'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' by Max Weber (1905)

A selection from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber, 1905.

Note: this work has seen a recent growing interest in China recently, which some western commentators have attributed, along with the growth of Christianity in China, as part of an attempt to 'learn the secret of the west success' (to borrow Nial Fergusans phrase), just as the interest in the 1980's among American corporate elites of the work of the 16th century Sumari Book of Five Rings was to learn the secrets of the success of their Japanese counterparts and thus get the upper-hand over them in the board room dealings).

[Work in Progress]

Part I

The Problem

Chapter I

Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification

A glance at the occupational statistics of any country of mixed religious composition brings to light with remarkable frequency a situation which has several times provoked discussion in the Catholic press and literature [editors note: as far back as the 17th century in fact]... , namely, the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grads of skilled labour, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant. 
....what has often been forgotten, that the Reformation meant not the elimination of the Church’s control over everyday life, but rather the substitution of a new form of control for the previous one. It meant the repudiation of a control which was very lax, at that time scarcely perceptible in practice, and hardly more than formal, in favour of a regulation of the whole of conduct which, penetrating to all departments of private and public life, was infinitely burdensome and earnestly enforced.

On superficial analysis... one might be tempted to express the differrence by saying that the greater other-wordliness of Catholicism, the ascetic character of its highest ideals, must have brought up its adherents to a greater indifference toward the good things of this world. Such an explanation fits the popular tendency in the judgement of both religions. On the Protestant side it is used as a basis of criticism of those... ascetic ideals of the Catholic way of life, while the Catholics answer with the accusation that materialism results from the secularization of all ideals through Protestantism.

...the supposed conflict between other-worldliness, asceticism, and ecclesiastical piety on the one side, and participation in capitalistic acquisition on the other, might actually turn out to be an intimate relationship.

If any inner relationship between certain expressions of the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture is to be found, we must attempt to find it, for better or worse, not in its alleged more or less materialistic or at least anti-ascetic joy of living, but in its purely religious characteristics. Montesquieu says (Espirit des Lois, Book XX, chap. 7) of the English that they "had progressed the farthest of all peoples of the world in three important things: in piety, in commerce, and in freedom."

Chapter II

The Spirit of Capitalism
"Remember, that time is money."

"Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on."

"He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, and on any occasion, raise all the money his friends can spare. This is sometimes of great use."

"He that idly loses five shillings' worth of time, loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw away five shillings into the sea."

"He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantage that might be made by turning it in dealing, which by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount to a considerable sum."

It is Benjamin Franklin who preaches to us in these sentences, the same which Ferdinand Kurnberger satirizes in his clever and malicious Picture of American Culture as the supposed confession of faith of the Yankee. That it is the spirit of capitalism which here speaks in characteristic fashion, no one will doubt... . The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself.

The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action.
Thus the capitalism of to-day, which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest.

A state of mind such as that expressed in the passages we have quoted from Franklin, and which called forth the applause of a whole people, would both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages 12 have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect. It is, in fact, still regularly thus looked upon by all those social groups which are least involved in or adapted to modern capitalistic conditions.

A man does not "by nature" wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour.

...we shall see that at the beginning of modern times it was by no means the capitalistic entrepreneurs of the commercial aristocracy, who were either the sole or the predominant bearers of the attitude we have here called the spirit of capitalism. 23 It was much more the rising strata of the lower industrial classes.

The people filled with the spirit of capitalism to-day tend to be indifferent, if not hostile, to the Church. The thought of the pious boredom of paradise has little attraction for their active natures; religion appears to them as a means of drawing people away from labour in this world. If you ask them what is the meaning of their restless activity, why they are never satisfied with what they have, thus appearing so senseless to any purely worldly view of life, they would perhaps give the answer, if they know any at all: “to provide for my children and grandchildren”. But more often and, since that motive is not peculiar to them, but was just as effective for the traditionalist [pre-capitalistic], more correctly, simply: that business with its continuous work has become a necessary part of their lives. That is in fact the only possible motivation, but it at the same time expresses what is, seen from the view-point of personal happiness, so irrational about this sort of life, where a man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse.
Of course, the desire for the power and recognition which the mere fact of wealth brings plays its part. When the imagination of a whole people has once been turned toward purely quantitative bigness, as in the United States, this romanticism of numbers exercises an irresistible appeal to the... business men.

Whoever does not adapt his manner of life to the conditions of capitalistic success must go under... .

...that the conception of money-making as an end in itself to which people were bound, as a calling, was contrary to the ethical feelings of whole epochs, it is hardly necessary to prove.

An ethical attitude like that of Benjamin Franklin would have been simply unthinkable.

It might... seem that the development of the spirit of capitalism is best understood as part of the development of rationalism as a whole, and could be deduced from the fundamental position of rationalism on the basic problems of life. In the process Protestantism would only have to be considered in so far as it had formed a stage prior to the development of a purely rationalistic philosophy.

It will be our task to find out whose intellectual child the particular concrete form of rational thought was, from which the idea of a calling and the devotion to labour in the calling has grown, which is, as we have seen, so irrational from the standpoint of purely eudæmonistic self-interest, but which has been and still is one of the most characteristic elements of our capitalistic culture.

Chapter III

Luther's Conception of the Calling

...at least one thing was unquestionably new [in the Reformation]: the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in wordly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. This it was which inevitably gave every-day worldly activity a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling in this sense. [...] The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfilment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling.

The monastic life is not only quite devoid of value as a means of justification before God, but he [Luther] also looks upon its renunciation of the duties of this world as the product of selfishness, withdrawing from temporal obligations.

That this moral justification of worldly activity was one of the most important results of the Reformation, especially of Luther's part in it, is beyond doubt, and may even be considered a platitude. 9 This attitude is worlds removed from the deep hatred of Pascal, in his contemplative moods, for all worldly activity, which he was deeply convinced could only be understood in terms of vanity or low cunning.

Part II

The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism

Chapter IV

The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism

A. Calvinism

The Father in heaven of the New Testament, so human and understanding, who rejoices over the repentance of a sinner as a woman over the lost piece of silver she has found, is gone. His place has been taken by 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.15
In its extreme inhumanity this doctrine [Calvinism] must above all have had one consequence for the life of a generation which surrended to its magnificient consistency. That was a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual. 16 In what was for the man of the age of the Reformation the most important thing in life, his eternal salvation, he was forced to follow his path alone to meet a destiny which had been decreed for him from eternity. No one could help him. No priest.... . No Sacraments... . No Church... . This, the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments (which was in Lutheranism by no means developed to its final conclusions), was what formed the absolutely decisive difference from Catholicism.
That great historic process in the development of religions, the elimination of magic from the world 19 which had begun with the old Hebrew prophets and, in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin, came here to its logical conclusion. The genuine Puritan even rejected all signs of religious ceremony at the grave and buried his nearest and dearest without song or ritual in order that no superstition, no trust in the effects of magical and sacramental forces on salvation, should creep in.

Combined with the harsh doctrines of the absolute transcendentality of God and the corruption of everything pertaining to the flesh, this inner isolation of the individual contains, on the one hand, the reason for the entirely negative attitude of Puritanism to all the sensuous and emotional elements in culture and in religion, because they are of no use toward salvation and promote sentimental illusions and idolatrous superstitions. Thus it provides a basis for a fundamental antagonism to sensuous culture of all kinds. 21 On the other hand, it forms one of the roots of that disillusioned and pessimistically inclined individualism 22 which can even to-day be identified in the national characters and the institutions of the peoples with a Puritan past, in such a striking  contrast to the quite different spectacles through which the Enlightenment later looked upon men. [...] Only God should be your confindant. 25 In striking contrast to Lutheranism, this attitude toward life was also connected with the quiet disappearance of the private confession... . [...] The means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin 26 was done away with.
In spite of the necessity of membership in the true Church 27 for salvation, the Calvinist's intercourse with his God was carried on in deep spiritual isolation. To see the specific results 28 of this peculiar atmosphere, it is only necessary to read Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress., 29 by far the most widely read book of the whole Puritan literature.
Note: he is quoting someone else here: "Love of their native city higher than the fear for the salvation of their souls".
He [Calvin] rejects in principle the assumption that one can learn from the conduct of others whether they are chosen or damned. ....The elect thus are and remain God's invisible Church.
On the one hand it is held to be an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil, 45 since lack of self-confidence is the result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace. The exhortation of the apostle to make fast one's own call is here interpreted as a duty to attain certainty of one's own election and justification in the daily struggle of life. In the place of the  humble sinners to whom Luther promises grace if they trust themselves to God in penitent faith are bred those self-confident saints 46 whom we can rediscover in the hard Puritan merchants of the heroic age of capitalism and in isolated instances down to the present. On the other hand, in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. 47 It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace. [to which should be added, perfect humility...]
F.o.e., 'unio mystica'

The highest religious experience which the Lutheran faith strives to attain, especially as it developed in the course of the seventeenth century, is the mystic union with the deity. 49 As the name itself, which is unknown to the Reformed faith in this [Calivinist] form, suggests, it is a feeling of actual absorption in the deity, that of a real entrance of the divine into the soul of the believer.
F.o.e., 'poenitentia quotidiana' (daily penance)
A real penetration of the human soul by the divine was made impossible by the absolute transcendentality of God compared to the flesh: finitum non est capax infinite.
The religious believer can make himself sure of his state of grace either in that he feels himself to be the vessel of the Holy Spirit  or the tool of the divine will. In the former case his religious life tends to mysticism and emotionalism, in the latter to ascetic action; Luther stood close to the former type, Calvinism belonged definitely to the latter. The Calvinist also wanted to be saved sola fide. But since Calvin viewed all pure feelings and emotions, no matter how exalted they might seem to be, with suspicion, 51 faith had to be proved by its objective results in order to provide a firm foundation for the certainty of salvation.
If we now ask further, by what fruits the Calvinist thought himself able to identify true faith? the answer is: by a type of Christian conduct which served to increase the glory of God. [...] ...to augment the glory of God by real, and not merely apparent, good works. It was through the consciousness that his conduct, at least in its fundamental character and constant ideal, rested on a power 56 within himself working for the glory of God; that it is not only willed of God but rather done by God 57 that he attained the  highest good towards which this religion strove, the certainty of salvation. 58 ...Thus, however useless good works might be as a means of attaining salvation, for even the elect remain beings of the flesh, and everything they do falls infinitely short of divine standards, nevertheless, they are indispensable as a sign of election. 60 They are the technical means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation. In this sense they are occasionally referred to as directly necessary for salvation 61 or the possessio salutis is made conditional on them. 62
In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves. 63 Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates 64 his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one's credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned.

It is common knowledge that Lutherans have again and again accused this line of thought, which was worked out in the Reformed Churches and sects with increasing clarity, 65 of reversion to the doctrine of salvation by works. 66

The rationalization of the world, the elimination of magic as a means of salvation, 69 the Catholics had not carried nearly so far as the Puritans (and before them the Jews) had done. To the Catholic70 the absolution of his Church was a compensation for his own imperfection. The priest was a magician who performed the miracle of transubstantiation, and who held the key to eternal life in his hand. One could turn to him in grief and penitence. He dispensed atonement, hope of grace, certainty of forgiveness, and thereby granted release from that tremendous tension to which the Calvinist was doomed by an inexorable fate, admitting of no mitigation. For him such friendly and human comforts did not exist. He could not hope to atone for hours of weakness or of thoughtlessness by increased good will at other times, as the Catholic or even the Lutheran could. The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system. 71 There was no place for the very human Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin.

The moral conduct of the average man was thus deprived of its planless and unsystematic character and subjected to a consistent method for conduct as a whole. It is no accident that the name of Methodists stuck to the participants in the last great revival of Puritan ideas in the eighteenth century... . 

[Christian asceticism] had developed a systematic method of rational conduct with the purpose of overcoming the status naturae, to free man from the power of irrational impulses and his dependence on the world and on nature. It attempted to subject man to the supremacy of a purposeful will,77 to bring his actions under constant self-control with a careful consideration of their ethical consequences. Thus it trained the monk, objectively, as a worker in the service of the kingdom of God, and thereby further, subjectively, assured the salvation of his soul. This active self-control, which formed the end of the exercitia of St. Ignatius and of the rational the protestant ethic and the 72 spirit of capitalism monastic virtues everywhere,78 was also the most important practical ideal of Puritanism.79 [...] The Puritan, like every rational type of asceticism, tried to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives, especially those which it taught him itself, against the emotions. In this formal psychological sense of the term it tried to make him into a personality. Contrary to many popular ideas, the end of this asceticism was to be able to lead an alert, intelligent life: the most urgent task the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment, the most important means was to bring order into the conduct of its adherents. All these important points are emphasized in the rules of Catholic monasticism as strongly83 as in the principles of conduct of the Calvinists.84

On the other hand, the difference of the Calvinistic from the mediæval asceticism is evident. It consisted in the disappearance of the consilia evangelica [
The Evangelical Counsels] and the accompanying transformation of asceticism to activity within the world. It is not as though Catholicism had restricted the methodical life to monastic cells. [...] The tertiary order of St. Francis was, for instance, a powerful attempt in the direction of an ascetic penetration of everyday life, and, as we know, by no means the only one. [...] ...the practical use made of certain institutions of the Church, above all of indulgences, inevitably counteracted the tendencies toward systematic worldly asceticism. For that reason it was not felt at the time of the Reformation to be merely an unessential abuse, but one of the most fundamental evils of the Church.
But the most important thing was the fact that the man who, par excellence, lived a rational life in the religious sense was, and remained, alone the monk. Thus asceticism, the more strongly it gripped an individual, simply served to drive him farther away from everyday life, because the holiest task was definitely to surpass all worldly morality.86 Luther... had repudiated that tendency, and Calvinism simply took this over from him.87 Sebastian Franck struck the central characteristic of this type of religion when he saw the significance of the Reformation in the fact that now every Christian had to be a monk all his life.

The religious life of the saints... was- the most important point- no longer lived outside the world in monastic communities, but within the world and its institutions. This rationalization of conduct within this world, but for the sake of the world beyond, was the consequence of the concept of calling of ascetic Protestantism.
Christian asceticism, at first fleeing from the world into solitude, had already ruled the world which it had renounced from the monastery and through the Church. But it had, on the whole, left the naturally spontaneous character of daily life in the world untouched. Now it strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world.

Chapter V

Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism

Mediaeval ethics not only tolerated begging but actually glorified it in the mendicant orders. [...] It remained for Puritan Asceticism to take part in the severe English Poor Relief Legislation which fundamentally changed the situation. 

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irrestible force.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.