Max Weber on Religion and Capitalism

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Max Weber’s outlines his views on religion and capitalism in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber held the important theory that an individual’s views are significant in promoting social change, not material things as believed by former theorists. In his work, Weber compares two waves of “the calling” as preached by different Protestant leaders and describes the teaching and spread of ascetic beliefs in followers. This paper considers the context of the calling, explores the outward signs of grace which helped develop capitalism and, lastly, how capitalism, through rationalization, transformed Calvinist ideals for its advancement.
According to Weber’s findings individualistic views arose through Protestant beliefs. Martin Luther, a Protestant leader in the 16th century, presents the calling as a means to encourage followers to live honorable lives devoted to God; as a dutiful follower, an individual is to worship and not please God. Righteous followers were content with their calling and the lives God intended for them. Luther also instilled a passive form of asceticism in his followers that by preaching that they carry a simple lifestyle which accorded with their line of work (Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:168).
The meaning of the calling was drastically changed by latter Protestant leaders Calvin and Baxter. They presented the calling as a form of obligation to work for God with no other options. The calling pushed for individuals to lead an ascetic life; that is, work hard and not enjoy the fruit of their labor. Calvinists preached that should a person should work as hard a possible because the amount of wealth earned would determine their salvation and without a calling the individual is seen as worthless in the eyes of God (Weber in Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:176). The calling differed between leaders as Luther’s version of the calling instilled ideas of good morality whereas Calvinists indirectly coerced their followers to work as hard as they could should they want to be saved (Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:168-69).
Leading an ascetic lifestyle helped develop capitalism because of the motivation individuals had on working to their utmost potential – they all wanted to be saved. However, there were outward signs of grace that definitely had an impact on how people were encouraged to stay focused – those signs were to acquire wealth and maximize profits by investing their means. These signs helped develop capitalism because asceticism promoted the least amount of spending.

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"Max Weber on Religion and Capitalism." 17 Mar 2018
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A person was to reinvest their wealth and what better than to reinvest in a company that could expand and become more profitable (Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:169).
People are encouraged to work as much as possible and pressed not to become tempted to enjoy their wealth (Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:169). Thus, relishing in their wealth may lead a person to become idle, and derail their drive to work hard for God. An additional outward sign of grace that impacted the development of capitalism was not to become overzealous towards material goods but continue to make significant profit. Should they choose to partake in an activity outside of work, it should not cost them anything. According to Weber, this was significant in the development of capitalism because it found people conformed to such a lifestyle (Weber in Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:176-77).
Weber explored the outward signs of grace implemented in Calvinists and determined that rational, methodical structures formulated by capitalists pushed the religious aspect out of the way. Now work was no longer religious – people were not working for God but themselves – and Capitalists took advantage of these newfound views. Isolating work carried out by laborers dominated the structures of modern businesses as well as every aspect of society. Capitalists were determined to dominate the workforce and build it as a rigid systematic form of production. Capitalists thrived on profit for self interest because a worker was there to work for itself – their motivation to work was no longer faith-driven. This, essentially, turned the population into servants for the capitalists (Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:169).
People slowly became disillusioned with the rational way jobs were being carried out – they were trapped in to the savage claws of capitalism. Weber coined this form entrapment as “the iron cage.” The iron cage left the worker no other option than to keep working. The worker has no other form of escaping their misery than to mechanically work at a job that they had no enthusiasm of doing (Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:169). Weber declares that a person will also become enslaved to modern-day way of life, which is living to consume and ravel in material goods – another example of being trapped in the iron cage (Weber in Desfor Edles and Appelrouth 2010:180)
Weber detailed Luther’s, Calvinists and capitalists forms of callings that motivated people to work and ultimately led to the downfall those notions. It is clear to see that the greed once instilled during the novel beginnings of capitalism has withered away individuals’ motivations as well as their foresights at life. It is interesting to learn that individuals have continually been motivated towards a goal through religion and Protestants are no different. The calling lured many towards leading an ascetic lifestyle and the calling is what trapped many to the iron cage.

Works Cited

Desfor Edles, Laura and Scott Appelrouth. 2010. “Max Weber (1864-1920).” Pp. 168 and 170-181 in Sociological Theory in the Classical Era. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

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