Saturday, March 19, 2011


Max Weber's great essay of 1904 has suffered from its own success. It does have a catchy title. People throw around the phrase "the Protestant ethic" constantly. It is written with an appealing (though for some, off-putting) combination of simplicity and grandiosity. And, I think, people just like they idea they think the work represents, the basic version of which is familiar to everyone. It is usually put rather crudely: Protestantism somehow led to capitalism. For many it explains how we good Protestants became good capitalists. So it provides an explanation of how, in general, we've gotten just so darn good. But this version, an optimistic description of the progress that led inevitably to our own time, misses a large part of the value of this book.

This version of the argument is also only questionably true, as many, including Weber himself within his essay, have pointed out. A lot of time and ink has been wasted trying to clarify the historical argument or give it some modifications to make it stronger. But Weber is not a historian and the book is not historical argument.

More importantly, Weber is neither a good Protestant nor a good capitalist. He is, I think, a good German. Consider a section from the latter half of the book as a starting point:
The typical German quality often called good nature (Gemütlichkeit) or naturalness contrasts strongly, even in the facial expressions of people, with the effects of that thorough destruction of the spontaneity of the status naturalis in the Anglo-American atmosphere, which Germans are accustomed to judge unfavourably as narrowness, unfreeness, and inner constraint.
In that small selection one can see the real roots of the problem. For Weber there is simply something odd about these Protestant Capitalist types, right down to their humorless faces. For someone else,  someone more representative than Weber himself of that old Teuton quality Gemütlihckeit, this could be a passing joke over a Späten at an Oktoberfest party. One can easily imagine an American saying a similar thing about Englishmen, or a denizen of the West Coast saying it of New Englanders. It might even have served as a story about the struggles between Weber's Berlin socialite father and orthodox Calvinist mother. But Weber being Weber, he transforms this into a grand explanandum for this most famous work, and summarizes his explanans thusly:

[T]he differences in conduct, which are very striking, have clearly originated in the lesser degree of ascetic penetration of life in Lutheranism as distinguished from Calvinism.

Consider a longer section, from the closing pages of the book, when Weber abandons his scholarly robes for a moment lyrical and emotional release:

Where the fulfilment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often give it the character of sport.

None knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: "Specialists without spirit, sensualists without hear; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.
Taken together, it can be seen that at least part of Weber's motivation to write this work was an explanation of a type of personality whose dominance he feared and who he believed had taken over the England and North America. Weber does not have the unabashedly positive view of either the Reformation or Capitalism that the people who use his thesis frequently do possess.

Nor is his motivation strictly historical, even though many have spent time "refuting" the "Weber thesis" through in-depth historical and statistical research. I find, for instance, Harvard economist David Cantoni quoted at Wikipedia:
Using population figures in a dataset comprising 276 cities in the years 1300-1900, I find no effects of Protestantism on economic growth. The finding is robust to the inclusion of a variety of controls, and does not appear to depend on data selection or small sample size.
Such refutations seem quite silly to me against what I take to be the actual point of Weber's work. He is trying to attack the idea that capitalism is nothing more than rationality applied to human production. It is, for him a set of relationships between individuals that requires a particular worldview and a particular type of introspection, which is no more rational than what came before it, and is by no means more natural. He believes that "the summum bonum of this ethic" is "the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life." He continues:
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. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view, is evidently as definitely a leading principle of capitalism as it is foreign to all people not under capitalistic influence.
Looked at in this light, Weber's book is not suddenly justified, but rather takes on a new set of argumentative difficulties, hinging on two questions. First, one may wonder if Weber's prototypical capitalist simply an absurd figure, too absurd to pose as the basis for serious study. Few would admit to a "strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life" as a defining aspect of their character, and such a statement probably comes more from some kind of Germanic skepticism of the English than any rational observation. Some claim that their pursuit of money is a pursuit of freedom and luxury. Some claim it is about providing for their family. Some claim that the pursuit of money by individuals is beneficial for society. Of such motivations Weber has nothing to say.

This leads to the second question. I wonder if there is any point in connecting such a personality to a religious background. As Weber admits, Capitalism predates Protestantism, and so capitalism necessarily predates the capitalistic personality Weber is discussing. There are, necessarily, other capitalistic personalities, and each type, I suspect, could be tied to a different background, mostly un-religious. Those who claim to be seeking leisure could cite Roman models of retirement to the countryside. Those who claim to be helping their family could turn to any traditional culture.

I think there is a point, though, in discussing the particular personality Weber is interested in, and it gives us the real value of Weber's work. He finds one kind of justification of capitalistic enterprise, one that takes its vocabulary from the history of Calvinism. No more, no less. Benjamin Franklin is for him the perfect representative of this sublimated Calvinist spirit, but Franklin would be better looked at as a master of justifying capitalistic enterprise by appeal to a Protestant ideal of good character. Franklin himself was no mere capitalist, and his own autobiography is more a highly moralized tale of self-betterment than an attempt to explain the complexity of Franklin's personality, which certainly included a deep enjoyment of life.

The connection between language of Calvinists and capitalists occupies most of the text, but it can be summarized quickly. Calivinists were fond of saying that "God does not exist for men, but men for the sake of God." Some would add, "The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system." Economics, in Weber's view, had become this kind of God. Whether the older view, strictly speaking, truly grew into the new view is highly questionable. But it certainly true that the language of economics has become nearly as unquestionable as an omnipotent God. The real value of Weber's work is in hinting at a way to get around the language of economics, and that is to subordinate it to a discussion of religion, culture and personality.

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