There’s a weird disconnect between the most widely read of Max Weber’s works, and what I understand to be the most influential. Granted that I’m not a professional sociologist, but most of what I see cited among Weber’s works are “Politics as a Vocation,” containing Weber’s famous definition of a state as a human community claiming a monopoly over legitimate violence in a defined area; and “Bureaucracy,” which contains Weber’s description of the modern civil service and contrasts it with older forms of government where people claim office through, for instance, family relationships. (By the way, I’m not sure if I ever endorsed Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay. They take those two essays of Weber’s as their starting point, and they’re really exceptional books—the first more than the second.)

All of which is to say that the works of Weber’s that people still care about are those which map out the functioning of modern government in industrial democracies, whereas the main work of Weber’s that everyone is expected to know is The Protestant Ethic. The thing about The Protestant Ethic is that it’s not very good. At best it feels like an observation about a historical curiosity: this particular thing (the Industrial Revolution) happened in these specific societies (Protestant ones), but not in these others (Catholic ones, or in Asia) during this specific window of time (the early 1800s). So what? Other nations (Japan and South Korea, say) have also industrialized, with vastly different backgrounds. Protestant Ethic has some things going for it, among them that it contrasts the intentions of the individual actors with the aggregate outcome of their behaviors: early-modern Protestants practiced thrift and worked hard for religious reasons, and as an unintended side effect they produced the Industrial Revolution. Even if the substance of the argument is wrong, there’s some value in that way of thinking—the same way we often hear that even if Freud is wrong, it was still novel to discover a subconscious. On the other hand, Adam “Invisible Hand” Smith was already contrasting the intentions of the actors with their aggregate outcomes, so this alone wouldn’t be novel in The Protestant Ethic.

In any case, my sense is that Weber’s real long-lasting impact comes from his mapping the structure of modern bureaucratized industrial democracies, not from a (seems to me) rather fanciful story about the origins of the Industrial Revolution. Yet when I told a friend recently that I was reading the classic sociologists, including Weber, but that I was specifically not reading the Protestant Ethic (having read it previously), he arched his eyebrow and gave me a funny look. My hunch is that sociologists would support my approach.

Something similar, it seems to me, is the case with Kafka: the word “Kafkaesque” is normally used to describe interactions with a faceless nightmare state, because the Kafka that people are thinking of there is his story “The Trial”. But the only Kafka that people are assigned in school is “The Metamorphosis”. I wonder how often this sort of mismatch between popularity and import happens.