What Is the Protestant Ethic Thesis and How Convinced Are You by It?

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8th Feb 2020 Theology Reference this

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Max Weber developed the Protestant Ethic-thesis in two journal articles published in 1904-1905. The English translation was published 1930 and named the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this essay we will explore his argument consisting of explaining how Reformed Protestantism, more specifically Calvinism, is associated with a set of values and morals affiliated with modern day capitalism. We will also look at how convincing these arguments are.

In this first section I will solely be focusing on Weber’s the Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1958) and will use the page numbers of his work to explain his thesis.

Protestantism differs from Catholicism or other religion due to the notion of the ‘calling’ described by Weber (p.39) as a ‘that of a task set by God’, the term first came about during Luther’s translation of the Bible.  The new idea was part of the Reformation and meant that it gave ‘every day worldly activity religious significance’ (p.40). To be accepted by God, one had to fulfil the obligation of their position in the world. Individuals now had a personal relationship with God and had to respond to this ‘calling’ by doing good in everyday life else there would be no salvation.  For Luther ‘labour appeared as the outward expression of brotherly love’ (p. 41).

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For followers the biggest sin is ‘waste of time’ as life is short and precious and should be dedicated to making sure you fulfil your duty as there is little time to make sure you are elected by God. Therefore, followers should only partake in activity that serves to increase the glory of God. Enjoyment of wealth and idleness were regarded as sinful and a distraction to His will. (pg104)

Many followers had developed ‘salvation anxiety’ as it was impossible to know who God had chosen to save. That was a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual.’(page60) and as a result many began to convince themselves that work was a way of getting rid of the fear of damnation. Self-control, hard work and regulation were all signs that God had chosen you to be saved. ‘Labour is, on the one hand, an approved ascetic technique, as it always has been […] and unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.’ (p.105)

For Weber this aesthetic ethic is not necessary what caused capitalism today as we know however has a strong elective affinity with capitalism.’ But it was in the ethic of ascetic Protestantism that it first found a consistent ethical foundation. Its significance for the development of capitalism is obvious.’ (p.115) Clearly different from capitalism as we know today as the pursuit of riches for their own sake was condemned (p.116) Weber clearly differentiates capitalism as we know it today with how it was. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism and is still less with its spirit (p.17) It was sinful to live a life of luxury, which is what many of us aim for today.

To conclude Weber’s arguments in chapter four he states ‘The religious life of the saints, as distinguished from natural life, was – the most important point – no longer lived outside the world in monastic communities, but within the world and its institutions. This rationalization of conduct within this world, but for the sake of the world beyond, was the consequence of the calling of ascetic Protestantism. … Christian asceticism … strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its mechanicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world” (pp. 100-101). This rationalization of conduct within this world, but for the sake of the world beyond, was the consequence of the concept of calling of ascetic Protestantism.

In this next section we will look at how critics respond to Weber’s thesis, how convincing it is and how Weber responded if relevant. One critic of Weber is Pellicani(1988) who presented case studies of different countries during the Reformation, and gave the example of Scotland, a Calvinist society. He argued the fact that capitalism was estranged from Scotland at the time, yet the population followed Calvinist teachings discredited Weber’s claim of a link between asceticism and capitalism.  ‘The Protestant Ethic is of no help in resolving the mystery of the birth of capitalism, nor does it contribute to even identifying factors which stimulated the entrepreneurial spirit’

Another of Pellicani’s main arguments regarding Weber is that ‘’All leading medieval historians have concluded that the capitalist spirit already existed in Europe in the Low Middle Ages. “His critique of Weber is that as capitalist spirit already existed long before the Reformation, his thesis that the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism is linked is completely wrong.  Oakes (1989) argues three main points as to why Pellicani’s critique of Weber is invalid. Firstly, he argues that The Protestant Ethic is much more ‘complex, nuanced and balanced’ than Pellicani guides his readers to believe. Oakes states that the claim of historians reaching a universal agreement about the fallacy in Weber’s thesis is simply untrue and encourages those who feel this way to do some ‘further reading’. Secondly, Oakes insists Pellicanis logic of pitting historians against one another is not a plausible argument. Finally, for his last and ‘most important’ point as to why Pellicani’s doesn’t possess any credibility is in fact because of his own lack of evidence. Drawing on the work of historians to make your point, for Oakes, is ‘unsatisfactory’.

Another of Weber’s critiques, Karl Fischer(1908),puts forward a more ‘psychological’ explanation for the rise in the spirit of capitalism in Europe. To begin with, he argued that while translating the passages of the Bible, Luther couldn’t have associated the German word Beruf with ‘worldly calling’ unless it already existed and was familiar to the people. Due to this familiarity of the term, Fischer argues that economic circumstances must have already been in place for people to adapt to the religious aspect of worldly callings. He argued that for the Calvinists to think of signs of election and link it to work, economic factors must have already been in place. Lastly, he states that the rise of the capitalist attitude has no religious connection, drawing on John Stuart Mill, Fischer describes money as becoming the means of exchange, increasing the strive for power, fame and money automatically comes with it. ‘While the drive to possess money might conceivably rest on religious thought processes, this way of thinking stems from a reflective psychology that makes psychic phenomena appear more complicated than they really are.’

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In his reply to Fischer, Weber states that his critic fails to provide a ‘single fact’ to back up his claim that the people already had a familiarity with the concept of a calling. Furthermore, Weber argued his whole point regarding the calling was this it was a new notion, differing from other religions, and an ‘invention of the Reformation’.

Despite his critics, Weber still had those who supported his thesis and the links between the Protestant Ethic and capitalism. Jonassen (1947) sought to resolve some of the uncertainties of studying earlier eras by examining a case of capitalism’s emergence in the nineteenth century rather than in the Reformation or Puritan era. Jonassen argued that capitalism emerged in nineteenth-century Norway only after an indigenous, Calvinist-like movement challenged the Lutheranism and Catholicism that had dominated the country. Capitalism had not ‘developed in Norway under centuries of Catholic and Lutheran influence’ although it appeared only ‘two generations after the introduction of a type of religion that produced the same behaviour as Calvinism’ (Jonassen, 684). Jonassen’s argument also discounted other often-cited causes of capitalism, such as the early discoveries of science, the Renaissance, or developments in post-Reformation Catholicism; these factors had existed for centuries by the nineteenth century and still had left Norway as a non-capitalist society. Capitalism only developed in the nineteenth century after a Calvinist-like faith emerged.

A compelling and insightful work on the link between religious belief and economy is the paper by McCleary and Barro (2006). It examines statistical links between protestant ethics and growth in addition to the motivation for entrepreneurship. They conclude there is a significant relationship and find clear motivational forces in nonconformist movement. ‘The major religion has some mechanism for promoting work effort and wealth accumulation, which contribute to economic success.’

(Fanfani, 1935) agrees with Weber that capitalism was increasingly present after the Reformation but was already present in Italian cities with masters already using ’the truck system, in order to make the maximum profits by paying the minimum wage to their workers’. For Fanfani this was a strong argument as it discredits Weber’s thesis as Catholicism was present in Italy during this period, and not Calvinism. He concludes that ‘The creation of a new mentality in the economic field cannot therefore be considered as the work of Protestantism, or rather of any one religion, but it is a manifestation of that general revolution of thought that characterizes the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation, by which in art, philosophy, morals, and economy, the individual emancipates himself from the bonds imposed on him during the Middle Ages.’

Nevertheless, Weber doesn’t deny that there were aspects of capitalism that existed before the Reformation as many of his critics like to argue. Indeed, the approach of Weber ties the emergence of certain Protestant religions with the psychological changes necessary to enable the spirit of capitalism to develop. He notes that victorious capitalism no longer needs a religious ascetic. Enlightenment ideas, perhaps promising, seem eclipsed and pursuit of wealth tends ‘to become associated with purely mundane passions’ (p. 12)

To sum, although some of Weber’s critics contain some logical criticisms of his thesis and some scholars deny that there is a reason to believe in a link between the Reformation and the flourishing of capitalism. It is evident there was an increase in capitalist economic activity during this period and to say there wasn’t a link between the two seems unimaginable.

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