The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

by

Max Weber

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Study Guide

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Introduction

A concise biography of Max Weber plus historical and literary context for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Themes

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Characters

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Brief Biography of Max Weber

Max Weber was born in 1864, the oldest of seven siblings, to a wealthy civil servant and an ascetic Calvinist mother. His father’s status as a public figure resulted in Weber growing up steeped in intellectual conversations about social development and politics. Weber was intelligent beyond his years and, as a result, was bored by school. Instead of doing his assignments, he read every volume of work that Goethe ever wrote, which reportedly shaped his thought for the rest of his life. In 1882, Weber began his secondary education, from which he graduated as a junior lawyer. In 1889, Weber earned his doctorate by writing an economic history of the Middle Ages. Within a few years, he became a lecturer at the University of Berlin and started consulting with the German government as an economist. He became involved in politics and social action, joining the leftist Evangelical Social Congress and arguing against Polish immigration into Germany, which he believed to be motivated by the wrong ideals. Other researches contracted him to study the economic aspects of the migration, and Weber began his rise to fame as a social scientist. In 1893, Weber married his cousin Marianne, who herself was an author, activist, and feminist, and organized and published much of his work after his death. Four years later, Weber’s father died only weeks after they had a terrible argument that remained unresolved. His father’s death and his own guilt seemed to contribute to severe and sudden depression and insomnia. Weber’s bout of mental illness forced him to leave his professorship and spend several months in a sanatorium in 1900. Weber returned to teaching a few years later, but soon had to leave again on account of his mental illness. However, during this time Weber produced his most famous works as he shifted his full focus to social science and understanding the modern age through historical developments. In 1904, Weber published the first version of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which marked the beginning of his study of religion as a primary social force. Weber continued as an independent academic until World War I, where he volunteered to serve as a reserve officer, in charge of logistics for Germany’s army hospitals. Although Weber initially supported the German war effort, before its end he became one of the leading critics of German imperialism. After the war, he made an unsuccessful political run, and then resumed his professorship in 1919. The following year, Weber contracted influenza and died of pneumonia at the young age of 56.
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Historical Context of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, criticizing what he viewed as corrupt doctrines and practices. His criticisms soon became famous across Germany and initiated the early stages of the Protestant Reformation, in which Christians all across Europe left the Catholic Church, rejecting its religious authority over life and society. Luther’s rebellion inspired a passionate frenzy, but also a sense of anarchy and religious rivalry across Europe. The French theologian John Calvin, working from Germany, built on Luther’s ideas to develop the doctrines now known as Calvinism, which Protestants loosely agreed upon in order to give shape to their newly liberated religious practice. Without the unifying force of the Catholic Church, Protestantism continually split and subdivided into more denominations and sects, most notably English Puritanism, which descended from Calvinism; Lutheranism, which held to Luther’s looser ideals; and Methodism, Pietism, The Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Baptists, all of which mixed and combined elements of Calvinism and Lutheranism. The development of the Quakers, Mennonites, and Baptists are particularly significant, since these denominations formed the basis of early American society, and led to American antagonism toward Catholics, which was seen during the influx of Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants in the 19th and 20th century.

Other Books Related to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Although Max Weber died during his most prolific years, he remains one of the pinnacle figures of modern sociology, especially as it applies to Western society. As in The Protestant Ethic, Weber continued his study of religion’s impact on social and economic behavior with his three subsequent volumes, The Religion of China, The Religion of India, and Ancient Judaism. Additionally, his wide-ranging collection of sociological theories, Economy and Society—finished and published posthumously by his wife, Marianne—continues his examination of religion’s formative role in society and politics. Weber is widely considered one of three key figures of modern sociology alongside Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. Durkheim innovated in the use of statistical data to track sociological patterns, which can be seen especially in his monograph, Suicide, which compares suicide patterns and rates among Protestant and Catholic populations. Durkheim also promoted the idea that society is a moral entity rather than merely a mass of people, and theorizes in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life on how to hold society together in the modern era, while religious and family ties dissolve. Marx is, of course, best known for his Critique of Political Economy, which takes many of Weber’s same reservations about capitalism and explores the inherent risks of capitalist society. Marx’s deep opposition to capitalism led him to write The Communist Manifesto, which was taken (and arguably distorted) to form the basis of modern Communism.
Key Facts about The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  • Full Title: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  • When Written: 1904
  • Where Written: Berlin, Germany
  • When Published: 1905
  • Literary Period: N/A
  • Genre: Sociology
  • Setting: Europe and America

Extra Credit for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Early Death. Although Weber finished his first edition of the book in 1904, it was not translated into English until 1930, 10 years after his death. Thus, he was not able to see the full effects of its influence and spread throughout sociological study.