The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The Religious Foundation of Worldly Asceticism


The Religious Foundation of Worldly Asceticism





In history there have been four principal forms of ascetic Protestantism (in the sense of word here used): (1) Calvinism in the form which it assumed in the main area of its influence in Western Europe, especially in the seventeenth century; (2) Pietism…

Pietism first split off from the Calvinistic movement in England, and especially in Holland. It remained loosely connected with orthodoxy, shading off from it by imperceptible gradations, until at the end of the seventeenth century it was absorbed into Lutheranism under Spener’s leadership.

We are interested rather in the influence of those psychological sanctions which, originating in religious belief and the practice of religion, gave a direction to practical conduct and held the individual to it.




Now Calvinism5 was the faith6 over which the great political and cultural struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were fought in the most highly developed countries, the Netherlands, England, and France. To it we shall hence turn first. At that time, and in general even to-day, the doctrine of predestination was considered its most characteristic dogma.

We cannot pass it by, and since to-day it can no longer be assumed as known to all educated men, we can best learn its content from the authoritative words of the Westminster Confession of 1647, which in this regard is simply repeated by both Independent and Baptist creeds.

“Though I may be sent to Hell for it, such a God will never command my respect”, was Milton’s well-known opinion of the doctrine.

Two paths leading to it were possible. The phenomenon of the religious sense of grace is combined, in the most active and passionate of those great worshippers which Christianity has produced again and again since Augustine, with the feeling of certainty that that grace is the sole product of an objective power, and not in the least to be attributed to personal worth.

With Calvin the decretum horribile is derived not, as with Luther, from religious experience, but from the logical necessity of his thought; therefore its importance increases with every increase in the logical consistency of that religious thought. The interest of it is solely in God, not in man; God does not exist for men, but men for the sake of God.13 All creation, including of course the fact, as it undoubtedly was for Calvin, that only a small proportion of men are chosen for eternal the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 59 grace, can have any meaning only as means to the glory and majesty of God. To apply earthly standards of justice to His sovereign decrees is meaningless and an insult to His Majesty,14 since He and He alone is free, i.e. is subject to no law. His decrees can only be understood by or even known to us in so far as it has been
His pleasure to reveal them. We can only hold to these fragments of eternal truth. Everything else, including the meaning of our individual destiny, is hidden in dark mystery which it would be both impossible to pierce and presumptuous to question.

To assume that human merit or guilt play a part in determining this destiny would be to think of God’s absolutely free decrees, which have been settled from eternity, as subject to change by human influence, an impossible contradiction.

The Father in heaven of the New Testament, so human and understanding, who rejoices over the repentance of a sinner as a woman over the lost piece of silver she has found, is gone. His place has been taken by a transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity.15 God’s grace is, since His decrees cannot change, as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom He has denied it.

This, the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments (which was in Lutheranism by no means developed to its final conclusions), was what formed the absolutely decisive difference from Catholicism.

There was not only no magical means of attaining the grace of God for those to whom God had decided to deny it, but no means whatever. Combined with the harsh doctrines of the absolute transcendentality of God and the corruption of everything the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 61 pertaining to the flesh, this inner isolation of the individual contains, on the one hand, the reason for the entirely negative attitude of Puritanism to all the sensuous and emotional elements in culture and in religion, because they are of no use toward salvation and promote sentimental illusions and idolatrous superstitions. Thus it provides a basis for a fundamental antagonism to sensuous culture of all kinds.

The means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin26 was done away with.

The same fear which drives the latter to every conceivable self-humiliation spurs the the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 63 former on to a restless and systematic struggle with life. Whence comes this difference?

In the first place it follows dogmatically.31 The world exists to serve the glorification of God and for that purpose alone. The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability.

Brotherly love, since it may only be practised for the glory of God33 and not in the service of the flesh,34 is expressed in the first place in the fulfilment of the daily tasks given by the lex naturæ and in the process this fulfilment assumes a peculiarly objective and impersonal character, that of service in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment.

This makes labour in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by Him. The complete
64 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism elimination of the theodicy problem and of all those questions about the meaning of the world and of life, which have tortured others, was as self-evident to the Puritan as, for quite different reasons, to the Jew, and even in a certain sense to all the nonmystical types of Christian religion.

For us the decisive problem is: How was this doctrine borne36 in an age to which the after-life was not only more important, but in many ways also more certain, than all the interests of life in this world?

…in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means.47 It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace. That worldly activity should be considered capable of this achievement, that it could, so to speak, be considered the most suitable means of counteracting feelings of religious anxiety, finds its explanation in the fundamental peculiarities of religious
feeling in the Reformed Church, which come most clearly to light in its differences from Lutheranism in the doctrine of justification by faith.

The religious believer can make himself sure of his state of grace either in that he feels himself to be the vessel of the Holy Spirit or the tool of the divine will. In the former case his religious life tends to mysticism and emotionalism, in the latter to ascetic action; Luther stood close to the former type, Calvinism belonged definitely to the latter. The Calvinist also wanted to be saved sola fide. But since Calvin viewed all pure feelings and emotions, no matter how exalted they might seem to be, with suspicion,51 faith had to be proved by its objective results in order to provide a
firm foundation for the certitudo salutis. It must be a fides efficax,52 the call to salvation an effectual calling (expression used in Savoy Declaration).

If we now ask further, by what fruits the Calvinist thought himself able to identify true faith? the answer is: by a type of Christian conduct which served to increase the glory of God.

Thus, however useless good works might be as a means of attaining salvation, for even the elect remain beings of the flesh, and everything they do falls infinitely short of divine standards, nevertheless, they are indispensable as a sign of election.60 They are the technical means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation. In this sense they are occasionally referred to as directly necessary for salvation61 or the possessio salutis is made conditional on them.

In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves. 63 Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates64 his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 69 damned. This brings us to a very important point in our investigation.

The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system.

The moral conduct of the average man was thus deprived of its planless and unsystematic character and subjected to a consistent method for conduct as a whole.

For only by a fundamental change in the whole meaning of life at every moment and in every action73 could the effects of grace the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 71 transforming a man from the status naturæ to the status gratiæ be proved.

It had developed a systematic method of rational conduct with the purpose of overcoming the status naturæ, to free man from the power of irrational impulses and his dependence on the world and on nature.

The Puritan, like every rational type of asceticism, tried to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives, especially those which it taught him itself, against the emotions. In this formal psychological sense of the term it tried to make him into a personality. Contrary to many popular ideas, the end of this asceticism was to be able to lead an alert, intelligent life: the most urgent task the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment, the most important means was to bring order into the conduct of its adherents.

Thus asceticism, the more strongly it gripped an individual, simply served to drive him farther away from everyday life, because the holiest task was definitely to surpass all worldly morality.

Sebastian Franck struck the central characteristic of this type of religion when he saw the significance of the Reformation in the fact that now every Christian had to be a monk all his life.

But in the course of its development Calvinism added something positive to this, the idea of the necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity.

On the other hand, the old mediæval (even ancient) idea of God’s book-keeping is carried by Bunyan to the characteristically tasteless extreme of comparing the relation of a sinner to his God with that of customer and shopkeeper. One who has once got into debt may well, by the product of all his virtuous acts, succeed in paying off the accumulated interest but never the principal.

The Lutheran faith thus left the spontaneous vitality of impulsive action and naïve emotion more nearly unchanged.

Hierdie hoofstuk is seker die hoofstuk van die boek wat die meeste dinge in my wakker gemaak het en gemaak het dat ek  die meeste dink oor my eie denke. Dit lê die Calvinisme mooi bloot asook die vroere Lutherisme, waarby ek meer aanklank vind. Weber se thesis hier maak baie sin oor hoekom die Calvinisme so groot rol speel in die instandhouding van Kapitalisme. Luther het Kapitalisme begin deur dit die roeping van elkeen te maak met sy vertaling van die Bybel in Duits en Calvyn het dit toe verder gevat deur sy fundamentele dogmatiese uitsprake oor die uitverkiesing en hoe die mens nie sy heil kan koop nie, maar vanuit dankbaarheid wel sy roeping ten volle moet uitleef. Met gevolg as jy nie jouself oor ‘n mik werk nie, leef jy nie volgens die wil van God nie, met gevolg jy is nie ‘n uitverkorene nie, met gevolg jy gaan nie hemel toe nie. ‘n Bose kringloop inderdaad. Sou nou werk elkeen homself flou al is daar eintlik geen manier om te weet of hy hemel toe gaan of nie. Luther le klem op geloof alleen, waar Calvyn weer die klem plaas op genade alleen. Die mens se dankbare antwoord op daardie genade is sy uitlewing van sy roeping. Waar die hele gedagte van asketisme inkom is dat dit deel vorm van die Protestantse beweging omdat dit enige magiese/mistieke kragte heeltemal wil teenwerk deur die mens te beroep om sy emosies onder beheer te hou en homself nie oor te laat aan sy natuurlike begeertes nie, want die mens is sondig en daarom moet die mens streef om die aandag te gee aan sy sondige natuur nie, maar eerder te streef na ‘n heeltemalle rasionele verstaan van God. Al is God onbegryplik vir die mens. Dit is egter belangrik om te onthou dat hierdie slegte vorm van Kapitalisme ‘n newe effek van die Reformasie is. Dit is nie ‘n intensionele deel daarvan nie. Tog wil ek myself meer by Luther as Calvyn skaar. Luther laat baie meer ruimte vir die spontane en emosionele kant van die mens waar Calvyn homself heeltemal asketies verklaar, rasioneel, sonder enige neigings na die natuurlike.


Dit was dan The Religious Foundation of Worldly Asceticism


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Luther’s Conception of the Calling


Luther’s Conception of the Calling


Now it is unmistakable that even in the German word Beruf, and perhaps still more clearly in the English calling, a religious conception, that of a task set by God, is at least suggested.

if we trace the history of the word through the civilized languages, it appears that neither the predominantly Catholic peoples nor those of classical antiquity have possessed any expression of similar connotation for what we know as a calling (in the sense of a life-task, a definite field in which to work), while one has existed for all predominantly Protestant peoples.

Like the meaning of the word, the idea is new, a product of the Reformation.

The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfilment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling.

The monastic life is not only quite devoid of value as a means of justification before God, but he also looks upon its renunciation of the duties of this world as the product of selfishness, withdrawing from temporal obligations. In contrast, labour in a calling appears to him as the outward expression of brotherly love.

However, this justification, which is evidently essentially scholastic, soon disappears again, and there remains, more and more strongly emphasized, the statement that the fulfilment of worldly duties is under all circumstances the only way to live acceptably to God.

The religious circles which today most  enthusiastically celebrate that great achievement of the Reformation are by no means friendly to capitalism in any sense. And Luther himself would, without doubt, have sharply repudiated any connection with a point of view like that of Franklin.

The pursuit of material gain beyond personal needs must thus appear as a symptom of lack of grace, and since it can apparently only be attained at the expense of others, directly reprehensible.

The individual should remain once and for all in the station and calling in which God had placed him, and should restrain his worldly activity within the limits imposed by his established station in life.

Thus for Luther the concept of the calling remained traditionalistic. His calling is something which man has to accept as a divine ordinance, to which he must adapt himself. This aspect outweighed the other idea which was also present, that work in the calling was a, or rather the, task set by God.

Thus, for the time being, the only ethical result was negative; worldly duties were no longer subordinated to ascetic ones; obedience to authority and the acceptance of things as they were, were preached.

A purely superficial glance shows that there is here (in Calvinism) quite a different relationship between the religious life and earthly activity than in either Catholicism or Lutheranism.

It was the power of religious influence, not alone, but more than anything else, which created the differences of which we are conscious to-day.

We shall thus have to admit that the cultural consequences of the Reformation were to a great extent, perhaps in the particular aspects with which we are dealing predominantly, unforeseen and even unwished-for results of the labours of the reformers. They were often far removed from or even in contradiction to all that they themselves thought to attain.

For we are merely attempting to clarify the part which religious forces have played in forming the developing web of our specifically worldly modern culture, in the complex interaction of innumerable different historical factors.

we only wish to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that spirit (the spirit of capitalism) over the world.

Weber probeer hier die saak uitmaak dat as gevolg van Luther se vertaling van die Bybel wat hy gemaak het en die woordjie roeping ‘n nuwe betekenis gegee het, heel onbewustelik, en so die nuwe manier van dink oor werk beinvloed het. Dat om jou roeping uit te voer ‘n manier is om God tevrede te stel en as jy nie jouself 100% daartoe commit om jou alles te gee vir jou werk nie, dan gee jy ook so nie jou alles vir God nie. Hierdie het gemaak dat met die Godsdiens wat die onderbou van die samelewing was dat die kapitalisme ‘n lelike en beheersende ding geraak het waaruit die mens nie kan ontsnap nie. Nou was dit nie meer kapitalisme wat die mens gedien het nie, maar die mens wat kapitalisme gedien het onder die dekmantel van Godsdiens. En dit was dan ook uitgebuit om mense so te verslaaf aan werk. Die mens kon later nie meer net terugsit en ontspan nie, want sodra jy ontspan minag jy die wil van God omdat jy nie jou roeping nakom nie. Eintlik ‘n baie bose manier van kyk na geloof. Maar daar moet besef word dat hierdie gladnie die doel van die Reformasie was nie, dit was bloot ‘n negatiewe byproduk wat onbewustelik gebeur het sonder dat dit die intensie van Luther was. Calvyn het egter die spyker verder in die kis ingeslaan, sonder Calvyn sou die Reformasie gladnie so sterk gewees het nie. Ons sal nou in die volgende hoofstukke kyk na die invloed van Calvinisme op die Kapitalisme.


Dit was dan Luther’s Conception of the Calling


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The Spirit of Capitalism


The Spirit of Capitalism


Definition must be gradually put together out of the individual parts which are taken from historical reality to make it up. Thus the final and definitive concept cannot stand at the beginning of the investigation, but must come at the end.

Let us pause a moment to consider this passage, the philosophy of which Kürnberger sums up in the words, “They make tallow out of cattle and money out of men”. The peculiarity of this  philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. This is the quality which interests us.

Capitalism existed in China, India, Babylon, in the classic world, and in the Middle Ages. But in all these cases, as we shall see, this particular ethos was lacking. Now, all Franklin’s moral attitudes are coloured with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.

According to Franklin, those virtues, like all others, are only in so far virtues as they are actually useful to the individual, and the surrogate of mere appearance is always sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view.

In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture.

Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.

The spirit of capitalism, in the sense in which we are using the term, had to fight its way to supremacy against a whole world of hostile forces.

At all periods of history, wherever it was possible, there has been ruthless acquisition, bound to no ethical norms whatever. Like war and piracy, trade has often been unrestrained in its relations with foreigners and those outside the group. The double ethic has permitted here what was forbidden in dealings among brothers.

Likewise the inner attitude of the adventurer, which laughs at all ethical limitations, has been universal.

The most important opponent with which the spirit of capitalism, in the sense of a definite standard of life claiming ethical sanction, has had to struggle, was that type of attitude and reaction to new situations which we may designate as traditionalism.

The opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less. He did not ask: how much can I earn in a day if I do as much work as possible? but: how much must I work in order to earn the wage, 2½ marks, which I earned before and which takes care of my traditional needs? This is an example of what is here meant by traditionalism.

Labour must, on the contrary, be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling.

In the past this was in every case an extremely difficult problem.17 And even today it could probably not get along without the support of a
powerful ally along the way, which, as we shall see below, was at hand at the time of its development.

In general it is otherwise, and that is a point of no little importance from our view-point, only with girls having a specifically religious, especially a Pietistic, background.

The ability of mental concentration, as well as the absolutely essential feeling of obligation to one’s job, are here most often combined with a strict economy which calculates the possibility of high earnings, and a cool self-control and frugality which enormously increase performance.

Nevertheless, we provisionally use the expression spirit of (modern) capitalism22 to describe that attitude which seeks profit rationally and systematically in the manner which we have illustrated by the example of Benjamin Franklin.

Even in the nineteenth century its classical representatives were not the elegant gentlemen of Liverpool and Hamburg, with their commercial fortunes handed down for generations, but the self-made parvenus of Manchester and Westphalia, who often rose from very modest circumstances. As early as the sixteenth century the situation was similar; the industries which arose at that time were mostly created by parvenus.

The form of organization was in every respect capitalistic; the entrepreneur’s activity was of a purely business character; the use of capital, turned over in the business, was indispensable; and finally, the objective aspect of the economic process, the book-keeping, was rational. But it was traditionalistic business, if one considers the spirit which animated the entrepreneur: the traditional manner of life, the traditional rate of profit, the traditional amount of work, the traditional manner of regulating the relationships with labour, and the essentially traditional circle of customers and the manner of attracting new ones. All these dominated the conduct of the business, were at the basis, one may say, of the ethos of this group of business men. Now at some time this leisureliness was suddenly destroyed, and often entirely without any essential change in the form of organization, such as the transition to a unified factory, to mechanical weaving, etc. What happened was, on the contrary, often no more than this: some young man from one of the putting out families went out into the country, carefully chose weavers for his employ, greatly increased the rigour of his supervision of their work, and thus turned them from peasants into labourers. On the other hand, he would begin to change his marketing methods by so far as possible going directly to the final consumer, would take the details into his own hands, would personally solicit customers, visiting them every year, and above all would adapt the quality of the product directly to their needs and wishes. At the same time he began to introduce the principle of low prices and large turnover. There was repeated what everywhere and always is the result of such a process of rationalization: those who would not follow suit had to go out of business. The idyllic state collapsed under the pressure of a bitter competitive struggle, respectable fortunes were made, and not lent out at interest, but always reinvested in the business. The old leisurely and comfortable attitude toward life gave way to a hard frugality in which some participated and came to the top, because they did not wish to consume but to earn, while others who wished to keep on with the old ways were forced to curtail their consumption.

The people filled with the spirit of capitalism to-day tend to be indifferent, if not hostile, to the Church.

But more often and, since that motive is not peculiar to them, but was just as effective for the traditionalist, more correctly, simply: that business with its continuous work has become a necessary part of their lives. That is in fact the only possible motivation, but it at the same time expresses what is, seen from the view-point of personal happiness, so irrational about this sort of life, where a man exists for the sake of his business, instead of the reverse.

Of course, the desire for the power and recognition which the mere fact of wealth brings plays its part.

The ideal type of the capitalistic entrepreneur, as it has been represented even in Germany by occasional outstanding examples, has no relation to such more or less refined climbers. He avoids ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition which he receives. His manner of life is, in other words, often, and we shall have to investigate the historical significance of just this important fact, distinguished by a certain ascetic tendency, as appears clearly enough in the sermon of Franklin which we have quoted. It is, namely, by no means exceptional, but rather the rule, for him to have a sort of modesty which is essentially more honest than the reserve which Franklin so shrewdly recommends. He gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well.

Now, how could activity, which was at best ethically tolerated, turn into a calling in the sense of Benjamin Franklin?

It might thus seem that the development of the spirit of capitalism is best understood as part of the development of rationalism as a whole, and could be deduced from the fundamental position of rationalism on the basic problems of life. In the process Protestantism would only have to be considered in so far as it had formed a stage prior to the development of a purely rationalistic philosophy.

The worldly rational philosophy of the eighteenth century did not find favour alone or even principally in the countries of highest capitalistic development. The doctrines of Voltaire are even to-day the common property of broad upper, and what is practically more important, middle-class groups in the Romance Catholic countries.

We are here particularly interested in the origin of precisely the irrational element which lies in this, as in every conception of a calling.

Kommentaar sal in die toekoms gelewer word.


Dit was dan The Spirit of Capitalism