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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Essay

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of the most famous but controversial sociological works written by German Sociologist Max Weber. His theory on Protestantism and Capitalism hypothesize how Protestant Ethic derived from Christian faith substantially stimulated the Capitalism development in history. This article will present historical background of Weber and his theory about Protestant ethic. It also includes essential assumptions, original argument drawn from Weber’s theory and some potential fallacies found in Weber’s theory.

This theory would be useful in investigating numerous societal inquiries. For instances, the growing of Protestants population could impose positive reinforcement on capital development; Whether Protestants who hold high socio-economic positions in society could promote the efficiency of the economy and overall wellbeing of the society. It also allows researcher to study some controversial questions – could Protestant faith becomes an effective tool to form Protestant-like work ethic in its Capitalism economic?

Theorist Background and the Unit Theory Along with Marx and Durkheim, Marx Weber (1864-1920) is one of the most influential classic sociologists. Weber was born in Berlin, Germany. He enrolled in the University of Heidelberg in his eighteen, and attended the University of Berlin later. Even though he received education in law and history, Weber was fascinated with social sciences after his professorship. In his early academic life, Weber became an important scholar in economic and legal realm.

Weber did not divert his attention from economics to the field of sociology until he underwent a serious psychological breakdown. The majority of Weber’s sociological works, including the Protestant Work Ethic, was written after this mental breakdown (Giddens and Parsons 8). In his last twenty years, Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1903), two methodological works- “Objectivity” in Social Science (1994) and Basic Sociological Terms (1914), and Economy and Society (1914).

Weber’s works contain a wide range of topics, including studies of social structure, culture, economy, institutions, etc. Weber was also actively involved in politics. He was a solid supporter for German nationalism, which later found the German Democratic Party. Weber’s works not only strongly exerted influence in society during his life time, but also have tremendous impact on how sociologists and other social scientists perceive our society today. In Protestants ethic and spirit of capitalism, Weber suggests Protestants ethos has positive correlation with the emergence and growth of capitalism.

Supposedly, if Weber’s description about Protestant ethic is accurate, Protestant work ethic could be a critical factor that stimulates the Capitalistic development in America, making the United States one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Since aggregate economic development has substantial influence on our income, wealth, occupation selections and our general wellbeing, Protestant Ethic is a very intriguing theory that requires many researches and discussions, because religion, economy, and their interactions play an enormous role in the field of social sciences that might help people understand our society better.

Assumptions from the Unit Theory Since Weber’s theory on Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism are based on real historical events, we need to understand historical circumstances that prompted the Protestant Reformation in 16th century before discussing Protestant work ethic. The Protestant Reformation is triggered by the prolonged conflict between Protestants and Catholic Churches in Europe.

By definition, Protestants are members of Christian Church that deny the ultimate authority of Catholic Church in Vatican, and upholding Reformation values of “justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth. ” The conflict had reached the peak when Catholic Church began to sell indulgence (Faria) and imposed rigorous religious doctrines that strictly regulated lives of millions Christians (indulgence is a ticket that could be purchased as a redemption of sin).

Martin Luther was the leader of Protestants Reformation, supported by Elector of Saxony, Frederic III (Faria). Luther listed out all the irrational and unbiblical doctrines enacted by the Catholic Church. Luther encouraged his followers to refuse to pay indulgence. During the same period with Luther, theologians John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli introduced systematic theological studies to formalize the Lutheran’s beliefs and clarified Protestant value. The original theory concluded several major assumptions about Protestant work ethic and Capitalistic spirit.

First of all, Protestants ethos is a regional phenomenon, that is, the work ethic emerges in particularly places in Europe. According to Weber’s, he found a prominent difference in religion, nationality and the extent of cultural development. Compared with other regions, the signs of Capitalism were rarely seen in Asian, South American and African nations. Following Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and industrial revolution all took place in European countries, where Protestant population was well represented. An important assumption of Protestant faith is the significant role of predestination play in Protestant lifestyle.

Predestination emerged from Calvinism doctrine, which emphasized predestination, supremacy of scriptures in the revelation of truth. Predestination indicates that one could not know who was chosen to be saved and who was not saved. The path to eternal life of a person is solely determined by God. Since the fate of person’s salvation is predestined, “Protestants are of no use toward salvation and promote sentimental illusions and idolatrous superstitions” (Giddens and Parsons 62). Therefore, Protestants form pessimistically inclined individualism ideology (62).

Protestants have become more and more individualist as they are more and more involved in the secular work since certain people are destined to go to heaven (saved) and the others are destined to go to hell (not saved). The Protestants believe salvation do not come from the church authority, but instead come from personal relationship with their God. That is, Protestants neglect the church as a middleman, believing their daily works and lifestyle are in intimate relationship with God. This intimate and personal connection with their divinity is the basic psychological motivation of the Protestants work ethic.

These beliefs encourage Protestants to develop “a deep psychological need to look for clues to salvation”. This lifestyle about how Protestants present themselves is substantially influenced by the individualistic and asceticism value. Asceticism emerged from Puritans’ practice of avoiding worldly indulgence. Ascetic by definition is becoming self-regulatory, refusing to indulge in any materialistic or secular pleasure. Consequently, asceticism discourages spending for luxurious expenditure. Protestants reinvest those earnings back to their businesses.

Since Protestants obtain business profit but rarely spend their wealth due to the asceticism, practice of reinvestment inevitably results in business expansion. Original Argument Weber suggested that the Protestants ethos fosters the spreading and growing of modern capitalism. Weber compares the emergence of modern capitalism in Protestant and Catholic demographic, and noticed a parallel relationship between numbers of Protestant and numbers of being involved in business. Weber intends to explore religion as a possible cause of the open market economic conditions.

He supported his arguments with empirical observations. He pointed out variations in terms of vocation and education tracks regard between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants had high representation of workers enrolled in highly skilled and technical oriented vocations, whereas Catholics were still predominating in craftsmanship and other traditional industry. Corresponding with vocational decisions, parents of Protestant background were more likely to encourage their children in study in vocational-related courses, such as commerce and modern industry than Catholic families (Calhoun 293).

In addition, Calvinism encourages Christians to build personal relationships with God, allowing Protestants focus on their own work. Protestants believe that they could please and glorify God through callings, or their handwork and success in business career. According to Webber, the incentive of striving for salvation and pleasing God through the fulfillment of the duty of work becomes the mechanism for Protestants to value business success as an important indicator of religiosity. Weber also mentioned the influence of Protestant ethos on consumption and productivity due to asceticism.

He argued that the practice of asceticism was the main contributor of the work ethic and accumulation of capital wealth. Protestant asceticism struggled against the spontaneous satisfaction of possessions as well as excessive consumption of luxury goods (303). Even though it seemed paradoxical that Protestants fought against temptation of wealth while defending the accumulation of possessions, Protestants were able to rationalized accumulation of processions and attached them with ethical meanings such as necessary, practical and useful (304).

Puritans, a typical type of Protestants as Weber denoted in his theory, would only consume their money that meets essential needs. The preference for thrifty consumption laid an economic foundation of saving, and encouraged Puritans to live in low key and humble lifestyles. In term of capital productivity, asceticism restricted the striving for wealth but stimulated the formation of capital through compulsive saving (304). Asceticism ethic distinguished good works and evil works. Works are evaluated as good where there are “fruit in vocational callings as God’s blessings”, and those are deemed evil if they reveal the pursuit of riches.

Since Protestants believed works were bestowed by God, wealth distribution in both labor and employer positions are justified by this religious virtue. Weber suggested that religious asceticism promoted “assurance that the unequal distribution of world’s material goods resulted from the special design of God’s providence” (306). The acceptation of inequality in distribution of procession is an important mentality in capitalism spirit, which from stable owner-employee relationships.

Despite the business success, early Protestants still kept their industriousness, because their hard work is stimulated by calling from rather than interest driven. Calling is another important concept in Weber’s theory. According to Parsons, calling is “a religious conception of a task set by God. ” Protestants respond to calling from God, giving secular activities a religious character, for they believe these jobs are instructed by God. Since Protestants respond to God’s calling and engage in worldly jobs, Protestant ideology removes the boundaries between divine (religious rituals) and profane (secular activities) work.

Therefore, more and more Protestants evaluate worldly procession for salvation clues, and involve in business activities without being deemed as sinning. Fallacies (or flaws) in the original argument Improvements or corrections to the Theory Multiple theorists critiqued Weber’s theory on several dimensions. For instances, Weber had misinterpreted some concepts from Benjamin Franklin’s ideologies and Protestant and Catholic doctrines; and his Calvinism assumption is actually anti-capitalism. Also, as Marx would argue, Protestant ethic does not necessary cause the development of capitalism.

Weber’s definition of the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’ is overwhelmingly drawn from Benjamin Franklin’s ideology rather than Calvinistic belief. Weber has overly exaggerated and misinterpreted the concept of calling and predestination. According to Luther’s Doctrine of Justification, “responses to calling are not seen as a means to please God, rather it was beyond human capability and solely depended on God’s grace” (Becker and Wobmann 6). A theorist argues that predestination is indeed Calvinistic doctrine rather than Lutheran.

That Weber attaches Reformed doctrine to all Protestant denomination could be misleading (Cantoni 20). Reformed Protestants indeed know that they are saved and chosen according their faith. Even though Weber states that a person could not earn his/her salvation, he neglects a crucial Reformed doctrine that salvation is solely determined by faith that is resting on proclamation of Christ as their saviors – “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Protestants believe that people do not know who will accept and who won’t accept the faith, but for those who claim themselves as Protestants are already saved according to their scripture. Without the assurance of salvation, a person is more likely to become secularist person, retreating from godliness. Firmly following the practice of asceticism is irrational if ascetic practice cannot gain salvation according to Calvinism. Theorists have different viewpoints about the casual relationships between Protestants work ethic and the Capitalism development.

Marx believes the historical development of economic system or the substructure can fully explain the development and changes in other systems or the superstructures, such as culture and religion. In contrary, Weber argues that the economic factor is not the only determine of the entire social systems Instead, Weber believes culture and social structure interplay with each other and sometimes the culture factors could predominate the influence of materialistic factors. Weber disagrees with this “naive” historical materialism approach that depicts capitalist spirit as a reflection of economic factors.

He reckons that the capitalistic ideas or culture “without a doubt existed before “capitalist development”, not vice versa. From Marx materialistic point of view, Marx would claim that the Capitalistic society emerged only after the development in technology that improved the materials productivity. Hypothesis When gaining higher socio-economic status, Protestants will be more likely to relinquish their Protestant work ethos, and embrace lavish spending. When the accumulation of procession is getting larger, so is the temptation of spending that money. Conclusion

Even though science has become more advanced, opposing religious thinking is usually considered superstitious. Religion and other mythological knowledge are still powerful social forces that shape people’s lifestyle and social structure. Science itself, or the knowledge about the material world not fulfill human desire for explaining transcendental issues, such as heaven and after life. Even though some sociologists criticize Weber’s stand on the causal relationship between Protestantism and Capitalism, Weber’s theory is supported by many strong historical evidence using ideological approach and comparative historical method.

However, more longitudinal study and empirical analysis are needed to reinforce Weber’s theory. If Weber’s theory is feasible, we could predict that when Protestant work ethic dominates the superstructure of a society, the development of Capitalism of that society are likely to accelerate and the capital market would expand, even for non-capitalistic countries. Religion plays a vital role in shaping societal culture and norm.


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