Protestant Ethic

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The Protestant ethic, also called the work ethic, is a code of morals based on the principles of thrift, discipline, hard work, and individualism. The adjective Protestant is explained by the fact that these qualities were seen to have been especially encouraged by the Protestant religion, especially those denominations based on the tenets of Calvinism. The major formulators of the concept of the Protestant ethic were the German political philosopher and sociologist Max Weber and the English historian Richard H. Tawney. Both men saw a close relationship between the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism.

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Weber was impressed by the seeming fact that modern capitalism had developed mainly in those areas of Europe where Calvinistic Protestantism had taken root early in the Protestant Reformation. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905; rev. 1920; Eng. trans., 1930), Weber argued that a causal connection existed between the two; his concern was with the effect of religion on economic life, but he claimed that the reverse influences were equally important. Weber held that the doctrine of predestination, central to Calvinism, and the remote and unknowable Protestant God created intense anxieties in the individual regarding that person's state of grace. Practical means of reducing those anxieties took the form of a systematic commitment to a calling, that is, to hard work, thrift, and self-discipline, the material rewards of which were not consumed personally but saved and reinvested. Because these qualities were also those required for success in the newly emerging capitalist economy, it followed that these practicing Calvinists should also form the nucleus of the new capitalist class. Furthermore, success in the commercial world tended to assure the individual that he or she was in fact in a state of grace because God had smiled on his or her endeavors. Weber theorized that with the waning of a religious world view, the Protestant ethic remained as "the spirit of capitalism."

Weber's theories, first put forth in 1905, were widely circulated, defended, and criticized. Tawney's major work on the subject, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, was published in 1926. Tawney basically agreed with Weber, although he put less emphasis on the causal relationship between Protestantism and capitalism and less emphasis on the Calvinism. He pointed out that modern capitalism had begun to emerge long before the Protestant Reformation; he cited such 15th-century commercial centers as Venice, Florence, and Flanders as examples of this emerging capitalism. According to Tawney, the fact that the established churches--the Roman Catholic church on the Continent and the Anglican church in England--were so closely allied with the old landholding aristocracy caused the newly emerging middle class to gravitate toward the new Protestant sects. In sum, the two institutions developed side by side, without one "causing" the other.

The idea of the Protestant ethic has had substantial influence in 20th-century history, sociology, and political science. Nationalism and socialism, for example, are seen by some as being secular ethics affecting types of economic development. Other theorists focus on the relative decline of capitalist economic influence in the United States and Great Britain, a result, they claim, of a deterioration in the Protestant ethic among the peoples of those countries.

David Westby

Eisenberger, Robert, Blue Monday: The Loss of the Work Ethic in America (1989); Eisenstadt, Schmuel N., ed., The Protestant Ethic and Modernization; A Comparative View (1968); Green, Rupert W., ed., Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics (1959); Jacobs, Norman, The Origin of Modern Capitalism and Eastern Asia (1958; repr. 1980); Samuelsson, Kurt, Religion and Economic Action: A Critique of Max Weber, trans. by E. G. French (1961).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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