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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber

Chapter 3 - Luther's Conception of the Calling. Task of the Investigation.

Chapter 2 - The Spirit of Capitalism

Chapter 4 - The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism (Part 1, Calvinism)

Summary

Weber begins this chapter by looking at the word "calling." Both the German word "Beruf" and the English word "calling" have a religious connotation of a task set by God. This type of word has existed for all Protestant peoples, but not for Catholics or in antiquity. Like the word itself, the idea of a calling is new; it is a product of the Reformation. Its newness comes in giving worldly activity a religious significance. People have a duty to fulfill the obligations imposed upon them by their position in the world. Martin Luther developed this idea; each legitimate calling has the same worth to God. This "moral justification of worldly activity" was one of the most important contributions of the Reformation, and particularly of Luther's role in it.

However, it cannot be said that Luther actually had the spirit of capitalism. The way in which the idea of worldly labor in a calling would evolve depended on the evolution of different Protestant churches. The Bible itself suggested a traditionalistic interpretation, and Luther himself was a traditionalist. He came to believe in absolute obedience to God's will, and acceptance of the way things are. Thus, Weber concludes that the simple idea of the calling in Lutheranism is at best of limited importance to his study. This does not mean that Lutheranism had no practical significance for the development of the capitalistic spirit. Rather, it means that this development cannot be directly derived from Luther's attitude toward worldly activity. We should then look to a branch of Protestantism that has a clearer connection--Calvinism.

Thus, Weber makes his starting point the investigation of the relationship between the spirit of capitalism and the ascetic ethic of the Calvinists and other Puritans. The capitalistic spirit was not the goal of these religious reformers; their cultural impact was unforeseen and maybe undesired. The following study will hopefully contribute to the understanding of how ideas become effective forces in history.

Weber then adds a few remarks to avoid any confusion about his study. He is not trying to evaluate the ideas of the Reformation in either social or religious worth. He is only trying to understand how certain characteristics of modern culture can be traced to the Reformation. We shouldn't try to see the Reformation as a historically necessary result of economic factors. Many historical and political circumstances, fully independent of economic law, had to occur in order for the Churches to even be able to survive. However, we should also not be so foolish as to argue that the spirit of capitalism could only have occurred as the result of particular effects of the Reformation, and that capitalism is therefore a result of the Reformation. Weber's goals are more modest. He wants to understand whether and to what degree religious forces have helped form and expand the spirit of capitalism, and what aspects of our culture can be traced to them. He will examine when and where there are correlations between religious beliefs and practical ethics, and clarify how religious movements have influenced material culture's development. Only when this has been determined can we try to estimate the degree to which the historical development of modern culture can be attributed to those religious forces, and to what extent to other forces.

Commentary

This chapter is the final stage of Weber's presentation of the "problem" of the potential connection between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. It is illustrative of Weber's method that presenting the problem takes him three chapters of writing. Once again, in this chapter Weber spends significant time telling us what he will not be studying, and how limited his examination really is. Consider the significance of this approach, both as a methodological and rhetorical tool. Does such caution add to or detract from his writing?

Weber also introduces the idea of a "calling" to worldly activity. This will be an important concept when Weber develops his theory in later chapters. Notice first that Weber does not think that belief in a calling is sufficient to explain the spirit of capitalism. A calling can be consistent with traditionalism, since it can imply that a person should accept his role in life and not strive for more. However, it could also potentially support a more capitalistic ethic. According to Weber, before the Reformation, people did not see their "worldly" activities (such as their occupations and businesses) as being in service to God. Rather, worldly activities were perceived more like necessary evils. The monastic lifestyle, where people removed themselves from the world in order to contemplate God, was glorified. The Reformation rejected this attitude. It was seen as wrong to remove yourself from the world; serving God meant participating in worldly activities, because this was part of God's purpose for each individual. Thus, labor and business became part of one's duty to God. According to Weber, with the right theological developments, this worldliness could be transformed into a belief in the duty to prosper. This connection will be made in the next two chapters. Once again, some have questioned Weber's empirical claims. It has been argued that the concept of the calling was not as new as Weber contends, and that it was already a presence in Catholic scriptural interpretation. Consider, as you read the next two chapters, the degree to which this argument could affect Weber's conclusions.

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