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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a book written by Max Weber, a Germanmarker sociologist, economist, and politician, in 1904 and 1905 that began as a series of essays. The original edition was in German and has been released. The book was translated into English for the first time by Talcott Parsons and appeared in 1930.

In the book, Weber wrote that capitalism in northern Europe evolved when the Protestant (particularly Calvinist) ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprise and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. In other words, the Protestant ethic was a force behind an unplanned and uncoordinated mass action that influenced the development of capitalism. This idea is also known as "the Weber thesis". Weber, however, rejected deterministic approaches, and presented the Protestant Ethic as merely one in a number of 'elective affinities' leading toward capitalist modernity.

Book contents

The book is not a detailed study of Protestantism but rather an introduction into Weber's later studies of interaction between various religious ideas and economics.

In the book, Weber argues that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. Religious devotion, however, usually accompanied a rejection of worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addresses this apparent paradox in the books.

To illustrate and provide an example, Weber quotes the ethical writings of Benjamin Franklin:

Remember, that time is money.
He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.


Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.(Italics in the original)

Weber notes that this is not a philosophy of mere greed, but a statement laden with moral language. Indeed, Franklin claims that God revealed to him the usefulness of virtue.

To emphasize the work ethic in Protestantism relative to Catholics, he notes a common problem that industrialists face when employing precapitalist laborers: Agricultural entrepreneurs will try to encourage time spent harvesting by offering a higher wage, with the expectation that laborers will see time spent working as more valuable and so engage it longer. However, in precapitalist societies this often results in laborers spending less time harvesting. Laborers judge that they can earn the same, while spending less time working and having more leisure. He also notes that societies having more Protestants are those that have a more developed capitalist economy.

It is particularly advantageous in technical occupations for workers to be extremely devoted to their craft. To view the craft as an end in itself, or as a "calling" would serve this need well. This attitude is well-noted in certain classes which have endured religious education, especially of a Pietist background.

He defines spirit of capitalism as the ideas and esprit that favour the rational pursuit of economic gain: "We shall nevertheless provisionally use the expression 'spirit of capitalism' for that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling [berufsmaßig], strives systematically for profit for its own sake in the manner exemplified by Benjamin Franklin." The rationalization is partially a product of the fact that Luther and his religious descendents read the Old Testament and New with equal weight, and so is due to greater influence of Jewish thought. Weber points out that such a spirit is not limited to Western culture if one considers it as the attitude of individual, but that such individuals — heroic entrepreneurs, as he calls them — could not by themselves establish a new economic order (capitalism). He further noted that the spirit of capitalism could be divorced from religion, and that those passionate capitalists of his era were either passionate against the Church or at least indifferent to it. The most common tendencies were the greed for profit with minimum effort and the idea that work was a curse and burden to be avoided especially when it exceeded what was enough for modest life. As he wrote in his essays:

In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of the capitalism… could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to the whole groups of man.

After defining the "spirit of capitalism," Weber argues that there are many reasons to find its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation. Many observers like William Petty, Montesquieu, Henry Thomas Buckle, John Keats, and others have commented on the affinity between Protestantism and the development of commercialism.

Weber shows that certain types of Protestantism favoured rational pursuit of economic gain and that worldly activities had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct — the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain.

Weber traced the origins of the Protestant ethic to the Reformation, though he acknowledged some respect for secular everyday labor as early as the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic Church assured salvation to individuals who accepted the church's sacraments and submitted to the clerical authority. However, the Reformation had effectively removed such assurances. From a psychological viewpoint, the average person had difficulty adjusting to this new worldview, and only the most devout believers or "religious geniuses" within Protestanism, such as Martin Luther, were able to make this adjustment, according to Weber.

In the absence of such assurances from religious authority, Weber argued that Protestants began to look for other "signs" that they were saved. Calvin and his followers taught a doctrine of double predestination, in which from the beginning God chose some people for salvation and others for damnation. The inability to influence one's own salvation presented a very difficult problem for Calvin's followers. It became an absolute duty to believe that one was chosen for salvation, and to dispel any doubt about that: lack of self-confidence was evidence of insufficient faith and a sign of damnation. So, self-confidence took the place of priestly assurance of God's grace.

Worldly success became one measure of that self-confidence. Luther made an early endorsement of Europe's emerging labor divisions. Weber identifies the applicability of Luther's conclusions, noting that a "vocation" from God was no longer limited to the clergy or church, but applied to any occupation or trade.

However, Weber saw the fulfillment of the Protestant ethic not in Lutheranism, which was too concerned with the reception of divine spirit in the soul, but in Calvinistic forms of Christianity. The trend was carried further still in Pietism. The Baptists diluted the concept of the calling relative to Calvinists, but other aspects made its congregants fertile soil for the development of capitalism--namely, a lack of paralyzing ascetism, the refusal to accept state office and thereby develop unpolitically, and the doctrine of control by conscience which caused rigorous honesty.

The "paradox" Weber found was, in simple terms:
  • According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this world view was more likely to accumulate money.
  • The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries a sin. Donations to an individual's church or congregation was limited due to the rejection by certain Protestant sects of icons. Finally, donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

The manner in which this paradox was resolved, Weber argued, was the investment of this money, which gave an extreme boost to nascent capitalism.

By the time Weber wrote this essay, he believed that the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had largely gone from society. He cited the writings of Benjamin Franklin, which emphasized frugality, hard work and thrift, but were mostly free of spiritual content. Weber also attributed the success of mass production partly to the Protestant ethic. Only after expensive luxuries were disdained, could individuals accept the uniform products, such as clothes and furniture, that industrialization offered.

In his remarkably prescient conclusion to the book, Weber lamented that the loss of religious underpinning to capitalism's spirit has led to a kind of involuntary servitude to mechanized industry.

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so.
For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.
This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.
Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.
(Page 181, 1953 Scribner's edition.)

Weber maintained that while Puritan religious ideas had had a major influence on the development of economic order in Europe and United States, they were not the only factor (others included the rationalism in scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration and economic enterprise). In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the emancipation from magic, that disenchantment of the world that he regarded as the distinguishing peculiarity of Western culture.

In the final endnotes Weber states that he abandoned research into Protestantism because his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, a professional theologian, had initiated work on the book The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Sects. Another reason for Weber's decision was that Troeltsch's essay had provided the perspective for a broad comparison of religion and society, which he continued in his later works (the study of Judaism and the religions of China and India).

This book is also Weber's first brush with the concept of rationalization. His idea of modern capitalism as growing out of the religious pursuit of wealth meant a change to a rational means of existence, wealth. That is to say, at some point the Calvinist rationale informing the "spirit" of capitalism became unreliant on the underlying religious movement behind it, leaving only rational capitalism. In essence then, Weber's "Spirit of Capitalism" is effectively and more broadly a Spirit of Rationalization.

The essay can also be interpreted as one of Weber's criticisms of Karl Marx and his theories. While Marx's historical materialism held that all human institutions - including religion - were based on economic foundations, The Protestant Ethic turns this theory on its head by implying that a religious movement fostered capitalism, not the other way around.

Other scholars have taken a more nuanced view of Weber's argument. Weber states in the closing of this essay, "it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and history. Each is equally possible, but each if it does not serve as the preparation, but as the conclusion of an investigation, accomplishes equally little in the interest of historical truth." Weber's argument can be understood as an attempt to deepen the understanding of the cultural origins of capitalism, which does not exclude the historical materialist origins described by Marx.

Table of contents (from the 1958 Scribner's edition, translated by Talcott Parsons)

Part 1. The Problem

I. Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification

II. The Spirit of Capitalism

III. Luther's Conception of the Calling. Task of the Investigation.

Part 2. The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism.

IV. The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism

:A. Calvinism

::Predestination; Elimination of Magic; Rationalization of the World; Certainty of Salvation; Lutheranism vs. Calvinism; Catholicism vs. Calvinism; Monasticism vs. Puritanism; Methodical Ethic; Idea of Proof.

:B. Pietism

::Emotionalism; Spener; Francke; Zinzendorf; German Pietism.

:C. Methodism
:D. The Baptism Sects

::Baptist and Quaker; Sect Principle; Inner Worldly Asceticism; Transformation of the World.

V. Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism

:Richard Baxter; Meaning of Work; Justification of Profit; Jewish vs. Puritan Capitalism; Puritanism and Culture; Saving and Capital; Paradox of Asceticism and Rich; Serving Both Worlds; Citizenry Capitalistic Ethic; Iron Cage of Capitalism.

Spirit of capitalism

The first, and probably most vital, feature of the spirit of capitalism was that it invested “economizing” with high moral significance. The individual engages in capitalistic economizing not only for the expediency of making a living, but in the expectation that such activity would test his inner resources and thus affirm his moral worth. In this regard, the American novelist Walker Percy observed, “As long as I am getting rich, I feel well. It is my Presbyterian blood.”

A major effect of this spirit, as Durkheim noted , is that the entrepreneur performs his tasks with an earnestness of purpose that places them at the center of his life, and endows them with intrinsic dignity. There is nothing degrading about them. Such an approach to monetary gain is markedly different from the sordid passion of greed, for monetary gain was not to be used for luxury or self-indulgent bodily comfort, but rather was to be saved, and accumulated. Neither could the resulting frugality be mistaken for miserliness, as the accumulated resources were to be reinvested in worthy enterprises. The spirit of capitalism constituted a sort of moral "habitus" which burdened the possessor of money with a steward’s obligation toward his own possessions.

Likewise, the individual entrepreneur isn’t allowed to become overly absorbed into or preoccupied with himself. His existence revolves around an objective concern outside himself, which unceasingly demands his devotion and thus, becomes a test of his self-worth. By its very nature, these economic practices require reference to a goal; however, increase in capital becomes the ultimate point of reference.

Ultimately, the point of the spirit of capitalism is to attribute moral significance to entrepreneurial activity and lend meaning to the existence of those committed to it.


The economist and historian Henryk Grossman criticises Weber's analysis on two fronts. Firstly with reference to Marx's extensive work showing the stringent legal measures taken against poverty and vagabondage that was a reaction to the massive enclosure of the commons in England. And, secondly, in Grossman's own work showing how this "bloody legislation" against those that had been put off their land was effected across Europe and especially in France. For Grossman this legislation, the outlawing of idleness and the poorhouses they instituted physically forced people from serfdom into wage-labor. For him, this general fact was not related to protestantism and so capitalism came by and large by force and not by any vocational training regarding an inner-worldliness of protestanism. Thus Grossman solves the central crux of Weber's analysis: his puzzlement over how enough people were recruited into early capitalist manufacturing. Grossman shows how people were in fact forced to obey capitalist principles not on any religious grounds but rather from legalistic grounds of force made by those who held power and wanted more production for their own benefit but also, often in their own view, for their nation's benefit. However, it is possible that the Protestant "work ethic" reinforced or legitimized these legal measures within a larger cultural context.


  1. Weber, Max The Protestant Ethic and "The Spirit of Capitalism" (Penguin Books, 2002) translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells, pp.9-12
  2. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.15-16
  3. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.17
  4. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.19
  5. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.84
  6. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.23
  7. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.28
  8. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.32-33
  9. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.90
  10. Weber The Protestant Ethic..., pp.102-104
  11. Grossman, Henryk (2006) ‘The Beginnings of Capitalism and the New Mass Morality’ Journal of Classical Sociology 6 (2): July

See also

Related books

  • Ephraim Fischoff - The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Social Research, Vol.XI, 1944, pp.62-68

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