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November 1998

This one’s a bit of a rush job dealing with Weber, Capitalism, Protestantism and Confucianism. But still worth a read…



Discuss Weber’s comparative sociology of world religions and his argument that religious ethics have implications for social transformations or their inhibition.

Max Weber’s interest in religion was not from a theological perspective. He focused upon whether religious belief could have implications for secular human relations and activities, particularly, but not exclusively, in the realm of economics. His research and analysis of the Protestant religion and the effect it had imposed upon Western society culminated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It was followed by a continuation of the theme and a comparative approach to religion in the three volumes of Economic Ethics of the World Religions, translated into English as The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: Hinduism and Buddhism, and finally Ancient Judaism. His untimely death in 1920 meant that a continuation and further development was never completed. "He had planned, at the very least, comparable studies of Islam, of Early Christianity and of Medieval Catholicism."(1)

Since its publication, originally in two parts in 1904 and 1905, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has attracted a great deal of praise, criticism and misguided attention. Much of the misguidance stemmed from the timing of the publication and its subsequent translations. It was only later, with the piecemeal publications of Economic Ethics and the World Religions that the scope of Weber’s ambitious project began to be realised. An essay of this length can never attempt to do justice to the vast array of the issues raised and the analytical complexities of Weber thought and work without severely limiting the boundaries of the elements to be discussed. This essay has therefore been limited the discussion to Weber’s views on capitalism in reference specifically to Protestantism and Confucianism.

Within The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber looked at modernity and considered the rationality that had produced modern European civilisation. The civilisation of the Occident was unique, despite its similarities with other historic and geographically different cultures. Within the realms of science, politics, art and even architecture, the West was at a far more advanced stage of development than elsewhere in world history. Yet this had not always been the case, for tremendous "knowledge and observation of great refinement (had) India, China, Babylonia (and) Egypt"(2) long before they had developed in the West. However, it is only in the Occident that knowledge had been rationally systemised and its pursuit efficiently advanced by the specialisation of trained personnel. This rationalisation that had developed with such radical consequences in the West, Weber believed had also transformed "the most fateful force in our modern life,"(3) capitalism.

Capitalism was not the simple pursuit of gain, a quite natural, but irrational impulse "common to all sorts of conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth."(4) For Weber, the use of the term capitalism was meant to imply modern capitalism, a form distinguished by the rational approach to a continuous pursuit of profit. Each capitalistic venture in modernity was only undertaken after calculations of likely return had been made and this was only possible, with any form of reliable predictability, once all commodities had been monetized and a rational legal system in operation. Rational accountancy in the form of double-entry bookkeeping was also a prerequisite, as well as the availability of free labour that could be efficiently organised, as and when the necessity arose.

Weber’s definition of capitalism can be criticised in a number of ways. However, as with a great deal of Weber’s work, much of this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what he was attempting to achieve. Examples of modern capitalism that do not exactly match his definition can, and have, been produced. One could even go so far as to say that in reality, all forms of capitalism deviate from Weber’s definition to a greater or lesser extent. However, Weber never intended his definition to be a strictly accurate reflection of modern capitalism, but an analytical construct, or ‘ideal type’. The use of an ideal type was one of Weber’s basic methods for the historical-comparative studies in the aforementioned writings. He uses the ideal type of modern capitalism as a standard to which he compares the actual economic features in the area under study.

Despite his intellectual background and extensive studies, Weber was not wholly interested in the way modern capitalism operated in The Protestant Ethic. His main focus was an attempt to explore, and thus explain, the reasons why social action had altered from ‘traditional’ to rational action. Everything before modernity he defined as traditional, which had been responsible for an overwhelming and stifling grip upon society. Past traditional societies were characterised economically by irrational methods of trade which by-passed the majority of the population, especially those in rural areas. The market during this time was an administered market without any form of a ‘supply and demand’ mechanism in operation. Amongst the wealthy, the aristocracy spent lavishly, surrounding themselves with luxuries to outwardly exhibit their prestige and symbolise their power. The business activities of wealthy merchants, classified as ‘adventurer’ capitalism, "encompassed the conquest, robbery, and enslavement of comparatively defenceless non-European people (as well as) private and joint-stock voyages of exploration."(5) Other forms of traditional capitalism included ‘booty’ capitalism, which primarily acquired wealth through the spoils of war, and "political" capitalism in the form of, amongst other activities, the proceeds of tax farming. The traditional poor, dependent upon time and geographic location, were either slaves, serfs or occasional workers, living very much on a day to day, hand to mouth basis.

Weber insisted that the transition from traditional to modern methods of living had not been inevitable, but had relied upon a number of factors that had developed and were in place at a particular time and place. Weber’s historical research had shown that many of the rational elements that he considered fundamental to capitalism, had existed, and had even culminated, at various times throughout history. However, he singled out the contrasting differences in the attitude towards work. Traditionally, in order to live and to maintain accustomed standards, work was seen by the majority of the populace as a necessary chore. The presence of a work-ethic within modern society however, he attributed to the asceticism of the Protestant religion, specifically within the Lutheran and the Calvinist branches.

Luther’s translation of the Bible and his activity as a reformer had placed emphasis upon the concept of a ‘calling’. The highest form of morality, and the only way to serve God, was to carry out your individual ‘calling’ by "the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs."(6) If this entailed labour in your ‘calling’, which was generally the norm, then Luther viewed this as "an outward expression of brotherly love"(7); thereby, somewhat naively, legitimising the division of labour as every individual working for everybody else. The individual’s position in society could effect the form of obligations expected of him, but did not alter the validity of his individual calling in the sight of God. Weber did not suggest that Luther had any direct connection with the development of modern capitalism, however, the concept of the ‘calling’ was embraced by "his spiritual successors in Calvinism."(8)

Weber’s study of Calvinist belief and practise was typically thorough and detailed. The Calvinist interpretation of the ‘calling’ was emphatic towards an ascetic mode of duty fulfilment. Piously puritanical, followers of Calvin applied strict self-discipline to the calling and rigorously regulated their actions. Calvinist theology also had the additional factor of predestination. Calvin interpreted the doctrine of original sin as the damnation of mankind. However, the death of Jesus had insured the salvation of a chosen few, the ‘elect’, effectively dismissing the idea of salvation by works held by most forms of Christianity, particularly Catholicism. The Calvinist church was open to all, although salvation was never guaranteed. The elect were unknown to all but God, and thus, acted as an ‘invisible church’ whose members were unaware of their own inclusion.

In Protestantism the doctrine of salvation by faith had replaced salvation by works. Calvinists, anxious of their own salvation, felt that if they worked for the glory of God, an act of faith, and proved to be successful, this would be interpreted as an outward sign of God’s grace, assuring them of their membership among the elect. The self-confidence gained through success was reinforced with the knowledge and teachings that to doubt one’s membership of the elite was a sign that you had not been chosen. Calvinism thus produced "a rationalised theory of life, an intensified mood for work and a quasiascetic discipline which accompanies both theory and mood."(9)

The predestination element within Calvinism equipped them with the tremendous psychological strength and determination to break from the traditional modes of life. It is unsurprising that Calvinist communities quickly became relatively wealthy. However, Calvin, a wealthy and successful man himself, did not advocate wealth, but a pious attitude and enforced the idea that the acquisition of wealth was purely a sign, not an end in itself. He also condemned the aristocratic traditional symbols of wealth, such as to surround oneself with luxuries and its accompanying idleness.

Weber quoted Benjamin Franklin’s Necessary Hints To Those That Would Be Rich (1736) and Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748) on how to conduct oneself in the economical sphere. Franklin stressed the importance of honesty, punctuality, frugality and justice in all industrial and business dealings. Consistent work is a necessity for increasing profit, which is then ‘turned’ or invested repeatedly to produce greater and greater profits. For Weber, Franklin represented the spirit of capitalism "in almost classical purity."(10) Weber claimed that although the Calvinists actively sought trade, systemised the work process and introduced a number of methods of modern capitalism, they did not introduce the process of capitalism itself. Their importance, for Weber, is that they introduced the ‘spirit’ of capitalism. A capitalism for neither greed, nor riches, but a capitalism for its own sake.

The introduction of the spirit of capitalism, even to the Calvinist minority of the population, went on to radically transform society. The Calvinists were happy to create employment, if their profit margins were increased by doing so, and were not insular in their choice of employee. By employing from outside their religious community, they were able to instil their rigorous discipline and ‘spirit’ upon their workforce. Other traditional capitalists had to adapt their methods and attitudes and take a more rational approach, or else find they soon faced bankruptcy. This perpetuated the modern form of capitalism which, once in action, spread and continued without the need for the Calvinist ethos.

Weber’s sociology of the other world religions continually reverts back to his own conclusions in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He describes the development of the various cultures in consideration as well as their material conditions at various points, or stages, in their history. This is not his only interest in China, India and Ancient Judaism for Weber’s inquisitive mind led him to study a variety of non-religious aspects of each society. As C. K. Yang noted, The Religion of China "was devoted chiefly to characterising various aspects of Chinese society and their contrast with analogous parts in the Western and other societies, and religion was taken up only in occasional sections."(11)

Weber discovered a number of personal freedoms in Chinese society that could have aided the development of bourgeois capitalism.(12) Freedom of occupational choice, freedom from status restriction by birth and the freedom of migration could be seen as encouraging the formation of a mobile and ambitious workforce. Yet despite the presence of these ‘ideal’ factors within Chinese society, together with the absence of restrictive legislation on trade, the capitalist potential was never fulfilled. Traditional forms of capitalism, similar to the traditional Occidental forms, had existed at various times during China’s history, particularly during the period of the Warring Kingdoms, but had failed to mature and had, in many respects, regressed after China’s political unification under the Emperor.

Weber put forward many reasons why capitalism did not evolve in China and it is worth briefly mentioning at least one secular point; the importance of the sib or kinship group in Chinese society. The sib could be seen as an autonomous unit in the sense that "the sib had the unquestionable right to lay down the law for its members"(13) and could inflict punishment internally, as it saw fit. This strongly cohesive unit was protective of its members and would rally to defend them from external agitation. It also constructed a powerful sense of loyalty and dependence from its members by assisting them both economically, for example in the form of free credit and socially, through, amongst other functions, the provision of doctors and schools, as well as maintaining the traditional ceremonies. In many ways, this reliance of the individual upon the functions of his sib stripped the members’ capacity to develop his own individuality, a prerequisite of modern capitalism. The most significant hindrance to capitalism from the sib however, was the power of the elders. It was the elders who made the decisions on how the sib performed and reacted both internally and externally as a unit. Innovations, whether religious, social or economic, were accepted or rejected by the elders and so "Naturally, and almost without exception, their weight tipped the balance in favour of tradition."

When Weber does turn his attention to Chinese religion, he provided an outline of the history of Confucianism with particular focus upon those beliefs and attitudes that may have had some influence upon economic activity. Strictly speaking, it is misleading to discuss Confucianism as a theistic religion, as one would of Protestantism, as it lacks a metaphysical foundation. Confucianism is, however, an ethical doctrine and in this sense has implications for secular human relations and activities in a similar manner to religion. Without the role of a deity, ‘the spirits of the cosmos’ being the only remnants of an ancient belief in metaphysical deities, Confucianism perceives the world as essentially ordered, fixed and inviolate. "The great spirits of the cosmic orders desired only the happiness of the world and especially the happiness of man."(14) Society was the only exception to this worldview and effort was needed to create a society that fitted with the ordered, ‘happy’, perception of the world. Coercion disrupted the desired peace and tranquillity and was therefore only legitimate if orchestrated by the state to preserve the ordered status quo.

With acceptance of the world as it is and the preservation of society by the state and sib, man was encouraged to develop his ‘true nature’ by adjusting himself to the surrounding ‘happiness’. Education was the key to this development and the well-educated man was considered a good and virtuous man. A form of quite sophisticated rationality did emerge from this intensified educational activity and should, by Weber’s own analysis, have aided the development of capitalism. Indeed, "Confucianism has produced theories of supply and demand, of speculation and profit, which sound very modern."(15) The acquisition of wealth was generally praised in Chinese society, for a wealthy populace reflected well upon the administration of the state. However, the entrepreneurial attitude, as advocated by Calvinists such as Franklin, would, if it had been known, have been treated with some reservation. The success of a capitalist endeavour(16) is not guaranteed and this element of risk shakes "the poise and harmony of the soul".(17)

There were many aspects of ascetic Protestantism that opposed Confucian belief and thus, by Weber’s analysis, prevented the development of modern Capitalism. The profit-driven Calvinist mentality of searching for outward signs of predestined salvation would have not been understood or considered distasteful by the Confucian. Western missionaries travelling to China seeking converts had found great difficulty in trying to install a sense of sin and salvation into Confucian consciousness. This is because in Confucianism there is no concept of ‘sin’, only faults in man through poor education. There is therefore no wish for salvation, in the Christian sense, only a desire to be respected in death. Weber’s ‘ideal capitalism’ had considered specialisation as a prerequisite, however, "Confucian virtue based upon universality or self-perfection, was greater than the riches to be gained by one-sided thoroughness."(18)

Despite, the differences between the two beliefs, they both shared a number of factors Weber felt were relevant to the development of capitalism. Not least in their inherent rationality, that had led to the demise in the importance of magic for Confucianism and its systematic liquidation in Protestantism. However, their view of the world and their own part in it was an unbridgeable chasm. The rationality of Confucianism accepted the world and adapted to fit in with the nature of things. Self-control and improvement through education would achieve "long life, health, wealth and a good name after death, the ultimate objectives for the Confucian this-worldly struggle."(19) Tradition was not only adhered to, but also respected and promoted ethically and socially. By contrast, the Protestant ethic had created enormous inner-strength and self-confidence amongst its followers. This, combined with their pious and relentless enthusiasm had broken the "Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by renewed sin" and freed them from the tyranny of tradition.

Weber’s underlying aim in the Religion of China appeared to have been to demonstrate how, even when the components of modern capitalism are in place, they fail to reach their potential without the element of an aesthetic ethos to break from the traditional mode of thought and activity.





1) Talcott Parsons Introduction to Max Weber – THE SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION (Beacon Press, 1964) p.xxi

2) Max Weber – THE PROTESTANT ETHIC AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM (Unwin University Books, 1970) p.13

3) Ibid. p.17

4) op. cit. p.17

5) Gordon Marshall – IN SEARCH OF THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM (Hutchinson & Co., 1982) p.111


7) Ibid. p.81

8) op. cit. p.87

9) Kemper Fullerton – Calvinism and Capitalism: An Explanation of the Weber Thesis found in



11) C. K. Yang Introduction to Max Weber - THE RELIGION OF CHINA (The Free Press, 1968) p.xix

12) It is notable how the term ‘modern’ or ‘industrial’ capitalism found in The Protestant Ethic is substituted for ‘bourgeois’ or ‘industrial bourgeois’ in The Religion of China.

13) Max Weber – THE RELIGION OF CHINA p.88

14) Ibid. p.153

15) op. cit. p.159

16) Weber uses the term ‘economic acquisitiveness’

17) Max Weber – THE RELIGION OF CHINA p.160

18) Ibid. p.161

19) C.K. Yang – op. cit.





S. Andreski (Ed)



(George Allen & Unwin, 1983)


Robert W. Green (Ed)


(D.C. Heath & Co. 1959)


Gordon Marshall


(Hutchinson & Co. 1982)


Kurt Samuelsson


(Scandinavian University Books, 1961)


R.H. Tawney


(Penguin Books, 1961)


Max Weber


(Unwin University Books, 1970)


(Free Press, 1968)


(Free Press, 1968)


(Beacon Press, 1964)

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