Max Weber and the Protestant ethic

2 minutes

The deeply held religious convictions that kickstarted capitalism

In his landmark workThe Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the German sociologist Max Weber offered a radical and sweeping explanation for the rise of modern capitalism. He saw capitalism arise first in Protestant countries so, contrary to the Marxist explanation, Weber claimed that it was Protestantism that drove the transformation to capitalism. He paid particular attention to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that God determines, at the beginning of time, if each human is saved or damned. How could such a stark theological idea lead to capitalism? According to Weber, it introduced an extraordinarily productive tension into human society. While people could not change their souls’ fate, they could hope to see evidence that they might be among the saved through the discipline and fruitfulness of their labour. This brief animation from BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas series explores how Calvinism sanctified work, making everyday labour, for the first time in history, a potentially holy activity.

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