Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Week's Book: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Feels good to be ahead on this one. May that trend continue. I can't cover nearly all the issues presented in this book in this medium so here's a teaser.

August 19-25: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

Politics (1904 - 183 pp.) 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism marks an entry into the political science annals that is more interdisciplinary than anything. It showcases Max Weber's research into history, sociology and comparative religion*, as well as a qualitative theory that invites quantitative. I do not know of any such quantitative study being done, although it seems like such a massive undertaking that Weber's essay will have to suffice. As with An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, this tract has been covered quite well academically by people far more qualified than me, so my purpose here is to flesh out value to the more general reader. There is no rule that someone has to be an academic to appreciate topics like morality, society and religion, after all. 

The underlying question, of how to explain the correlation Weber sees between Protestantism's prominence in states and their adoption of capitalist and especially industrial economies, is one that must have felt very relevant in 1904. Even so, the schools of thought developed throughout are seen in different Western Christian sects today. Much of the book focuses on the translation of monastic asceticism into various Protestant values, and much of the rest focuses on different sects' attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth. The morality, immorality and/or amorality of acquiring wealth is notable in its sway within sects, such as in considering the difference in a Puritan's spending habits versus a Catholic's. Weber identifies key passages that explain root causes of differences like these, while never abandoning deference to the typical criticism that it is not religion that influences economics but the other way around. 

Weber is friendlier to the Protestant cause, which shows in his sometimes rough treatment of Catholic beliefs. The analogy of a Catholic priest to a magician is likely his most hostile assertion here. His treatment of the various Protestant sects is cooler, yet he is not shy to point out any perceived contradiction therein. His treatment of John Wesley raises the timeless problem of the virtues of industry and frugality coexisting with the sin of riches - a conundrum that it is worth noting does not exist within Catholicism. Notions of monasticism being sinful in light of a duty to a place in society are similarly cast. 

Where the value lies to the non-academic, and even to the non-specialist, is in seeing how passages from various historical figures have resonated in our world ever since. The issues Weber presents are too numerous to discuss in full detail here, so I have merely outlined a few that look particularly interesting at a quick glance. The intertwining of religion, society and economy never really started and will never really end. Although 1904 seems like a long time ago, and Weber's time period shows through in the language, the concepts he presents are his perspective on nearly universal moral problems. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 10 

*Inasmuch as comparing Catholicism to various Protestant sects can be styled "comparative religion", of course.

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