Max Weber: A Man under Stress

Hans H. Gerth (1964) The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Autumn), pp. 305-310.

IN HIS study of history, Weber availed himself naturally of the typological concepts of the social sciences and humanities. Possibly he deferred too much to the neo-Kantian philosophy of Rickert when he described historiography and sociology as disciplines distinguished by their primary intellectual concern, respectively, with the singular and individual and with the regularly recurrent. One need but read Jacob Burckhardt or Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History to see that Rickert’s dichotomy reflects a limited phase of historiography in Germany. It was the time of Meinecke, the dean of modern German historiography. Like Dilthey, whose life-long concern was Schleiermacher, Meinecke placed the eminent individual into the center of his social and intellectual world: out of the rich matrix of a thousand and one influences emerged the central figure. A peculiar congruence between the individual and his world was maintained through the tact with which the writer could keep the proper balance.

Weber held similarly rigid views concerning “natural” and “cultural” sciences. Natural sciences, according to Weber, do not deal with “understandable” phenomena. They deal strictly with cause-effect relationships; their principal tool is causal explanation. “Understandable, meaningful phenomena” do not fall into their compass. In sociology, just as in psychiatry, one might say that two major currents of thought converge: that of natural science thought, oriented to causal explanation, and that of an interpretative concern, alive in the humanities, to “understand” our fellow man, no matter how “strange” or “abnormal” he would seem to be.1

It is in this “interpretative understanding” that sensitivity to value creations, evaluations, etc. are located. As Weber in his study of Puritanism develops his conception of a man given to “inner-worldly asceticism” with its sobriety and antimagical rationalism, its disdain for the fine arts and emphasis on efficiency and instrumental values in workaday life, a bright light of sympathetic admiration would seem to suffuse the textual interpretation. Puritan man is the vanguard middle-class man who aspires to the free market. He fights against all forms and types of political capitalism of adventurers out after the great windfall. He fights against guild restraints, governmentally privileged trading companies, and monopolies. He stands for the hard and regular workaday, for “high thinking and plain living,” against anything “irrational.” He is the “rational man.”

After World War I, Weber held a different view of “the paradox of the Puritan ethic of ‘vocation’ “:

As a religion of virtuosos, Puritanism renounced the universalism of love, and rationally routinized all work in this world into serving God’s will and testing one’s state of grace. God’s will in its ultimate meaning was quite incomprehensible, yet it was the only positive will that could be known. In this respect, Puritanism accepted the routinization of the economic cosmos, which, with the whole world, it devalued as creatural and depraved. This state of affairs appeared as God-willed, and as material and given for fulfilling one’s duty. In the last resort, this meant in principle to renounce the salvation as a goal attainable by man, that is, by everybody. It meant to renounce salvation in favor of the groundless and always only particularized grace. In truth, this standpoint of unbrotherliness was no longer a genuine “religion of salvation.” A genuine religion of salvation can exaggerate brotherliness to the height of the mystic’s acosmism of love.2

As in Talcott Parsons’ scheme of the particularistic against the general, the segmental against the diffuse, where “love” can be only particularistic and diffuse, Weber sees no longer in Puritanism any concern with “brotherhood of man” and has to dismiss the notion of “loving concern” as humbug. He would see only the “Puritan Crusader,” the soldier “who knows for what he fights and fights for what he knows,” or, to cite the once popular song of World War II, written by a Methodist minister: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. . .” As we have come to live in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb, the negative evaluation of Puritanism as a religion of “unbrotherliness” and in fact “no longer a genuine ‘religion of salvation,”‘” shows clearly Weber’s commitment to other than Puritan values.

As Weber is often seen as a “religious man,” one readily might think of him as a Lutheran, as did Paul Honigsheim.3 Weber, however, sees Lutheranism as supporting “anticapitalist attitudes” of German Lutheran princes and their territorial churches.4 Hence, German conservatism, patriarchalism, everything which from the viewpoint of capitalist dynamics must appear as “backward,” tradition-bound, and “feudal” according to Weber, receives support and a religious halo through Lutheranism. Particularly odious, and a great political liability, seemed to Weber the political consequence, the “docility of the German subject.” It goes without saying that at this point Weber’s evaluation and understanding is negative and by no means “value neutral.”

One might seek the way out of the seeming contradiction between Weber’s evaluative statements and his affirmation of value neutrality in the social sciences by dismissing the former as unfortunate personal slips, shortcomings of the author who can as yet not write with the dead-pan face of the truly “objective” scholar. And Weber’s eagerness to separate the role of the stand-taking political man from that of the academic man might be adduced in support. Still, the question would remain open when we read Weber’s confrontation of the “robber barons” with middle-class capitalists.5 Obviously, the Puritan middle-class capitalists fare better than the somewhat Nietzschean “economic supermen.”

Quite aside from moral evaluation in terms of good and evil, in Weber’s work there is always the question of the “authentic,” the “original,” the “genuine” as over against the “spurious,” the “pseudo,” the “sham.” This is not a question of pasting labels on this or that; it suffuses the very act of “understanding.” Thus, Weber repeatedly uses the term prototype for those “genuine,” “original,” and “authentic” groups and social organizations which during the long historical stretches of workaday life and the “routinization of charisma” serve as models for subsequent developments. The Puritan sect of the heroic and enthusiastic phase of early capitalism is the “prototype” of all subsequent voluntary organizations.6 And the professionalization of intellectual and aesthetic education in nineteenth-century Germany must not lead to commercialism presumably because of specific “prototypes” who lived not off their work but “for their work.” The representative professional men “are bound by an inner affinity to all the carriers of ancient social culture, because for them, as for their prototypes, their profession cannot and must not be a source of heedless gain.”‘ We feel reminded of the condescending sneer with which many a poor artist looks down upon “commercial art” and artists “going after money.” That such notions are the outworn survivals of a secular theology of “the misunderstood genius” as advanced by Arthur Schopenhauer we may mention at the side. Beethoven went of course after money and had no particular scruples about it. And Richard Wagner possibly was the first deliberate “monopoly-oriented” musician with his Bayreuth phantasmagoria of Teutonic nativism.

This confrontation of “living for” a cause, value, or purpose, regardless of whether it “pays off,” as over against making one’s living from its pursuit, runs through Weber’s analyses of politics, science, economics, art, etc. The “true” prophets of the Old Testament are those who at great risk and sometimes compulsively have to speak up against powers that be without expectation of reward. The “false” prophets are the “hirelings” of the palace who prophesy good fortune for the dynasty, victory, happiness, etc.

It is in agreement with this concern that Weber’s hero of early capitalist workaday life, the Puritan middle-class entrepreneur, is not primarily oriented to profit-making. Weber constantly seeks to make this point. He states that capitalism as a social system did not arise because of any particular “acquisitiveness,” and he repeatedly emphasizes that all sorts and conditions of men have been or are covetous without having anything to do with the capitalist enterprise. He mentions Cuban brothelma’ams, Viennese fiacre coachmen, Chinese storekeepers, etc. Erwerbstrieb, or profit motive (in the sense of Tawney’s Acquisitive Society) Weber calls “a quite unclear concept better not to be used at all.”8

Numerous contradictions in Weber’s many-faceted and multi-layered work may well be referred to a love-hate ambivalence which informs his interpretative concern. He is proud of the Prussian civil service machine as an instrument of rational administration, and his classic chapter on bureaucracy is of course based on his knowledge of this machine.9 Thus, Weber emphasizes all the efficiency and instrumental values which a monocratic administrative machine of specialized experts can have, and he makes no difference at all between civil service organizations and the hierarchies of corporate “private” business. In his over-all conception of an ongoing bureaucratization of modern life, however, the aversion of the classic liberal against bureaucracy is alive. He hates what he sees to be unavoidable “fate.”

He is willing to suspend his ethical rigorism in the case of America when, at the beginning of the century, he learns one or two things about “corruption” in political life and the ways of political bosses and their machines. All of a sudden, “virtue policy” gives way to “success policy,” to speak in terms of William Graham Sumner: He cites the American worker who prefers in political office a scoundrel whom he can despise to the impeccable academically certified office holder and bureaucrat who becomes the member of an exclusive caste of civil servants. Weber is full of admiration for American machine politics. It seems to him the one feature of American life in which America is far ahead of European developments and points the road to the future.

Weber learned quite a bit of sociological thinking in his running battle with Marxist intellectuals such as Ed. Bernstein, K. Kautsky, and Rudolf Hilferding. Once he sought to undercut them by being more of an “historical materialist” than Friedrich Engels was in his analysis of Mediterranean antiquity.10 We think of his essay, “The Social Causes of the Decay of Ancient Civilization.”” At other times, Weber may be said to have “overarched” historical materialists of his time. We think of his study of Biblical Judaism and his analysis of the solitary prophets of doom. Obviously, he thought to do Kautsky’s book on early Christendom one better; and, as he dealt with the rise of the “innerdirected man” (to use Riesman’s phrase) or with “the birth of conscience,” it was at the same time an implicit attack against Sigmund Freud’s speculative construction of the archaic parricide by the brother horde, the establishment of the incest taboo, the father and son religion, etc. Only a detailed and comparative analysis of themes treated by such intellectual rivals could make clear the explicit and frequently implicit linkage between evaluative understanding and its cognitive concerns.

As Weber, in the illusionist tradition of the nineteenth century thinking, identified himself with Jeremiah—in the same way as Nietzsche had donned the mask of Zoroaster and Karl Marx that of the Schiller hero Karl Moor of The Robbers—we deem it appropriate to call him the Jeremiah of German imperialism and of the German nation state. It would be altogether wrong to see him as a precursor of Hitler barbarism, of anti-Semitism and racism, because he threw out desperately angry statements against colored troops deployed in Europe during World War I. Weber was far from following Madison Grant, Stoddard, and their like. He fought social Darwinism and Houston Stuart Chamberlain. Similarly, one has to evaluate his notion of “leadership democracy” as over against “leaderless democracy” rather in terms of the orientation of German liberalism toward “prototypical” America and its strong plebiscitarian president as the leader of the victorious machine in the political arena.

This orientation to America, away from the older models of French and British democracy, was what informed Weber’s political essays which, according to Nazi Professor Carl Schmitt, were not without influence on the construction of the German presidency of the Weimar Republic. Obviously, Weber felt that responsibility of supreme leadership in a democratized Germany should be placed on the leaders of the Social Democratic party, which he regarded the one strong mass party fit to keep a nation together and able to steer through inflationary upheaval, putschism from the right, putschism from the Moscow-directed left, without military occupation, separatism, and dissolution of Germany. Had he lived longer, we have no doubt, he would have been among the more than 47 per cent of German academic teachers who were chased into external or internal emigration in 1933. Weber, with his link to the Frankfurter Zeitung, with his often mentioned “volcanic temperament,” would have been a “November criminal” in the eyes of Nazis as he was firmly committed to the legacy of European enlightenment, unable and unwilling to bring “the intellectual sacrifice” which he felt all “faith” demands. He criticized early notions of the “corporate state” and antiparliamentary, antidemocratic ways of thought.

In the midst of mountainous waves of ideological and utopian illusions, Weber maintained the composure of the stoic man he was. He died with the words on his lips “The real is Truth.”


1. Psychoanalysis, of course, is preeminently an interpretative branch, beside others, in psychiatry. We follow Karl Jaspers in this.

2. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated and edited with an introduction by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 332-33. In the following, this collection of translations will be referred to as Essays.

3. See Paul Honigsheim, “Max Weber als Soziologe,” Kolner Vierteliahrshefte fur Sozialwissenschaften, 1:32-41 (1921).

4. Essays, p. 370-71.

5. Essays, p. 308-9.

6. Essays, p. 311.

7. Essays, p. 371.

8. “Political and Hierocratic Rule,” in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tiibingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1956), p. 720.

9. As a professor and a soldier, Weber acquired some experience as a “participant observer” in his lifetime. Those who feel Weber engaged in constructing an “ideal type” without empirical referent or relevance probably forget this.

10. See Friedrich Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” (any edition).

11. Max Weber, “The Social Causes of the Decay of Ancient Civilization,” Journal of General Education, 5:75-88 (1950).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: