Weber Posits the “Protestant Ethic”

Sociology cofounder Max Weber theorized that certain Protestant beliefs laid the groundwork for the development of modern capitalism.

Summary of Event

Max Weber was born to a prominent German family; his father belonged to the Reichstag, Germany’s national legislature. Weber studied law and became a professor at Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Vienna; he also traveled widely and was a voracious reader. His writings filled thirteen volumes and ranged widely in subject matter, including discussions of economic policy; philosophy; the ancient religions of India, China, and Palestine; the methodology of social science; social stratification; and the sociology of religion. He also wrote about German farm laborers and the stock exchange, and in these works and others, the rationalization and bureaucratization of modern societies was a central theme. Weber was a politically active nationalist who helped found the German Democratic Party, and his wife, Marianne Weber, was a leader of the German feminist movement. (She also arranged for the posthumous publication of many of Weber’s writings and wrote a biography of her husband.) In addition to all his other activities, Weber ran a military hospital during World War I and accompanied the German delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. His productive life is particularly remarkable given that he was sometimes disabled by emotional illness. Weberian hypothesis
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The (Weber)
[kw]Weber Posits the “Protestant Ethic” (1904-1905)
[kw]”Protestant Ethic,” Weber Posits the (1904-1905)[Protestant Ethic, Weber Posits the (1904 1905)]
Weberian hypothesis
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Weber, Max
Parsons, Talcott
Weber, Marianne
Marx, Karl
Durkheim, Émile
Calvin, John

Max Weber.

(Library of Congress)

Weber’s most famous work, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1930), was first published in 1904 and 1905 in the journal Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare, for which Weber served as a coeditor. Weber sought an explanation for the development of capitalism, and, like most German scholars, he looked to history for an answer. The journal issues sold rapidly, perhaps because the significance of the Protestant Reformation was a frequent source of debate among European academics, and in this work, Weber asserted that capitalism was an unanticipated consequence of certain Protestant beliefs. The essays were republished in 1920 as part of a series, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (1920-1921; collected essays on the sociology of religion), that was not completed before Weber’s death. At the end of his life, Weber made some changes for that edition, and his many added footnotes show his responses to critics who had, he said, misunderstood his concepts and his method of analysis.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism reflects Weber’s belief in the importance of ideas, showing that religious ideas and practices have had tremendous impacts on history. Weber began his essay by describing Western capitalism, commonly misunderstood as a system that mainly involves a desire to make a lot of money. Instead, Weber argued, it is an economic structure that relies on the rational organization of free labor and uses wealth and labor in a calculated way. Using a historical and comparative perspective, Weber showed that, economically speaking, Protestants fared better than Catholics. He attempted to explain this difference, concluding that there was an indirect connection between Protestant teachings and Protestant commercial success. He analyzed the “spirit of capitalism”—habits and ideas that favor the rational pursuit of economic gain—and he quoted Benjamin Franklin’s view that the creation of wealth is an end to which people are ethically bound. In contrast, the traditional Catholic view was that the pursuit of wealth is a sign of sinful avarice and vulgar indulgence.

Overcoming this view was a formidable task, but it had been accomplished, Weber said, by the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Luther’s concept of a “calling” asserted that, in addition to religious devotion, worldly behaviors (such as spending habits) are important in God’s eyes. John Calvin taught the doctrine of predestination, the belief that people are inexorably foreordained by God to be saved or damned to hell. As a result of these teachings, seventeenth century Calvinists experienced a consequent “salvation anxiety.” They were tormented by the question of whether they were elected to go to heaven or were damned and tested their fate by assessing their daily activities. The Calvinists interpreted frugality, hard work, and economic success as signs that they were saved, and the result was the creation of a climate favorable to modern capitalism. Although not an intended result, a consequence of Protestant views of saving and investing money was that Calvinists became capitalists. Their religion taught them to carefully invest the fruits of their labor, and in doing so they made even more money, and money and piety became allies. Eventually, the spirit of capitalism became more widely accepted, and it no longer needed to be rationalized by religion. Furthermore, as secularization became more common, capitalists longed to make money for the sake of making money and did not worry about being avaricious. There was no turning back, Weber warned, from rationalized modern life.

In the first years after its publication, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was known only to German-speaking scholars of religious and economic history. It was not until the 1930’s that the larger sphere of academics read Weber’s translated work. Harvard sociology professor Talcott Parsons, a formidable figure in the field of sociology, translated and published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1930, and his endorsement brought worldwide attention to Weber’s work. Parsons’s translation remained the most widely read version of Weber’s “Protestant ethic” essays, which are considered classics in the field of sociology. Weber’s other major works became available in English translation and many received acclaim (for example, his work on research methodology, bureaucracy, and social class), but The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains his best-known work. He came to be regarded as a founder of sociology, along with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim.


The works of Weber, Durkheim, and Marx have frequently been compared with one another. All three men wrote about religion, but they approached the topic from differing perspectives. Durkheim and Weber agreed that religion is very important in society. According to Durkheim, societies are machines with interdependent parts in which control over conflict is desirable, and religion helps keep society balanced and integrated by instilling common values and giving people something with which to identify. Marx, however saw society as a field of conflict among groups with differing interests in which people are inevitably at odds. The ruling class promotes its interests through ideas, and religion is one set of ideas used to control the masses. Marx saw economic matters as forces dominating all other aspects of society: family, government, education, and religion.

Weber agreed with Marx more than he agreed with Durkheim. Weber and Marx both saw conflict as endemic in society, and they agreed that religious beliefs are related to status and power structure. Societies are inherently unequal, Weber and Marx believed, and powerful groups use ideas as weapons to defend their positions. On other points, however, Weber and Marx had differing views. Weber did not share Marx’s utopian dream of a future without capitalism, and Weber did not agree that economic factors determine everything about a society. Government, religion, and education, Weber asserted, can also be important.

Weber’s ideas became so famous that they acquired nicknames such as the “Weberian hypothesis” and the “PE thesis” (in which “PE” is short for “Protestant ethic”). His notions inspired hundreds of academic papers and books. Some of these sought to test the Weberian hypothesis with scientific research that continued Weber’s investigation of the differences between Protestant and Catholic spending and saving habits, while other works explored his ideas from a theoretical or historical perspective. Weberian hypothesis
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The (Weber)

Further Reading

  • Albrow, Martin. Max Weber’s Construction of Social Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A challenging book, written by a British sociologist, about the deep meaning of Weber’s work.
  • Giddens, Anthony. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Compares the three founding fathers of sociology.
  • Käsler, Dirk. Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. German sociologist describes the German society in which Weber wrote and explains the early reaction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
  • Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason. New York: Random House, 2005. Baylor University sociologist argues against Weber, saying that the religion of the Middle Ages (Catholicism) did not stifle innovation or capitalism.
  • Wallace, Ruth A., and Alison Wolf. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2005. Very readable presentation of the theories of Weber, Marx, and Durkheim.
  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. 1904. Reprint. Oxford, England: Routledge, 2001. The most famous English translation, by a prominent Harvard sociologist.

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