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Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic

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In Max Weber’s quest to explain his observations of the major social and economic changes he was subject to throughout his life from 1864 to 1920, the importance of rationalization in modernity was emphasised. For Weber his personal focus on the coming of modernity begins with the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. Weber’s thesis explaining ‘the emergence of modern capitalism would thus be an explanation of modernity’ (Collins and Makowsky 2005: 121). Weber attributed ‘the Protestant ethic’, in particular the Calvinism strain of Protestantism as a fundamental requirement for the emergence of the ‘spirit of capitalism’.

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For it were the individualistic, systematic and rationalised conduct and values of the protestant ethic that harboured the attitude needed to create economic success and ultimately the success of the industrial revolution. The concept of rationalization was thus the result of the protestant work ethic and attributed to the new modern economy itself. In this context rationalisation means the elimination of magic as a means to salvation, replaced with constant self control and rational calculation.

This essay will firstly explore the development of the protestant ethic, in particular the Calvinist strain, before relating the ethic to the emergence of the process of rationalization and how this influenced the economic and social sphere of life. Finally Weber attributed the process of rationalization and ultimately the success of the industrial revolution as the result of ‘the Protestant ethic’, in particular the work ethic that had developed from the religious concept of the ‘calling’ and the doctrine of pre destination.

The emphasis on individual fulfilment of worldly obligations combined with a moral justification is a common doctrine theme of Protestantism after the reformation. ‘Every day worldly activity was given a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling’ (Weber 1998: 80). This idea of a ‘calling’ gave way to a methodical, rationalized attitude toward mundane activities and especially daily labour. Weber uses the more extreme protestant movement of Calvinism to illustrate the importance of one’s undertaking of their ‘calling’ to the fundamental ethic and religious beliefs of Protestants. Chapter III (of God’s Eternal Decree), No. 3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death” (Weber 1998: 100).

The psychological effect of the concept of pre destination would have dominated the affairs of the believer’s as one could not change their fate, ultimately standing alone before God, uncertain of their salvation. The pressing need for certainty of election and one’s calling, Weber suggested, was met by ‘proving one’s (God given) faith in worldly activity (Weber and Eldridge 1971: 42). Ultimately the Calvinist idea of God was the divine desire for all to work, rich and poor. “Do the works of him who sent him, as long as it is yet day,” (Weber 1998: 157). This formed an ethical conduct based on the foundation of the value of hard work, attributing greatly to the protestant ethic. There was no room for time to be wasted on activities that did not further increase the glory of God on earth, showing the effects of salvation being thoroughly rationalised by the Protestant man of the reformation.

Weber saw the emergence of a methodical ‘rationalized’ attitude first in the religious sphere after the reformation, especially in the religious ideas of the followers of Calvin (Collins and Makowsky 2005:124). The concept of pre destination was developed by John Calvin and its teachings in response to the individual religious responsibility and the strain of salvation uncertainty gave direction to where the energy consumption of the believer should lie.

Confessions, sacrifices, ceremonies and prayers which were carried out in force before the reformation, no longer served to aid the individuals’ salvation and were replaced with the more rational concept of work. According to Calvin “Each man was duty bound to consider himself chosen and to reject all doubt as temptation of the devil… a sign of insufficient faith. To attain self confidence, work in a calling was recommended,” (Bendix 1966: 60). This work offered the opportunity for success and ‘The attainment of it (wealth) as a fruit of labour in a calling was a sign of God’s blessing (Weber 1998: 172).

For many this would be the equivalent to a sign that they are one of the elect, predestined to be saved. Furthermore, the negative ethical beliefs surrounding wealth ensured religious values of the Protestants weren’t overridden. The religious doctrines maintained the idea that ‘profits or riches were not to be spent self indulgently but saved and reinvested, here is the discovery of the world as a rational, useful creation (Weber and Eldridge 1971: 44). This attributed to the values of methodically, rationalized and ethical conduct, especially in work that promotes the glory of God on earth.

The rationalized, methodical attitude derived from the protestant ethic is a huge influence in the success of economic application. It is the key characteristics of the protestant ethic that harbour the spirit of capitalism. The synthesis of these characteristics revolve around the’ values of saving and reinvestment, emphasis on hard work, individual pursuit of spiritual or material success and slow accumulation of small gains through expansion of mass production,’ (Weber 1998: xxxi).

In (Bendix 1966: 124), Weber comes to the assumption that this methodical attitude is significant for a large scale, profit making system. As the spirit of capitalism clearly portrays the attitude of rational pursuit of profit there had to be a moral justification among the reformed doctrines such as Calvinism concerning wealth. Wealth is often incorporated into religious ideas of greed and selfishness. While the Calvin doctrine ensured the pursuit of profit and wealth for self interest and sins of the flesh were still unethical, there also had to be a time and place when it was seen as a blessing, a sign.

This idea of enabling a person to ‘labour to be rich for God, through not for the flesh and sin’ (Bendix 1966: 62) was necessary to rationalise and successful pursuit of economic gain for the Protestant. If the traditional values were held primarily to the attainment of wealth there would have been no economic incentive to accumulate profits or develop the hard, disciplined attitude towards work. With the origin of this attitude being that of religious Protestants after the reformation, it is safe to say their beliefs helped foster the conditions for successful modern capitalism.

The rationalization of one’s occupational work as a ‘calling’ was fundamental in encouraging the labour attitude of work as an obligation. As a characteristic of the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism, this religious view is seen to directly influence practical ethics of the modern worker. ‘The treatment of labour as a calling became as characteristic of the modern worker as the corresponding attitude toward acquisition of the business man… they are for the most part thinking sober men, and such as believe that labour and industry is their duty to god,’(Weber 1998: 178-179).

The concept of the average worker acquiring something more than economic gains from their work was an essential element in the change in approach to work after the reformation. Weber implies the capitalist enterprise had to wait for the right religious changes to produce a capitalist spirit. ‘The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means asceticism… which we have here called the spirit of capitalism (Weber 1998: 172). Other common moral values of Protestants are also illustrated in promoting economic gain such as honesty and thrift.

Such work discipline among the labour force, Weber is conscious of as a prerequisite of successful industrial capitalism (Weber and Eldridge 1971: 48). It is these elements that contributed to the development of a strict, self disciplined code of conduct that was praised in protestant doctrines and subsequently resulted in the development of the capitalist, rationalist way of life. Second to the economic sphere of life, social life was impacted by the effects of the Protestant ethic and the development of the process of rationalization.

The concept of rationalization that resulted after the reformation contradicted to the traditional religious beliefs and customs that had existed. ‘They no longer believed in salvation by prayers, charity or rituals… Rationalization slowly pushed back the uncertain, the mythical, the poetic,’ (Collins and Makowsky 2005: 124/126). The personal community traditions and togetherness before the reformation was replaced with impersonal economic dealings and an individualistic style of life. This cultural loss was heightened by the new dominance of the ‘calling’ in religious protestant’s lives. The concentration on one’s calling was therefore at the expense of other activities. Any impulse enjoyment of life- sport, dancing, the theatre, the public house- was seen as the enemy of that rational ascetism with its central life interest of work’ (Weber and Eldridge 1971: 44). While these impacts on the social sphere of life are seen as largely negative, with the disenchantment of the worlds’ magic, it was a change that was needed in the process of rationalization in order for the development of rational capitalism.

As one of the three founding fathers of sociology, Weber’s explanation of modernity in relation to the two major contributors to the industrial revolution still remain a key basis of sociological interpretation today. The essay question itself holds a central relevance to the two contributors of the industrial revolution, the Protestant ethic and as a result the process of rationalization. These are essential elements of ‘the Weber Thesis’(Collins and Makowsky 2005: 125) which states ‘The religious beliefs of radical Protestants helped produce just the attitudes that made successful capitalist and thus fostered the ndustrial revolution’ (Collins and Makowsky 2005: 124). These attitudes were based upon rationalization and were significant to Weber in terms of his focus on human action, hence the conduct of Protestants in their ‘calling’ and the approach to his research on the basis of an individual. With the distinctive feature of Western Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries in Weber’s view, being the adoption of a peculiar rationalizing attitude (Harrington 2005: 19), the understanding of rationalisation as a result of the protestant work ethic is fundamental to both his explanation and this essay question.

Weber argues that the reformed doctrines of Protestantism, especially Calvinism enabled the corresponding key elements of an economic ‘spirit’ to grow. Based on the religious emphasis on hard work, the ‘calling’ and values of honesty, self discipline and calculation, the protestant work ethic resulted in the process of rationalisation. The changes in the approach and attitude of the individual towards their occupation and daily activities was the religious influence that was needed as a prerequisite for the spirit of capitalism and the success of the industrial revolution.

The new and successful work ethic was developed out of Protestantism by concepts of the ‘calling’ and the duty of men to add glory to God on earth. In particular the impact of the doctrine of pre destination encouraged a more systematic, methodical attitude towards work. It was when the worker began making great economic gains via slow accumulation and reinvestment that the believer could interrupt it as a sign from god that they were one of the elect.

Due to rationalization eliminating magical means to salvation, it was this work in their calling that the religious believer could turn to, subsiding religious anxiety and uncertainty over whether they were destined to be saved or damned. While the key protestant believers after the reformation have left their mark on modern society, one fundamental element taken from this research can be matched to the values of society today, the emphasis on self made success and promotion over simple status inheritance.

While the achieved economic success that resulted from the protestant work ethic ultimately undermined religion as modern society is now solely driven by the market alone, the impact of rationalisation on secular spheres of social life has grown further. Heightened by our present emphasis on science and technology, rationalisation of the ethical and practical are for the most part indented in our characters. Weber’s viewpoint also remains the basis of sociology today, clearly attributing the Protestant ethic to the key concept of rationalisation and the success of modern ‘rational’ capitalism.

Cite this Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic

Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic. (2017, Mar 18). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/max-weber-and-the-protestant-ethic/

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