Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provides for an interesting insight into the origins of capitalism and its relationship with Protestantism in Europe. Weber observes that business leaders and personnel, as well as skilled labourers and owners of capital are overwhelmingly Protestant. He acknowledges that some of the causing factors may be embedded in historical facts including different upbringings and environments in Protestant groups compared to those that are Catholic. However, Weber realizes that Protestantism has a higher sense of economic rationalism and attempts to discover the roots of this ethic within the Protestant Reformation initiated in the 16th century – focusing on the Protestant sect of Calvinism.

Simultaneously, Weber examines the origins of capitalism and the development of its spirit. That is, acquiring more and more money while avoiding pleasure. He also examines its role as a calling in society. Weber essential argues that the Reformation embedded the roots of the spirit, which gradually matured on its own.

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He aims to define the relationship between this working ethic and capitalistic spirit and how it develops to eventually trap society in an “iron cage.” The individual is born into the capitalist system and is shaped according to its needs. Weber summarizes his argument by believing that the iron cage is inescapable.

To begin examining the spirit of capitalism, Weber uses Benjamin Franklin’s works to build its ideal. Franklin writes about the importance of money in society. He believes that time is money and money can beget money thinking of it as an essential component of the individual.

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Franklin continues in saying certain habits like paying debts promptly encourage confidence in others and build an industrious and trustworthy ethic. If one is overdue on a loan, that source of money will forever be removed as a future option (49). Franklin promotes the need to work with virtually no idea of entertainment or pleasure. He reasons that a creditor will be happier and more helpful to you if he sees you working early in the morning instead of playing billiards or drinking in taverns and that it creates an impression of an honest man. Money, credit and profits are very much at the core of Franklin’s moral base. However, acquiring money for hedonistic purposes is not valued. The acquisition of money is not to make purchases for increasing amounts of goods and services. The original act of acquiring becomes an end to itself. Earning more and more money becomes a virtue of an industrious individual, and thus a goal or calling in his life. This notion of a calling is the basis of the spirit of capitalism (78).

As much as the spirit of capitalism becomes a part of the individual and capitalism itself, it is not the most natural way of being. The spirit of capitalism did not co-emerge with capitalism but rather existed before the movement took place, as seen in Massachusetts in the early 17th century. Therefore, the spirit originated without the capitalistic structure. Weber argues that traditionalism was the spirit’s opponent until it succumbed (36). Traditionalism existed in both the labourer and the entrepreneur. However, at some point, the attitude lost favour to the spirit of capitalism.

The common labourer’s philosophy was simple, the least amount of work completed for money earned. If an employer were to increase wages to provide incentive for greater production, the labourer would lower his hours to achieve the same amount of pay as before. This was the natural, or traditional, view the common labourer held (59). An employer lowering wages to increase hours of production was an ineffective measure also. Wages could only be reduced so much, as a minimum amount of pay was needed for the labourer to simply survive. The only way to encourage labour maximization would be to introduce labour as an end to itself. This paradigm would be possible through only a long process of education, as it was not a natural human calling, and not changeable through wage manipulation. However, at some point, this unnatural attitude became the norm and labourers began to feel obligated to their jobs.

For the traditionalist entrepreneur, the rational and systematic method used to maximize profits, was not readily seen or necessarily desired. However, just as with the labourer, the entrepreneur’s natural attitude changed to that of the spirit the capitalism (67). The traditional system, while capitalistic in nature, showed a very comfortable process void of the spirit of capitalism. A self-employed peasant, for example would come to a middleman, or putter-out, where the good would be appraised carefully and a price would be settled upon. The putter-out would then take orders from other middleman from other regional markets. If a larger order was desired, the original putter-out would relay the amount demanded back to the peasant to produce more. Business hours were anywhere from six to eight hours and only more during peak seasons. Profits were generally moderate for all. Relations between the various members of the business ring were often friendly and many enjoyed social activities together, such as drinking at taverns (67).

As Weber observes, at some point this comfortable leisurely way of doing business ended. Putter-outs started handpicking their peasant suppliers and eventually controlled their production entirely. The once freelance peasant was now a labourer working for a putter-out. The putter-out also eliminated the other middlemen in the business ring and became more personally involved in delivering the goods to the final client. All of this occurred with no change in the structure of their business system. Something, Weber speculates, connected to religious beliefs incorporated itself into the work ethics of the labourers, employers and entrepreneurs causing the spirit of capitalism to outgrow and replace traditionalism and its ethic (69).

In his pursuit of relating the religious sphere to the spirit of capitalism, Weber examines the four sects of Ascetic Protestantism: Calvinism, Methodism, Pietism and Baptism. The ascetic branch of Protestantism is more strictly disciplined and attempts to void any pleasure. Focusing specifically on Calvinism, Weber finds three relevant religious beliefs. The first belief is a doctrine that states the universe was created solely for the purpose of God, and men existed for his benefit. Second is the principle that God’s motives are beyond human comprehension. Humans will always be in the dark as to his true objectives and unaware of the real meanings behind them. The final belief is the idea of predestination (99). At the onset of creation, God chose a select few to achieve eternal grace. Humans and their actions cannot change their fate, nor can they surely know who is destined for grace.

Weber argues that the psychological impact of these beliefs on Calvinists was real and is crucial to understand the ethic’s relation to the spirit of capitalism. Predestination created a sense of unattainable salvation. With no prospect of hope, the individual developed an inner loneliness (104). The church too, was powerless to help the individual achieve salvation. The world became disenchanted and once joyful aspects of life became pointless and one now had a negative attitude of them. These pleasures looked useless and did nothing but promote an illusion of happiness and salvation. However, Calvinists were preached to that it was their duty to think of themselves as chosen for grace. Any doubts in your salvation would reveal impurity and evil. One was to remain busy to keep self-confident that grace was your destiny.

Since Calvinism believed that God worked through the individual, their actions would represent those of a divine will. As such, Calvinists needed to produce objectively to prove to themselves that they had attained grace. Profit became the objective sign. The attitude was that one had achieved grace if they were economically successful. The pursuit of profit with no pleasure had developed into a religious calling. All that was pleasurable was now thought of as useless – the very same idea of the spirit of capitalism had quite accidentally found itself matching with the Protestant ethic.

The spirit of capitalism manifested itself initially within the similar ethic of Ascetic Protestantism. Once the spirit had developed on its own it no longer had the need for its religious backing. Ascetic Protestants needed a religious calling to achieve salvation (123). Hidden within the calling was the spirit of capitalism, which gave these same people a structured economic order of life. Weber argues that now all individuals are born into this rigid economic order – the iron cage. Capitalism’s rules are imposed on the individual and it is impossible to escape its grasp on all societal institutions – including the economic, political, social and cultural spheres.

The iron cage seems truly inescapable. The spirit has embodied a religious like calling that is embedded into the individual despite the fact that religion has escaped the cage, since the spirit has no longer has a need for it. The iron cage creates little in the way of a feasible alternative to the spirit. The capitalist state has taken a similar attitude to that of a world of the survival of the fittest, where conformity is the only agreeable solution to succeed. Even with conformity, only the possibility of success is guaranteed, not success itself. The iron cage has shaped the societal sub-structures so that they work for its benefit. An attempted modification of this structure would likely, as Weber suggests, not rid society of the spirit but probably worsen the scenario (181).

There seems to be little the individual can do to escape the iron cage so that they are in a better situation to achieve critical intelligence and not conformed to the spirit of capitalism. Much in the same vein of the spirit’s introduction into society, the individual needs a new calling. Only this way it seems likely that the spirit would gradually dissipate. Again, similar to the path the spirit took, this would eventually re-modify the societal sub-structures to not work within the conforming attitude. It is unclear as to what this calling could be. As Weber states, the future carries the question of whether the ideas of new prophets can carry enough weight to eliminate the spirit. However, it may be a revival of old ideals that shifts the now dominant attitude. The prospects of a new calling may also be limited by the idea of the survival of the fittest. Too much deviation from the capitalist society would pose a risk to the individual.

Regardless of feasibility, it is clear that change is essential to the progression of society. The dominance of the spirit of capitalism can, if simplified, seen as a struggle between modernity and modernization. Modernity’s ideas of the enlightenment had gained popularity since the Renaissance. Newer ideas of autonomy of the individual and democracy face a challenge from the forces of modernization like capitalism and industrialism. Individuality, an important ideal, faces the real risk of being lost entirely. The spirit of capitalism is an almost mechanical entity that has little use for notions of individuality. Simply surviving in the iron cage becomes the first priority and the individual may see personal autonomy as a conflict of interests, and rid himself of the ideal altogether.

Weber’s argument has faced criticism in its lack of historical detail. The intent here, however, was to provide a broad explanation of why the industrial revolution and capitalism thrived in some areas of Europe and America and not others. Ascetic Protestantism provided the ideal setting for the spirit of capitalism to work through. Sharing the same sense of asceticism, which is of a disciplined life with no pleasure, the spirit of capitalism initially embedded itself in Protestantism. Eventually, the sense of religion managed to escape a newly created iron cage. It is now the iron cage that proves to be the spirit’s greatest triumph. An inescapable force that shapes all societal sub-structures and the individual, the iron cage is threat to modernity. While it is still unclear what a solution would entail to rid society of the spirit, what is clear is that the consequences – both presently and potentially in the future – are desired for an individual in a world of modernity.

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Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (2021, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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