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Index of Topics on Site Backup of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Criticisms of Weber's Thesis
By Sandra Pierotti
SOURCE: Georgia Tech
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Criticisms of Weber's Thesis
by Sandra Pierotti

Max Weber's theory of the part which Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, played in the development of a spirit of capitalism in western Europe has had a profound effect on the thinking of sociologists and historians since its publication in 1904. Many historians value its application of social theory to historical events and praise it for its attempt to explain why capitalism thrived in Europe and subsequently the United States and not as much in other places. Immanuel Wallerstein, for instance, drew heavily on Weber for explanations of the growth of capitalism into the modern economic world-system in his classic three volume work, The Modern World-System.

The criticisms of Weber's hypothesis have helped keep his ideas at the forefront of social theory. The repercussions have echoed throughout the academic world for almost 100 years and continue today. This paper will take a look at some of the criticisms of Weber's capitalism/protestantism theory from various points of view. I cannot begin to cover all of Weber's critics in the course of this paper, but I will present some representative criticisms of the theory.

Weber hypothesized that capitalism was a product of the western mind for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the Protestant Ethic. The Protestant Ethic spawned and encouraged what Weber called the "spirit of capitalism." By Weber's definition, this is more than simply capitalist activity. It is, in fact, the essence which underlies the economic system. During the long 16th century, this spirit became embodied in European society and provided the impetus for capitalism to emerge as the dominant economic system in the world.

For Weber, capitalism was more than simply an accumulation of wealth. It had in roots in rationality. In fact, Weber insisted that capitalism was the triumph of rationality over tradition. Explicit in his view of capitalism were a disciplined labor force and the regularized investment of capital. Weber asserted that this combination took place only in Europe and most strongly in Protestant nations, such as England, Holland, and Germany, where there were influential groups of ascetic Protestant sects.

Weber was influenced by the writings of Benjamin Franklin, in which he saw early indications of the spirit of capitalism before there was a capitalistic order in the American colonies. Weber quoted Franklin early in his work and based many of this ideas on Franklin's writings: For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds, provided you are a man of known prudence and honesty. He that spend a groat a day, spends idly above six pounds a year, which is the price for the use of one hundred pounds. He that wastes idly a groat's worth of his time per day, one day with another, wastes the privilege of using one hundred pounds each day. He that idly uses five shillings worth of time, loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw five shillings into the sea. He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantages that might be made by turning it in dealing, which by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount of a considerable amount of money. Weber then said, "Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one's way in the world, but a particular ethic... It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos." He continues, "The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling; and this virtue and proficiency are, as it is now not difficult to see, the real Alpha and Omega of Franklin's ethic."

One of the criticisms of Weber is that he misunderstood what Franklin was saying. In their article, "In Search of the Spirit of Capitalism: Weber's Misinterpre tation of Franklin," Tony Dickson and Hugh McLachlan disagree with Weber that Franklin was talking about an ethic in the selection quoted above. "Far from demonstrating a commitment to the 'spirit of capitalism,' and the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself and moral duty, Franklin's writings are in fact evidence against the existence of such a spirit." Dickson and McLachlan point out that the title of the work from which Weber quoted is "Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich." They assert, "This suggests that what Franklin is offering is prudential advice, rather than insisting on a moral imperative." The gist of Dickson's and McLachlan's argument is that Weber misinterpreted Franklin's writings as moral ends when they were simply virtues to be practiced because of the benefits they will bring to those who practice them. They deny that Franklin was preaching a Protestant work ethic and assert that all Franklin was saying was that if a person is interested in being successful in life and commerce, here are some virtues to follow.

Dickson and McLachlan conclude with a clear statement of their criticism of Weber's hypothesis:

It seems clear to us that Weber misinterprets Franklin and that the latter was not imbued with the ethos which Weber attributes to him. It is not in dispute that a methodological lifestyle is conducive to the accumulation of wealth. What is at issue concerning Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis is the impetus for such a lifestyle. Weber's misinterpretation of Franklin does not in itself invalidate his methodol ogy or his Protestant Ethic thesis. Nonetheless, it does suggest a rather cavalier attitude towards evidence, particularly as the writings of Franklin are the only 'evidence' that he presents in his original essays to demonstrate the existence of the 'spirit of capitalism'.

Most of the other criticisms of Weber rest on his assertion that modern capitalism could not have flourished in Europe without an ethic or spirit which had its roots in ascetic Protestantism. These criticisms themselves fall into two major categories: (1) that capitalism was a growing force before the Reformation and that it would have thrived as well under Catholicism as under Protestantism and (2) that the driving force behind capitalism was not ascetism but rationality.

H. M. Robertson, a historian at the University of Cape Town, asserted in "A Criticism of Max Weber and His School" that the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches stressed the same precepts in the 16th and 17th centuries. He states that Weber's assertion that the concept of the "calling" was novel to Luther and Protestantism was not established in Weber's writings. Robertson supports his thesis by quoting Aquinas: "There seems to be no essential difference between the doctrine of the Catholics and the Puritans on this point [the calling]. St. Thomas Aquinas' teaching on distributive justice was that:

This . . . division of men in different occupations occurs in the first place through divine providence, which distributes the condition of men in such a way . . . and also in the second place from natural causes, as a result of which it happens that there are different aptitudes for different occupations amongst different men." Robertson continues in support of his thesis: "The Jansenists . . . reminded their flocks that the Christian life was 'a serious life, a life of toil and not of diversion, play or pleasure' so that one ought never to forget that it 'should be filled with some useful and sober occupation suitable for one's state of existence.' The Jesuits stressed almost the same beliefs. In France the Church went out of its way to welcome the honest bourgeois on the ground that he was the only type of man who followed God's commands and lived in a 'calling'."

Amintore Fanfani, an economic historian in Rome, shared Robertson criticism of Weber but from a different aspect. In his article "Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism," Fanfani disagrees with Weber concerning the role that Protestant ism played in the development of a capitalist spirit in Europe. In the first paragraph, he states his argument:

Our investigations have led us to the conclusion . . . that Europe was acquainted with capitalism before the Protestant revolt. For at least a century capitalism had been an ever growing collective force. Not only isolated individuals, but whole social groups, inspired with the new spirit, struggled with a society that was not yet permeated with it. Once we have ruled out that Protestantism could have produced a phenomenon that already existed, it still remains for us to enquire whether capitalism was encouraged or opposed by Protestantism.

Fanfani goes on to argue that it was not the Protestant Ethic which encouraged the growth of capitalism but the fact that many Protestants were forced to leave Catholic countries to escape persecution which "fosters in the emigrants an internationalism that is no small element in capitalist mentality." In fact, he says that many early Protestant leaders opposed capitalism, including Luther and Calvin: "Luther's conservatism in economic matters, to which his patriarchal ideas on trade and his decided aversion to interest bear witness. Even Calvin . . . condemns as unlawful all gain obtained at a neighbor's expense, and the amassing of wealth." The Huguenots and Dutch Reformers also preached against various aspects of capitalism: ". . . through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find a continual repetition of the prohibitions of usury issued by the synods of the Huguenots and by those of the Dutch Reformers, whose ethical code also condemned even excessive labour, as robbing time and energy from the service of God, and held action born of desire for gain to be a sign of madness."

Fanfani agrees with Weber that capitalism flourished after the Reformation, but he parts ways with Weber as to the causes. Fanfani argues that capitalism as we know it today was born in the Italian merchant states under the religious umbrella of Catholicism, but he discounts the effect that religion of any kind had on the growth of capitalism as the major world economic system. He concludes his article by stating, "The creation of a new mentality in the economic field cannot therefore be considered as the work of Protestantism, or rather of any one religion, but it is a manifestation of that general revolution of thought that characterizes the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation, by which in art, philosophy, morals, and economy, the individual emancipates . . . himself from the bonds imposed on him during the Middle Ages."

Malcolm H. MacKinnon, bases his disagreements with Weber on the idea that Weber misinterpreted what the Calvinists were saying about the concept of the calling and good works. He states early on in his article,

There are two fundamental theological flaws in Weber's line of reasoning, flaws that mean that Calvinism did not give a divine stamp of approval to earthly toil: (1) There is no crisis of proof in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the dogmatic culmination of seventeenth-century Calvinism upon which Weber so heavily relies, and (2) in Christianity generally and Calvinism in particular, works have nothing to do with mundane activities. As soteriologically conceived in relation to salvation, works are spiritual activities that call for obedience to the Law. MacKinnon goes on to explain that Weber's major failure is his misunderstanding of the Calvinist meaning of the calling. Using the Westminster Confession as his primary source, MacKinnon explains what the term "calling" meant to the Calvinists: There is a heavenly calling and an earthly calling or callings, the latter disqualified from making a positive contribution to our deliver ance. . . Above all else, the devout must ensure that their mundane callings in no way impede the prosecution of the greatest good of all: their heavenly calling. Believers are sanctioned to "choose that employment or calling in which you may be most serviceable to God. Choose not that in which you may be most honorable in the world; but that which you may do most good and best escape sinning."

MacKinnon concludes by stating that it was Weber's misfortune to choose part of the Calvinist philosophy which, upon close examination, not only fails to support Weber's thesis but in fact undermines it. "Again, the significant point here is that temporal obligations are at best indifferent and at worst sinful; they cannot make a contribution to the realization of celestial paradise. It is a grim twist of irony that Weber would choose such a spiritually worthless vehicle to realize his causal ambitions."

R. H. Tawney, Weber's most famous critic, agreed with Weber that capitalism and Protestantism were connected. However, Tawney saw the connection going in the opposite direction from that which Weber postulated. Tawney, in his 1926 work, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, states that Protestantism adopted the risk-taking, profit-making ethic of capitalism, not the other way around. Tawney claims, with some good measure:

There was plenty of capitalist spirit in fifteenth century Venice and Florence, or in south Germany and Flanders, for the simple reason that these areas were the greatest commercial and financial centers of the age. The development of capitalism in Holland and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were due, not to the fact that they were Protestant powers but to large economic movements, in particular the Discoveries and the results which flowed from them."

The strongest connection that Tawney saw between capitalism and Protestantism was rationality. Protestantism was a revolt against traditionalism and as such advocated rationality as an approach to life and business. Tawney proposed that the rationality inherent in capitalism became a tenet of Protestantism because rationality was diametrically opposed to the traditionalism of Catholicism. Early Protestant leaders recognized that hard work and rational organization of time were capitalist virtues which fit very nicely into the concept of living one's life in the service of God. Tawney saw the capitalist concepts of division of labor and planned accumulation as being reflected in the dogma of Protestantism which urged its followers to use one's calling on earth for the greater glory of God. According to Tawney, capitalist precepts and Protestant dogma fit hand in glove.

As an historian, Tawney did not see a linear relationship between capitalism and Protestantism. He thought that Weber's thesis a little too simplistic to explain historical events. History tends to be non-linear, and attempts to draw straight casual lines between events are shaky at best. As Tawney put it, "The Protestant ethic, with its insistence on hard work, thrift, etc., had contributed to the rise of capitalism, but at the same time Protestantism itself was being influenced by an increasingly capitalistic society."

The last critic I will cite in this paper is an economic historian, Jacob Viner, who used pre-eighteenth century Scotland as a case study to demonstrate that where Calvinism was a state religion, it tended to have a restraining rather than a freeing effect on economic development. He quotes a letter from John Keats in support of his thesis: . . . the ecclesiastical supervision of the life of the individual, which, as it was practised in the Calvinistic State Churches almost amounted to an inquisition, might even retard that liberation of individual powers which was conditioned by the rational ascetic pursuit of salvation, and in some cases actually did so.

Viner points out that until well into the eighteenth century, Scotland was a desperately poor country. Contemporary commentators often remarked on the lack of economic initiative and ambition and on the general lack of enterprise and economic discipline of the population. Several of these reporters attributed Scotland's economic backwardness in large part to the deadening effect of Calvinist doctrine as forcibly applied by both Church and State. Viner quotes Henry T. Buckle who, in his 1857 treatise Introduction to the History of Civilization in England, wrote concerning the economic teachings of Scottish Calvinists in the seventeenth century as follows:

To wish for more than was necessary to keep oneself alive was a sin as well as a folly and was a violation of the subjection we owe to God. That it was contrary to His desire was moreover evident from the fact that He bestowed wealth liberally upon misers and covetous men; a remarkable circumstance, which, in the opinion of Scotch divines, proved that He was no lover of riches, otherwise He would not give them to such base and sordid persons. To be poor, dirty, and hungry, to pass through life in misery, and to leave it with fear, to be plagued with boils, and sores, and diseases of every kind, to be always sighing and groaning, . . . in a word [sic], to suffer constant affliction, and to be tormented in all possible ways; to undergo these things was deemed proof of good ness, just as the contrary was a proof of evil.

The opposition of Scottish Calvinism to capitalism was so well known in Europe that some English commentators such as Roger L'Estrange urged English businessmen to look at the record of the Scottish Presbyterians in interfering with commerce and industry for religious reasons before supporting Cromwell's cause.

In conclusion, the critics of Weber's Protestantism/capitalism theory have reasonable and logical criticisms. As a historian, I find the Tawney non-linear argument to be very compelling. There is no doubt that capitalism in various forms existed in Europe prior to the Reformation. The Italian merchants and the Dutch clothiers operated under a rational economic system. Double-entry bookkeeping was invented in Italy and adopted by other merchants throughout Europe. I think it is obvious that several factors were at work in Europe during the long sixteenth century, which led to the growth and dominance of capitalism.

All of this taken into consideration, Weber's thesis still stands. His thesis is not perfect; it has all the flaws pointed out by the above critics. However, none of the critics I have read managed to destroy the basic premise by which Weber sought to explain the growth of capitalism. Something happened in the long sixteenth century which saw an explosion of capitalist economic activity, free thought, and religious rebellion. Whether the relationship among these is causal or coincidental will be grounds for conjecture for years to come. History shows us that in fact those nations which were predominantly Protestant showed economic growth much greater than those which were predominantly Catholic. Even Jacob Viner's argument that the repressive nature of Scottish Calvinism does not damage Weber, since he acknowledged that once a religion becomes a creature of the state it then tends to oppress people rather than free them.


  1. Dickson, Tony and McLachlan, Hugh V. "In Search of 'The Spirit of Capitalism': Weber's Misinterpretation of Franklin," Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 1 (81-89).
  2. Giddens, Anthony. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
  3. Green, Robert W. Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics. Boston: D. C Heath and Company, 1959.
  4. Kitch, M. J. Capitalism and the Reformation. London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1967.
  5. Lehmann, Hartmut and Roth, Guenther. Weber's Protestant Ethic. Cam bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  6. Marshall, Gordon. In Search of the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
  7. Roth, Guenther and Schluchter, Wolfgang. Max Weber's Vision of History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
  8. awney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1926.
  9. Viner, Jacob. Religious Thought and Economic Society. Durham: Duke University Press, 1978.
  10. Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System, Vols 1-3. New York: Academic Press, 1974.
  11. Weber, Max (Darth). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

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