A Book Overview: "The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit Of Capitalism"

An Overview of the Famous Book by Max Weber

"The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" is a book written by sociologist and economist Max Weber in 1904-1905. The original version was in German and it was translated into English in 1930. It is often considered a founding text in economic sociology and sociology in general.

"The Protestant Ethic" is a discussion of Weber’s various religious ideas and economics. Weber argues that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. While Weber was influenced by Karl Marx, he was not a Marxist and even criticizes aspects of Marxist theory in this book.

The Book Premise

Weber begins "The Protestant Ethic" with a question: What about Western civilization has made it the only civilization to develop certain cultural phenomena to which we like to attribute universal value and significance?

Only in the West does valid science exist. Empirical knowledge and observation that exists elsewhere lacks the rational, systematic, and specialized methodology that is present in the West. The same is true of capitalism—it exists in a sophisticated manner that has never before existed anywhere else in the world. When captitalism is defined as the pursuit of forever-renewable profit, captitalism can be said to be part of every civilization at any time in history. But it is in the West that it has developed to an extraordinary degree. Weber sets out to understand what it is about the West that has made it so.

Weber's Conclusions

Weber's conclusion is a unique one. Weber found that under the influence of Protestant religions, especially Puritanism, individuals were religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation with as much enthusiasm as possible. A person living according to this worldview was therefore more likely to accumulate money.

Further, the new religions, such as Calvinism and Protestantism, forbade wastefully using hard-earned money and labeled the purchase of luxuries as a sin. These religions also frowned upon donating money to the poor or to charity because it was seen as promoting beggary. Thus, a conservative, even stingy lifestyle, combined with a work ethic that encouraged people to earn money, resulted in large amounts of available money. 

The way these issues were resolved, Weber argued, was to invest the money—a move that gave a large boost to capitalism. In other words, capitalism evolved when the Protestant 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 Weber's view, the Protestant ethic was, therefore, the driving force behind the mass action that led to the development of capitalism. And it was in this book also that Weber famously articulated the concept of the "iron cage"—the theory that an economic system can become a restrictive force that can prevent change and perpetuate its own failings.