Because of my school schedule, I have had trouble with writing book reviews as frequently as I would like to. I apologize for that and will try to get back on track with writing one every few days. Regardless, I recently finished The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber and am excited to be reviewing it today.
Perhaps no book, other than The Wealth of Nations, of course, has had as much influence on our understanding of capitalism as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. That’s not to say that everyone agrees with Weber’s arguments in it. Many, if not most, of modern economists, do not and have attacked Weber’s arguments on a variety of grounds, some more justified than others.
A cursory internet search will confirm that; if you look up “critiques of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the articles that come up are “Weber’s Protestant Ethic: a Marxist Critique,” “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: A Natural Scientific Critique,” “THE PROTESTANT ETHIC THESIS: AN INTERNAL CRITIQUE,” and”Backup of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Criticisms of Weber’s Thesis.”
So, there are many who disagree with what Weber has to say in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But their arguments are only important to the extent that his still are. The book was written in Germany in 1905, yet it is still discussed and argued about today.
I think that is because, while some of Weber’s arguments are open to criticism, his general thesis makes intuitive sense to those that have even a slight understanding of European religious, political, and economic history. But, because they are grounded in religion and the (economic and social) benefits of Protestantism, there are of course those who disagree with it, which sparks interesting debates.
In any case, the book is one that is incredibly important and is one that you need to read if you consider yourself a capitalist and want to be able to defend that viewpoint. Even if you disagree with Weber’s theses, which I will discuss in the summary of this review, I still think it is important to understand the arguments that he makes.
Summary of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
Background of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Weber was a German political writer, economist, and sociologist that lived in Germany around the turn from the 19th to the 20th Century. As such, he lived through tremendous political and economic change. The German states were united by Bismarck and became a hugely powerful force. Welfare states were developed for the first time ever as workers clamored for more rights and safer lives. Great empires, such as the British Empire, were boosted by Western advances in medicine and military technology and were thus able to take over most of the world.
But one of the greatest developments was the battle between socialism/communism and capitalism. As I discussed in my article on the virtue of capitalism, what preceded capitalism were largely incremental steps towards it. While that might be a gross, semi-inaccurate simplification, I do think that it captures the essence of the shift from classical economies/feudalism to capitalism. But socialism/communism was different in that Marx’s brainchild was the first step away from economic liberty and towards economic control, and it was gradually adopted, in various, watered-down forms by European states that wanted to control their populaces.
Weber saw that change, and I think it set the stage for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. While socialism and communism are not big issues in the book, mercantilism, feudalism, and other economic systems are. Weber understood how economic systems had changed and wanted to present one opinion why capitalism might have been buoyed around the time of Adam Smith.
That idea of his, reinforced by his immense study of and knowledge of religion, was that capitalism and Protestantism fit together well and were self-reinforcing, building each other up as the West shifted away from Catholicism and mercantilism and toward capitalism and Protestantism.
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The Theses of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber discussed a wide array of material before fully stating his theses. Divided into two parts and five total chapters, the book covers topics as diversified and varied as “Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification,” “Luther’s Conception of the Calling. Task of the Investigation,” “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism,” and ” The Spirit of Capitalism.”
As you can probably guess by the titles, the book is as much a discussion of the history of Protestantism and its various branches — namely Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist Sects– as it is one of “the spirit of capitalism.”
But that information of the different sects of Protestantism, what those sects believed, and why they believed it is crucial to understanding the arguments that Weber makes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Weber’s arguments are:
- Because of Protestant beliefs, Protestant individuals had to find their secular calling (called a “beruf” by Luther) and pursue that calling. Therefore, because they were zealously working, those people were likely to earn and accumulate more money, which fit well with capitalism.
- The Protestant religions, especially Calvinism, effectively forbade wastefully using hard-earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. Additionally, donations to an individual’s church or congregation were limited due to the rejection by certain Protestant sects of icons. Finally, the donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God. Therefore, the only way to put to use the influx of money identified in point 1 was to wisely invest it, which further boosted capitalism and gave booth to the culture of investing that we still have today.
As support for those arguments, Weber draws on the differences in political and economic culture between Catholicism and Protestantism, the history of capitalism, how capitalism and Protestantism developed side by side in Europe, and why Protestants were more willing than others to build industry, make investments in new businesses and ideas, and create capitalism as we know it today.
My Take on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
First off, as a warning, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is quite dense. Of the books I have recently read, the closest comparisons are probably The Road to Serfdom and The Noblest Triumph, both of which also happen to be about capitalism. Like them, it is highly informational and interesting, but is also quite complex and more than a little bit dense.
However, that is just a warning. Not a reason not to read it. Capitalism is one of the most important underpinnings of American society and has created the world we know and rely upon to live meaningful lives. So, we should understand and be able to defend it. Reading books such as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Road to Serfdom, The Noblest Triumph, Capitalism and Freedom, Atlas Shrugged, and The Wealth of Nations might be difficult at times. But, doing so is important because the opinions and facts in them will help you defend capitalism from the attacks of the radical and pro-socialist left.
And the arguments in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism are certainly helpful in that regard. For one, even our idea of what constitutes a meaningful life- zealously pursuing a secular calling/career- is largely an idea of Weber’s.
Similarly, Protestantism is still largely associated with capitalism because of Weber’s work. In Who Are We?, for example, Samuel Huntington identifies America’s protestant roots as crucial to our national identity because they are what give us our focus on building wealth, which is an integral part of our national creed and is what has made us so successful. So, because that aspect of our culture seems to be important, it would make sense to try to understand why. Reading The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism will help show you why.
Additionally, I enjoyed reading The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism because of its discussion of the culture created by Protestantism, which fit in well with what Joseph J. Ellis wrote about in After the Revolution and what was written about in In Praise of Commercial Culture– Protestantism and capitalism are not inimical to culture, but they do only favor a certain type of culture; one that focuses on talent, detail, and realism, not theater, innovative or expressive forms of art, and change. Generally, I prefer the former. Classical statues are far more impressive and beautiful than modern art.
Finally, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is worth reading because Weber is different than modern authors in that he does not apologize for the men he writes about. No matter what sins they might have committed, he writes objectively about how they relate to his theses and doesn’t get distracted by the topic of slavery or religious conflict. Instead, he just objectively examines the facts and writes about what he found. To me, that was like a breath of fresh air.
Despite my warning, you need to read The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It will teach you about topics that are crucial to American life such as Protestantism and Protestant culture, capitalism and why it works, and the importance of pursuing a career. And he does so in only 183 pages.
And those are topics that you must understand. They are all under attack right now from the left, which hates Western Civilization and want to do away with it. They want to destroy religion, replace capitalism with “democratic socialism,” and harass and make fun of anyone who pursues a career with a passion rather than stewing in nihilism.
Weber provides the intellectual ammunition needed to fight back against those ideas from the left. Yes, Weber can be, at times, a bit dense and hard to understand. But he was a genius and his ideas are both compelling and useful arguments to make.
So, while there might be many arguments against Weber and modern critiques of his arguments, I both generally side with Weber and think that, whatever your opinion is, his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is worth your time. You’ll learn a lot by reading it.
By: Gen Z Conservative