Posted: June 17th, 2022

The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism
Translated by Talcott Parsons
With an introduction by Anthony Giddens
London and New YorkFirst published 1930 by Allen and Unwin
First published by Routledge 1992
First published in Routledge Classics 2001
by Routledge
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© 1930 Max Weber
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ISBN 0-203-99580-5 Master e-book ISBNCONTENTS
Introduction by Anthony Giddens vii
Translator’s Preface xxv
Author’s Introduction xxviii
PART I The Problem 1
1 Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification 3
2 The Spirit of Capitalism 13
3 Luther’s Conception of the Calling: Task of
the Investigation 39
PART II The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of
Protestantism 51
4 The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism 53
A. Calvinism 56
B. Pietism 80
C. Methodism 89
D. The Baptist Sects 925 Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism 102
Notes 126
Index 263
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism undoubtedly ranks as
one of the most renowned, and controversial, works of modern
social science. First published as a two-part article in 1904–5, in
the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, of which Weber was
one of the editors, it immediately provoked a critical debate, in
which Weber participated actively, and which, some seventy
years later, has still not gone off the boil. This English translation
is in fact taken from the revised version of the work, that first
appeared in Weber’s Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Collected
Essays on the Sociology of Religion), published in 1920–1 just after
Weber’s death, and thus contains comments on the critical litera ture to which its initial appearance had given rise.
Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic at a pivotal period of his intel lectual career, shortly after his recovery from a depressive illness
that had incapacitated him from serious academic work for a
period of some four years. Prior to his sickness, most of Weber’s
works, although definitely presaging the themes developed in
the later phase of his life, were technical researches in economichistory, economics and jurisprudence. They include studies of
mediaeval trading law (his doctoral dissertation), the develop ment of Roman land-tenure, and the contemporary socio economic conditions of rural workers in the eastern part of
Germany. These writings took their inspiration in some substan tial part from the so-called ‘historical school’ of economics
which, in conscious divergence from British political economy,
stressed the need to examine economic life within the context of
the historical development of culture as a whole. Weber always
remained indebted to this standpoint. But the series of works he
began on his return to health, and which preoccupied him for
the remainder of his career, concern a range of problems much
broader in compass than those covered in the earlier period. The
Protestant Ethic was a first fruit of these new endeavours.
An appreciation of what Weber sought to achieve in the book
demands at least an elementary grasp of two aspects of the cir cumstances in which it was produced: the intellectual climate
within which he wrote, and the connections between the work
itself and the massive programme of study that he set himself in
the second phase of his career.
German philosophy, political theory and economics in the nine teenth century were very different from their counterparts in
Britain. The dominant position of utilitarianism and classical
political economy in the latter country was not reproduced in
Germany, where these were held at arm’s length by the influ ence of Idealism and, in the closing decades of the nineteenth
century, by the growing impact of Marxism. In Britain, J. S.
Mill’s System of Logic (1843) unified the natural and social sciences
in a framework that fitted comfortably within existing traditions
in that country. Mill was Comte’s most distinguished British
disciple, if sharply critical of some of his excesses. Comte’s
viii introductionpositivism never found a ready soil in Germany; and Dilthey’s
sympathetic but critical reception of Mill’s version of the ‘moral
sciences’ gave an added impulse to what came to be known as
the Geisteswissenschaften (originally coined precisely as a translation
of ‘moral sciences’). The tradition of the Geisteswissenschaften, or
the ‘hermeneutic’ tradition, stretches back well before Dilthey,
and from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards was
intertwined with, but also partly set off from, the broader stream
of Idealistic philosophy. Those associated with the hermeneutic
viewpoint insisted upon the differentiation of the sciences of
nature from the study of man. While we can ‘explain’ natural
occurrences in terms of the application of causal laws, human
conduct is intrinsically meaningful, and has to be ‘interpreted’
or ‘understood’ in a way which has no counterpart in nature.
Such an emphasis linked closely with a stress upon the centrality
of history in the study of human conduct, in economic action as
in other areas, because the cultural values that lend meanings to
human life, it was held, are created by specific processes of social
Just as he accepted the thesis that history is of focal import ance to the social sciences, Weber adopted the idea that the
‘understanding’ (Verstehen) of meaning is essential to the explica tion of human action. But he was critical of the notions of ‘intu ition’, ‘empathy’, etc. that were regarded by many others as
necessarily tied to the interpretative understanding of conduct.
Most important, he rejected the view that recognition of the
‘meaningful’ character of human conduct entails that causal
explanation cannot be undertaken in the social sciences. On the
level of abstract method, Weber was not able to work out a
satisfactory reconciliation of the diverse threads that he tried to
knit together; but his effort at synthesis produced a distinctive
style of historical study, combining a sensitivity to diverse cul tural meanings with an insistence upon the fundamental causal
role of ‘material’ factors in influencing the course of history.
introduction ixIt was from such an intellectual background that Weber
approached Marxism, both as a set of doctrines and a political
force promoting practical ends. Weber was closely associated
with the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy), a
group of liberal scholars interested in the promotion of progres sive social reform.1
He was a member of the so-called ‘younger
generation’ associated with the Verein, the first group to acquire a
sophisticated knowledge of Marxist theory and to attempt to
creatively employ elements drawn from Marxism – without ever
accepting it as an overall system of thought, and recoiling from
its revolutionary politics. While acknowledging the contribu tions of Marx, Weber held a more reserved attitude towards
Marxism (often being bitterly critical of the works and political
involvements of some of Marx’s professed followers) than did
his illustrious contemporary, Sombart. Each shared, however, a
concern with the origins and likely course of evolution of indus trial capitalism, in Germany specifically and in the West as a
Specifically, they saw the economic conditions that Marx
believed determined the development and future transformation
of capitalism as embedded within a unique cultural totality.3
Both devoted much of their work to identifying the emergence
of this ‘ethos’ or ‘spirit’ (Geist) of modern Western capitalism.
In seeking to specify the distinctive characteristics of modern
capitalism in The Protestant Ethic, Weber first of all separates off
capitalistic enterprise from the pursuit of gain as such. The
desire for wealth has existed in most times and places, and has in
itself nothing to do with capitalistic action, which involves a
regular orientation to the achievement of profit through (nom inally peaceful) economic exchange. ‘Capitalism’, thus defined,
in the shape of mercantile operations, for instance, has existed in
various forms of society: in Babylon and Ancient Egypt, China,
x introductionIndia and mediaeval Europe. But only in the West, and in rela tively recent times, has capitalistic activity become associated
with the rational organisation of formally free labour.
By ‘rational organ isation’ of labour here Weber means its routinised, calculated
administration within continuously functioning enterprises.
A rationalised capitalistic enterprise implies two things: a dis ciplined labour force, and the regularised investment of capital.
Each contrasts profoundly with traditional types of economic
activity. The significance of the former is readily illustrated by
the experience of those who have set up modern productive
organisations in communities where they have not previously
been known. Let us suppose such employers, in order to raise
productivity, introduce piece-rates, whereby workers can
improve their wages, in the expectation that this will provide the
members of their labour force with an incentive to work harder.
The result may be that the latter actually work less than before:
because they are interested, not in maximising their daily wage,
but only in earning enough to satisfy their traditionally estab lished needs. A parallel phenomenon exists among the wealthy
in traditional forms of society, where those who profit from
capitalist enterprise do so only in order to acquire money for the
uses to which it can be put, in buying material comfort, pleasure
or power. The regular reproduction of capital, involving its con tinual investment and reinvestment for the end of economic
efficiency, is foreign to traditional types of enterprise. It is
associated with an outlook of a very specific kind: the continual
accumulation of wealth for its own sake, rather than for the
material rewards that it can serve to bring. ‘Man is dominated by
the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of
his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man
as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs’ (p. 18).
This, according to Weber, is the essence of the spirit of modern
What explains this historically peculiar circumstance of a
introduction xidrive to the accumulation of wealth conjoined to an absence of
interest in the worldly pleasures which it can purchase? It would
certainly be mistaken, Weber argues, to suppose that it derives
from the relaxation of traditional moralities: this novel outlook
is a distinctively moral one, demanding in fact unusual self discipline. The entrepreneurs associated with the development
of rational capitalism combine the impulse to accumulation with
a positively frugal life-style. Weber finds the answer in the ‘this worldly asceticism’ of Puritanism, as focused through the con cept of the ‘calling’. The notion of the calling, according to
Weber, did not exist either in Antiquity or in Catholic theology;
it was introduced by the Reformation. It refers basically to the
idea that the highest form of moral obligation of the individual
is to fulfil his duty in worldly affairs. This projects religious
behaviour into the day-to-day world, and stands in contrast to
the Catholic ideal of the monastic life, whose object is to tran scend the demands of mundane existence. Moreover, the moral
responsibility of the Protestant is cumulative: the cycle of sin,
repentance and forgiveness, renewed throughout the life of the
Catholic, is absent in Protestantism.
Although the idea of the calling was already present in
Luther’s doctrines, Weber argues, it became more rigorously
developed in the various Puritan sects: Calvinism, Methodism,
Pietism and Baptism. Much of Weber’s discussion is in fact con centrated upon the first of these, although he is interested not
just in Calvin’s doctrines as such but in their later evolution
within the Calvinist movement. Of the elements in Calvinism
that Weber singles out for special attention, perhaps the most
important, for his thesis, is the doctrine of predestination: that
only some human beings are chosen to be saved from damna tion, the choice being predetermined by God. Calvin himself
may have been sure of his own salvation, as the instrument of
Divine prophecy; but none of his followers could be. ‘In its
extreme inhumanity’, Weber comments, ‘this doctrine must
xii introductionabove all have had one consequence for the life of a generation
which surrendered to its magnificent consistency . . . A feeling
of unprecedented inner loneliness’ (p. 60). From this torment,
Weber holds, the capitalist spirit was born. On the pastoral level,
two developments occurred: it became obligatory to regard one self as chosen, lack of certainty being indicative of insufficient
faith; and the performance of ‘good works’ in worldly activity
became accepted as the medium whereby such surety could be
demonstrated. Hence success in a calling eventually came to be
regarded as a ‘sign’ – never a means – of being one of the elect.
The accumulation of wealth was morally sanctioned in so far as
it was combined with a sober, industrious career; wealth was
condemned only if employed to support a life of idle luxury or
Calvinism, according to Weber’s argument, supplies the
moral energy and drive of the capitalist entrepreneur; Weber
speaks of its doctrines as having an ‘iron consistency’ in the
bleak discipline which it demands of its adherents. The element
of ascetic self-control in worldly affairs is certainly there in the
other Puritan sects also: but they lack the dynamism of Calvin ism. Their impact, Weber suggests, is mainly upon the formation
of a moral outlook enhancing labour discipline within the lower
and middle levels of capitalist economic organisation. ‘The
virtues favoured by Pietism’, for example, were those ‘of the
faithful official, clerk, labourer, or domestic worker’ (p. 88).
For all its fame, The Protestant Ethic is a fragment. It is much shorter
and less detailed than Weber’s studies of the other ‘world reli gions’: ancient Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and Confu cianism (Weber also planned, but did not complete, a full-scale
study of Islam). Together, these form an integrated series of
introduction xiiiworks.5
Neither The Protestant Ethic nor any of the other studies was
conceived of by Weber as a descriptive account of types of
religion. They were intended as analyses of divergent modes
of the rationalisation of culture, and as attempts to trace out
the significance of such divergencies for socio-economic
In his study of India, Weber placed particular emphasis upon
the period when Hinduism became first established (about four
or five centuries before the birth of Christ). The beliefs and
practices grouped together as ‘Hinduism’ vary considerably.
Weber singles out as especially important for his purposes the
doctrines of reincarnation and compensation (Karma), each tied
in closely to the caste system. The conduct of an individual in
any one incarnation, in terms of the enactment of his caste
obligations, determines his fate in his next life; the faithful can
contemplate the possibility of moving up a hierarchy towards
divinity in the course of successive incarnations. There is an
important emphasis upon asceticism in Hinduism, but it is, in
Weber’s term, ‘other-worldly’: that is to say, it is directed
towards escaping the encumbrances of the material world rather
than, as in Puritanism, towards the rational mastery of that world
itself. During the same period at which Hinduism became sys tematised, trade and manufacture reached a peak in India. But
the influence of Hinduism, and of the emergent caste system
which interlaced with it, effectively inhibited any economic
development comparable to modern European capitalism. ‘A
ritual law,’ Weber remarks, ‘in which every change of occupa tion, every change in work technique, may result in ritual
degradation is certainly not capable of giving birth to economic
and technical revolutions from within itself . . .’6
The phrase
‘from within itself’ is a vital one: Weber’s concerns were with
the first origins of modern capitalism in Europe, not with its
subsequent adoption elsewhere.
As in India, in China at certain periods trade and manufacture
xiv introductionreached a fairly high level of evolution; trade and craft guilds
flourished; there was a monetary system; there existed a
developed framework of law. All of these elements Weber
regards as preconditions for the development of rational capital ism in Europe. While the character of Confucianism, as Weber
portrays it, is very different from Hinduism, it no more pro vided for ‘the incorporation of the acquisitive drive in a this worldly ethic of conduct’7
than did Hinduism. Confucianism is,
in an important sense, a ‘this-worldly’ religion, but not one
which embodies ascetic values. The Calvinist ethic introduced
an activism into the believer’s approach to worldly affairs, a
drive to mastery in a quest for virtue in the eyes of God, that
are altogether lacking in Confucianism. Confucian values do
not promote such a rational instrumentalism, nor do they sanc tify the transcendence of mundane affairs in the manner of
Hinduism; instead they set as an ideal the harmonious adjust ment of the individual to the established order of things. The
religiously cultivated man is one who makes his behaviour
coherent with the intrinsic harmony of the cosmos. An ethic
which stresses rational adjustment to the world ‘as it is’ could
not have generated a moral dynamism in economic activity
comparable to that characteristic of the spirit of European
Weber’s other completed study of the ‘world religions’, that
of ancient Judaism, is also an important element of his overall
project. For the first origins of Judaism in ancient Palestine mark
the nexus of circumstances in which certain fundamental differ ences between the religions of the Near and Far East became
elaborated. The distinctive doctrines forged in Judaism were
perpetuated in Christianity, and hence incorporated into West ern Culture as a whole. Judaism introduced a tradition of ‘ethical
prophecy’, involving the active propagation of a Divine mission,
that contrasts with the ‘exemplary prophecy’ more characteristic
of India and China. In the latter type, the prophet offers the
introduction xvexample of his own life as a model for his followers to strive
after: the active missionary zeal characteristic of ethical
prophecy is lacking in the teachings of the exemplary prophets.
Judaism and Christianity rest on the tension between sin and
salvation and that gives them a basic transformative capacity
which the Far Eastern religions lack, being more contemplative
in orientation. The opposition between the imperfections of the
world and the perfection of God, in Christian theodicy, enjoins
the believer to achieve his salvation through refashioning the
world in accordance with Divine purpose. Calvinism, for Weber,
both maximises the moral impulsion deriving from the active
commitment to the achievement of salvation and focuses it upon
economic activity.
The Protestant Ethic, Weber says, traces ‘only one side of the
causal chain’ connecting Puritanism to modern capitalism
(p. xxxix). He certainly does not claim that differences in the
rationalisation of religious ethics he identifies are the only sig nificant influences that separate economic development in the
West from that of the Eastern civilisations. On the contrary, he
specifies a number of fundamental socio-economic factors
which distinguish the European experience from that of India
and of China, and which were of crucial importance to the
emergence of modern capitalism. These include the following:
1. The separation of the productive enterprise from the house hold which, prior to the development of industrial capitalism,
was much more advanced in the West than it ever became else where. In China, for example, extended kinship units provided
the major forms of economic co-operation, thus limiting the
influence both of the guilds and of individual entrepreneurial
activity. 2. The development of the Western city. In post mediaeval Europe, urban communities reached a high level of
political autonomy, thus setting off ‘bourgeois’ society from
agrarian feudalism. In the Eastern civilisations, however, partly
because of the influence of kinship connections that cut across
xvi introductionthe urban-rural differentiation, cities remained more embedded
in the local agrarian economy. 3. The existence, in Europe, of an
inherited tradition of Roman law, providing a more integrated
and developed rationalisation of juridical practice than came
into being elsewhere. 4. This in turn was one factor making
possible the development of the nation-state, administered by
full-time bureaucratic officials, beyond anything achieved in the
Eastern civilisations. The rational-legal system of the Western
state was in some degree adapted within business organisations
themselves, as well as providing an overall framework for the
co-ordination of the capitalist economy. 5. The development of
double-entry bookkeeping in Europe. In Weber’s view, this was
a phenomenon of major importance in opening the way for the
regularising of capitalistic enterprise. 6. That series of changes
which, as Marx emphasised, prepared the way for the forma tion of a ‘free’ mass of wage-labourers, whose livelihood
depends upon the sale of labour-power in the market. This
presupposes the prior erosion of the monopolies over the dis posal of labour which existed in the form of feudal obligations
(and were maximised in the East in the form of the caste
Taken together, these represent a mixture of necessary and
precipitating conditions which, in conjunction with the moral
energy of the Puritans, brought about the rise of modern West ern capitalism. But if Puritanism provided that vital spark ignit ing the sequence of change creating industrial capitalism, the
latter order, once established, eradicates the specifically religious
elements in the ethic which helped to produce it:
When asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into every day life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part
in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic
order . . . victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical
foundations, needs its support no longer . . . the idea of duty in
introduction xviione’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead
religious beliefs.
(pp. 123–4)
Here The Protestant Ethic, concerned above all with the origins of
modern capitalism, connects up with Weber’s sombre indict ment of the latter-day progression of contemporary industrial
culture as a whole. Puritanism has played a part in creating the
‘iron cage’ in which modern man has to exist – an increasingly
bureaucratic order from which the ‘spontaneous enjoyment
of life’ is ruthlessly expunged. ‘The Puritan’, Weber concludes,
‘wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so’ (p. 123).
The Protestant Ethic was written with polemical intent, evident in
various references Weber makes to ‘Idealism’ and ‘Materialism’.
The study, he says, is ‘a contribution to the understanding of the
manner in which ideas become effective forces in history’, and
is directed against economic determinism. The Reformation, and
the development of the Puritan sects subsequently, cannot be
explained as ‘a historically necessary result’ of prior economic
changes (pp. 48–9). It seems clear that Weber has Marxism in
mind here, or at least the cruder forms of Marxist historical
analysis which were prominent at the time.8
But he is emphatic
that he does not want to substitute for such a deterministic
Materialism an equally monistic Idealist account of history (cf.
p. 125). Rather the work expresses his conviction that there are
no ‘laws of history’: the emergence of modern capitalism in the
West was an outcome of an historically specific conjunction of
The latent passion of Weber’s account may be glimpsed in the
comments on Puritanism and its residue with which The Protestant
Ethic concludes. The ‘iron cage’ is imagery enough to carry
xviii introductionWeber’s distaste for the celebration of the mundane and the
routine he thought central to modern culture. He adds, however,
a quotation from Goethe: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists
without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of
civilisation never before achieved.’ (p. 124) Such sweeping
evaluation contrasts oddly with the cautious way in which
Weber surrounds the main theses of the book with a battery of
qualifications. Perhaps it is this contrast, unexplicated in the
book itself, although clarified when the work is regarded as one
element in Weber’s project as a whole, that helped to stimulate
the controversy to which its publication gave rise. But what
explains the intensity of the debate which it has aroused; and
why has the controversy been actively carried on for so long?
The most important reason for the emotional intensity pro voked by the book is no doubt the fact that the two major terms
in Weber’s equation, ‘religion’ and ‘capitalism’, were each
potentially explosive when applied to the interpretation of
the origins of the modern Western economy. Weber argued for
the transformative force of certain religious ideas, thus earning
the opposition of most contemporary Marxists; his characterisa tion of Catholicism as lacking in mundane discipline, and as a
retarding rather than a stimulating influence upon modern eco nomic development, ensured the hostility of many Catholic his torians; and his analysis of Protestantism, emphasising the role
of the Puritan sects (whose influence is in turn linked to the
‘iron cage’ of modern culture), was hardly likely to meet a uni versal welcome from Protestant thinkers. Finally, the use of the
term ‘capitalism’ was controversial in itself: many were, and
some still are, inclined to argue that the notion has no useful
application in economic history.
The very diversity of responses thus stimulated by The Protestant
Ethic helps to explain the protracted character of the debate. But
there are other significant underlying factors. The intellectual
power of Weber’s arguments derives in no small part from his
introduction xixdisregard of traditional subject-boundaries, made possible by
the extraordinary compass of his own scholarship. Con sequently, his work can be approached on several levels: as a
specific historical thesis, claiming a correlation between Calvin ism and entrepreneurial attitudes; as a causal analysis of the
influence of Puritanism upon capitalistic activity; as an interpret ation of the origins of key components of modern Western soci ety as a whole; and, set in the context of Weber’s comparative
studies, as part of an attempt to identify divergent courses in the
rationalisation of culture in the major civilisations of West and
East. The controversy over The Protestant Ethic has moved back and
forward between these levels, embracing along the way not only
such substantive themes, but also most of the methodological
issues which Weber wrote the book to help illuminate; and it has
drawn in a dazzling variety of contributors from economics,
history and economic history, comparative religion, anthropol ogy and sociology. Moreover, through the works of others who
have accepted some or all of Weber’s analysis and tried to extend
elements of it, secondary controversies have sprung into being –
such as that surrounding R. K. Merton’s account of the influence
of Protestantism on science in seventeenth-century England.9
It would be difficult to deny that some of the critical responses
to The Protestant Ethic, particularly immediately following its ori ginal publication in Germany, and on the first appearance of this
translation in 1930, were founded upon either direct misunder standings of the claims Weber put forward, or upon an
inadequate grasp of what he was trying to achieve in the work.
Some such misinterpretations by his early critics, such as Fischer
and Rachfahl, were accepted by Weber as partly his responsibil ity.10 These critics, of course, did not have the possibility of
placing The Protestant Ethic in the context of Weber’s broad range
of comparative analyses. They can perhaps be forgiven for not
appreciating the partial character of the study, even if Weber did
caution his readers as to the limitations on its scope. But it is less
xx introductioneasy to excuse the many subsequent critics writing in the 1920s
and 1930s (including von Below, R. H. Tawney, F. H. Knight, H.
M. Robertson and P. Gordon Walker) who almost completely
ignored Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie and Wirtschaft und
Gesellschaft (Economy and Society).11 Some of the literature of this
period is quite valueless, at least as relevant to the assessment of
Weber’s own arguments: as where, for instance, authors took
Weber to task for suggesting that Calvinism was ‘the’ cause of
the development of modern capitalism; or where they pointed
out that some contemporary countries, such as Japan, have
experienced rapid economic development without possessing
anything akin to a ‘Protestant ethic’.
This nonetheless leaves a considerable variety of potentially
justifiable forms of criticism that have been levelled against
Weber, incorporated in discussions which stretch from those
that dismiss his claims out of hand to those which propose
relatively minor modifications to his work. They can perhaps be
classified as embodying one or more of the following points of
1. Weber’s characterisation of Protestantism was faulty. Cri tiques here have been directed to Weber’s treatment of the
Reformation, to his interpretation of the Puritan sects in
general, and to Calvinism in particular. It has been held that
Weber was mistaken in supposing that Luther introduced a
concept of ‘calling’ which differed from anything previously
available in scriptural exegesis; and that Calvinist ethics were
in fact ‘anti-capitalistic’ rather than ever sanctioning the
accumulation of wealth, even as an indirect end. Others have
argued that Weber’s exposition of Benjamin Franklin’s ideas,
which occupies a central place in The Protestant Ethic, as well
as other aspects of his analysis of American Puritanism, are
unacceptable.13 This is of some significance, if correct, since
Weber regarded the influence of Puritanism upon business
introduction xxiactivity in the United States as being a particularly clear and
important exemplification of his thesis.14
2. Weber misinterpreted Catholic doctrine. Critics have pointed
out that Weber apparently did not study Catholicism in any
detail, although his argument is based on the notion that
there were basic differences between it and Protestantism in
respect of economically relevant values. It has been held that
post-mediæval Catholicism involves elements positively
favourable to the ‘capitalist spirit’; and that the Reformation
is in fact to be seen as a reaction against the latter rather
than as clearing the ground for its subsequent emergence.15
3. Weber’s statement of the connections between Puritanism
and modern capitalism is based upon unsatisfactory empir ical materials. This was one of the themes of Fischer and
Rachfahl, and has been echoed many times since, in various
forms. It has been noted that the only numerical analysis
Weber refers to is a study of the economic activities of Catho lics and Protestants in Baden in 1895 – and the accuracy even
of these figures has been questioned.16 More generally, how ever, critics have pointed out that Weber’s sources are mainly
Anglo-Saxon, and have claimed that research into economic
development in the Rhineland, the Netherlands and Switzer land, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, does not
reveal any close association between Calvinism and capital istic enterprise.17
4. Weber was not justified in drawing as sharp a contrast as he
tried to do between modern, or ‘rational’ capitalism, and
preceding types of capitalistic activity. It has been argued, on
the one hand, that Weber slanted his concept of ‘modern
capitalism’ in such a way as to make it conform to the elem ents of Puritanism he fastens upon; and on the other, that
much of what Weber calls the ‘spirit’ of modern capitalism
was indeed present in prior periods. Tawney accepts the dif ferentiation between Lutheranism and the later Protestant
xxii introductionsects, but argues that it was the prior development of the
‘capitalist spirit’ that moulded the evolution of Puritanism
rather than vice versa.18
5. Weber mistakes the nature of the causal relation between
Puritanism and modern capitalism. It is, of course, the con clusion of many of the authors taking one or other of the
points of view mentioned above that there was no such
causal relation. At this point, however, the debate broadens
out into one concerned with abstract problems of historical
method, and indeed with the very possibility of causal analy sis in history at all. Marxist critics have tended to reject
Weber’s case for a ‘pluralistic’ view of historical causation,
and some have attempted to reinterpret the thesis of The
Protestant Ethic, treating the Puritan doctrines Weber analy ses as epiphenomena of previously established economic
changes.19 Other authors, not necessarily Marxist, have
rejected the methodological framework within which Weber
worked, and have tried to show that this has consequences
for his account of the origins of the capitalist spirit.20
How much of Weber’s account survives the tremendous critical
battering it has received? There are still some who would answer,
virtually all of it: either most of the criticisms are mistaken, or
they derive from misunderstandings of Weber’s position.21 I do
not believe, however, that such a view can be substantiated. It is
obvious that at least certain of Weber’s critics must be wrong,
because the literature is partly self-contradictory: the claims
made by some authors in criticism of Weber contradict those
made by others. Nonetheless, some of the critiques carry con siderable force, and taken together they represent a formidable
indictment of Weber’s views. The elements of Weber’s analysis
that are most definitely called into question, I would say, are: the
distinctiveness of the notion of the ‘calling’ in Lutheranism;22
the supposed lack of ‘affinity’ between Catholicism and
introduction xxiiiregularised entrepreneurial activity; and, the very centre-point
of the thesis, the degree to which Calvinist ethics actually served
to dignify the accumulation of wealth in the manner suggested
by Weber. If Weber were wrong on these matters, tracing out the
consequences for the broad spectrum of his writings would still
remain a complicated matter. To be at all satisfactory, it would
involve considering the status of the companion studies of the
‘world religions’, the general problem of the rationalisation of
culture – and the methodological framework within which
Weber worked. No author has yet attempted such a task, and
perhaps it would need someone with a scholarly range
approaching that of Weber himself to undertake it with any hope
of success.
Anthony Giddens
Cambridge, 1976
xxiv introductionTRANSLATOR’S PREFACE
Max Weber’s essay, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus,
which is here translated, was first published in the Archiv für
Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, Volumes XX and XXI, for 1904–5.
It was reprinted in 1920 as the first study in the ambitious series
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, which was left unfinished
by Weber’s untimely death in that same year. For the new print ing he made considerable changes, and appended both new
material and replies to criticism in footnotes. The translation has,
however, been made directly from this last edition. Though the
volume of footnotes is excessively large, so as to form a serious
detriment to the reader’s enjoyment, it has not seemed advisable
either to omit any of them or to attempt to incorporate them
into the text. As it stands it shows most plainly how the problem
has grown in Weber’s own mind, and it would be a pity to
destroy that for the sake of artistic perfection. A careful perusal
of the notes is, however, especially recommended to the reader,
since a great deal of important material is contained in them.
The fact that they are printed separately from the main text
should not be allowed to hinder their use. The translation is, as
far as is possible, faithful to the text, rather than attempting toachieve any more than ordinary, clear English style. Nothing has
been altered, and only a few comments to clarify obscure points
and to refer the reader to related parts of Weber’s work have
been added.
The Introduction, which is placed before the main essay, was
written by Weber in 1920 for the whole series on the Sociology
of Religion. It has been included in this translation because it
gives some of the general background of ideas and problems
into which Weber himself meant this particular study to fit. That
has seemed particularly desirable since, in the voluminous
discussion which has grown up in Germany around Weber’s
essay, a great deal of misplaced criticism has been due to the
failure properly to appreciate the scope and limitations of
the study. While it is impossible to appreciate that fully without
a thorough study of Weber’s sociological work as a whole,
this brief introduction should suffice to prevent a great deal of
The series of which this essay forms a part was, as has been
said, left unfinished at Weber’s death. The first volume only had
been prepared for the press by his own hand. Besides the parts
translated here, it contains a short, closely related study, Die protes tantischen Sekten und der Geist des Kapitalismus; a general introduction to
the further studies of particular religions which as a whole he
called Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen; and a long study of Con fucianism and Taoism. The second and third volumes, which
were published after his death, without the thorough revision
which he had contemplated, contain studies of Hinduism and
Buddhism and Ancient Judaism. In addition he had done work
on other studies, notably of Islam, Early Christianity, and
Talmudic Judaism, which were not yet in a condition fit for
publication in any form. Nevertheless, enough of the whole ser ies has been preserved to show something of the extraordinary
breadth and depth of Weber’s grasp of cultural problems. What
is here presented to English-speaking readers is only a fragment,
xxvi translator’s prefacebut it is a fragment which is in many ways of central significance
for Weber’s philosophy of history, as well as being of very great
and very general interest for the thesis it advances to explain
some of the most important aspects of modern culture.
Talcott Parsons
Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.
January 1930
translator’s preface xxviiAUTHOR’S INTRODUCTION
A product of modern European civilization, studying any prob lem of universal history, is bound to ask himself to what com bination of circumstances the fact should be attributed that in
Western civilization, and in Western civilization only, cultural
phenomena have appeared which (as we like to think) lie in a
line of development having universal significance and value.
Only in the West does science exist at a stage of development
which we recognize to-day as valid. Empirical knowledge, reflec tion on problems of the cosmos and of life, philosophical and
theological wisdom of the most profound sort, are not confined
to it, though in the case of the last the full development of a
systematic theology must be credited to Christianity under the
influence of Hellenism, since there were only fragments in Islam
and in a few Indian sects. In short, knowledge and observation of
great refinement have existed elsewhere, above all in India,
China, Babylonia, Egypt. But in Babylonia and elsewhere astron omy lacked—which makes its development all the more
astounding—the mathematical foundation which it first
received from the Greeks. The Indian geometry had no rational
proof; that was another product of the Greek intellect, also thecreator of mechanics and physics. The Indian natural sciences,
though well developed in observation, lacked the method of
experiment, which was, apart from beginnings in antiquity,
essentially a product of the Renaissance, as was the modern
laboratory. Hence medicine, especially in India, though highly
developed in empirical technique, lacked a biological and par ticularly a biochemical foundation. A rational chemistry has
been absent from all areas of culture except the West.
The highly developed historical scholarship of China did not
have the method of Thucydides. Machiavelli, it is true, had pre decessors in India; but all Indian political thought was lacking in
a systematic method comparable to that of Aristotle, and, indeed,
in the possession of rational concepts. Not all the anticipations in
India (School of Mimamsa), nor the extensive codification espe cially in the Near East, nor all the Indian and other books of law,
had the strictly systematic forms of thought, so essential to a
rational jurisprudence, of the Roman law and of the Western law
under its influence. A structure like the canon law is known only
to the West.
A similar statement is true of art. The musical ear of other
peoples has probably been even more sensitively developed than
our own, certainly not less so. Polyphonic music of various kinds
has been widely distributed over the earth. The co-operation of a
number of instruments and also the singing of parts have existed
elsewhere. All our rational tone intervals have been known and
calculated. But rational harmonious music, both counterpoint
and harmony, formation of the tone material on the basis of
three triads with the harmonic third; our chromatics and
enharmonics, not interpreted in terms of space, but, since the
Renaissance, of harmony; our orchestra, with its string quartet as
a nucleus, and the organization of ensembles of wind instru ments; our bass accompaniment; our system of notation, which
has made possible the composition and production of modern
musical works, and thus their very survival; our sonatas,
author’s introduction xxixsymphonies, operas; and finally, as means to all these, our fun damental instruments, the organ, piano, violin, etc.; all these
things are known only in the Occident, although programme
music, tone poetry, alteration of tones and chromatics, have
existed in various musical traditions as means of expression.
In architecture, pointed arches have been used elsewhere as a
means of decoration, in antiquity and in Asia; presumably the
combination of pointed arch and cross-arched vault was not
unknown in the Orient. But the rational use of the Gothic vault
as a means of distributing pressure and of roofing spaces of all
forms, and above all as the constructive principle of great
monumental buildings and the foundation of a style extending to
sculpture and painting, such as that created by our Middle Ages,
does not occur elsewhere. The technical basis of our architecture
came from the Orient. But the Orient lacked that solution of the
problem of the dome and that type of classic rationalization of
all art—in painting by the rational utilization of lines and spatial
perspective—which the Renaissance created for us. There was
printing in China. But a printed literature, designed only for print
and only possible through it, and, above all, the Press and period icals, have appeared only in the Occident. Institutions of higher
education of all possible types, even some superficially similar to
our universities, or at least academies, have existed (China,
Islam). But a rational, systematic, and specialized pursuit of sci ence, with trained and specialized personnel, has only existed in
the West in a sense at all approaching its present dominant place
in our culture. Above all is this true of the trained official, the
pillar of both the modern State and of the economic life of the
West. He forms a type of which there have heretofore only been
suggestions, which have never remotely approached its present
importance for the social order. Of course the official, even the
specialized official, is a very old constituent of the most various
societies. But no country and no age has ever experienced, in the
same sense as the modern Occident, the absolute and complete
xxx author’s introductiondependence of its whole existence, of the political, technical,
and economic conditions of its life, on a specially trained organiza tion of officials. The most important functions of the everyday
life of society have come to be in the hands of technically,
commercially, and above all legally trained government officials.
Organization of political and social groups in feudal classes
has been common. But even the feudal1
state of rex et regnum in the
Western sense has only been known to our culture. Even more
are parliaments of periodically elected representatives, with gov ernment by demagogues and party leaders as ministers respon sible to the parliaments, peculiar to us, although there have, of
course, been parties, in the sense of organizations for exerting
influence and gaining control of political power, all over the
world. In fact, the State itself, in the sense of a political associ ation with a rational, written constitution, rationally ordained
law, and an administration bound to rational rules or laws, admin istered by trained officials, is known, in this combination of
characteristics, only in the Occident, despite all other approaches
to it.
And the same is true of the most fateful force in our modern
life, capitalism. The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of
money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself
nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has
existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prosti tutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers,
and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts
and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the
earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been
given. It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history
that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for
all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with
capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be iden tical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this
irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of
author’s introduction xxxiprofit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous,
rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly
capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise
which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit making would be doomed to extinction.
Let us now define our terms somewhat more carefully than is
generally done. We will define a capitalistic economic action as
one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of
opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful
chances of profit. Acquisition by force (formally and actually)
follows its own particular laws, and it is not expedient, however
little one can forbid this, to place it in the same category with
action which is, in the last analysis, oriented to profits from
Where capitalistic acquisition is rationally pursued,
the corresponding action is adjusted to calculations in terms of
capital. This means that the action is adapted to a systematic
utilization of goods or personal services as means of acquisition
in such a way that, at the close of a business period, the balance
of the enterprise in money assets (or, in the case of a continuous
enterprise, the periodically estimated money value of assets)
exceeds the capital, i.e. the estimated value of the material means
of production used for acquisition in exchange. It makes no
difference whether it involves a quantity of goods entrusted in
natura to a travelling merchant, the proceeds of which may con sist in other goods in natura acquired by trade, or whether it
involves a manufacturing enterprise, the assets of which consist
of buildings, machinery, cash, raw materials, partly and wholly
manufactured goods, which are balanced against liabilities. The
important fact is always that a calculation of capital in terms of
money is made, whether by modern book-keeping methods or
in any other way, however primitive and crude. Everything is
done in terms of balances: at the beginning of the enterprise an
initial balance, before every individual decision a calculation to
ascertain its probable profitableness, and at the end a final bal xxxii author’s introductionance to ascertain how much profit has been made. For instance,
the initial balance of a commenda3
transaction would determine an
agreed money value of the assets put into it (so far as they were
not in money form already), and a final balance would form the
estimate on which to base the distribution of profit and loss at
the end. So far as the transactions are rational, calculation under lies every single action of the partners. That a really accurate
calculation or estimate may not exist, that the procedure is pure
guess-work, or simply traditional and conventional, happens
even to-day in every form of capitalistic enterprise where the
circumstances do not demand strict accuracy. But these are
points affecting only the degree of rationality of capitalistic
For the purpose of this conception all that matters is that an
actual adaptation of economic action to a comparison of money
income with money expenses takes place, no matter how primi tive the form. Now in this sense capitalism and capitalistic enter prises, even with a considerable rationalization of capitalistic
calculation, have existed in all civilized countries of the earth, so
far as economic documents permit us to judge. In China, India,
Babylon, Egypt, Mediterranean antiquity, and the Middle Ages,
as well as in modern times. These were not merely isolated ven tures, but economic enterprises which were entirely dependent
on the continual renewal of capitalistic undertakings, and even
continuous operations. However, trade especially was for a long
time not continuous like our own, but consisted essentially in a
series of individual undertakings. Only gradually did the activ ities of even the large merchants acquire an inner cohesion (with
branch organizations, etc.). In any case, the capitalistic enterprise
and the capitalistic entrepreneur, not only as occasional but as
regular entrepreneurs, are very old and were very widespread.
Now, however, the Occident has developed capitalism both to
a quantitative extent, and (carrying this quantitative develop ment) in types, forms, and directions which have never existed
author’s introduction xxxiiielsewhere. All over the world there have been merchants, whole sale and retail, local and engaged in foreign trade. Loans of all
kinds have been made, and there have been banks with the most
various functions, at least comparable to ours of, say, the six teenth century. Sea loans,4 commenda, and transactions and
associations similar to the Kommanditgesellschaft,
have all been
widespread, even as continuous businesses. Whenever money
finances of public bodies have existed, money-lenders have
appeared, as in Babylon, Hellas, India, China, Rome. They have
financed wars and piracy, contracts and building operations of
all sorts. In overseas policy they have functioned as colonial
entrepreneurs, as planters with slaves, or directly or indirectly
forced labour, and have farmed domains, offices, and, above all,
taxes. They have financed party leaders in elections and condottieri
in civil wars. And, finally, they have been speculators in chances
for pecuniary gain of all kinds. This kind of entrepreneur, the
capitalistic adventurer, has existed everywhere. With the excep tion of trade and credit and banking transactions, their activities
were predominantly of an irrational and speculative character, or
directed to acquisition by force, above all the acquisition of
booty, whether directly in war or in the form of continuous
fiscal booty by exploitation of subjects.
The capitalism of promoters, large-scale speculators, conces sion hunters, and much modern financial capitalism even in
peace time, but, above all, the capitalism especially concerned
with exploiting wars, bears this stamp even in modern Western
countries, and some, but only some, parts of large-scale inter national trade are closely related to it, to-day as always.
But in modern times the Occident has developed, in addition
to this, a very different form of capitalism which has appeared
nowhere else: the rational capitalistic organization of (formally)
free labour. Only suggestions of it are found elsewhere. Even the
organization of unfree labour reached a considerable degree of
rationality only on plantations and to a very limited extent in the
xxxiv author’s introductionErgasteria of antiquity. In the manors, manorial workshops, and
domestic industries on estates with serf labour it was probably
somewhat less developed. Even real domestic industries with
free labour have definitely been proved to have existed in only a
few isolated cases outside the Occident. The frequent use of day
labourers led in a very few cases—especially State monopolies,
which are, however, very different from modern industrial
organization—to manufacturing organizations, but never to a
rational organization of apprenticeship in the handicrafts like
that of our Middle Ages.
Rational industrial organization, attuned to a regular market,
and neither to political nor irrationally speculative opportunities
for profit, is not, however, the only peculiarity of Western capit alism. The modern rational organization of the capitalistic
enterprise would not have been possible without two other
important factors in its development: the separation of business
from the household, which completely dominates modern eco nomic life, and closely connected with it, rational book-keeping.
A spatial separation of places of work from those of residence
exists elsewhere, as in the Oriental bazaar and in the ergasteria of
other cultures. The development of capitalistic associations with
their own accounts is also found in the Far East, the Near East,
and in antiquity. But compared to the modern independence of
business enterprises, those are only small beginnings. The reason
for this was particularly that the indispensable requisites for this
independence, our rational business book-keeping and our legal
separation of corporate from personal property, were entirely
lacking, or had only begun to develop.6
The tendency every where else was for acquisitive enterprises to arise as parts of a
royal or manorial household (of the oikos), which is, as Rodbertus
has perceived, with all its superficial similarity, a fundamentally
different, even opposite, development.
However, all these peculiarities of Western capitalism have
derived their significance in the last analysis only from their
author’s introduction xxxvassociation with the capitalistic organization of labour. Even
what is generally called commercialization, the development of
negotiable securities and the rationalization of speculation, the
exchanges, etc., is connected with it. For without the rational
capitalistic organization of labour, all this, so far as it was pos sible at all, would have nothing like the same significance, above
all for the social structure and all the specific problems of the
modern Occident connected with it. Exact calculation—the basis
of everything else—is only possible on a basis of free labour.7
And just as, or rather because, the world has known no
rational organization of labour outside the modern Occident, it
has known no rational socialism. Of course, there has been civic
economy, a civic food-supply policy, mercantilism and welfare
policies of princes, rationing, regulation of economic life, pro tectionism, and laissez-faire theories (as in China). The world has
also known socialistic and communistic experiments of various
sorts: family, religious, or military communism, State socialism
(in Egypt), monopolistic cartels, and consumers’ organizations.
But although there have everywhere been civic market privil eges, companies, guilds, and all sorts of legal differences
between town and country, the concept of the citizen has not
existed outside the Occident, and that of the bourgeoisie outside
the modern Occident. Similarly, the proletariat as a class could
not exist, because there was no rational organization of free
labour under regular discipline. Class struggles between creditor
and debtor classes; landowners and the landless, serfs, or tenants;
trading interests and consumers or landlords, have existed
everywhere in various combinations. But even the Western
mediæval struggles between putters-out and their workers exist
elsewhere only in beginnings. The modern conflict of the large scale industrial entrepreneur and free-wage labourers was
entirely lacking. And thus there could be no such problems as
those of socialism.
Hence in a universal history of culture the central problem for
xxxvi author’s introductionus is not, in the last analysis, even from a purely economic view point, the development of capitalistic activity as such, differing in
different cultures only in form: the adventurer type, or capitalism
in trade, war, politics, or administration as sources of gain. It is
rather the origin of this sober bourgeois capitalism with its
rational organization of free labour. Or in terms of cultural his tory, the problem is that of the origin of the Western bourgeois
class and of its peculiarities, a problem which is certainly closely
connected with that of the origin of the capitalistic organization of
labour, but is not quite the same thing. For the bourgeois as a class
existed prior to the development of the peculiar modern form of
capitalism, though, it is true, only in the Western hemisphere.
Now the peculiar modern Western form of capitalism has
been, at first sight, strongly influenced by the development of
technical possibilities. Its rationality is to-day essentially depend ent on the calculability of the most important technical factors.
But this means fundamentally that it is dependent on the peculi arities of modern science, especially the natural sciences based
on mathematics and exact and rational experiment. On the other
hand, the development of these sciences and of the technique
resting upon them now receives important stimulation from
these capitalistic interests in its practical economic application. It
is true that the origin of Western science cannot be attributed to
such interests. Calculation, even with decimals, and algebra have
been carried on in India, where the decimal system was
invented. But it was only made use of by developing capitalism
in the West, while in India it led to no modern arithmetic or
book-keeping. Neither was the origin of mathematics and mech anics determined by capitalistic interests. But the technical
utilization of scientific knowledge, so important for the living
conditions of the mass of people, was certainly encouraged by
economic considerations, which were extremely favourable to it
in the Occident. But this encouragement was derived from the
peculiarities of the social structure of the Occident. We must
author’s introduction xxxviihence ask, from what parts of that structure was it derived, since
not all of them have been of equal importance?
Among those of undoubted importance are the rational struc tures of law and of administration. For modern rational capital ism has need, not only of the technical means of production, but
of a calculable legal system and of administration in terms of
formal rules. Without it adventurous and speculative trading
capitalism and all sorts of politically determined capitalisms are
possible, but no rational enterprise under individual initiative,
with fixed capital and certainty of calculations. Such a legal sys tem and such administration have been available for economic
activity in a comparative state of legal and formalistic perfection
only in the Occident. We must hence inquire where that law
came from. Among other circumstances, capitalistic interests
have in turn undoubtedly also helped, but by no means alone
nor even principally, to prepare the way for the predominance in
law and administration of a class of jurists specially trained in
rational law. But these interests did not themselves create that
law. Quite different forces were at work in this development. And
why did not the capitalistic interests do the same in China or
India? Why did not the scientific, the artistic, the political, or the
economic development there enter upon that path of rationaliza tion which is peculiar to the Occident?
For in all the above cases it is a question of the specific and
peculiar rationalism of Western culture. Now by this term very
different things may be understood, as the following discussion
will repeatedly show. There is, for example, rationalization of
mystical contemplation, that is of an attitude which, viewed
from other departments of life, is specifically irrational, just as
much as there are rationalizations of economic life, of technique,
of scientific research, of military training, of law and administra tion. Furthermore, each one of these fields may be rationalized
in terms of very different ultimate values and ends, and what is
rational from one point of view may well be irrational from
xxxviii author’s introductionanother. Hence rationalizations of the most varied character have
existed in various departments of life and in all areas of culture.
To characterize their differences from the view-point of cultural
history it is necessary to know what departments are rational ized, and in what direction. It is hence our first concern to work
out and to explain genetically the special peculiarity of Occi dental rationalism, and within this field that of the modern
Occidental form. Every such attempt at explanation must, recog nizing the fundamental importance of the economic factor,
above all take account of the economic conditions. But at the
same time the opposite correlation must not be left out of con sideration. For though the development of economic rationalism
is partly dependent on rational technique and law, it is at the
same time determined by the ability and disposition of men to
adopt certain types of practical rational conduct. When these
types have been obstructed by spiritual obstacles, the develop ment of rational economic conduct has also met serious inner
resistance. The magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas
of duty based upon them, have in the past always been among
the most important formative influences on conduct. In the
studies collected here we shall be concerned with these forces.8
Two older essays have been placed at the beginning which
attempt, at one important point, to approach the side of the
problem which is generally most difficult to grasp: the influence
of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic
spirit, or the ethos of an economic system. In this case we are
dealing with the connection of the spirit of modern economic
life with the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism. Thus we
treat here only one side of the causal chain. The later studies on
the Economic Ethics of the World Religions attempt, in the form
of a survey of the relations of the most important religions to
economic life and to the social stratification of their environ ment, to follow out both causal relationships, so far as it is
necessary in order to find points of comparison with the
author’s introduction xxxixOccidental development. For only in this way is it possible to
attempt a causal evaluation of those elements of the economic
ethics of the Western religions which differentiate them from
others, with a hope of attaining even a tolerable degree of
approximation. Hence these studies do not claim to be complete
analyses of cultures, however brief. On the contrary, in every
culture they quite deliberately emphasize the elements in which
it differs from Western civilization. They are, hence, definitely
oriented to the problems which seem important for the under standing of Western culture from this view-point. With our
object in view, any other procedure did not seem possible. But to
avoid misunderstanding we must here lay special emphasis on
the limitation of our purpose.
In another respect the uninitiated at least must be warned
against exaggerating the importance of these investigations. The
Sinologist, the Indologist, the Semitist, or the Egyptologist, will
of course find no facts unknown to him. We only hope that he
will find nothing definitely wrong in points that are essential.
How far it has been possible to come as near this ideal as a non specialist is able to do, the author cannot know. It is quite evident
that anyone who is forced to rely on translations, and further more on the use and evaluation of monumental, documentary,
or literary sources, has to rely himself on a specialist literature
which is often highly controversial, and the merits of which he
is unable to judge accurately. Such a writer must make modest
claims for the value of his work. All the more so since the num ber of available translations of real sources (that is, inscriptions
and documents) is, especially for China, still very small in com parison with what exists and is important. From all this follows
the definitely provisional character of these studies, and espe cially of the parts dealing with Asia.9
Only the specialist is
entitled to a final judgment. And, naturally, it is only because
expert studies with this special purpose and from this particular
view-point have not hitherto been made, that the present ones
xl author’s introductionhave been written at all. They are destined to be superseded in a
much more important sense than this can be said, as it can be, of
all scientific work. But however objectionable it may be, such
trespassing on other special fields cannot be avoided in compara tive work. But one must take the consequences by resigning one self to considerable doubts regarding the degree of one’s success.
Fashion and the zeal of the literati would have us think that the
specialist can to-day be spared, or degraded to a position sub ordinate to that of the seer. Almost all sciences owe something to
dilettantes, often very valuable view-points. But dilettantism as a
leading principle would be the end of science. He who yearns
for seeing should go to the cinema, though it will be offered to
him copiously to-day in literary form in the present field of
investigation also.10 Nothing is farther from the intent of these
thoroughly serious studies than such an attitude. And, I might
add, whoever wants a sermon should go to a conventicle. The
question of the relative value of the cultures which are compared
here will not receive a single word. It is true that the path of
human destiny cannot but appal him who surveys a section of it.
But he will do well to keep his small personal commentarie to
himself, as one does at the sight of the sea or of majestic moun tains, unless he knows himself to be called and gifted to give
them expression in artistic or prophetic form. In most other
cases the voluminous talk about intuition does nothing but con ceal a lack of perspective toward the object, which merits the
same judgment as a similar lack of perspective toward men.
Some justification is needed for the fact that ethnographical
material has not been utilized to anything like the extent which
the value of its contributions naturally demands in any really
thorough investigation, especially of Asiatic religions. This
limitation has not only been imposed because human powers
of work are restricted. This omission has also seemed to be
permissible because we are here necessarily dealing with the
religious ethics of the classes which were the culture-bearers of
author’s introduction xlitheir respective countries. We are concerned with the influence
which their conduct has had. Now it is quite true that this can
only be completely known in all its details when the facts from
ethnography and folk-lore have been compared with it. Hence
we must expressly admit and emphasize that this is a gap to
which the ethnographer will legitimately object. I hope to con tribute something to the closing of this gap in a systematic study
of the Sociology of Religion.11 But such an undertaking would
have transcended the limits of this investigation with its closely
circumscribed purpose. It has been necessary to be content with
bringing out the points of comparison with our Occidental
religions as well as possible.
Finally, we may make a reference to the anthropological side of
the problem. When we find again and again that, even in
departments of life apparently mutually independent, certain
types of rationalization have developed in the Occident, and only
there, it would be natural to suspect that the most important
reason lay in differences of heredity. The author admits that he is
inclined to think the importance of biological heredity very
great. But in spite of the notable achievements of anthropo logical research, I see up to the present no way of exactly or even
approximately measuring either the extent or, above all, the form
of its influence on the development investigated here. It must be
one of the tasks of sociological and historical investigation first
to analyse all the influences and causal relationships which can
satisfactorily be explained in terms of reactions to environmental
conditions. Only then, and when comparative racial neurology
and psychology shall have progressed beyond their present and
in many ways very promising beginnings, can we hope for even
the probability of a satisfactory answer to that problem.12 In the
meantime that condition seems to me not to exist, and an appeal
to heredity would therefore involve a premature renunciation of
the possibility of knowledge attainable now, and would shift the
problem to factors (at present) still unknown.
xlii author’s introductionPart I
The Problem1
A glance at the occupational statistics of any country of mixed
religious composition brings to light with remarkable fre quency2
a situation which has several times provoked discussion
in the Catholic press and literature,3
and in Catholic congresses
in Germany, namely, the fact that business leaders and owners of
capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labour, and even
more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel
of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant.4
This is
true not only in cases where the difference in religion coincides
with one of nationality, and thus of cultural development, as in
Eastern Germany between Germans and Poles. The same thing is
shown in the figures of religious affiliation almost wherever
capitalism, at the time of its great expansion, has had a free hand
to alter the social distribution of the population in accordance
with its needs, and to determine its occupational structure. The
more freedom it has had, the more clearly is the effect shown. It
is true that the greater relative participation of Protestants in theownership of capital,5
in management, and the upper ranks of
labour in great modern industrial and commercial enterprises,6
may in part be explained in terms of historical circumstances7
which extend far back into the past, and in which religious
affiliation is not a cause of the economic conditions, but to a
certain extent appears to be a result of them. Participation in the
above economic functions usually involves some previous own ership of capital, and generally an expensive education; often
both. These are to-day largely dependent on the possession of
inherited wealth, or at least on a certain degree of material well being. A number of those sections of the old Empire which were
most highly developed economically and most favoured by nat ural resources and situation, in particular a majority of the
wealthy towns, went over to Protestantism in the sixteenth cen tury. The results of that circumstance favour the Protestants even
to-day in their struggle for economic existence. There arises thus
the historical question: why were the districts of highest eco nomic development at the same time particularly favourable to a
revolution in the Church? The answer is by no means so simple
as one might think.
The emancipation from economic traditionalism appears, no
doubt, to be a factor which would greatly strengthen the ten dency to doubt the sanctity of the religious tradition, as of all
traditional authorities. But it is necessary to note, what has often
been forgotten, that the Reformation meant not the elimination
of the Church’s control over everyday life, but rather the substi tution of a new form of control for the previous one. It meant
the repudiation of a control which was very lax, at that time
scarcely perceptible in practice, and hardly more than formal, in
favour of a regulation of the whole of conduct which, penetrat ing to all departments of private and public life, was infinitely
burdensome and earnestly enforced. The rule of the Catholic
Church, “punishing the heretic, but indulgent to the sinner”, as
it was in the past even more than to-day, is now tolerated by
4 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalismpeoples of thoroughly modern economic character, and was
borne by the richest and economically most advanced peoples
on earth at about the turn of the fifteenth century. The rule of
Calvinism, on the other hand, as it was enforced in the sixteenth
century in Geneva and in Scotland, at the turn of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries in large parts of the Netherlands, in
the seventeenth in New England, and for a time in England itself,
would be for us the most absolutely unbearable form of ecclesi astical control of the individual which could possibly exist. That
was exactly what large numbers of the old commercial aris tocracy of those times, in Geneva as well as in Holland and
England, felt about it. And what the reformers complained of in
those areas of high economic development was not too much
supervision of life on the part of the Church, but too little. Now
how does it happen that at that time those countries which were
most advanced economically, and within them the rising bour geois middle classes, not only failed to resist this unexampled
tyranny of Puritanism, but even developed a heroism in its
defence? For bourgeois classes as such have seldom before and
never since displayed heroism. It was “the last of our heroisms”,
as Carlyle, not without reason, has said.
But further, and especially important: it may be, as has been
claimed, that the greater participation of Protestants in the posi tions of ownership and management in modern economic life
may to-day be understood, in part at least, simply as a result of
the greater material wealth they have inherited. But there are
certain other phenomena which cannot be explained in the
same way. Thus, to mention only a few facts: there is a great
difference discoverable in Baden, in Bavaria, in Hungary, in the
type of higher education which Catholic parents, as opposed to
Protestant, give their children. That the percentage of Catholics
among the students and graduates of higher educational institu tions in general lags behind their proportion of the total popula tion,8
may, to be sure, be largely explicable in terms of inherited
religious affiliation and social stratification 5differences of wealth. But among the Catholic graduates them selves the percentage of those graduating from the institutions
preparing, in particular, for technical studies and industrial and
commercial occupations, but in general from those preparing
for middle-class business life, lags still farther behind the per centage of Protestants.9
On the other hand, Catholics prefer the
sort of training which the humanistic Gymnasium affords. That
is a circumstance to which the above explanation does not apply,
but which, on the contrary, is one reason why so few Catholics
are engaged in capitalistic enterprise.
Even more striking is a fact which partly explains the smaller
proportion of Catholics among the skilled labourers of modern
industry. It is well known that the factory has taken its skilled
labour to a large extent from young men in the handicrafts; but
this is much more true of Protestant than of Catholic journey men. Among journeymen, in other words, the Catholics show a
stronger propensity to remain in their crafts, that is they more
often become master craftsmen, whereas the Protestants are
attracted to a larger extent into the factories in order to fill the
upper ranks of skilled labour and administrative positions.10 The
explanation of these cases is undoubtedly that the mental and
spiritual peculiarities acquired from the environment, here the
type of education favoured by the religious atmosphere of
the home community and the parental home, have determined
the choice of occupation, and through it the professional career.
The smaller participation of Catholics in the modern business
life of Germany is all the more striking because it runs counter to
a tendency which has been observed at all times11 including the
present. National or religious minorities which are in a position
of subordination to a group of rulers are likely, through their
voluntary or involuntary exclusion from positions of political
influence, to be driven with peculiar force into economic activ ity. Their ablest members seek to satisfy the desire for recogni tion of their abilities in this field, since there is no opportunity in
6 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalismthe service of the State. This has undoubtedly been true of the
Poles in Russia and Eastern Prussia, who have without question
been undergoing a more rapid economic advance than in Gali cia, where they have been in the ascendant. It has in earlier times
been true of the Huguenots in France under Louis XIV, the Non conformists and Quakers in England, and, last but not least, the
Jew for two thousand years. But the Catholics in Germany have
shown no striking evidence of such a result of their position. In
the past they have, unlike the Protestants, undergone no particu larly prominent economic development in the times when they
were persecuted or only tolerated, either in Holland or in Eng land. On the other hand, it is a fact that the Protestants (espe cially certain branches of the movement to be fully discussed
later) both as ruling classes and as ruled, both as majority and as
minority, have shown a special tendency to develop economic
rationalism which cannot be observed to the same extent among
Catholics either in the one situation or in the other.12 Thus the
principal explanation of this difference must be sought in the
permanent intrinsic character of their religious beliefs, and not
only in their temporary external historico-political situations.13
It will be our task to investigate these religions with a view to
finding out what peculiarities they have or have had which
might have resulted in the behaviour we have described. On
superficial analysis, and on the basis of certain current impres sions, one might be tempted to express the difference by saying
that the greater other-worldliness of Catholicism, the ascetic
character of its highest ideals, must have brought up its
adherents to a greater indifference toward the good things of
this world. Such an explanation fits the popular tendency in the
judgment of both religions. On the Protestant side it is used as a
basis of criticism of those (real or imagined) ascetic ideals of the
Catholic way of life, while the Catholics answer with the accus ation that materialism results from the secularization of all ideals
through Protestantism. One recent writer has attempted to
religious affiliation and social stratification 7formulate the difference of their attitudes toward economic life
in the following manner: “The Catholic is quieter, having less of
the acquisitive impulse; he prefers a life of the greatest possible
security, even with a smaller income, to a life of risk and excite ment, even though it may bring the chance of gaining honour
and riches. The proverb says jokingly, ‘either eat well or sleep
well’. In the present case the Protestant prefers to eat well, the
Catholic to sleep undisturbed.”14
In fact, this desire to eat well may be a correct though
incomplete characterization of the motives of many nominal
Protestants in Germany at the present time. But things were very
different in the past: the English, Dutch, and American Puritans
were characterized by the exact opposite of the joy of living, a
fact which is indeed, as we shall see, most important for our
present study. Moreover, the French Protestants, among others,
long retained, and retain to a certain extent up to the present, the
characteristics which were impressed upon the Calvinistic
Churches everywhere, especially under the cross in the time of
the religious struggles. Nevertheless (or was it, perhaps, as we
shall ask later, precisely on that account?) it is well known that
these characteristics were one of the most important factors in
the industrial and capitalistic development of France, and on the
small scale permitted them by their persecution remained so. If
we may call this seriousness and the strong predominance of
religious interests in the whole conduct of life otherworldliness,
then the French Calvinists were and still are at least as other worldly as, for instance, the North German Catholics, to whom
their Catholicism is undoubtedly as vital a matter as religion is to
any other people in the world. Both differ from the predominant
religious trends in their respective countries in much the same
way. The Catholics of France are, in their lower ranks, greatly
interested in the enjoyment of life, in the upper directly hostile
to religion. Similarly, the Protestants of Germany are to-day
absorbed in worldly economic life, and their upper ranks are
8 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalismmost indifferent to religion.15 Hardly anything shows so clearly
as this parallel that, with such vague ideas as that of the alleged
otherworldliness of Catholicism, and the alleged materialistic joy
of living of Protestantism, and others like them, nothing can be
accomplished for our purpose. In such general terms the distinc tion does not even adequately fit the facts of to-day, and certainly
not of the past. If, however, one wishes to make use of it at all,
several other observations present themselves at once which,
combined with the above remarks, suggest that the supposed
conflict between other-worldliness, asceticism, and ecclesiastical
piety on the one side, and participation in capitalistic acquisition
on the other, might actually turn out to be an intimate
As a matter of fact it is surely remarkable, to begin with quite a
superficial observation, how large is the number of representa tives of the most spiritual forms of Christian piety who have
sprung from commercial circles. In particular, very many of the
most zealous adherents of Pietism are of this origin. It might be
explained as a sort of reaction against mammonism on the part
of sensitive natures not adapted to commercial life, and, as in the
case of Francis of Assisi, many Pietists have themselves inter preted the process of their conversion in these terms. Similarly,
the remarkable circumstance that so many of the greatest capital istic entrepreneurs—down to Cecil Rhodes—have come from
clergymen’s families might be explained as a reaction against
their ascetic upbringing. But this form of explanation fails where
an extraordinary capitalistic business sense is combined in the
same persons and groups with the most intensive forms of a
piety which penetrates and dominates their whole lives. Such
cases are not isolated, but these traits are characteristic of many
of the most important Churches and sects in the history of Prot estantism. Especially Calvinism, wherever it has appeared,16 has
shown this combination. However little, in the time of the
expansion of the Reformation, it (or any other Protestant belief)
religious affiliation and social stratification 9was bound up with any particular social class, it is characteristic
and in a certain sense typical that in French Huguenot Churches
monks and business men (merchants, craftsmen) were particu larly numerous among the proselytes, especially at the time of
the persecution.17 Even the Spaniards knew that heresy (i.e. the
Calvinism of the Dutch) promoted trade, and this coincides
with the opinions which Sir William Petty expressed in his
discussion of the reasons for the capitalistic development of
the Netherlands. Gothein18 rightly calls the Calvinistic diaspora
the seed-bed of capitalistic economy.19 Even in this case one
might consider the decisive factor to be the superiority of the
French and Dutch economic cultures from which these com munities sprang, or perhaps the immense influence of exile in
the breakdown of traditional relationships.20 But in France the
situation was, as we know from Colbert’s struggles, the same
even in the seventeenth century. Even Austria, not to speak of
other countries, directly imported Protestant craftsmen.
But not all the Protestant denominations seem to have had an
equally strong influence in this direction. That of Calvinism,
even in Germany, was among the strongest, it seems, and the
reformed faith21 more than the others seems to have promoted
the development of the spirit of capitalism, in the Wupperthal as
well as elsewhere. Much more so than Lutheranism, as com parison both in general and in particular instances, especially in
the Wupperthal, seems to prove.22 For Scotland, Buckle, and
among English poets, Keats, have emphasized these same rela tionships.23 Even more striking, as it is only necessary to men tion, is the connection of a religious way of life with the most
intensive development of business acumen among those sects
whose otherworldliness is as proverbial as their wealth, espe cially the Quakers and the Mennonites. The part which the for mer have played in England and North America fell to the latter
in Germany and the Netherlands. That in East Prussia Frederick
William I tolerated the Mennonites as indispensable to industry,
10 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalismin spite of their absolute refusal to perform military service, is
only one of the numerous well-known cases which illustrates
the fact, though, considering the character of that monarch, it is
one of the most striking. Finally, that this combination of intense
piety with just as strong a development of business acumen, was
also characteristic of the Pietists, is common knowledge.24
It is only necessary to think of the Rhine country and of Calw.
In this purely introductory discussion it is unnecessary to pile up
more examples. For these few already all show one thing: that
the spirit of hard work, of progress, or whatever else it may be
called, the awakening of which one is inclined to ascribe to
Protestantism, must not be understood, as there is a tendency to
do, as joy of living nor in any other sense as connected with the
Enlightenment. The old Protestantism of Luther, Calvin, Knox,
Voet, had precious little to do with what to-day is called pro gress. To whole aspects of modern life which the most extreme
religionist would not wish to suppress to-day, it was directly
hostile. If any inner relationship between certain expressions of
the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture is to be
found, we must attempt to find it, for better or worse not in its
alleged more or less materialistic or at least anti-ascetic joy of
living, but in its purely religious characteristics. Montesquieu
says (Esprit des Lois, Book XX, chap. 7) of the English that they
“had progressed the farthest of all peoples of the world in three
important things: in piety, in commerce, and in freedom”. Is it
not possible that their commercial superiority and their adapta tion to free political institutions are connected in some way with
that record of piety which Montesquieu ascribes to them?
A large number of possible relationships, vaguely perceived,
occur to us when we put the question in this way. It will now be
our task to formulate what occurs to us confusedly as clearly as is
possible, considering the inexhaustible diversity to be found in
all historical material. But in order to do this it is necessary to
leave behind the vague and general concepts with which we have
religious affiliation and social stratification 11dealt up to this point, and attempt to penetrate into the peculiar
characteristics of and the differences between those great worlds
of religious thought which have existed historically in the vari ous branches of Christianity.
Before we can proceed to that, however, a few remarks are
necessary, first on the peculiarities of the phenomenon of which
we are seeking an historical explanation, then concerning the
sense in which such an explanation is possible at all within
the limits of these investigations.
12 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalis

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