The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

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


In this final section, Weber sums up the ways in which Protestantism contributed to social and economic ethics of his time, while also introducing the particular role of Puritanism in shaping capitalist values. He continues his analysis of the Reformation, a period when people were particularly concerned with the afterlife. Weber also points out that, in this time, Christian ministers had extraordinary influence over their followers’ lives, thanks to the strictness of church discipline and the seriousness with which people took their preaching. Weber even claims this influence went beyond “anything the modern mind can imagine.” This meant that, during the Reformation, religious forces dominated people's lives; a Christian minister could impart his values to all members of society. Thus, the focus on the afterlife that characterized the Reformation had a particular influence on the more general social and economic ethics of the time.

English Puritanism—which grew out of Calvinism but had a more consistent idea of the “calling”—was also an important influence on the capitalist spirit. Weber introduces Richard Baxter, a wildly successful preacher of his time who wrote influential texts about moral theology. Weber analyzes Baxter’s works, explaining that they contain judgments on wealth and its acquisition and warn against the temptation of greed. However, Baxter only criticized wealth insofar as it could lead to idleness and indulgence. According to Baxter, the most serious sin was, in fact, to waste time. This was because of the Puritan belief that life on earth was short and should primarily be spent securing one’s calling. Wasting time on any pursuit not required for health and maintenance was considered morally reprehensible. Thus, wealth was a danger only if it caused one to waste time that could otherwise be spent working hard to discover one’s professional calling.

Baxter emphasizes the importance of both physically and mentally working hard. He believes that working hard is a means of staving off temptation, since one is less likely to stray into indulgence if one is occupied. Once again, indulgence is identified as the primary sin. However, most importantly, Baxter views work as “the end and purpose of life commanded by God.” Not even wealth can excuse one from the importance of hard work, since the purpose of life is not to accumulate enough wealth to cease working, but rather to continue working hard no matter what else happens. Baxter’s approach differs from Luther’s because he does not believe that a calling is a destiny to which one must submit and resign oneself, but rather a command by God that one must fulfill by achieving at the highest level. This difference has important connotations for Weber’s argument; Baxter’s reworking of Luther’s original concept of the calling allows for greater social mobility and promotes higher achievement. In this sense, it is more conducive to the capitalist spirit.

Luther’s conception of a calling was certainly a first step toward the capitalist spirit, but was limited in comparison with Baxter’s contributions. Luther did not produce ethical principles that could radically transform the world from a traditional to a modern society, because he believed that people should persevere only within their given callings. This attitude necessitated a certain sense of indifference regarding the world and society; according to Luther, the world should be taken as it was, and did not require radical changes or personal action in order to make it a better place in general. Baxter, on the other hand, allowed for the concept of specialization in occupations. In other words, he believed workmen should use their specific skills in order to serve the common interest. For Baxter, a man without a calling lacked a systematic and methodical character of life. His version of asceticism required a very ordered, carefully calibrated lifestyle with professional life at the center. For Baxter, several different levels of callings could be combined. For example, one could work both in the arts and in agriculture. Callings could also be changed in a lifetime, so that one could begin in agriculture and then go on to pursue a calling as an artisan. Baxter’s only requirement was that one’s calling be productive for society. This emphasis on social productivity and allowance for social mobility would go on to be reflected in the capitalist spirit, as well.

For Protestants, the calling was important on three levels: private economic profitability, moral criteria, and importance to the community. In other words, Protestants believed that one should first and foremost make money for themselves in order to get by. Then, one should also consider the morality of one’s profession. Finally, one should also attempt to contribute something of importance to their community. It followed that everyone was encouraged to pursue maximum personal profit when possible, in order not to go against one of these three levels, as long as this did not violate morals or the community’s interest. According to this system, rich and ostentatious lords who reveled in their wealth were looked down upon, but the self-made man who rose from the middle to the upper class was lauded as a very ethical person because he had followed the imperatives of this first aspect of the calling. At the same time, Puritanism did reject artistic pursuits and many cultural activities because they were not seen as materially beneficial to the community. Puritans generally encouraged utility over artistic motives. Weber argues that this spiritual tendency toward increasing the uniformity of lifestyles by rejecting anything that seemed “indulgent” could be connected to the capitalist interest in standardizing production.

The religious value placed on constant and systematic labor in secular callings—this being seen as the best path to asceticism and as visible proof of genuine faith or salvation—was incredibly important for spreading the spirit of capitalism. Protestants tended to place limitations on their consumption, because consuming too much was seen as indulgent. At the same time, they combined this attitude with the freedom to strive for personal profit. Together, these two factors created a lot of capital: saving money plus striving to make as much money as possible was the perfect formula for accumulating a maximum amount of capital. The Protestant approach to work was very good for growing a country’s economy. In fact, limitations on consumption could even lead to further investment capital; in other words, the money saved when people chose not to indulge in unnecessary luxuries was then invested in further productive ventures. This process was what led to the impressive accumulation of wealth seen in New England or Holland. It was also particularly useful for elevating the middle class, since you could begin the process with only a small amount of money. This emphasis on the middle class was a central feature of the capitalist spirit. A man of the middle class was in fact regarded as an ideal “economic man” because he had worked hard enough not to be poor, but was not so rich as to be indulgent. He was perfectly positioned to apply Protestant values and embody the spirit of capitalism by saving money and working to make more.

Weber ends his text by pointing out that religious asceticism also led to a particularly competent class of workers. They were devoted to their work not out of a motivation for survival, but out of an attitude that valued hard work itself. Protestantism’s main contribution to this was in encouraging a new kind of psychological drive toward work. In other words, Protestants worked hard because their religious beliefs encouraged this as a means of getting closer to God and salvation. They had a particularly strong motivation to work harder than others in society. By Weber’s time, the lifestyle that Puritans had invented during the course of the Reformation had become standard in society. In fact, the Puritan approach to hard work had become required of everyone born into a capitalist system, no matter their religious affiliation. The original Protestant ethic had shaped the contemporary spirit of capitalism.


Weber starts this last section by warning readers that he will be treating ascetic Protestantism as a “single phenomenon.” This differs from his treatment of asceticism in the previous section, which focused on the details of how asceticism developed in different denominations. He is moving once again from specifics to generalities, this time including a much broader sweep of attitudes that characterize Protestantism as a whole. This is a logical leap for Weber to make in his last section, since he must wrap up the text by presenting his argument as a cohesive whole.

Consistent with a concluding section, Weber also summarizes previous points. He often reminds his readers of previous points in an explicit manner, with phrases such as “let us just recall,” etc in order to make sure that his points are understood as he leads up to his conclusion. This occasionally seems repetitive, especially as he refers constantly to the idea of asceticism and its contribution to capitalist ethics. He warns readers halfway through the section, “we shall now highlight those particular points in which the concept of the calling and the insistence on an ascetic conduct of life directly influenced the development of the capitalist style of life,” and proceeds to emphasize a number of examples illustrating this broad argument. At each step, Weber includes more details before summarizing more broadly. Many of the points he makes are reinforced with new evidence. This takes the section beyond a simple summary and toward a clearer and more elegant restating of his overall argument.

Weber also quotes a wider variety of passages from literature and religious treatises in order to demonstrate that the ideas he are discussing were in fact widespread. He comes back once again to the central passage from Franklin, but also bolsters this evidence by quoting from Goethe, Robinson Crusoe, and other major texts. Goethe, for example, discusses the ascetic motive of the “middle-class style of life” in his 1821 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. Weber brings this up in order to prove his point that even relatively modern works referred to the concept of asceticism in working life, which was originally introduced to the cultural vocabulary by Protestants. References to famous works and authors such as these help to prove Weber’s point that the spirit of capitalism was an important, broad idea that infiltrated many different sectors of society. These quotes allow Weber to illustrate more clearly the point of his analysis: Protestant ethics influenced the capitalist spirit in a direct and tangible way that should not be neglected by future scholars of capitalist culture. As they appear toward the end of the text, these quotes serve to remind readers that the stakes at play are significant.

Weber turns briefly toward a consideration of the possible future, based on his analysis of the past. He states that no one knows yet what kinds of people will occupy the “shell” of capitalism as it develops into the future. Here, we find his famous warning about capitalism turning into an "iron cage" (actually a "hard shell"). Weber believes that, in his day, people no longer link their jobs to the idea of spiritual and cultural values, and do not find meaning in their work. Once capitalism is no longer animated by a religious "spirit," those who live under its demands no longer find meaning; instead, their lives seem empty, a "shell." The final section of The Protestant Ethic thus contains a warning, and a criticism of unbridled capitalism as it exists in places like the United States, where it has reached above and beyond the original capitalist spirit. This suggests another purpose for Weber's analysis of the past: by clarifying how the present came to be, we can better understand how it functions—and how it may function into the future if it goes unchecked.

However, Weber quickly clarifies that this consideration of the future is not his main concern. Once again, he reiterates that he is not interested in “judgments of value and belief,” but rather in an objective historical study. He emphasizes that his primary task is to indicate the significance of ascetic rationalism for the capitalist ethic and social structure. He has endeavored to trace this significance through its relationship with ideals and cultural influences. However, there is work still be done; more specifically, Weber encourages future scholars to investigate the relationship between the Protestant ethic, the spirit of capitalism, and technological developments or the arts. To trace the importance of ascetic rationalism to other aspects of modern culture, one would also have to chart its more modern manifestations. Weber concludes on this note of explaining what kinds of work remains because he believes that it would be misleading to claim that his text provides a definitive conclusion. He ends by assuring readers that he does not want to replace a materialist interpretation of culture with a simple spiritual one, but rather to bring the spiritual explanation into the fold. Overall, he notes that his text has been only a preliminary study, and his primary purpose has been to introduce the importance of investigating religious explanations for secular phenomenon.