A fine biography of Max Weber. Original document.
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Weber, Max

(b. April 21, 1864, Erfurt, Prussia [Germany] – d. June 14, 1920, Munich, Ger.), German sociologist and political economist best known for his thesis of the "Protestant Ethic," relating Protestantism to capitalism, and for his ideas on bureaucracy. Through his insistence on the need for objectivity in scholarship and his analysis of human action in terms of motivation, Weber profoundly influenced sociological theory.

Early life and family relationships.

Weber was born in Erfurt, the eldest son of an aspiring liberal politician whose family had become wealthy in the German linen industry. The father soon joined the more compliant, pro-Bismarckian "National-Liberals" and moved to Berlin, where he became a member of the Prussian House of Deputies (1868-97) and the Reichstag (1872-84). As such he became part of the Berlin social milieu and entertained in his house men prominent in scholarship and politics.

Helene Weber, the sociologist's mother, was raised in Calvinist orthodoxy. Though she gradually accepted a more tolerant theology, the Puritan morality of her mother remained intact within her. As a result of the social activities of her husband she came to feel increasingly estranged from him, and, after the deaths of two of her children and the serious illness of young Max, she was aghast at his inability to share her prolonged grief. He, in turn, tended to adopt a traditionally authoritarian manner at home and to demand absolute obedience from wife and children.

Weber left home to enroll at the University of Heidelberg in 1882, interrupting his studies after two years to fulfill his year of military service at Strassburg (Strasbourg). During this time he became very close to the family of his mother's sister, Ida Baumgarten, and her husband, the historian Hermann Baumgarten, whose influence on Weber's intellectual development was profound.

After his release from the military, Weber was asked by his father to finish his studies at the University of Berlin, where he could live at home. This was perhaps because his father considered the influence of the Baumgartens subversive of his son's character. From 1884 until his marriage in 1893, Weber left his father's house only for a semester of study at Göttingen in 1885, and for some brief periods of military manoeuvres with his reserve unit.

Early career.

During most of his formative years as a scholar in legal and economic history, Weber was thus continually subject to his parents' conflicting and unanswerable claims on his loyalty. Since he spent his mid- and late-20s working simultaneously in two totally unremunerative apprenticeships--as a lawyer's assistant and as a university assistant--he was financially unable to leave home until the autumn of 1893. At that time he received a temporary position in jurisprudence at the University of Berlin and married Marianne Schnitger, a second cousin.

After his marriage, Weber paid unwitting homage to his Calvinist forebears by continuing a compulsive work regimen that he had begun after his return to Berlin in 1884. Only through such bondage to his labour, believed Weber, could he stave off a natural tendency to self-indulgence and laziness, which, if tolerated, would lead to an emotional and spiritual crisis.

Weber's great capacity for disciplined intellectual effort, together with his unquestionable brilliance, brought the reward of meteoric professional advance. Only a year after his appointment at Berlin, he became a full professor in political economy at Freiburg, and then, in the following year (1896), at Heidelberg. Following his doctoral and postdoctoral theses on the agrarian history of ancient Rome and the evolution of medieval trading societies, Weber wrote a comprehensive analysis of the agrarian problems of the German east for one of Germany's most important academic societies, the Union for Social Policy (1890), and important essays on the German stock exchange and the social basis of the decline of Latin antiquity. He was also politically active in these years, working with the left-liberal Protestant Social Union (Evangelisch-Soziale Verein).

The Freiburg address.

The high point of his early scholarly career was his inaugural address at Freiburg in 1895, in which he pulled together some five years of study on the agrarian problems of Germany east of the Elbe into a devastating indictment of the ruling Junker aristocracy as historically obsolete. In Weber's view, the existing liberal parties were in no position to challenge and replace the Junkers. Nor was the working class ready to accept the responsibilities of power. Only the nation as a whole, educated to political maturity by a conscious policy of overseas imperial expansion, could bring Germany to the level of political maturity attained by the French in the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras and by the English in the course of their imperial expansion in the 19th century. Weber's Freiburg address thus advanced an ideology of "liberal imperialism," attracting to its support such important liberal publicists as Friedrich Naumann and Hans Delbrück.

In the months following his father's death in August 1897, an increasing nervousness plagued the young scholar. His return to teaching in the autumn brought a brief respite, which ended in the first months of 1898 with the first signs of the nervous collapse that was to prostrate him between mid-1898 and 1903. For five years he was intermittently institutionalized, suffering sudden relapses after slow recoveries and vain efforts to break such cycles by travelling.

Later works.

In 1903 Weber was able to resume scholarly work, though he did not teach again until after World War I. Although he had resigned his professorship at Heidelberg at the height of his illness, he came into an inheritance in 1907 that made him financially independent. The nature of his most important work after his partial recovery suggests that his prolonged agony had led him to develop brilliant insights into the relationship of Calvinist morality and compulsive labour, into the relationship between various religious ethics and social and economic processes, and into many other questions of lasting importance. Indeed, all of Weber's most important work appeared in the 17 years between the worst part of his illness and his death.

A brief glance at The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber's best known and most controversial work, illustrates the general trend of his thinking. Weber noted the statistical correlation in Germany between interest and success in capitalist ventures on the one hand, and Protestant background on the other. He then went on to attribute the relationship to certain accidental psychological consequences of the notions of predestination and the calling in Puritan theology, notions that were deduced with the greatest logical severity by Calvin and his followers.

In Calvin's formulation, the doctrine of predestination invested God with such omnipotence and omniscience that sinful humanity could know neither why nor to whom God had extended the grace of salvation. The psychological insecurity that this doctrine imposed on Calvin's followers, stern believers in hellfire, was too great, and they began to look for loopholes that would indicate the direction of divine will. The consequence was an ethic of unceasing commitment to one's worldly calling (any lapse would indicate that one's state of grace was in doubt) and ascetic abstinence from any enjoyment of the profit reaped from such labours. The practical result of such beliefs and practices was, in Weber's estimation, the most rapid possible accumulation of capital.

Weber never denied the claim of his critics that highly developed capitalist enterprises existed centuries before Calvin, and he was well aware that there were other preconditions, material and psychological, for the development of capitalism. In response to these criticisms Weber argued that, before Calvinism, capitalist enterprise was always fettered by the passive or active hostility of the prevalent religious order. If some capitalists were, by virtue of their skepticism, able to escape the guilt feelings that conventional morality dictated, it was nevertheless a fact that never before had religious convictions enabled people to conceive of their success in the accumulation of capital as a sign of God's everlasting grace. The Puritans, Weber argued, had accepted the cloak of worldly asceticism voluntarily, as a means of alleviating otherwise unbearable spiritual burdens. In so doing, however, they helped to create the enormous structure of modern economic life, which came irresistibly to determine the life and values of everyone born into it. Thus "fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage."

Weber published Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904-05; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1930) in the journal he had just begun to edit, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. In 1905-10, he published a number of exchanges in his Archiv between himself and critics of his thesis. During these years, however, which he spent in Heidelberg when he was not on one of his numerous journeys through Europe, the middle-class German culture in which he had been nurtured experienced its first spasms of disintegration. The Protestant morality that he had come to accept as inescapable destiny came under attack from the youth movement, from avant-garde literary circles such as the one centred on the poet Stefan George, from Neoromantics influenced by Nietzsche and Freud, and from Slavic cultural ideals, exemplified in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Weber's political sociology is concerned with the distinction between charismatic, traditional, and legal forms of authority. Charisma refers to the gift of spiritual inspiration underlying the power of religious prophecy and political leadership. In many of these later concerns, Weber touched, sometimes explicitly, on themes that had first been broached by Nietzsche.

His acute interest in social phenomena such as mysticism, which are antithetical to the modern world and its underlying process of rationalization, paralleled a late awakening of Weber's aesthetic and erotic faculties. In 1910, amid the crumbling social order of European middle-class society, Weber began a series of important discussions with Stefan George and his close disciple, the poet Friedrich Gundolf. At roughly the same time, he embarked on an extramarital affair, probably his first experience of sexual intimacy; one of his most brilliant later essays contains a penetrating analysis of the conflicting relationships between eroticism, ascetic and mystical modes of religiosity, and the general process of rationalization ("Theorie der Stufen und Richtungen religioser Weltablehnung," 1916; "Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions").

During this same period Weber was engaged in efforts to gain respect for sociology as a discipline by defining a value-free methodology for it, and in his analysis of the religious cultures of India and China for purposes of comparison with the Western religious tradition. Also of critical importance in his last decade was his stoical examination of the conditions and consequences of the rationalization of political and economic life in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922; Economy and Society, 1968) and journal articles.

Indeed, Weber's most powerful impact on his contemporaries came in the last years of his life, when, from 1916 to 1918, he argued powerfully against Germany's annexationist war goals and in favour of a strengthened parliament. He stood bravely for sobriety in politics and scholarship against the apocalyptic mood of right-wing students in the months following Germany's defeat. After assisting in the drafting of the new constitution and in the founding of the German Democratic Party, Weber died of a lung infection in June 1920.


Weber's significance during his lifetime was considerable among German social scientists, many of whom were his personal friends in Heidelberg or Berlin; but because of the fact that little of his work was published in book form during his lifetime and because most of the journals in which he published had restricted audiences of scholarly specialists, his major impact was felt after his death. The only exceptions were his formulation of "liberal imperialism" in 1895, his widely discussed thesis on Protestantism and capitalism, and his extensive attack on German foreign and domestic policies during World War I in the pages of the Frankfurter Zeitung, which stimulated liberal sentiment against the government's war aims and led Gen. Erich Ludendorff to view him as a traitor.

In general, it may be said that Weber's greatest merit as a thinker was that he brought the social sciences in Germany, hitherto preoccupied largely with national problems, into direct critical confrontation with the international giants of 19th-century European thought – Marx and Nietzsche – and that through this confrontation he helped create a methodology and a body of literature dealing with the sociology of religion, the sociology of political parties, small group behaviour, and the philosophy of history. His work continues to stimulate scholarship.

Adapted from Britannica Online.

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