Weber's principle thesis is that religious ideas have an important influence on the development of economic spirit. In this book, he writes about the relationship between the spirit of modern Western capitalism and the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism. The relationship he describes is a causal one, his main point being that the doctrines of the Calvinist faith (especially the doctrine of predestination) were essential to the formation and strengthening of the modern capitalistic spirit. This is not to say that capitalism could not have arisen without these doctrines; Weber notes that capitalistic systems existed before the Reformation and in non-Christian cultures. Rather, it is that the ethos of the particular brand of capitalism, as it exists in the United States, for example, owes its origin to the ascetic ideals of Calvinism. Although his focus is on the influence of Calvinism, Weber also suggests that other socio-economic factors (like the development of cities and the centralization of productive enterprise) contributed to the creation of modern Western capitalism.
In its basic form, capitalism has nothing to do with the impulse to acquisition or the pursuit of gain or money. Although critics see it as a system based on greed, Weber writes that capitalism is actually a system based on restraint or at least a rational tempering of greed. But the capitalistic enterprise does seek profit. It is, therefore, dependent on two conditions: the availability of a disciplined work force and the continuous investment of capital. Weber points out that traditional attitudes and behaviors (e.g., the desire of workers for leisure time over against high wages and the tendency to spend wealth rather than invest it) are the most important opponents of capitalism because they counter the very conditions needed to sustain it.
Because the inertia of traditionalism impedes the expansion of capitalism, Weber suggests that some factor able to overcome it must be responsible for the spirit of modern capitalism. He concluded that the notion of labor as an end in itself, or ‘calling,’ is the overriding factor. And, he concluded, it is religious upbringing, especially that based on the Protestant ethic, which instills (or at least once instilled) in the individual a sense of moral obligation in the fulfillment of his worldly duty.
Weber separates out Lutheranism as an influential force. Luther’s notion of calling was really an indictment against the lifestyle of the Catholic monastic, sequestered from the world and neglectful of his temporal obligations. Luther’s emphasis was on the understanding of worldly labor (of any kind) as an outward expression of brotherly love. Calling was a task set by God; it therefore required absolute acceptance. Acceptance was understood as obedience to God’s will. The concept of calling in Lutheranism, therefore, remained traditionalistic and not supportive of the spirit of capitalism.
It is the Calvanist doctrine of predestination that is key to Weber’s thesis. The doctrine, according to Weber, was an extension of two lines of thought.
First, that what is good in man has little to do with his personal worth, instead it is a gift of God’s grace. Second, God does not exist for man, but rather, man for God. Only God decides who is among the saved (the elect) and only God knows. Personal merit or guilt have little bearing on this objective fact. Man’s destiny has been written; he merely follows the script. It is this uncertainty of destiny which Weber believes created in the individual practitioner the need to find a way to assure himself that he was among the elect. Pastoral wisdom held that the signs of the state of grace could be found in one’s absolute certainty of his election. Practitioners were advised to view doubt as the devil’s work. The outward manifestation of his certainty was his worldly activity. The certainty of salvation, therefore, was inseparable from the concept of calling.
The outgrowth of this belief, writes Weber, is a rational type of asceticism. The aim of this asceticism was to live an intelligent life that was not at the mercy of one’s emotion or impulsive enjoyment. Hence, the ascetic ideal fostered the development of rationalism. He notes that although other religions promote asceticism, it is only Calvinism, through its doctrine of predestination, that provides a positive incentive for it.
It seems quite a stretch to arrive at the sanctioning of wealth when the central ideal of Calvinism is asceticism; but Weber points out that Calivnism’s true emphasis was not on the individual’s abstention from wealth, but his good works. Success in calling provided the assurance of election. And this did not preclude the accumulation of wealth. Calvinism accepted wealth as long as it was handled rationally, and not pursued as an end in itself. The combination of rational asceticism which limited consumption and its resultant accumulation of wealth provided the surplus capital needed to expand the economic system of capitalism. It is the essential formula upon which the spirit of modern capitalism is founded.
Weber makes it clear that his thesis pertains to the origin of the spirit of modern capitalism and not capitalism as it exists today. Of modern society, he says the ‘cloak’ of material goods has become an ‘iron cage.’ Religious asceticism has fallen away, leaving modern man with an economic system that determines his life with irresistible force, regardless of his concern with economic acquisition. The Puritan wanted to work, modern man is forced to.