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Max Weber and Asceticism

Free «Max Weber and Asceticism» Essay Sample


Max Weber’s notion of asceticism played a significant role in his arguments against capitalism and capital behavior. Though he did not offer a direct definition of asceticism in his works, the details in Weber’s essays on the issue led people to understand it as the concentration of human behavior on activities that lead to the salvation, thereby playing a role within the context of everyday world. That is to say that the meaning that people imposed on their culture, certain beliefs and values which had a significant influence on the way they tended to perceive their reality and act within it. Weber uses this concept to develop his ideas on the ideology of capitalism. He demonstrates his theory about the emergence of capitalism using the case of ascetic Protestants and the Calvinistic segment and, thus, uses their behavior as being the product of a religious ideology which directs their daily lives. The ascetic Protestants believed in the fulfillment of obligations as the only means of proving one’s religious merit. It is this belief that the emphasis laid on the concept of a person’s calling; as a consequence, it is this form of asceticism according to Weber that had an impact on the development of capitalism, which he identified as rational bourgeois capitalism. The thesis for the current essay is that Max Weber and his notion of asceticism, which he explains through use of ascetic Protestantism and its belief system, was significant in elucidating the origin of the notion of capitalism, which Weber best refers to as the spirit of capitalism.


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This paper will approach the subject of Max Weber and asceticism by first providing a brief overview of the background of Weber’s interest in the matter, and how this led to his explanation of the origin of capitalism. It will then offer an elucidation of the concept of ascetic and what this meant to Weber. Researcher’s work on the spirit of capitalism, the calling, Calvinism, and their subsequent impact on the worldly asceticism will be explored with the aim of gaining an understanding of their influence on the rise of capitalism. This will then be followed by a detailed explanation of the Weber’s notion of capitalism which will entail his views on the capitalist behavior, radical capitalism, and his arguments against capitalism. The final part of the paper will entail linking the Wahabi’s view with Weber’s arguments on capitalism.


The background of Weber’s notion regarding the link between asceticism and capitalism begins with his study of the serfs who were willing to go to all lengths in order to secure their freedom. However, this acquisition of freedom was in fact illusory as many of them led a life of poverty despite their freedom. Widmer (2012) asserts that the result of this was that many of them became laborers in feudal estates, from which they were seeking freedom. Thus, the serf’s desire for freedom portrayed a clash between notions of deference and patronage, on the one hand, and the idea of economic individualism, on the other. Adair-Toteff (2010) confirms that it is against this study that Weber became interested in the role that the religion played in bringing about social changes, thereby leading him to draw on the belief system of the ascetic Protestants to explain the emergence of the social concept of capitalism. The ascetic Protestants provided Weber with the reflection of economic conditions, which he used to draw essential factors that provide an insight into the development of the system of capitalism.


Asceticism refers to the idea of an individual’s self-denial or self-discipline. It is a form of abstinence and a common concept among various forms of religious beliefs. Thus, this ideology denounced luxury and wealth, as well as opposed unfairness and greed among people. Ageval (2007) explains that originally, it was used to make a reference to a monk or a hermit it; gradually, it came to be associated with monks in the medieval times who completely devoted themselves to God, and their religious beliefs were focused on denying themselves any form of worldly and bodily pleasure. Weber (2012) reiterates that Weber places an emphasis on the Protestants’ form of asceticism, which had far reaching implications than in the earlier societies, where it was practiced. Thus, according to the Weber’s meaning of the asceticism, the concept favored only people who were hardworking and rational bourgeois, whose wealth accumulation was made through diligence.

The Spirit of Capitalism

In his formulation of the meaning of the spirit of capitalism, Weber applied the writings of Benjamin Franklin, which had illustrated capitalism’s ethos.  According to Grosac (2006), Franklin made the assertion that time is money, credit is money, and money begets money. For this reason, he urged people to pay up their debts in time, since it was an essential way of earning the trust of others. Further, Franklin urged people to curve themselves out as always being industrious and trustworthy. Goody (2013) informs that Weber attributes these writings as being a form of philosophy of avarice, which foresees the increasing capital as an end in itself. Thus, this becomes a form of ethic which obligates an individual to prosper and become profit inclined. This according to Weber is the spirit of capitalism.

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Weber links ascetic Protestantism with the spirit of capitalism. This is in an attempt to explain how religious ideas can be used to translate maxims of the everyday life conduct. Religious beliefs held by the Protestants perceived wealth as a dangerous form of temptation that would derail people from their religious beliefs. This is because it had the capacity to relax and distract believers from their pursuit of a righteous life. Therefore, Heslam (2015) explains that worldly possessions were objectionable because of the ability to bring about the relaxation in believers and were only acceptable when they promoted the glory of God. For this reason, a negative habit, such as the time wastage, was perceived as a sin, since it led to time being lost in the promotion of God’s will.

The Calling

It is against the teachings of Richard Baxter that Weber expounds on the concept of the calling. In terms of this concept, labor and hard work are viewed as acceptable ascetic techniques, which possess an end in themselves as ordained by God. Shah and Shah (2011) states that this perception remains the same and applies to all people, including the wealthy. This is because everyone has a calling, which emphasizes on their duty to labor and making use of opportunities for the profit provided by God to be a part of their calling. Consequently, a person who wishes for the poverty is compared to the one who is wishing for a sickness, whereas both are morally intolerable.

The Protestant’s idea of a calling and asceticism had an influence on the development of capitalism in the following manner. Firstly, it is imperative to take note that the ideology of asceticism rejected the impulsive enjoyment of life and opportunities that it brought about. Turner (1974) opines that this is because it was believed that such form of the enjoyment tended to lead people away from their religious calling and work. In his analysis, Weber (2012) makes the argument “That powerful tendency toward uniformity of life, which today so immensely aids the capitalistic interest in the standardization of production, had its ideal foundations in the repudiation of all idolatry of the flesh,” (…..) Secondly, the ascetic Protestants also prohibited money being spent on any form of the entertainment that was deemed not to be serving the glory of God. Instead, their obligation was to hold and increase their possessions. Heslam (2015) reiterates that it was against this Protestant notion that this attitude gained an ethical foundation. Thirdly, the ascetic Protestants also condemned any form of dishonesty and impulsive greed among the believers. This, therefore, brought about the belief that the actual act of pursuing wealth was bad. However, if its attainment is through one’s labor and effort, it was attributed to God’s blessings.

Weber uses the above notions to explain the concept of capitalism by affirming the Protestant way of perceiving wealth, its acquisition and its use that favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life. Consequently, it can be professed as the birth moment of the modern economic man. The truth of the matter was that once wealth was attained, it automatically acquired a secularizing character. Weber (2012) comments with regard to this that “The religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness,” (…..). After their death, these religious roots left behind a secular successor in regard to the acquisition of money that was linked to an individual’s conscious. The acquisition of money was good as long as it was acquired through legal means. This is one of the most notable characteristics of capitalism. Further, the Protestant ascetic outlook provided businessmen with industrious workers as it asserted that the idea of inequality was acceptable as it was part of God’s design. This is yet another significant characteristic of capitalism. Ghosh (2014) affirms that the idea of a calling which was born from the concept of Christian asceticism cultivated some of the major elements of the spirit of modern capitalism. This can be confirmed by the fact that many of the values existing in capitalism are also found in the Christian asceticism.

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Grytten (2012) asserts that Weber concludes his attempts of linking asceticism to modern capitalism by making the following remarks. The Protestants wished to work in a calling; however, today, individuals are forced to do so. The notion of asceticism was responsible in helping build what Weber (2012) describes this as “tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.” (…). Thus, according to Weber, people’s lives are determined by this mechanism. This concept is illustrated by the Weber’s stance on the modern capitalistic system, which he finds to be ambivalent. He uses the imagery of an iron gate to depict the state of affairs of people in the modern world. He declares that people have become trapped in a larger system of institutions and values that determine their life opportunities. Therefore, materialism has gained an unparalleled control over people’s lives. Weber states that the spirit of asceticism has escaped from the cage, and capitalism is no longer dependent on it. Consequently, today, the religious asceticism is no longer vital in terms of people’s activities in regard to the wealth acquisition; thus, it is no longer used as a justification for such acquisition.


The Weber’s examination of Calvinism is vital in understanding of various standings taken by the ascetic Protestants and their subsequent contribution to the rise of capitalism. This is because his analysis of the Calvinists’ doctrine provides an idea of how he linked worldly asceticism with the capitalist accumulation.

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Originally, the term is derived from John Calvin and his teachings, which led to the formation of a reformed tradition of groups of the Calvinists. Grytten (2012) opines that some of the doctrines of the Calvinists that came to be adopted by the ascetic Protestants include the following. Firstly, the Calvinists’ perception of grace is as an irresistible and rigid doctrine. Accordingly, the Calvinists’ doctrine directs them to view God’s will as sovereign; therefore, the church ought not to be subjected to the state. The doctrine of predestination, which is connected to grace, was emphasized by Weber because of its role in stressing the sovereignty of God. Secondly, Goody (2013) opines that Weber noted that the Calvinists’ doctrine placed an emphasis on God and the fact that people existed for God’s sake. Therefore, people’s existence on earth was meant to glorify God bringing about the duty of Christians as being to show God’s glory in a calling. Glorying God was significant for the Calvinists, because it was a means, by which they measured their extent of faith.

The Wahabi’s View and the Weber’s Arguments against Capitalism

The Wahabi’s views are also another religious dimension that can be used to provide an insight into the concept of capitalism. This is because it is associated with the way of life of people that makes the dynamic economic activity to likely come about.

It is imperative to first gain an understanding of the Weber’s arguments against capitalism before linking it to the Wahabi’s view. Grosac (2006) reiterates that Weber’s arguments against capitalism are somewhat contradictory. This is evidenced by his tendency to sometimes use apologetic arguments in favor of the private capital. His criticism of capitalism has been found to be incisive, as well. In general, the Weber’s arguments touch on the foundations of the modern capitalism. One of the Weber’s arguments against capitalism relates to the inversion of means and ends. This argument asserts that a gain has become an end that is proposed to a man, and it is no longer a means of satisfying the material needs. Thus, capitalism has brought about the domination of exchange value over the human activity.

Thus, Weber’s assessment of asceticism and its impact on capitalism is a way of him asserting the role of religion in its development. The Wahabi view which touches on the Muslim beliefs was one of Weber’s religious interests. He attempts to connect it to capitalism but he has however been criticized as his work has been perceived more as a test on asceticism and rational economic activity according to Turner (1974).

Weber’s Perception of Capitalism

While attempting to define capitalism, Weber makes it clear that it is more than people’s impulse for an acquisition. In his opinion, capitalism is the restraint or the rational tempering of the irrational impulse of acquisition that is common among people. According to Goody (2013), furthermore, while expounding on his understanding of capitalism, Weber declares that it is similar to the pursuit of profit and its unending renewal through a continuous and rational enterprise. By defining capitalism in these terms, Weber has broadened and at the same time narrowed it. In the first place, Weber broadens his definition of capitalism by perceiving all manners of making money through the process of trade and exchange to be a representation of the capitalist activities. Adler (2012) asserts that he narrows this concept by linking the process of capitalism with a peaceful free exchange, thereby eliminating an acquisition through the use of force as not being a part of capitalism. Therefore, according to Weber, a rational system of the economic activity has the meaning that actors in the economy are presented with various possible causes of actions to take in the economy.



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The Weber’s assessment of capitalism is sufficient in understanding the capitalist behavior. Thus, the capitalist ethics rejects the hedonistic life styles. In this regard, earning the additional money is viewed as an end in itself and not the means, through which goods are purchased. Although appearing to be an irrational behavior towards money, it is considered to be one of the leading principles of capitalism. In the views of Adair-Toteff (2010), Weber also addresses the opponents of capitalism in its growth. He identifies traditionalism as one of the main opponents of capitalism. He uses various cases to explain this concept. In the first case, he makes use of a laborer who is paid via the piece rate method. Employers attempt to encourage the productivity by increasing the rate of pay. This has an opposite impact as the laborer works less, since he can make the same amount of money, while reducing his labor. This illustrates traditionalism as it confirms that human beings like to live their lives the way they are used to. Secondly, Weber (2012) takes into consideration entrepreneurs as the case in understanding traditionalism. He states that the spirit of capitalism can be separated. In this regard, Weber equates the representation of a rational capitalist organization as having a traditional spirit in it. This is due to the fact that it reflected a more traditional way of life such as a traditional relationship with the labor and interaction with customers.

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Following the analysis of capitalistic behavior, it is significant to note that one form of capitalism that stands out from it is radical capitalism. This entails the determination of the value of goods and services and their delivery with the maximum efficiency. This is meant to promote the fairness and a high degree of morality in the market. Shah and Shah (2011) explains that those who advocate for radical capitalism emphasize on the use of market economies with a minimal government intervention as this will create the efficiency. However, the truth is that this concept is just a mere thought in the minds of believers, since the reality is that radical capitalism cannot be achieved. Factors, such as selfishness, conflict of interest, and other forms of self interest, cannot allow this to be realized. This has contributed to the rise of concepts, namely money hording. This is done not only by individuals alone, but also corporations. Grytten (2012) notes that the process of hoarding money refers to the act of obtaining and holding money with no specific goal as to why the money is being held. Large corporations have been accused of doing this, and as a result, they have become the perfect symbol of failed radical capitalism. Weber (2012) emphasizes that the concept of money hording as with capitalism originates from the ascetic Protestants. Since they were forbidden from spending money on any form of entertainment that did not glorify God, their obligation became to hold and increase their possessions. In this respect, those ascetic Protestants were acquiring wealth for no specific purpose, thus exhibiting the characteristics of hoarding which has survived into the modern economic system.

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