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Asceticism And The Spirit Of Capitalism Analysis Essay

Max Weber's main thesis in "Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism " (chapter 5 of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism") is that the meaning imposed my people and cultures on their beliefs and values has great influence on the manner in which they perceive their reality and act within it. Weber demonstrates his thesis on the case of the ascetic Protestants, especially Calvinistic ones, in order to show how their behavior is the result of a religious ideology which they took upon themselves and which directed they're daily activities.

Max Weber does not deny Marx's material explanations of history, but he does feel that they are a bit one-sided and one-dimensional. Weber would like to add that beyond means and relations of production and so forth there are cultural and religious factors which hold great weight in shaping social life.

According to Weber, Calvinistic principles emphasized work as an ascetic mean to avoid temptation and as the purpose of human existence. Work was for them a moral issue, a divine decree which is imposed on all, rich and poor. Accordingly, the division of labor was perceived as part of the divine program on earth and therefore fulfilling one's part in it was doing god's biding. According to the Protestant ethic you were supposed to play your assigned role in life in order to do your part for the common good. This means two things that are very important for capitalism: 1. There more important and significant your job is the more god likes you. 2. The better you are at your job the better you are as a person. Both these implications can be measure in financial terms: if you have money – it means that you are a good person.

Profit and wealth are thus perceived by the Protestant ethic as a sign of god's grace. Prosperity is an indication that you are on god's good side and that you will be redeemed in the afterlife. Furthermore, wealth is good and justified if it is used for generating more wealth, and not for idle hedonistic enjoyments. This is of course also very important for capitalism, as Weber notes.  

According to Weber the ascetic ideology denounces luxury and ostentatious wealth and opposes unfairness and greed. This approach relates negatively to both feudal nobility and beggars which live at the expense of others. The ascetic ideology according to Weber is favorable towards the hard working, law abiding rational bourgeois that accumulate wealth through diligences and frugality. Leisure is only tolerable in the eyes of the ascetic ethic, and it is allowed only as long as it does not lead to indulgence or empty enjoyment.   

For Weber, capitalism is the ascetic spirit stripped from its religious origins. The protestant decree of behaving according to one's business interests as a form of reverence aided in legitimizing capitalistic inequality. The bourgeois rich can now enjoy both worlds: material gains and moral virtue.        

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber is one of the world's most famous studies in social science, competing for the first place with works such as Capital by Karl Marx and Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. What accounts for its fame and that "the Protestant work ethic" has become a common expression in many languages? First of all, there is the bold and counterintuitive thesis in Weber's work: religion helped to create modern capitalism. The story of how the link between religion and capitalism came into being is also constructed in a very dramatic way, with the earnest Protestant believer looking for signs to please God, and discovering that hard work and profit-making are such signs.

Second, The Protestant Ethic addresses and tries to explain why modern people live in a world where two of the most central and cherished values are hard work and profit-making, regardless of one's political and religious beliefs. There is finally an additional quality to The Protestant Ethic that is harder to put one's finger on, but which is nonetheless there. It has to do with its capacity to simultaneously convince and enervate people. From the moment that it was published, Weber's study has led to a stormy debate that is still going on. Its readers either admire the arguments in The Protestant Ethic or dislike them. 

The ambivalent reception of The Protestant Ethic has no doubt thrived on the subtlety of Weber's argument. A quick summary of his work would read as follows. During the 16th to 19th century in Europe certain religious ideas emerged that Weber refers to as ascetic Protestantism. These were not only religious; they also helped to strengthen and spread a radically new type of mentality to economic affairs that would radically change the nature of capitalism, as it had been known till then.

While people had earlier approached economic issues in a traditional manner, be it issues relating to the management of their households or interactions in the market place, this now came to an end. From now on, a very rational and methodical type of economic mentality appeared. Once this mentality had grown strong, it helped to accelerate Western capitalism into becoming a new and formidable dynamic force that would change the world in profound ways.

While originally there was an explicit link between religion in the form of ascetic Protestantism and the economy, according to Weber, this would soon change. Today, he says, people live in a cosmos in which you have to work hard and reinvest your money, or you will go under in the relentless competition that exists. Religion no longer has anything to do with modern, rational capitalism.

The ascetic Protestants, who played a key role in helping this new "spirit of modern, rational capitalism" to come into being, consisted of a small number of people organized in sects or sect like churches, such as Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism and various Baptist sects. Their beliefs were similar to Lutheranism, Weber says, in that they all saw man's work on earth as a religious task, something that began with the Reformation and had its roots in Luther's famous translation of the Bible.

But the beliefs of the ascetic Protestants differed from those of the Lutherans in that they were not traditional in their approach life. Instead they were strongly rational and methodical in everything they did, whether it was religious tasks or political and economic tasks. While Luther wanted people to render unto God the things that are God's, and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, the approach of the ascetic Protestants was different. They were truly radical and not traditional in spirit; and if the secular lords did not behave in accordance to the Bible, they should not be obeyed. 

The ascetic Protestants could be found in countries such as Switzerland, England, the Netherlands and, from the 1600s and onwards (but not discussed by Weber in this study), also in the United States. In all of these sects the great motivating force of ascetic religion somehow also got linked to the force of profit-making and the idea that working hard is a way of honoring God. The result was a tremendous social force that made it possible for modern rational capitalism to ideologically emerge as the most important institution in the West, displacing the Church once and for all.

As soon as it was published in 1904-1905, The Protestant Ethic was criticized; and the debate still goes on today, more than a century later. Why, it was asked, did this new type of modern dynamic capitalism only emerge in the West and not, say, in China or India? Do not these countries have religions that are similar to Protestantism in beinmg rational and disciplined, such as Confucianism, Shintoism, Jainism and so on? And even if they do not, does not Japan (and today China) show that the modern type of capitalism can also emerge outside the West?

As far as the West itself was concerned, it was wondered, why just ascetic Protestantism played the key role in ushering in modern capitalism and not, say, Catholicism, Judaism or Protestantism in general (including Lutheranism)? And anyway, where were Weber's empirical proofs for all of this? More precisely, how do we know that the Calvinists, Baptists and so on indeed looked for signs, that they saw successful profit-making as one of these signs, and that their methodical and ascetic mentality then spread to other people and helped to create and spread this alleged new "spirit of capitalism"? Answers have been given to all of these questions, but the debate still continues.

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