The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a book written by sociologist and economist Max Weber in 1904-1905. The original version was in German and was translated to English in 1930. It is often considered a founding text in economic sociology and sociology in general.
The Protestant Ethic is a discussion of Weber’s various religious ideas and economics. Weber argues that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. While Weber was influenced by Karl Marx, he was not a Marxist and even criticizes aspects of Marxist theory in this book.
Weber begins The Protestant Ethic with a question: What about Western civilization has made it the only civilization to develop certain cultural phenomena to which we like to attribute universal value and significance? Only in the West does valid science exist. Empirical knowledge and observation that exists elsewhere lacks the rational, systematic, and specialized methodology that is present in the West. The same is true of capitalism. In this context, capitalism does not refer to the pursuit of gain and greatest possible amount of money, but rather to the pursuit of forever-renewable profit. Economic action is therefore based on the amount of profit made. In this sense, capitalism has occurred in every civilization, however it is in the West that capitalism has developed to a degree that has never existed elsewhere. Weber sets out to understand what it is about the West that has made it so.
Weber found that, according to Protestant religions, individuals were religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation with as much enthusiasm as possible. A person living according to this worldview was more likely to accumulate money. Further, the new religions, such as Calvinism and Protestantism, forbade wastefully using hard earned money and labeled the purchase of luxuries as a sin. These religions also frowned upon donating money to the poor or to charity because it was seen as promoting beggary. The way these issues were resolved, Weber argued, was to invest the money, which would give a large boost to capitalism. In other words, capitalism evolved when the Protestant ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. The Protestant ethic was therefore the driving force behind the mass action that led to the development of capitalism.
Weber, Max. (1997). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.
SparkNotes Editors. (2011). “SparkNote on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” SparkNotes LLC. http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/protestantethic/.