself instead of focusing on a rejection of other people. Weber highlights this uniquely Calvinist attitude as an important precursor of the individualism emphasized by capitalists, as well.

The Calvinists’ belief in predestination also helped to shape their moral framework concerning social and economic organization. For example, labor was only valued when it took place in the service of social usefulness; work was not completed for personal enjoyment, but rather out of a sense of social duty. This link between religious ethics and economic ethics is particularly important to Weber’s analysis, which focuses on drawing out exactly these kinds of connections. Weber points out that this connection arose in part because the idea of predestination led most Calvinists to be preoccupied with the question of whether or not they were one of the few chosen for salvation. In turn, this worry led some to decide that the best course of action was to become self-assured enough of your own salvation that you could avoid dwelling on the question. This kind of self-assurance was best developed through committing oneself wholeheartedly to a professional calling, because having a purpose in life helped with self-confidence. This approach to a “calling” also came out of certain particularities of Calvinist belief. For example, the belief that feelings and moods could be deceptive and that only objective actions could prove one’s faith meant that working hard in one’s calling was more important than simply having a strong sense of faith, which often counted for a lot in other religions. Calvinists differed specifically from Catholics, who believed that an accumulation of positive individual achievements could lead to salvation. For Calvinists, it was necessary to constantly evaluate personal behavior. The Calvinist had to ask himself, over and over: do my actions reflect those of a saved person, or a damned one? Catholics tended to perform non-systematic good deeds, meant mainly to make up for their own sins. For example, a Catholic might donate to charity after repenting for a past sin, and would believe that this single good act counteracted the sin. A Calvinist, by contrast, had a systematic approach to work; since damnation was not related to individual acts, but one's entire being, every action had to be part of an overall life of "good behavior."

The monastic tradition that began with Catholicism was also reinterpreted by Calvinists, who applied asceticism to their secular working lives. Traditionally, monks were supposed to overcome human nature and material goods and devote themselves entirely to God. This attempt to bring order into one’s life was important to Catholics, and, amongst Protestant sects, became important for Calvinists as well. In fact, Weber believes this strict asceticism is what allowed Catholicism and Calvinism to be so influential, and allowed Calvinism in particular to dominate over Lutheranism. However, Calvinists had a new and different take on Catholic asceticism. Their asceticism was purely inward facing, meaning everyday people in their everyday lives could apply it. For Catholics, living an ascetic life meant retreating from social life, which was impossible for most people to do and was thus mostly reserved for monks. However, Calvinists did not believe that asceticism necessitated a retreat from society. Instead, one could be ascetic even as a merchant, for example, by focusing on working hard without indulging in the pleasures made possible by wealth. Beginning with Lutherans, ascetic ideals could thus be pursued even within secular professional occupations.

Weber criticizes other denominations for not including the same ascetic spirit that defined Calvinism and allowed it to contribute to the capitalist spirit. Lutherans, for example, believed that divine grace excused all sins. They were thus able to indulge in more sinful pursuits and did not need to be as careful as Calvinists did about consistently working hard and doing good deeds. Pietism, on the other hand, was characterized by the idea of election by grace and was also an ascetic movement. However, Pietists believed that, by leading more ascetic lives, those who had been converted could experience a connection with God not only in the afterlife, but in this life as well. They had a more emotional approach to religion, similar to that of Lutheranism, which encouraged the enjoyment of bliss in the current world instead of looking forward to experiencing it in the next one. Weber cautions that this emphasis on religion and enjoyment could be taken to hysterical extremes. Pietists represent the possibility of Calvinist thought leading to a sense of fatalism; if bliss is not achieved, a Pietist might be overwhelmed by the thought that they are one of the damned and nothing can be done to save them. Calvinists are spared from this crisis because they do not expect any direct signs of salvation in their lifetime, and thus do not face this kind of risk. If Pietists avoided this emotional crisis, however, they could often be even more ascetically rigorous than Calvinists.

When applied rationally, Pietism did lead to ideas central to the development of the spirit of capitalism, despite its shortcomings. For example, Pietists believed that being a lawful citizen could indicate that one was graced by God. This meant that Pietists’ religious beliefs influenced their social conduct. Like Calvinists, they also believed that engaging in constant reflection was the only way to recognize the signs God offered to those he had chosen, which similarly led to a systematic approach to work. Some Pietists believed that God was responsible for blessing certain people with success in their labor. This could also motivate them to work hard and aim for success, in order to show that they had been chosen by God. However, Weber again emphasizes that Calvinism had a greater influence on the capitalist spirit because it was more focused on making provisions for the future. Calvinists believed salvation was only revealed in the afterlife, whereas Pietists believed they could glimpse salvation in their lifetimes. Planning for the future was also essential for structuring an economy, making Calvinists more effective capitalists than Pietists were.

Weber refocuses readers on Calvinism and Baptism as the two main influences on the capitalist spirit, dismissing both Pietism and Methodism for being too emotional to have had as big of an influence. Methodists, for example, believed that those were who saved were those who were most confident in their own salvation. This made Methodism an even more emotional denomination than Pietism; feeling saved or having faith in one’s salvation was more important than completing routine, rational labor. Both Methodism and Pietism helped to shape social ethics by valuing hard work, but paled in comparison to the contributions made by Calvinism. Baptism, as well, contributed substantially to the capitalist spirit by introducing the concept of the “believer’s church.” Baptists believed that a church as an institution was less important than a community of people who had committed themselves fully to their personal faith. They also believed that an “inner light” allowed certain people to fully appreciate Biblical principles, even if they had never read the Bible themselves. Because of this, Baptists aimed to lead pure inner lives while they waited for the spirit to work its magic on them. They also believed that one’s conscience was a sign from God. Overall, Baptism contributed an emphasis on honesty to the capitalist ethic.


Weber begins this section by emphasizing the similarities between different Protestant denominations, even as he explains that he will go on to more specifically consider the differences that separate them. This represents a departure from his earlier approach to the discussion of religion, which focused on drawing stark differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. In previous sections, he indicated that degrees of nuance separated different religious denominations. Thus, the beginning of this section might appear to be a radical departure. However, Weber’s shift in tone can be seen as a kind of disclaimer; he wants to make sure that, at this point in his text, readers do not assume that his focus on differences means that no similarities exist. Moreover, pointing to similarities will later help him to establish his argument that certain attitudes can be attributed to Protestantism in general, as distinguished from Catholicism. Although he does analyze the exact beliefs of different denominations, it is important to keep in mind that his argument concerns a broad “Protestant ethic.” because he largely attributes a similar attitude to all Protestants.

Weber also warns his readers that his consideration of religious dogma will appear boring for non-theologians and superficial for scholars. This statement should lead readers to expect that his analysis will be middle-of-the-road; it is too specific to be consistently interesting or comprehensible for non-specialists, but too general to appear sophisticated to specialists. Readers can thus prepare to deal with a certain degree of detail, but should understand that this detail will not be entirely historically thorough. Once again, Weber makes clear that the main purpose of his text is not to give historical analysis or a specific discussion of different religions, but rather to isolate the ways in which this history and religion contributed to the modern capitalist spirit. He is not a historian first and foremost, but rather a theorist attempting to trace the origins of his modern culture.

In his first section on Calvinism, Weber includes longer quotes from Calvinist doctrine than he does from other denominations. This reflects the balance of specific and general information that he warned readers to expect: he refers to important Calvinist passages and provides some analysis of their meaning and importance, but he does not delve deeply to provide a full picture of the religion in the way that a theologian would. Weber’s use of these quotations does imply that he considers Calvinism especially important for his analysis, since he does not quote this heavily from other doctrines. This is consistent with the fact that the specifics of Calvinist thought will have more to do with the spirit of capitalism than other religious thinking does.

After using this quotation from Calvinist doctrine, Weber also provides a quotation from Milton in which he criticizes Calvinist ideas. Weber is including both sides of the story regarding the rationality and validity of Calvinist thought: he provides both Calvinists’ opinions and their critics’. Weber is not concerned with value judgments of different religious beliefs, but rather only with the “historical position of the dogma”—in other words, he is performing a more objective historical analysis, as opposed to weighing in on the merits of different religions. Weber himself does not care which religious denomination makes most sense, or is most likely to lead to happiness or to salvation; instead, he is concerned only with which one contributed to the capitalist spirit, and how.

At the end of the section, Weber provides a brief and useful overview of his main argument. He reiterates the main points he has made: that the idea of the calling was an important contribution, that Protestants emphasized the need to constantly be checking in with oneself, and that this led to an ascetic lifestyle that helped to rationalize and carefully order one’s life. This paragraph allows Weber to reorient his readers to his general ideas, after delving into more specifics regarding these different denominations. It is also a good place to return to when looking for a quick summary of his most important points.