Skip over navigation

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber

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

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

Chapter 4 - The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism (Part 2, Pietism, Methodism, The Baptist Sects)

Summary

Historically, the four major forms of ascetic Protestantism have been, Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects. None of these churches are completely independent of each other, or even from non-ascetic churches. Even their strongest dogmatic differences were combined in various ways, and similar moral conduct can be found in all four. We see, then, that similar ethical requirements can correspond with very different dogmatic foundations. In examining these religions, Weber explains that he is interested in "the influence of those psychological sanctions which, originating in religious belief and the practice of religion, gave a direction to practical conduct and held the individual to it." People were concerned with abstract dogmas to a degree that can only be understood when we see how connected these dogmas were with practical religious interests.

The first religion Weber describes is Calvinism. Calvinism's most distinctive dogma is the doctrine of predestination. Calvinists believe that God preordains which people are saved and which are damned. Calvinists came to this idea from logical necessity. Men exist for the sake of God, and to apply earthly standards of justice to God is meaningless and insulting. To question one's fate is similar to an animal complaining it wasn't born a man. Humans do not have the power to change God's decrees, and we only know that part of humanity is saved, and part damned. In the Calvinist outlook, God becomes "a transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity."

Weber argues that Calvinism must have had a profound psychological impact, "a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual." In what was the most important thing in his life, eternal salvation, each person had to follow his path alone, to meet a destiny already determined for him. No one could help him, and there was no salvation through the Church and the sacraments. This was the logical conclusion of the gradual elimination of magic from the world. There were no means at all to attain God's grace if God had decided to deny it.

On the one hand, this account shows why the Calvinists rejected all sensual and emotional elements of culture and religion. Such elements were not a means to salvation and they promoted superstition. On the other hand, we see the origins of today's disillusioned and pessimistic individualism. The Calvinist's interaction with God was carried out in spiritual isolation, even though he did belong to a church. There was social organization because laboring for impersonal social usefulness was believed to be required by God.

This account of Calvinism brings up an important question, however. How could the doctrine of predestination have developed in an age when one's afterlife was the most important and most certain part of existence? Each believer must have wondered if he or she was one of the elect; it must have dominated their thoughts. Calvin was sure of his own salvation, and his answer to such concerns was simply to be content with the knowledge that God has chosen, and trust in Christ. Calvin rejected in principle the assumption that people could learn from other's conduct whether they were saved or damned--this would be trying to force God's secrets. However, this approach was impossible for Calvin's followers. It was psychologically necessary that they have some means of recognizing people in a state of grace, and two such means emerged. First, it was considered an absolute duty to consider oneself to be one of the saved, and to see doubts as temptations of evil. Secondly, worldly activity was encouraged as the best means of gaining that self-confidence.

Why could worldly activity take on this level of importance? Calvinism rejected the mystical elements of Lutheranism, where humans were a vessel to be filled by God. Rather, Calvinists believed that God worked through them. Being in a state of grace meant that they were tools of divine will. Faith had to be shown in objective results. What results did Calvinists look for? They looked for any activity that increased the glory of God. Such conduct could be based directly in the Bible, or indirectly through the purposeful order of God's world. Good works were not a means to salvation, but they were a sign of having been chosen.

Weber observes that Calvinism expected systematic self-control, and provided no opportunity for forgiveness of weakness. "The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system." This was a rational and systematic approach to life. Since people had to prove their faith through worldly activity, Calvinism demanded a kind of worldly asceticism. It led to an attitude toward one's neighbor's sins that was not sympathetic, but rather full of hate, since he was God's enemy, bearing the signs of eternal damnation. This implied a "Christianization" of life that had dramatic practical implications for the way people lived their lives.

Furthermore, religions with a similar doctrine of proof had a similar influence on practical life. Predestination in its "magnificent consistency" was the foundation for the Puritans' methodical and rationalized ethics. The different branches of ascetic Protestantism had elements of Calvinist thought, even if they did not embrace Calvinism as a whole. Weber again emphasizes how fundamental the idea of proof is for his study. His theory can be understood in its purest form through the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinism did have a unique consistency and an extraordinarily powerful psychological effect. However, there is also a recurring framework for the connection between faith and conduct in the other three religions to be presented.

Commentary

This chapter is somewhat disjointed from the rest of Weber's study, but does attempt to show some of the main aspects of Puritan life. Calvinism is Weber's primary focus here, but in the next section he will more briefly present three other ascetic Protestant religions. In this section, Weber presents some of the most fundamental doctrines of Calvinism, as well as discussing how dogma affected practical living. There are a few key ideas to notice in Weber's discussion here. First, Calvinism was important because it stressed grace by results; there was a need for proof of one's preordained fate. This was not part of the original doctrine, but came out of psychological necessity. Second, notice the connection to the previous chapter's discussion of the Protestant calling. The sorts of "results" that Calvinists were looking for were part of worldly activity. Calvinists did not lead an isolated monastic lifestyle. They participated in the life of their communities, because this was part of God's expectations of them.

It is also important to notice how Weber presents Calvinism as the height of rationalism. It has a "magnificent consistency" and encourages systematic living and the absence of magic. What does Weber mean when he says that Calvinism is "rational"? The word has important meaning to Weber, and he uses it throughout this and other works. In the context of religion, "rationalization" implies systematization and consistency, elaboration, and extension of doctrine. In terms of social institutions, rationalization implies ever-increasing knowledge in areas like calculation and efficiency. How is Calvinism rational? According to Weber, it is completely logically consistent. If you accept the Calvinists' presuppositions (such as the existence of God), then their doctrines contain no inner contradictions. Furthermore, Calvinism rejects all use of "magic," such as sacraments that will save those who partake in them. In contrast, the only hints of salvation are based on a systematic and methodical life of virtue. Calvinism was uniquely rational in these regards. Look for Weber's use of the idea of rationalization throughout this work.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us