Max the Fatalist

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…

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