Max Weber – Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism



The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism is one of the most systematic, generalised and renowned work by Max Weber. He used his own methodology of social action and ideal type in this essay. He put forth the idea that sociological theory is possible through causal explanation and thus insisted upon the fundamental role of material factors in influencing the course of history. He was mainly interested in determining how the tenets of religion influence other aspects of social structure. He believed that the economic conditions are embedded within the culture itself and devoted much of his work to identify the emergence of the ‘spirit of modern capitalism’.


Weber spent much of his life studying religion. One of his overriding concerns was the relationship among a variety of the world’s religions and the development only in the West of a capitalist economic system. It is clear that the vast bulk of this work is done at the social-structural and cultural levels; the thoughts and actions of Calvinists, Buddhists, Confucians, Jews, Muslims  and others are held to be affected by changes in social structures and social institutions. Weber was interested primarily in the systems of ideas of the world’s religions, in the “spirit” of capitalism, and in rationalization as a modern system of norms and values.


In analysing the relationship between the world’s religions and the economy, Weber developed a typology of the paths of salvation;

1> ASCETICISM is the first broad type of religiosity, and it combines an orientation toward action with the commitment of believers to denying themselves the pleasures of the world. Ascetic religions are divided into two subtypes;

  • Otherworldly asceticism: involves a set of norms and values that command the followers not to work within the secular world and to fight against its temptations.
  • Inner worldly asceticism: was of greater interest to Weber, because it encompasses Calvinism. Such a religion does not reject the world; instead, it actively urges its members to work within the world so that they can find salvation, or at least signs of it. The distinctive goal here is the strict, methodical control of the members’ patterns of life, thought, and action. Members are urged to reject everything unethical, aesthetic, or dependent on their emotional reactions to the secular world. Inner worldly ascetics are motivated to systematize their own conduct.

2> Whereas both types of asceticism involve some type of action and self-denial, MYSTICISM involves contemplation, emotion, and inaction. Weber subdivided mysticism in the same way as asceticism.

  • World-rejecting mysticism: involves total flight from the world.
  • Inner worldly mysticism: leads to contemplative efforts to understand the meaning of the world, but these efforts are doomed to failure, because the world is viewed as being beyond individual comprehension.

In any case, both types of mysticism and world-rejecting asceticism can be seen as idea systems that inhibit the development of capitalism and rationality. In contrast, inner worldly asceticism is the system of norms and values that contributed to the development of these phenomena in the West.


In Max Weber’s best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he traced the impact of ascetic Protestantism—primarily Calvinism—on the rise of the spirit of capitalism.  The Protestant Ethic is not about the rise of modern capitalism but is about the origin of a ‘peculiar spirit’ that eventually made modern rational capitalism (some form of capitalism had existed since early times) expand and come to dominate the economy.

Weber began by examining and rejecting alternative explanations of why capitalism arose in the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To those who contended that capitalism arose because the material conditions were right at that time, Weber retorted that material conditions were also ripe at other times and capitalism did not arise. Weber also rejected the psychological theory that the development of capitalism was due simply to the acquisitive instinct. In his view, such an instinct always has existed, yet it did not produce capitalism in other situations.

Evidence for Weber’s views on the significance of Protestantism was found in an examination of countries with mixed religious systems. In looking at these countries, he discovered that the leaders of the economic system—business leaders, owners of capital, high-grade skilled labour, and more advanced technically and commercially trained personnel—were all overwhelmingly Protestant. This suggested that Protestantism was a significant cause in the choice of these occupations and, conversely, that other religions (for example, Roman Catholicism) failed to produce idea systems that impelled individuals into these vocations.

In Weber’s view, the spirit of capitalism is not defined simply by economic greed; it is in many ways the exact opposite. It is a moral and ethical system, an ethos that among other things stresses economic success. In fact, it was the turning of profit making into an ethos that was critical in the West.

In other societies, the pursuit of profit was seen as an individual act motivated at least in part by greed. Thus it was viewed by many as morally suspect. However, Protestantism succeeded in turning the pursuit of profit into a moral crusade. It was the backing of the moral system that led to the unprecedented expansion of profit seeking and, ultimately, to the capitalist system.


  • It is a normative system with a number of inter related ideas
  • Goal is to instil profit rationality
  • Preaches avoidance of life’s pleasures
  • Time is money
  • To be industrious
  • To be frugal
  • To be fair
  • Punctuality
  • Earning money is a legitimate end in itself
  • It is people’s duty to increase their wealth


The protestant movement was started by Martin Luther as a reformist movement and aimed for a complete change in the orthodox ways of the Catholic Church. For weber, the concept of ‘CALLING’ and asceticism that Protestantism taught was what gave impetus to the capitalist system.

The notion of calling refers to the idea that the highest form of moral obligation of the individual is to fulfil his duty in worldly affairs. This asceticism found in the protestant religion has been termed as ‘puritanism’ and is characterised by a secular, materialistic attitude.


The idea of calling became more rigorously developed in Calvinism founded by John Calvin. Calvinism was the version of Protestantism that interested Weber most. One feature of Calvinism was the idea that only a small number of people are chosen for salvation. In addition, Calvinism entailed the idea of PREDESTINATION; people were predestined to be either among the saved or among the damned. There was nothing that the individual or the religion as a whole could do to affect that fate.

Yet the idea of predestination left people uncertain about whether they were among the saved. To reduce this uncertainty, the Calvinists developed the idea that signs could be used as indicators of whether a person was saved. People were urged to work hard, because if they were diligent, they would uncover the signs of salvation, which were to be found in economic success. In sum, the Calvinist was urged to engage in intense, worldly activity and to become a “man of vocation.”

According to Weber, this anxiety among Calvinist believers, about who was saved and who was damned had one consequence -A feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness. From this torment, weber holds, the capitalist spirit was born. As a result it become obligatory to regard oneself as chosen.


Weber’s thoughts on rationalization and various other issues are illustrated in his work on the relationship between religion and capitalism. At one level, this is a series of studies of the relationship between ideas (religious ideas) and the development of the spirit of capitalism and, ultimately, capitalism itself. At another level, it is a study of how the West developed a distinctively rational religious system (Calvinism) that played a key role in the rise of a rational economic system (capitalism). Weber also studied other societies, in which he found religious systems (for example, Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism) that inhibit the growth of a rational economic system. It is this kind of majestic sweep over the history of many sectors of the world that helps give Weberian Theory its enduring significance.