Max Weber on Puritanism and Worldly Asceticism

By Monte Fischer

Last updated: 01 Jan 2019

In the last post I introduced four questions about Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and answered the first two.

  1. What is meant by capitalism?
  2. Why does capitalism need a “spirit”? What does that mean?
  3. Why Puritanism? What distinguished it from Catholicism and Lutheranism as regards economic activity and the social order?
  4. What does worldly asceticism mean?

In this post, I’ll take a stab at the next two.

Puritanism and Worldly Asceticism

Let’s start with Catholicism. To speak in the broadest generality, a cornerstone of medieval Catholicism was its partition of the world into the clergy and the laity. Spirituality had two tracks — those who were consecrated specifically for a spiritual, ascetic life (at least in principle) and those who had more-or-less ordinary lives to live, in which the spiritual shared headspace with other concerns like family, work, and leisure. Crucially, one could be a Christian while not having to play on hard mode as a monk.

The Protestant Reformation, as everyone knows, rejected this partition of the spiritual life into “hard mode” and “easy mode”. In the early centuries of Protestantism, this meant that the Protestant Christian was called to live like a monk, but to do so while still embedded in secular, daily life — a monk outside the monastary. This is the foundation of worldly asceticism.