Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904-05

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In ...
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Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904-05

The first, and probably most vital, feature of the spirit of capitalism was that it invested “economizing” with high moral significance. The individual engages in capitalistic economizing not only for the expediency of making a living, but in the expectation that such activity would test his inner resources and thus affirm his moral worth. In this regard, the American novelist Walker Percy observed, “As long as I am getting rich, I feel well. It is my Presbyterian blood.”

A major effect of this spirit, as Durkheim noted is that the entrepreneur performs his tasks with an earnestness of purpose that places them at the center of his life, and endows them with intrinsic dignity. There is nothing degrading about them. Such an approach to monetary gain is markedly different from the sordid passion of greed, for monetary gain was not to be used for luxury or self-indulgent bodily comfort, but rather was to be saved, and accumulated. Neither could the resulting frugality be mistaken for miserliness, as the accumulated resources were to be reinvested in worthy enterprises. The spirit of capitalism constituted a sort of moral “habitus” which burdened the possessor of money with a steward’s obligation toward his own possessions.

Likewise, the individual entrepreneur isn’t allowed to become overly absorbed into or preoccupied with himself. His existence revolves around an objective concern outside himself, which unceasingly demands his devotion and thus, becomes a test of his self-worth. By its very nature, these economic practices require reference to a goal; however, increase in capital becomes the ultimate point of reference.

Ultimately, the point of the spirit of capitalism is to attribute moral significance to entrepreneurial activity and lend meaning to the existence of those committed to it.

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