The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism Max Webers original theory on the rise of Capitalism in Western Europe has been an often studied theory. In its relationship to Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, Webers theory has been in scholarly debate since its release in 1904. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism puts forth not capitalism as an institute, but as the precursor to the historical origins of capitalism. Webers attempts to use statistical data, as well as church doctrine to prove his theory, has been the foundation for the main arena of debate amongst his peers. Weber, although touching on other religions and countries, specifically focuses on the Reformation and its correlation to the dominance of capitalism in Western civilizations. He centers his work on the thesis that the chances of overcoming traditionalism are greatest on account of the religious upbringing, thus it is worthwhile to ask how this connection of adaptability to capitalism with religious factors occurred in the early days of capitalism(1).
This break with tradition could be attributed to the calling as depicted in the Protestant faith. Weber believes Protestants saw the calling as finally sanctifying the earning of a profit and as a sign of salvation. In this, he saw a breaking of the backward-sloping supply curve for labor by instilling a new work ethic and the bringing forth of capitalistic values. Amintore Fanfani in his critical work Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism disagrees with Weber on the role Protestantism played in the development of capitalism. He argues that Europe was acquainted with capitalism before the Protestant revolt and thus we have ruled out that Protestantism could have produced a phenomenon that already existed(2).
He does agree that capitalism acquired prominence after the Reformation; however, he attributes the success to Italian merchants who operated under Catholicism decades earlier. Fanfani believes this discredits the influential aspects of religion on capitalism, and instead credits that general revolution of thought that characterizes the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation, by which in art, philosophy, morals, and economy, the individual emancipateshimself from the bonds imposed on him during the Middle Ages(2). Arguments could be made on Webers behalf that it was the Reformation that emancipated Protestants from the bonds of Catholic ritual. The removal of the Catholic priest necessitated Protestants to acquire a higher degree of learning for their own salvation. An education combined with divine sanction towards profit and a sinful attitude towards idleness would only lead towards a diligent work ethic. It can be inferred, in this rebuttal, that the Reformation may have been a guiding factor in the Renaissance and therefore Fanfanis argument would be inclusive of Webers theory.
The argument that capitalism existed before the Reformation is valid, but Fanfani is discussing it as a definition where as Weber discusses it as driving force. Webers thoughts, that rationality being a basis for capitalism, inspired him to use several quotes from Ben Franklin early in his work. In where, even before there was a strong capitalistic foundation formed in the colonies, Weber found Franklins writings to be infused with the prudence of rationality. From Franklins work Necessary Hints to Those That Would be Rich Weber quotes: For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds, provided you are a man of known prudence and honesty He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantages that might be made by turning it in dealing, which by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount of a considerable amount of money(3). Webers critiques Dickson and McLachlan deny that Franklin is preaching a Protestant work ethic, and suggest that by the title of Franklins work he is merely suggesting prudent advise. Yet, it is that prudent advise that fits neatly into Webers definition of capitalism in where he states that one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on peaceful chances of profit and pursuit of profit and forever renewed profits through continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise(1). Dickson and McLachlan, like many other critiques, dont take into account that although Weber attempts to prove a statistical and specific point as to the origin of capitalism, its a generalization he refers to.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism must be taken as a whole work, additions and explanations of this work given at a later date by Weber must also be included. Webers work is theoretical. It is based on one mans view of the evidence, and must be taken as a whole, and as a theory. Whether or not the Protestant ideal was the complete basis for capitalist domination can never be fully proven. Webers discussion of Protestantism, as a factor in capitalism, cannot be discredited either. Even though statistical and historical facts may prove it somewhat inconsistent, there will always be an idea before a movement, and until one man can be proven to be the founder of capitalism Webers thesis still stands.