Edited by Léo-Paul Dana
Chapter 6: The Religious Ethic of the Protestant Ethnics
6. The religious ethic of the Protestant ethnics Ivan Light A century after its initial publication, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains the most influential statement of the relationship between religion and entrepreneurship.1 In this classic essay, the German economist and pioneer sociologist, Max Weber (1864–1920) proposed the existence of an ‘elective affinity’ between ascetic, this-worldly Protestantism and the triumph of capitalism in late medieval Europe.2 In Weber’s account, key Protestant theologians such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Richard Baxter inadvertently increased the number and quality of entrepreneurs in late medieval Europe by changing the way Europeans thought about business. Instead of condemning wealth and praising charity and poverty, standard recommendations of Roman Catholic theology, the Protestant theologians praised business success, which they interpreted as a sign of God’s favor. Signs of divine favor were especially valuable to Protestant laymen, Weber proposed, because the Calvinist doctrine of predestination left Protestant laymen insecure about their eternal salvation, and thus in need of signs of grace such as business success provided. If a person prospered, believers concluded that God prospered the person. Additionally, because the Protestant theologians stressed thrift, hard work, and an ascetic lifestyle, laymen who followed the theologians’ lifestyle advice actually enhanced their chances of obtaining success in business, and therewith the coveted reassurance of God’s grace.3 In the early modern period, before missionaries brought the Protestant message to Latin America, Asia, and Africa, access to the Protestant ethic was restricted to the...
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