Max Weber
Max Weber; drawing by David Levine

When the young Max Weber returned home in 1883 after his third semester as a law student at the University of Heidelberg, his mother slapped him. Gone was the lanky eighteen-year-old whose sagging shoulders made him, in the words of his future wife Marianne, a “candidate for consumption.” Thanks to nights of drinking with his fraternity, Max had gained considerable weight, and he had also run up a serious debt, compelling him to trouble his father with frequent entreaties for money. Worst of all, he bore a dueling scar on his cheek. At the time, this was nothing unusual. In German fraternities until the end of the nineteenth century, fencing remained a venerable tradition, a rite of manhood in which the contestants competed for ribbons that they wore on their ceremonial gowns while they sang patriotic songs and downed buckets of beer. But for his mother, Max’s transformation was evidently too much. Her first-born son had been named after his father, an esteemed deputy in the National Liberal Party, and he was expected to conduct himself with restraint.

He soon abandoned his youthful ways and embarked on a scholar’s path. In 1889 Weber, now twenty-five, completed a doctoral dissertation on the history of trading companies in the Middle Ages, a formidable tome that straddled economic and legal history. In 1891, upon completing his habilitation—a second work required for advancement in the German university system—on Roman agrarian history, he secured a professorship in political economy, first at Freiburg and then at Heidelberg. He threw himself into his academic labors with great intensity, consumed by the idea that true worth comes only to a Berufsmensch—an individual who is dedicated to a vocation.

This idea—that one must pursue the burdens of labor with dignity and quasi-religious devotion—proved his personal undoing. The precipitating incident may have been a violent confrontation with his father, who died before the two men could reach a reconciliation. Although Weber would not admit to any guilt, he slept poorly and often found that he could no longer speak. “When I look at my lecture notes,” he wrote, “my head simply swims.” Only a few years into his professorship he reached a point of complete exhaustion, and in 1899 he asked to be excused from his lectures. Several years passed before he could resume his scholarly career.

By the end of his life, Weber enjoyed a growing reputation, not only in Germany but across the globe. This year marks the centenary of his death, which offers a suitable occasion for reflecting on his legacy and his continued significance. To call Weber the founder of modern sociology would seem uncontroversial, though the title must be shared with contemporaries such as Georg Simmel in Germany, Herbert Spencer in England, and Émile Durkheim in France, along with W.E.B. Du Bois in the United States. Weber corresponded with Du Bois, and upon reading The Souls of Black Folk he expressed his hope that the book might be translated into German. “I am absolutely convinced,” he wrote, “that the ‘color-line’ problem will be the paramount problem of the time to come, here and everywhere in the world.”

But Weber’s disciplinary identity is far from obvious. When he was writing his most celebrated works, the word “sociology” (an early-nineteenth-century neologism coined by the French positivist August Comte) was still new, and if one considers how dramatically he shaped our thinking about the modern world, that single academic discipline seems far too narrow. His curiosity and capacity for learning were boundless. He wrote with confidence about trade law in medieval Europe and also about the Hindu religion, he studied ancient kingship and modern bureaucracy, and he even wrote an insightful treatise on the sociology of music. But he was forever afflicted by the fear that he was a mere dilettante, a word that he also hurled at adversaries. When asked by colleagues why he drove himself to such extremes of erudition, he offered a grim response: “I want to see how much I can bear.”

The idea of work as a personal calling resounds with relentless rhythm through all of Weber’s sociological works. The theme of a calling (or vocation) is central to what is surely his most famous text, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, first published in two installments in 1904–1905. Like other books that have suffered from an excess of fame, The Protestant Ethic is often cited but frequently misunderstood, beginning with Weber’s contemporaries, some of whom faulted him for promoting the notion that capitalism had been “caused by” Protestantism, though he never said anything of the kind.

His thesis was far more subtle. Modern capitalism had first arisen in the early-modern era in Northern Europe, within the distinctive setting of a Christian culture that traditionally looked upon economic life with mistrust and saw the pursuit of wealth as a sin. (This view found its biblical authorization in Matthew 19-24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”) Throughout the medieval era the church also imposed restrictions on moneylending that frequently consigned it to Jews and other outsiders, which fed poisonous stereotypes that persisted well into modern times. Even Martin Luther, an Augustinian by training before his revolutionary break with Catholicism, nourished the old prejudice that financial activity was a sign of cupiditas.


Weber now posed a question: How, given such patterns of Christian belief, could entrepreneurial habits have taken hold, and how, by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, could capitalist trade have flourished in Europe to such a degree that countries like the Dutch Republic and England, along with their colonies in North America, could effect fundamental transformations in all areas of modern life? His answer was ingenious. Capitalism, he argued, was not merely a set of institutions or transactions; it was also a behavior or cultural style, carried along by a host of attitudes and dispositions that made it singular and perhaps unprecedented. In Northern Europe its unusual strength was due in part to the spirit of methodical deliberation and restraint that merchants brought to their work. They amassed great fortunes but avoided all hedonism, conducting themselves with a sense of duty that drove them onward to further success.

But what could explain such peculiar conduct? It was Weber’s great insight to propose that capitalism’s “this-worldly asceticism”’ might have found its initial warrant in Protestant teaching. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination had made divine favor into something unknowable—a gift bestowed upon the elect. The effect was to elevate God’s sovereignty beyond all possible appeal, but for the believer this could be psychologically devastating, since human agency itself seemed stripped of meaning. The official teaching proved so intolerable that Calvinist preachers introduced a subtle modification that allowed worldly success to serve as a sign of divine election. From Luther and from Catholicism they adopted the idea of a vocatio or “calling,” namely, that one is summoned by God to the priesthood. (The German word for “calling” is Beruf, which derives from the verb rufen, to call.) In Calvinism, however, the idea of a calling was now applied to worldly pursuits that Christianity had once condemned. Election, of course, remained uncertain, since there could be no salvation through works. But a bond was reestablished between God and the world: if one conducted oneself in the proper spirit of piety and restraint, one’s good fortune in this world might serve as a sign of one’s ultimate fortune in the world to come.

For Weber this seemingly minor shift in Calvinist doctrine had dramatic consequences. Protestantism could now license a plunge into this-worldly action, while capitalist entrepreneurs could see in their conduct a spiritual significance it would otherwise have lacked. As Weber noted, there had been something irrational about this conduct: it required a readiness to defer gratification, to save and reinvest for the sake of an uncertain future. It was the religious ethic of the ambient Protestant culture that infused commercial activity with a higher meaning. Clearly, this argument was not causal. Rather, it illustrated an “elective affinity,” a term Weber borrowed from Goethe’s 1809 novel of romantic liaisons. Capitalism and Protestantism were two historically independent formations that joined to create a uniquely powerful bond, and in concert they revolutionized the modern world.

In the United States today one often encounters the boastful claim that its citizens are beneficiaries of a “Protestant work ethic,” as if this explained the power of American capitalism. But Weber offered a more tragic view. In his estimation the religiously inspired ethic of a calling had died out long ago, a casualty of the rationalization process it helped to set in motion. Capitalism, Weber argued, now runs on its own, with machine-like indifference to all spiritual values, while the idea of a calling “haunts our lives like the ghost of once-held religious beliefs.” Meanwhile, those who are caught in its mechanism are left with little more than a sense of mindless compulsion. “The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling,” Weber wrote; “we, on the other hand, must be.” In the US in particular, the pursuit of wealth had been “divested of its metaphysical significance” and was now linked with “purely elemental passions.”

In the closing lines of The Protestant Ethic, Weber described the typical capitalists of his own time as mediocrities much like the stunted creatures that Nietzsche had called “the last men.” A world populated by such soulless beings ran not on individual initiative but on the imperatives of the system: “Today,” Weber wrote,


this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day when the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.

Those final lines were prescient. Although Weber could not have anticipated the unfolding catastrophe of climate change or the environmental ravages that have attended the process of industrialization, he understood that capitalism’s unrestrained expansion across the planet could hardly be taken as a sign of social betterment or historical progress. In documenting the rise of the modern world, he sustained an attitude of cool skepticism. The purpose of sociology was not to discover general laws but to understand human action in all its complexity. This emphasis on the unique rather than the universal made his work difficult to categorize. Not a few of his colleagues were tripped up by his arguments—errors he attacked in print with lacerating criticism. Especially common was the mistaken view that he had written The Protestant Ethic as an idealistic corrective to Marxism, as if he had meant to suggest that religious ideas rather than the forces of production were the primary engines of historical change. Weber dismissed this as rubbish. Replacing a “one-sided” and “materialist” explanation of historical causality with a “one-sided” and “spiritual” explanation would only exchange one fallacy for another.

After his resignation from Heidelberg, Weber gradually regained his ability to work, and by 1903 he had commenced a new phase in writing. Alongside The Protestant Ethic he also produced the major essay “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy.” In 1904 he traveled to the United States, accompanied by Marianne and the historian of religion Ernst Troeltsch. Manhattan left an impression of modernity in chaos. Their twenty-story hotel rose above streets that buzzed with traffic and smelled of horse manure. To get to their rooms they rode an “elevator,” a word that struck Marianne as exotic. They traveled as far as St. Louis and New Orleans, and on their return they stopped at Mount Vernon to see Washington’s birthplace, but also attended an African-American religious service. They were nearly stranded in Philadelphia due to the crowds that swarmed the train station to cheer the University of Pennsylvania football team on its departure for a game against Harvard. They spent their final evening in Brooklyn, where they attended a performance at a Yiddish theater.

The last fifteen years of Weber’s life were ones of tremendous productivity. Starting in 1913 he worked on a comprehensive treatise in sociology that he did not live to finish; it was published after his death as Economy and Society.1 He also grew especially absorbed in comparative studies in the sociology of religion: between 1915 and 1919 he vaulted himself into the monumental task of writing on all of the world’s major religions, completing volumes on Confucism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. (He died before he could finish the one on Islam.) In these works, Weber demonstrated an admirable capacity for understanding cultures other than his own, but he was still preoccupied with the question of the West’s unique character. Beginning with ancient Judaism, he traced a certain style of “occidental” rationalism in religion that gradually stripped the world of its magical luster and imposed on the cosmos the idea of a single and all-encompassing law. Protestantism, with its assault on priestly rituals and the veneration of relics and saints, brought this rationalizing process in religion to its terminus even while it also prepared the way for the emergence of a modern legal-bureaucratic society in which religion was pushed to the margins. In this process, Weber assigned an ambivalent role to religious intellectuals such as the Hebrew prophets. It was the intellectual class, the theologians and prophets, who first raised the question of the world’s “meaning.” Ironically, however, this group was also hostile to conventional and magical belief and thereby set in motion the process of world-rationalization that eventually brought to an end the very idea that the world had meaning at all.

These arguments reappear in two lectures, “Scholarship as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” which Weber delivered near the end of his life. Masterpieces of concision, they have been newly translated by Damion Searls (as “The Scholar’s Work” and “The Politician’s Work,” though these titles lose Weber’s sense of Beruf as a vocation or calling) and published in a slender volume with a helpful introduction by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon. In a deliberate and solemn style that rises gently toward tragedy, Weber ruminates on the question of a “vocation” and on what is required of an individual who feels the calling for a career in scholarship or politics. No doubt the lectures left many in his audience dissatisfied, since they are as much warning as exhortation.

Weber presented “Scholarship as a Vocation” in November 1917, at the invitation of a student society in Munich. At a moment when the ongoing war threatened to bring the ideals of European civilization to a crashing end, the theme of the lecture carried a special urgency. What purpose was to be found in the scholar’s life, and what historical and sociological significance inhered in such a career? Weber did not offer his students many words of encouragement. The modern world has passed through a trial of rationalization and disenchantment. While some cling to the consoling notion that the cosmos still has an objective meaning, a genuine scholar must be strong enough to confront the truth that this idea has been extinguished. Value has lost the appearance of objectivity; the world only has moral significance from a particular point of view. Monotheism has given way to a new polytheism: values clash with one another like warring gods.

Weber portrays the scholar as a modern stoic who must be prepared to live in full awareness of the relativity of all value. But this posture can itself become a source of value. (In their introduction, Reitter and Wellmon do not capture this irony; they ascribe to Weber the more conventional view that the individual who embraces scholarship as a calling can lead a “meaningful life.”) To be a scholar one must acknowledge that in the modern age an irreparable chasm separates facts from values: facts are objective, values are not. Weber stated this point as early as his 1905 essay on objectivity: “the fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge” is that “we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis.” The highest ideals are formed “only in the struggle with other ideals,” and we must abandon our hope for their reconciliation. Weber portrays this predicament as a final consequence of the millennia-long process of disenchantment that has gradually stripped the cosmos of any objective meaning. For the individual who wishes to pursue scholarship as a calling, this process has a paradoxical consequence. If the heavens are empty, one can no longer speak of a caller behind the call; one can make one’s career into a calling only by a sheer act of will.

This stoic motif recurs in “Politics as a Vocation,” which Weber delivered before the same student organization in Munich in late January 1919. In the interval between the two lectures, the political situation in Germany had changed dramatically. The old Reich had collapsed at the end of the war, and the moderate wing of the Social Democrats had declared the founding of a republic. Though Weber remained a fierce nationalist, he assisted in the drafting of the new Weimar Constitution and served on the executive committee of the centrist German Democratic Party, which consisted chiefly of lawyers and other professionals. Meanwhile, a revolution had spread from Berlin to Bavaria, where the journalist and philosopher Kurt Eisner declared the founding of a Bavarian Socialist Republic.

A rally in support of the Weimar Republic in the Sportpalast, Berlin, 1925

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

A rally in support of the Weimar Republic in the Sportpalast, Berlin, February 1, 1925

In his lecture on politics Weber speaks with disdain about the revolution, and he warns his audience that in the coming decade they should expect an era of darkness and political reaction. The modern state is little more than a machine—a vast bureaucratic entity that has gained a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence—and the only real question is whether it will bring about a democracy with authentic leaders to guide the machine or will settle for a “leaderless democracy” managed by a class of unimpressive political professionals. An authentic leader, however, must temper vision with realism. Even the most utopian movements must eventually compromise their idealism if they wish to remain in power. Politics, Weber declares, is like “a slow and difficult drilling of holes into hard boards.” The individual who feels a calling for politics must therefore achieve the proper balance between an “ethics of personal conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility.” True leadership demands far more than untamed charisma; it demands a sense of proportion and a grasp of what reality permits. “There is no more destructive corruption of political power,” warns Weber, “than the parvenu,” who goes “blustering around, conceitedly rejoicing in feeling powerful.”

Weber died of pneumonia, possibly due to the Spanish flu (though the cause remains uncertain) in June 1920, too early to see how Germany’s fledgling democracy fared. But the signs were not auspicious. Right-wing students had demonstrated against him when he condemned the pardoning of Count Arco-Valley, the Austrian aristocrat who had assassinated Eisner. Although Weber loathed the socialist revolution, he loathed political murder more, and he feared what would happen if citizens lost their faith in established conventions of law. He may have longed for a strong leader to seize the wheel of history, but he looked upon the development of the modern bureaucratic state with a certain fatalism. The age of prophecy and tradition was long gone, no more suitable to a disenchanted age than were the dueling fraternities of his youth. Any attempt to resurrect the charismatic leaders of the distant past would spawn only demagogues, not genuine prophets.

Weber will no doubt remain a fixture of the modern canon of social and political thought even if central themes in his work now strike us as questionable. Consider, for instance, the sharp distinction between fact and value. It was Weber’s view that conflicts of value cannot be resolved through rational argument, since we cleave to our values with a conviction that surpasses critical scrutiny. This theory of value illustrates the affinities between Weber and Nietzsche, whose views on the will as the final grounding for value helped inspire Weber’s reflections on the irrational character of our moral commitments. Such affinities became an embarrassment for later Anglophone scholars such as Talcott Parsons, who wished to cleanse Weber of any taint of old-world irrationalism and reintroduced him in the United States as a cool-minded forerunner to his own “functionalist” theories of modern society.

But Weber’s darker side is hard to ignore. If our value commitments lie at a level of pure decision beyond rational deliberation, then we are robbed of any prospect for genuine consensus. It should not surprise us that the right-wing political theorist Carl Schmitt saw in this “decisionist” theory of value a justification for Nazism. Nor was it implausible that the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, at the 1964 centenary celebrations in Heidelberg to mark Weber’s birth, described Schmitt as Weber’s “legitimate pupil.” The distinction between fact and value left Weber with a one-sided image of social rationalization. He failed to grasp the crucial point that a rationalized society is not necessarily a rational one; the latter demands not only a formal rationality of systems and procedures but also a substantive rationality in the values we endorse because they are right.

Here we see how Weber’s views on scholarship and politics converge. The problem with the distinction between facts and values is not only that it casts values into a realm of irrational decision. No less questionable is Weber’s trust in the solidity of facts, seeing them as a hard and obdurate reality that intrudes upon the latticework of our value-commitments as if from the outside. An effective teacher, he declared, is one who makes the student look unflinchingly at facts even when they are “uncomfortable”2 or push against one’s partisan opinions. But in an age that is now drowning in “alternative facts,” the old distinction between facts and values may have lost its credence. Values not only frame facts, as Weber knew; they also lend facts their authority, propelling them into the public sphere where they are taken up into our political deliberations. But a fact can only count as a fact if society treats it as one. Today’s demagogues are not content with reshaping political values; they also seek to reshape facts, turning debate over policy into a struggle over what is real.

Weber may have been ready to accept the relativity of values, even if he did so with some reluctance and in a fatalist mood. But we cannot blame him for failing to anticipate our modern tilt into the relativity of facts, which has robbed us of any confidence that in our political disputes we at least agree on what the facts are. Nor can he be blamed if he held fast to the heroic ideal of work as a calling. When one reads Weber today, it is difficult to overcome the impression that this ideal has lost much of its prestige, not least because many politicians (and not a few scholars) seem moved more by a longing for fame than a deeply felt belief in the integrity of their task. Weber’s idea of a calling embodies a paradox: it is a trace of religion in a nonreligious world. But we have passed beyond the last threshold of disenchantment, and even that final ideal now threatens to fall into total eclipse.