Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a highly influential 1905 book by sociologist Max Weber. The ethic consists of hard work, disdain for leisure, competitive spirit and a profit motive to provide an incentive to achieve.


Weber argues that the religious values of Protestantism --specifically Puritan values that emphasize hard work and disparage waste and leisure, contributed enormously to the rise of capitalism and economic success of protestant nations. Protestants saw success in business as proof of predestination, and thus put a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurial activity, as opposed to Catholics, who saw wealth as a sign of sin. Weber focused on the ideology of Calvinism, which held that salvation must be earned, to be a major cause of the rise of capitalism. The specific sect was less important than the shared values of the sects and their minority position in the general culture. He used the life and ideas of Benjamin Franklin as part of his evidence.

Weber's intention was to demonstrate a relationship between Calvinism and a peculiar form of capitalism, not in terms of genesis, but in terms of 'feedback.' Weber granted that the Protestant ethic which he described differed in form and emphasis from that immediately following the Reformation, and that it had altered in response to a developing capitalism. But Weber sought to demonstrate that this altered ethic in turn influenced capitalism, serving as an impetus to its further development to a stage characterized by what Weber called the 'capitalist ethos.' He by no means imputed monocausality, nor did he assume that he had at all explained the origins of capitalism. Rather, he focused upon the institutionalization of the capitalist complex, and here the effect of ideology appeared vital.[1] Kishida (1967) shows that John Wesley's (1703-91) exhortation for Christians to enrich themselves lay at the basis of Weber's model.[2]


Coleson (1972) argues that the general thrust of the Weber thesis is supported by examining the record of the last century. Those nations with a work ethic and moral standards that are followed, i.e., capitalist nations, are prosperous, while those with a lazy peasantry, a corrupt government, and no moral code, i.e., the Third World, are still suffering famine and poverty.[3]

Weber's thesis is reflected in the business success of the Yankees in the United States, and the Presbyterians in Scotland[4], as well as by Protestant Germany. In recent years, however, Catholic southern Germany has outpaced Protestant Germany.


Scholars in the Weberian tradition have argued that a Protestant-like work ethic found in traditional Japanese religions provided a motivational force in the early stage of Japanese industrialization during the Meiji era. Such an argument is misleading in several respects. No clear evidence indicates that the work ethic is found in traditional Japanese religions. Moreover, an assumption that religion guided the direction of economic development in Japan is more apparent than real. The Japanese business elite borrwed their work ethic from Europe, just as they borrowed the modern European technology.[5]


Antsley (1979) analyzes the role of religious forces in the formation and expansion of antislavery movements in the United States and Britain and shows the religious influences on the abolition of the British slave trade, the West Indian emancipation, and American antislavery politics. Theological doctrines - Arminianism, redemptionism, sanctification, and postmillenialism - disposed evangelical Protestants to include the slaves among the potentially saved, to hate the institution of slavery, and to strive for earthly reform. Additionally, slavery became a denominational issue, as Anglican Evangelicals, Nonconformists, and Quakers combined to provide the political organization and strategy for abolition and emancipation.[6] Abolitionists believed that the blacks, once freed of slavery, would adopt the Protestant ethic and become productive workers, which they would not be under slavery. For that matter abolitionists argued that the slaveowners themselves would be freed from an ethic of leisure and honor and adopt the work ethic too, once they lost their slaves.[7]

Southern author Margaret Mitchell explored the Protestant Ethic in her novel "Gone with the Wind" (1936 novel, 1939 film). None of the characters is profoundly changed by the war, except for Scarlett O'Hara. She moves from the frivolous lover of leisure to a Yankee-like shred, hard-driving business leader. It takes a very hard-headed Scarlett to whip the underperforming traditionalistic menfolk into shape to deal with the modern postwar economy. Scarlett's transformation is exactly what they Yankees had planned for the Southern white men during Reconstruction.[8] Rhett Butler, although Southern-born is a war profiteer who is hated by the men because he resembles a mercenary money-grubbing Yankee. He lacks the Protestant Ethic because he is a spendthrift and enjoys leisure and the company of prostitutes. Scarlett marries a series of men for the money to save Tara, her home. That motivation marks her transformation. As the the first female capitalist of the New South, she resists Rhett's overtures even after marriage showing her choice of money and power over sex and romantic love.

Further reading

  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) excerpt and text search; another edition; excerpt and text search
  • Baltzell. E. Digby. Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (1979)
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. ed. The Protestant Ethic and Modernization: A Comparative View, (1968) a very useful collection of essays by scholars deal with multiple countries
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N., ed. Patterns of Modernity, 1: The West; Patterns of Modernity, 2: Beyond the West. (1987)
  • Forcese, Dennis P. "Calvinism, Capitalism And Confusion: The Weberian Thesis Revisited." Sociological Analysis 1968 29(4): 193-201. in JSTOR
  • Ghosh, Peter. A Historian Reads Max Weber: Essays on the Protestant Ethic (2008)
  • Goldstein, Bernice, and Robert L. Eichhorn. "The Changing Protestant Ethic: Rural Patterns in Health, Work, and Leisure," American Sociological Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Aug., 1961), pp. 557-565 in JSTOR, looks at farmers in the American Midwest
  • Gorski, Philip S. "The Protestant Ethic Revisited: Disciplinary Revolution and State Formation in Holland and Prussia," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 99, No. 2 (Sep., 1993), pp. 265-316 in JSTOR, advanced research paper
  • Kalberg, Stephen. Max Weber's Comparative Historical Sociology (1994).
  • Lehmann, Hartmut, and Guenther Roth, eds. Weber's Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts (1993)
  • Marshall, Gordon. "The Dark Side of the Weber Thesis: The Case of Scotland." British Journal of Sociology 1980 31(3): 419-440 in JSTOR
  • Nelson, Benjamin N. "Weber's Protestant Ethic: Its Origins, Wanderings, and Foreseeable Futures" in Charles Y. Clock and Phillip E. Hammond, eds. Beyond the Classics? (1973) Pp. 71-130
  • Swatos, William H., and Lutz Kaelber, eds. The Protestant Ethic Turns 100: Essays on the Centenary of the Weber Thesis (2005)
  • Woodward, C. Vann "The Southern Ethic in a Puritan World," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 344-370 in JSTOR


  1. See Forcese, (1968)
  2. Yuki Kishida, "John Wesley's Ethics and Max Weber," Wesleyan Quarterly Review 1967 4(1): 43-58.
  3. Edward Coleson, "Weber Revisited: The Reformation and Economic Development Today." Fides et Historia 1972 4(2): 73-84.
  4. See Marshall (1980)
  5. Moon H. Jo, "Japanese Traditional Values and Industrialization," International Social Science Review 1987 62(1): 3-13.
  6. Roger Anstey, "Slavery and the Protestant Ethic," Historical Reflections 1979 6(1): 157-181. Pp. 157-172.
  7. See Woodward (1968)
  8. See Woodward (1968)