The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Themes

Form vs. Motivation

Weber is careful to identify a difference between the “form” and “motivation” of capitalism. By this he means that a society can be capitalist in form—as in, its economic life can be ordered according to a capitalist system—but not in motivation, if workers only labor hard enough to get by, without making any profit. On the other hand, a society can lack the form of capitalism but still have a capitalist “motivation” if people tend to think along the lines of deriving a profit for themselves through their labor, despite a non-capitalist economic system. A good example of this second option would be New England in Benjamin Franklin’s time; although capitalism was not yet in place, Franklin’s texts supported the idea of working hard in order to accumulate enough money to pass on to the next generation, thus representing a capitalist spirit. This theme recurs throughout the text as a means of distinguishing the capitalist spirit from capitalism itself.

Being Put to the Test

Weber identifies this concept as one central to Calvinism, and important for explaining why Calvinism had such a particular influence on the capitalist spirit. This idea contrasts with a fundamental belief of Catholicism, which holds that everyone is marked by sin, but can be forgiven for such sins after the fact if they simply repent. Even Lutherans believe that penitence can win back God’s grace. Weber claims that this viewpoint means that Catholics and Lutherans have no motivation to adopt the kind of systematic, rational approach to morality that characterizes Calvinism. For Calvinists, morality is systematic because they believe they are constantly being tested. If they perform well, it reveals that they are saved. Thus, for Calvinism, since salvation is determined beforehand by God, all actions on earth reflect one’s state of salvation; if someone is generally a hard worker and does well for themselves, this proves that they have been chosen for salvation. According to Weber, this means that Calvinists have more motivation to work hard in a rational, methodical way.


Weber often refers to the notion of asceticism, which is a rejection of worldly pleasures and a careful practice of self-discipline. Many Protestant sects valued asceticism. In particular, monks attempted to embody an ascetic lifestyle. Thus, this approach recurs throughout Weber’s text as he attempts to trace the ways in which Protestantism contributed to a capitalist spirit. Weber argues that the strict form of self-discipline needed both to avoid indulgences and to work hard in order to make a profit was seen as a a spiritual, religious act, applied to the secular parts of one’s life, such as one’s profession. Weber points out that Calvinists tended to apply a type of ascetic approach to their entire lives, even when their professions had nothing to do with their religion.

Duty as Calling

Weber first refers to this concept when discussing the contributions Luther made to the development of the capitalist spirit. According to Weber, Luther reframed the idea of one’s calling—meaning one’s station in life or profession—as something that one had a “duty” to adhere to, in a religious sense. Luther believed that everyone had a calling and had to complete it in order to live a life pleasing to God. In some ways, Calvinists also reflected this idea in their approach to the importance of work. They believed they had a duty to work hard in order to manifest the fact that they were one of the few chosen by God for salvation; or, to give it a more psychological explanation, in order to gain greater self-assurance and not to dwell on the question of whether or not they had been chosen.

Worldliness vs Otherworldliness

These two contrasting concepts are referred to when Weber compares Catholicism to Protestantism. Weber points out that Protestants are often accused of “worldliness,” meaning they are more focused on their material lives before the afterlife, while Catholics are said to be “otherworldly,” meaning they focus most heavily on their afterlife. Weber explains that the two sides criticize one another for different reasons: Catholics can be accused of being indifferent toward worldly concerns, while Protestants can be said to be too “materialist” because they have secularized more aspects of their day to day lives. However, according to Weber, this is a false dichotomy. Protestants actually tended to be very ascetic and, in the early days of Calvinism and Puritanism, took little enjoyment in life. Thus, in general, these concepts are proven to be peripheral to Weber’s discussion of the capitalist spirit and the ways in which Catholicism and Protestantism contributed to it.

Pessimistic Individualism

Weber believes that one of the defining features of Calvinism is an attitude of pessimistic individualism. This arises out of the Calvinist belief in predestination; if every individual’s salvation is already determined beforehand and cannot be changed, then other people or individuals cannot help them in this path to salvation or condemnation. This makes it individualistic. This individualism is pessimistic because it involves the belief that salvation is a personal matter, meaning no one can help anyone else. Thus, it differs from the individualism of the Enlightenment, which was more positive in the sense that it thought that if each individual looked out for him or herself, others would benefit. This becomes an important theme because individualism is essential to the capitalist spirit. However, Weber also wants to make clear that it is this specifically this Calvinist, pessimist individualism that contributed to the spirit, as opposed to the individualism of the Enlightenment, which does not form a part of his historical analysis.

Systematic Vs Individual Actions

Weber believes that one of the important distinctions between Catholicism and Protestantism lies in their respective focus on individual or systematic actions. Catholics tend to focus on individual action because they believe that individuals can make up for their sins after committing them, by the specific act of repenting for this given sin. However, Protestants have a more systematic approach to sin: they believe in constantly attempting to do good deeds in order to prove or achieve salvation, on a daily basis. While Catholics perform an isolated, occasional act, Protestants perform a consistent and thus systematic action throughout their lives. For Weber, this is an important theme because the systematic nature of Protestantism is part of what contributed to the capitalist spirit: Calvinists worked hard throughout their lives in a methodical way, in order to become more self-assured of salvation, and in so doing reflected the same kind of constant personal motivation to work that would characterize the capitalist spirit.