Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is still regarded as one of the most influential and at the same time disputed texts in classic sociology. Max Weber – German sociologist, politician and economist started working on the books in the early 1900s. The work was firstly intended to include series of essays, though later developed into a book. The original language of the book was German, though as the book turned out to be influential in international sociology and economy it had later been translated into English and then further languages. Weber’s idea as to Protestantism (Calvinism) and capitalism presented in the book came to be called Weber’s thesis.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was interpreted by many as a way to critique Karl Marx’s works on history, capitalism and sociology. Though, not only the work was innovative for its time because of the critique but also because of its representation of the “ideal types” of personalities, the fondness of methodological individualism, the relationship between purposive actions and unintended consequences, and finally the special role of “understanding” (originally referred to as “Verstehen” in German).
The main thesis of Weber’s work is that puritan ideas and dogmas had an influence on creation, development, and formation of capitalism. Capitalism, according to Weber, is not only acquisition of wealth, but also rationality. Rationality in its turn, is the product of the protestant ethics, it is a victory of rationality over tradition. Thus, most West European countries and America that are protestant, managed to build capitalism due to several factors, one of them being protestant culture.
To develop the thesis the author used scientific principles, focusing on the individual psychology. Such an approach helped create a new set of methodology, describing the ideal types of personalities. Even though the essays were written more than a century ago and deal with a narrow period of time, they can be applied to broader historical periods. In fact, Weber’s views on rationalization are still taken into consideration when discussing present-day modernity (Dickson, McLachlan, 1998).
Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was in the past, and still is subject to vast criticism. There are some sociologists that claim that capitalism has become an overgrowing force before the raise of Protestantism. As early as a century before the Protestant revolt, individuals struggled with capitalistic endeavors living in the society that was not ready for the change of economic system. Thus, this group of sociologists emphasizes that Protestantism could not have produced the concept that has already existed (Dickson, McLachlan, 1998).
Other sociologists continue to argue that it was not the protestant ethics that has led to the raise of capitalism but natural internationality and diversity in West European countries and their colonies. This implies that many Protestants had to leave their Catholic countries because of persecution, which fostered internationality and cultural circulation. The later being factors contributing to the development of capitalism.
Another opinion as to the strong bond between Protestantism and capitalism is that the founding fathers of Protestantism – Luther and Calvin opposed capitalism. These forefathers were very modest when it came to their earthly possessions. Additionally, they believed that those who were truly spiritual were rarely to be interested in acquisition of wealth and prosperity. Thus, it seems that the core beliefs of the founding fathers of Protestantism simply deny the notion of capitalism.
Others tend to believe that capitalism started to flourish after the Reformation. Though, this happened not due to Protestantism or any religion for that matter, but because of the natural economic evolution. It was a period of reconstruction and change and it is understandable that it was then that capitalism gained popularity.
R. H. Tawney who is believed to be Max Weber’s most famous critic agrees with him that there is a connection between Protestantism and capitalism. However, Tawney sees that matter from the opposite perspective. He argues that it is Protestantism served as basis for capitalism and not the other way around. Tawney claims that in some countries capitalism was famous already in the fifteenth century. This was caused by the economic and business mentality of those areas and their commercial development. Thus, in such countries like England and Holland capitalism started flourishing already in the sixteenth century due to the scientific discoveries of these countries. Consequently, it is rather a coincidence that these capitalist countries were Protestant (Dickson, McLachlan, 1998).
It must be said that the only connection between Protestantism and capitalism that most sociologists tend to agree about is rationality. Protestantism was regarded as a fight against traditionalism and glorification of rationality, and rationality is deeply embedded in capitalism. However, there are few historians that see the relation between Protestantism and capitalism is linear.
Finally, notwithstanding the fact that Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is heavily criticized, his thesis continues to be accepted by sociologists. Certainly, the thesis has its flaws, though the basic premise of the thesis is not destroyed by any of the multiple critics. It is not clear what kind of relationship between Protestantism and capitalism there is. Though, it is clear that it exists, and this has been discovered by Max Weber and presented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
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