1904 | Heidelberg

Waste Not

Max Weber on Puritans and the glorification of labor.

For the Puritan, waste of time is the first and in principle the deadliest of sins. The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to make sure of one’s own election. Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, even more sleep than is necessary for health—six to at most eight hours—is worthy of absolute moral condemnation. It does not yet hold, with Benjamin Franklin, that time is money, but the proposition is true in a certain spiritual sense. It is infinitely valuable because every hour lost is lost to labor for the glory of God. Thus inactive contemplation is also valueless, or even directly reprehensible if it is at the expense of one’s daily work. For it is less pleasing to God than the active performance of His will in a calling. Besides, Sunday is provided for that. 

Labor is, on the one hand, an approved ascetic technique, as it always has been in the Western Church, in sharp contrast not only to the East but to almost all monastic rules the world over. It is in particular the specific defense against all those temptations which Puritanism united under the name of the unclean life, whose role for it was by no means small. The sexual asceticism of Puritanism differs only in degree, not in fundamental principle, from that of monasticism; and on account of the Puritan conception of marriage, its practical influence is more far-reaching than that of the latter. For sexual intercourse is permitted, even within marriage, only as the means willed by God for the increase of His glory according to the commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Along with a moderate vegetable diet and cold baths, the same prescription is given for all sexual temptations as is used against religious doubts and a sense of moral unworthiness: “Work hard in your calling.” But the most important thing was that even beyond that, labor came to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God. St. Paul’s saying, “He who will not work shall not eat” holds unconditionally for everyone. Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.


Max Weber

From The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A sociologist and economic theorist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on medieval trading companies, Weber became increasingly interested in the workings of religion late in life, dedicating major works to its role in the societies of China and India.