Max Weber

The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism

Review by Lawrence A. Whitney , 2008

Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. 392pp.

It is hard to believe that anything new might be gleaned from such a classic work in the social sciences (especially sociology, political science and economics). However, approaching The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with an eye toward its relevance for the study of religious experience is both enlightening and novel. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Weber himself would not necessarily have understood his work to be aimed toward this theme.

The object of inquiry in the volume is the social context at the time when the new economic order of capitalism arrived on the scene in Europe in the seventeenth century, and the influence of that context on said arrival. While there were many social movements afoot in Europe at the time, it is Calvinistic Protestantism that Weber identifies as providing the paradoxical motives necessary for capitalism to arise and flourish. On the one hand, Protestantism promoted the zealous pursuit of secular vocation as a moral obligation (duty). This “ethic” led to an accumulation of money in ways that were inimical to a pre-Reformation worldview. On the other hand, Protestantism, especially in its Calvinistic form but also in the Pietist, Methodist and Baptist movements, demanded an ascetic ethic of life that deplored spending the money for personal luxury, charity or even donation to the church. Taken together, the paradox demanded resolution, which came about in the form of investment, thus enabling the rationalist pursuit of economic gain that is the “spirit” of capitalism, as Weber understands it.

The interesting thing about Weber’s thesis for the study of religious experience is that participation in the economic process is itself a form of religious experience for Weber. When the Reformation removed the assurance of salvation through the sacraments guaranteed by Roman Catholicism, anxiety arose for Protestants as to their soteriological status. The doctrine of double predestination presented an extreme form of the problem for Calvinists because it meant that soteriological status is predetermined from the outset. Thus, Calvinism necessitated an overwhelming belief (certainty) as to one’s state of election. As Protestantism developed, the experience of such certainty was understood to be attained by “tireless labor in a calling” (77).

Only one of the elect really has the fides efficax; only he is capable, thanks to regeneration (regeneratio) and the sanctification (sanctificatio) of his whole life which follows from this, to increase God’s glory by works that are really, not merely apparently, good. And by being conscious of the fact that his conduct – at least as far as his basic character and constant firm resolution (propositum oboedientiae) are concerned – is based on a strength dwelling within him which is capable of increasing the glory of God, and is therefore willed by God and above all effected by God, he attains that supreme prize which has been the goal of all his religious striving – the certainty of grace (79).

It is not the accumulation of wealth itself that constitutes a religious experience, namely an objective and subjective sign of election, but the unflagging effort put into the good works that then produce the wealth.

A concluding note should be made about the character of the religious experience Weber describes in emergent Protestantism. For “Puritain” Protestantism, divine grace was experiences as an ethical imperative. This is in contrast to the religious experience of ontological contingency prevalent during the late medieval period. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this ethical imperative over half of a century earlier in Democracy in America, where he pointed out the affinity of ethical Protestantism for democratic governance. The distinction between religious experience as ethical imperative versus ontological contingency is important for understanding the conditions under which religion may promote liberal democracy and capitalistic enterprise.