The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

by: Max Weber

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

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.