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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber

Chapter 5 - Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism

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

Study Questions

Summary

Weber now turns to the conclusion of his study, and attempts to understand the relationship between ascetic Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. To understand how religious ideas translate into maxims for everyday conduct, one must look closely at the writings of ministers. This was the primary force in the formation of national character. For the purposes of this chapter, we can treat ascetic Protestantism as a single whole. The writings of Richard Baxter are a good model of its ethics. In his work, it is striking to see his suspicion of wealth as a dangerous temptation. His real moral objection though, is to relaxation, idleness, and distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life. Possessions are only objectionable because of this risk of relaxation; only activity promotes God's glory. Thus, wasting time is the worst of sins, because it means that time is lost in promoting God's will in a calling. Baxter preaches hard and continual mental or bodily work. This is because labor is an acceptable ascetic technique in the Western tradition, and because labor came to be seen as an end in itself, ordained as such by God. This does not change, even for those people who are wealthy, because everyone has a calling in which they should labor, and taking the opportunities for profit that God provides is part of that calling. To wish to be poor is similar to wishing to be sick, and both are morally unacceptable.

Weber then attempts to clarify the ways in which the Puritan idea of the calling and asceticism influenced the development of the capitalistic way of life. First, asceticism opposed the spontaneous enjoyment of life and its opportunities. Such enjoyment leads people away from work in a calling and religion. Weber argues, "That powerful tendency toward uniformity of life, which today so immensely aids the capitalistic interest in the standardization of production, had its ideal foundations in the repudiation of all idolatry of the flesh." Furthermore, the Puritans rejected any spending of money on entertainment that didn't "serve God's glory." They felt a duty to hold and increase their possessions. It was ascetic Protestantism that gave this attitude its ethical foundation. It had the psychological effect of freeing the acquisition if goods from traditionalist ethics' inhibitions. Asceticism also condemned dishonesty and impulsive greed. The pursuit of wealth in itself was bad, but attaining it as the result of one's labor was a sign of God's blessing.

Thus, the Puritan outlook favored the development of rational bourgeois economic life, and "stood at the cradle of the modern economic man." It is true that once attained, wealth had a secularizing effect. In fact, we see that the full economic effects of these religious movements actually came after the peak of religious enthusiasm. "The religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness." However, these religious roots left its more secular successor an "amazingly good" conscience about acquiring money, as long as it was done legally. The religious asceticism also gave the businessmen industrious workers, and assured him that inequality was part of God's design. Thus, one of the major elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, rational conduct based on the idea of a calling, was "born" from the spirit of Christian asceticism. The same values exist in both, with the spirit of capitalism simply lacking the religious basis.

Weber observes, "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so." Asceticism helped build the "tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order." People born today have their lives determined by this mechanism. Their care for external goods has become "an iron cage." Material goods have gained an unparalleled control over the individual. The spirit of religious asceticism "has escaped from the cage," but capitalism no longer needs its support. The "idea of duty in one's calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs." People even stop trying to justify it at all.

In conclusion, Weber mentions some of the areas that a more complete study would have to explore. First, one would have to explore the impact of ascetic rationalism on other areas of life, and its historical development would have to be more rigorously traced. Furthermore, it would be necessary to investigate how Protestant asceticism was itself influenced by social conditions, including economic conditions. He says, "it is, of course, not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one- sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of history."

Commentary

In this chapter, Weber attempts to connect asceticism with the modern capitalistic spirit. His first describes how the Puritan ethic encouraged hard work and the pursuit of profit. These claims are closely linked to Weber's observations until now. These ascetic Protestants were looking for signs of their own salvation, and their concept of the calling made them look for those signs in worldly achievements. Spending their money on luxuries was disrespectful to God, and they were expected to pour any profits back into their callings. These values are all closely linked to the capitalistic ethic, and Weber does a good job of drawing out the sources of these values. However, the next connection Weber makes is more troubling. Weber says that from this ethic, a system of capitalism emerged that no longer required ascetic values to sustain itself. These values became the capitalist spirit, and now we are all forced to follow them. However, Weber does not tell the story of how the capitalist system emerged, and by what mechanism ascetic Puritan values were replaced by something else. This suggests a gap in Weber's theoretical model. Do you consider this to be a serious gap, or is its content suggested in other parts of his work (such as Chapter 2, on the spirit of capitalism)?

This section also suggests that Weber's attitude toward the modern capitalistic system is ambivalent at best. Notice his use of the imagery of an "iron cage" to describe the situation of individuals in the modern world. They are trapped in a larger system of institutions and values that define their opportunities in life. While capitalism needed ascetic Protestantism in order to become powerful, once it gained that power it took on a life of its own. We see, then, Weber's belief that capitalism's development was contingent on historical circumstances such as the Reformation. We also see Weber's belief that culture and institutions play an important role in defining people's values and opportunities.

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