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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

27 July 2008

I wrote this review quite a while ago, and wasn’t entirely satisfied with the organisational structure of my first attempt. I think I like this version a bit better — it seems slightly clearer than my initial review — but I may end up revisiting it later on to make a few more tweaks to it.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

German political economist Max Weber wrote extensively on what sociologists today would consider the ‘sociology of religion’, specifically regarding the effects of religious beliefs on social structures and the economic activities that developed in different societies. His best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ to represent one particular connection he noticed between religion and economics and its effect on the historical development and evolution of capitalism.

Simply put, Weber suggests that some Protestant denominations, specifically those of the Calvinist or ‘Puritan’ school of thought, came to view economic success as an outward sign of an individual’s chances of salvation. Those who worked hard, saved much, spent little, and prospered financially seemed to be marked (to mortal eyes) as God’s chosen, and their example fed back into the religious teachings of their communities and continued the same interconnected cycle of religion and economics. These teachings, Weber theorises, contributed to the growth and development of capitalism in the economies of European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as in the American colonies — specifically, those of New England and the mid-Atlantic regions — where the more Puritan types of Protestant settlers made their homes. Weber also suggests that the religious basis of this school of thought and action gradually faded and blurred over time (as in Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, which emphasise thrift and hard work with less overt emphasis on the spiritual reasons for these practices), leaving behind only the more secular side of the drive towards personal financial prosperity.

Nonetheless, Weber takes care to state that this ethic was not the only factor in the development of the new economic order, nor still was it the most important factor. But he views the Reformation and the Protestant religion as one very specific influence on the modern system of political economics. As both a work of economic history (from one of the last political economists to emerge from the traditions of the German Historical School of economics) and a work on the sociology of religion (from one of the founders of this particular discipline), it is hardly surprisingly that historians, economists, sociologists, and religion students have all been able to find something of value in The Protestant Ethic over the year.

The edition I read was Talcott Parsons’ translation of The Protestant Ethic, which I found to be a very good English-language edition. At times, I almost appreciated his clear and concise footnotes (and the explanations they provided) more than the actual text of the book. My edition also has a superb introduction by Anthony Giddens, which goes into very interesting detail about the writing process that went into the creation of The Protestant Ethic and its relation to Weber’s other works on the sociology of religion. Since the notion of a ‘Protestant work-ethic’ has long since passed into common parlance, to the point where most people who use it would have a difficult time explaining what they actually mean by it, it’s certainly interesting to look at the work that coined the phrase and see precisely what the author originally intended by the concept.

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