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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber

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Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a study of the relationship between the ethics of ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism. Weber argues that the religious ideas of groups such as the Calvinists played a role in creating the capitalistic spirit. Weber first observes a correlation between being Protestant and being involved in business, and declares his intent to explore religion as a potential cause of the modern economic conditions. He argues that the modern spirit of capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and pursuing profit as virtuous. Weber's goal is to understand the source of this spirit. He turns to Protestantism for a potential explanation. Protestantism offers a concept of the worldly "calling," and gives worldly activity a religious character. While important, this alone cannot explain the need to pursue profit. One branch of Protestantism, Calvinism, does provide this explanation. Calvinists believe in predestination--that God has already determined who is saved and damned. As Calvinism developed, a deep psychological need for clues about whether one was actually saved arose, and Calvinists looked to their success in worldly activity for those clues. Thus, they came to value profit and material success as signs of God's favor. Other religious groups, such as the Pietists, Methodists, and the Baptist sects had similar attitudes to a lesser degree. Weber argues that this new attitude broke down the traditional economic system, paving the way for modern capitalism. However, once capitalism emerged, the Protestant values were no longer necessary, and their ethic took on a life of its own. We are now locked into the spirit of capitalism because it is so useful for modern economic activity.

Throughout his book, Weber emphasizes that his account is incomplete. He is not arguing that Protestantism caused the capitalistic spirit, but rather that it was one contributing factor. He also acknowledges that capitalism itself had an impact on the development of the religious ideas. The full story is much more complex than Weber's partial account, and Weber himself constantly reminds his readers about his own limitations. The book itself has an introduction and five chapters. The first three chapters make up what Weber calls "The Problem." The first chapter addresses "Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification," the second "The Spirit of Capitalism," and the third "Luther's Conception of the Calling and the Task of the Investigation." The fourth and fifth chapters make up "The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism." The fourth chapter is about "The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism," and the fifth chapter is about "Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism."

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