Sociology – The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber – The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism

Sociology Honours

This is one of the most famous books of the German sociologist, Max Weber. The book was published in 1904-05, but was translated to English in 1958. The book contains the views of the author about the way the ethical values of Protestantism had led to the flourishing of Capitalism in north western Europe and the United States in the initial phases of Capitalism, well before the spread of modern Capitalism.

Karl Marx vs. Max Weber

Karl Marx argued that ‘economy’ was the sole determining factor of society, and ‘’religion’ comes later as a product of ‘economy’. Weber didn’t quite agree with Marx’s views. Weber said that economy (or the capitalist spirit) is product of and driven by religion (Protestantism). The two philosophers appear to hold diametrically opposite views, but a closer examination of their theories will show that there is only a fine line dividing the two strands of Sociological thoughts.

Max Weber’s views on how Protestantism’s ethics boosts economy

Weber argues that religion spurred economy by preaching ethical values. The Protestant clergymen implored their followers to work very hard, succeed in their businesses, make profits, and plough back the profits to business. The entrepreneurs or businessmen were forbidden from utilizing the profits for their own luxury. In fact, the entrepreneurs who slogged so hard to expand their business and increase their profits were asked to live very frugal life styles with minimum expenditure on their own and their families’ comforts. The Church said that only a small number of people, who follow strict ascetic life style and do relentless hard work, are entitled to a place in the Heaven. The others constituting a majority in society were condemned to misery and can’t be seen kindly by God. This created a lot of disquiet among the common folks.

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In a nutshell, Max Weber traced the impact of ascetic Protestantism (primarily Calvinism) on the rise of the spirit of Capitalism. It needs to be clarified that Weber used the term ‘Spirit of Capitalism’ and not ‘modern capitalism’ while describing the role of Protestantism on rise of entrepreneurial spirit in western Europe and the U.S.

Was Capitalism born only due to Protestantism’s ethics?

The answer is ‘No’. Weber said that there were multiple causes that led to the growth and spread of Capitalism. However, he emphasized that Protestant ethics turned the pursuit of profits to the start of a moral crusade.

The different principles on which the ‘spirit of capitalism’ is built are
• Time is money
• Be industrious
• Be frugal
• Be punctual
• Be fair, and
• Earning money is a legitimate end in itself
• It’s the duty of everyone to increase their wealth.

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