Having now finished this book, I don’t entirely get what the big deal is. The argument runs as follows:

  1. There is a certain spirit that is vital to the life of capitalist societies. It is, roughly speaking, the spirit of the (idealized) Ben Franklin: work for its own sake, working for a calling, diligently saving, etc. It’s this spirit that Weber proposes to trace to its roots. He is explicitly not trying to chase down the origins of business, of industrial production, etc; as he notes, these have all existed in other times and places.
  2. This spirit comes from Calvinism specifically, less so from Lutheranism, and still less from Catholicism. Specifically, Calvin and his heirs transmuted Catholic monastic asceticism into a “worldly asceticism”. That is, rather than prove your devotion to God through quiet scholarly contemplation while holed up in a monastery, you proved that devotion by steady work toward a calling.
  3. Whereas Catholicism enables you to sin on Monday and be forgiven for it on Sunday, thereby leaving you free to sin again the next day, Calvinism requires a life that consistently and strategically aims at the greater glory of God. A Calvinist life is more totalizing, one might say, that Catholicism. It is thereby more in line with the requirements of capitalist life, where businessmen make plans that aim at the rational maximization of profit.

I think there’s an “only if” hidden in here that Weber doesn’t argue, but which would seem vital to the whole project. If the story is simply that “Protestantism carries with it a certain rationalizing spirit, and it also happens that capitalism requires this spirit,” then that would seem to be either a) confusing correlation with causation, or b) a nice coincidence that makes a fun story, nothing more. If there’s no “only if” here — if Weber isn’t telling us that capitalism requires Protestantism of a certain sort — then the story isn’t so interesting. Yes, these two strands of Western civilization sat comfortably alongside one another, but what of it?

To argue the only-if, Weber would have to show that non-Protestant societies simply lacked a fundamental piece, and that they would always be lacking an important piece of the capitalist spirit. Because again: suppose it happens that Confucian societies either a) develop the spirit that Weber calls classically Protestant, or b) don’t develop the Protestant spirit, but go on to successfully build capitalist societies. Then what happens to Weber’s story? I submit that it becomes much less interesting; it becomes a story of two developments — Calvinism and capitalism — that happened at the same time. Which is just not all that world-historically interesting a coincidence.

I could be missing something important here, but I don’t think I am. Much of [book: The Protestant Ethic] is devoted to spinning out this historical tale, so that the story from about Luther’s time to that of Franklin comes through with no gaps. But that just doesn’t seem so interesting to me. Its lack of interest reminds me a lot of Clark’s [book: A Farewell to Alms], which tries to argue that the Industrial Revolution began in England when it did because the English had genetically (sic) developed the bourgeois virtues (saving, breeding less) under ruthless selection pressure. Even granting this facially absurd premise, what of it? Does it mean that when Korea industrialized in the 1970s, it had also attained genetic superiority? If not, then, again, Clark is just telling us a nice story with no relevance beyond its time. That seems to be where Weber has left us.