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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Summary & Overview

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  • 0:00 Who Was Max Weber?
  • 1:00 Themes And Theories
  • 3:13 Weber's Conclusions
  • 4:12 Criticisms
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will explore Max Weber's collection of essays known as ''The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism''. You will gain an understanding of why it was so significant both then and now.

Who was Max Weber?

Depending on the extent to which you have studied the field of sociology, you have probably encountered a vast array of books and essays that serve as the foundation of the field. Among all of these contributions, however, there are few sociologists who have contributed quite as much to sociology as the 19th century German sociologist Max Weber. Often cited as the 'father of sociology', Weber's work introduced fundamental concepts of social research that are in many ways as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them.

Among Weber's most significant contributions to the field are his collection of essays from 1904 and 1905, collectively known as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, these have long been required reading for any student of sociology. Broadly speaking, the book explores the origins of modern capitalism, particularly as it relates to the Protestant belief that followers should ply their trades in the secular world.

Themes and Theories

Building on his theories relating to the intersections of religion, society, and economics, the book explores the origins of capitalism, particularly in terms of the internal human processes that drive a person to pursue capitalism.

Weber traces modern capitalism back to the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe. During this time, several variants of the Protestant and Christian religions broke away from the dominant church, including Calvinists, who are an offshoot of Protestantism that follow the religious teachings of John Calvin and believed that everything in the world was predetermined by God. Predetermined means that God had already chosen who was to go to heaven and who would not. Because this belief had serious implications for the rest of a person's life, Calvinists focused a great deal of attention on looking for evidence as to who was 'saved' and who was 'damned'.

According to Weber, the Calvinist search for evidence of God's approval or disapproval led them to see their marketplace successes as a sign that they were adhering to God's expectations, which reshaped economies by identifying capitalism as a pursuit worthy of one's time. It should be noted that Calvinists were not the only group that held these beliefs, but were one of few that had so clearly articulated them.

To illustrate his point, Weber relied heavily on the writings of Benjamin Franklin., one of America's Founding Fathers, as well as writer and diplomat, among many other things. According to Weber, Benjamin Franklin's emphasis on accruing and investing money wasn't just an obsession with amassing wealth; it was a lesson in morality, which emphasizes the importance of using one's skills and abilities to contribute to society.

Although he identifies the origins of capitalism as a product of the Reformation, Weber notes that as societies progressed and became more secular, the economic framework remained because it served social systems well. This simply means that as people stopped associating capitalistic success with evidence of God, they still valued capitalism highly as a driving social factor, which Weber refers to as the spirit of capitalism.

Weber's Conclusions

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is, as Weber frequently notes, an exploration into the origins and implications of capitalism, but he does not attribute the rise of capitalism solely to religion. Nor was his intention to make a definitive statement; rather, the purpose of his work was to understand how capitalism had evolved to the point that it was at during his time.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mechanization of labor had begun to have profoundly negative effects on society, particularly in creating broad divisions between social classes. From his perspective, Weber attributes some of this to the fact that capitalism had moved away from its Protestant origins, which understood capitalism as a pursuit that was morally righteous and positive. According to Weber, when the religious aspects of capitalism fell away, it left a powerful and often corrupting system in its place, which led to labor abuses and the exploitation of workers.

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