Weber wrote that capitalism evolved when the Protestant (particularly Calvinist) ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. In other words, the Protestant ethic was a force behind an unplanned and uncoordinated mass action that led to the development of capitalism. This idea is also known as "the Weber thesis".
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. Religious devotion, however, usually accompanied a rejection of worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addresses this apparent paradox in the book.
He defines spirit of capitalism as the ideas and esprit that favour the rational pursuit of economic gain. Weber points out that such a spirit is not limited to Western culture if one considers it as the attitude of individuals, but that such individuals — heroic entrepreneurs, as he calls them — could not by themselves establish a new economic order (capitalism). The most common tendencies were the greed for profit with minimum effort and the idea that work was a curse and burden to be avoided especially when it exceeded what was enough for modest life. As he wrote in his essays:
After defining the "spirit of capitalism," Weber argues that there are many reasons to find its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation. Many observers like William Petty, Montesquieu, Henry Thomas Buckle, John Keats, and others have commented on the affinity between Protestantism and the development of commercialism.
Weber shows that certain types of Protestantism favoured rational pursuit of economic gain and that worldly activities had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct — the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain.
Weber traced the origins of the Protestant ethic to the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church assured salvation to individuals who accepted the church's sacraments and submitted to the clerical authority. However, the Reformation had effectively removed such assurances. From a psychological viewpoint, the average person had difficulty adjusting to this new worldview, and only the most devout believers or "religious geniuses" within Protestanism, such as Martin Luther, were able to make this adjustment, according to Weber.
In the absence of such assurances from religious authority, Weber argued that Protestants began to look for other "signs" that they were saved. Calvin and his followers taught a doctrine of double predestination, in which from the beginning God chose some people for salvation and others for damnation. The inability to influence one's own salvation presented a very difficult problem for Calvin's followers. It became an absolute duty to believe that one was chosen for salvation, and to dispel any doubt about that: lack of self-confidence was evidence of insufficient faith and a sign of damnation. So, self-confidence took the place of priestly assurance of God's grace.
Worldly success became one measure of that self-confidence. Luther made an early endorsement of Europe's emerging labor divisions. Weber identifies the applicability of Luther's conclusions, noting that a "vocation" from God was no longer limited to the clergy or church, but applied to any occupation or trade.
However, Weber saw the fulfillment of the Protestant ethic not in Lutheranism, which he dismissed as a rather servile religion, but in Calvinistic forms of Christianity. The "paradox" Weber found was, in simple terms:
By the time Weber wrote this essay, he believed that the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had largely gone from society. He cited the writings of Benjamin Franklin, which emphasized frugality, hard work and thrift, but were mostly free of spiritual content. Weber also attributed the success of mass production partly to the Protestant ethic. Only after expensive luxuries were disdained, could individuals accept the uniform products, such as clothes and furniture, that industrialization offered.
In his remarkably prescient conclusion to the book, Weber lamented that the loss of religious underpinning to capitalism's spirit has led to a kind of involuntary servitude to mechanized industry.
The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. (Page 181, 1953 Scribner's edition.)
Weber maintained that while Puritan religious ideas had had a major influence on the development of economic order in Europe and United States, they were not the only factor (others included the rationalism in scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration and economic enterprise). In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the emancipation from magic, that disenchantment of the world that he regarded as the distinguishing peculiarity of Western culture.
In the final endnotes Weber states that he abandoned research into Protestantism because his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, a professional theologian, had initiated work on the book The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Sects. Another reason for Weber's decision was that Troeltsch's essay had provided the perspective for a broad comparison of religion and society, which he continued in his later works (the study of Judaism and the religions of China and India).
This book is also Weber's first brush with the concept of rationalization. His idea of modern capitalism as growing out of the religious pursuit of wealth meant a change to a rational means of existence, wealth. That is to say, at some point the Calvinist rationale informing the "spirit" of capitalism became unreliant on the underlying religious movement behind it, leaving only rational capitalism. In essence then, Weber's "Spirit of Capitalism" is effectively and more broadly a Spirit of Rationalization.
The essay can also be interpreted as one of Weber's criticisms of Karl Marx and his theories. While Marx's historical materialism held that all human institutions - including religion - were based on economic foundations, The Protestant Ethic turns this theory on its head by implying that a religious movement fostered capitalism, not the other way around.
Part 2. The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism.
A major effect of this spirit, as Durkheim noted, is that the entrepreneur performs his tasks with an earnestness of purpose that places them at the center of his life, and endows them with intrinsic dignity. There is nothing degrading about them. Such an approach to monetary gain is markedly different from the sordid passion of greed, for monetary gain was not to be used for luxury or self-indulgent bodily comfort, but rather was to be saved, and accumulated. Neither could the resulting frugality be mistaken for miserliness, as the accumulated resources were to be reinvested in worthy enterprises. The spirit of capitalism constituted a sort of moral ‘’habitus’’ which burdened the possessor of money with a steward’s obligation toward his own possessions.
Likewise, the individual entrepreneur isn’t allowed to become overly absorbed into or preoccupied with himself. His existence revolves around an objective concern outside himself, which unceasingly demands his devotion and thus, becomes a test of his self-worth. By its very nature, these economic practices require reference to a goal; however, increase in capital becomes the ultimate point of reference.
Ultimately, the point of the spirit of capitalism is to attribute moral significance to entrepreneurial activity and lend meaning to the existence of those committed to it.