Notes on the Sociology of Religion (21)

John C. Rankin

Weber, Max: “The Sociology of Charismatic Authority,” pp. 245-264, in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York, Oxford University Press, 1946).


  1. Thesis: charismatic authority precedes and stands outside institutions, changes society with new ideas, but eventually yields to institutionalization of new social order; cycle repeats.
  2. Background: a) 1864-1920, German political economist, a founder of modern study of sociology; b) Universities of Berlin, Freiburg, Heidelberg and Munich; c) major work: The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1905: distinction between Occident and Orient rooted in Protestant work ethics and view of the state); also Politics as Vocation, and Economy and Society; d) eldest of seven, modest Calvinist background, training in law, health issues; e) unlike Durkheim and Marx, was an anti-positivist heremeneut; rational pursuit of economic well-being rooted in a broad Calvinistic commitment to the liberal arts, but as a by-product of religious beliefs, not direct goal; f) colleague of Ernst Troeltsch.
  3. Essay on the Sociology of Charismatic Authority; a) bureaucratic (rules) and patriarchal (lineal) structures may be antagonistic, but they share the permanency of the social institutions of daily routine (both = intrinsically conservative);  b) ontra “natural leaders” in all sectors of society – those who are charismatic; c) sociology not concerned with provability of truth claims, only w/social dimensions; d) charismatic authority stand outside institutions; not dependent on their status or income; inner not external; “the opposite of all ordered economy” (p. 248); unstable; always proving itself, never resting in other supports, both inner and needs to be continually reaffirmed socially; opposite the divine right of kings; example of war lords versus kingship; e) “It is the fate of charisma, whenever it comes into the permanent institutions of a community, to give way to powers of tradition or of a rational socialization. The waning of charisma generally indicates the diminishing importance of individual action. And of all those powers that lessen the importance of individual action, the most irresistible is rational discipline; f) discipline is neutral – used by the charismatic and institutional alike; g) discipline in war – the hero, on the one hand, and war machinery, on the other − 1. examples in history, from Sparta to Omar, 2. counterpart in the disciplines of monks, 3. issue of property; h) “Charisma, as a creative power, recedes in the face of domination … [but] remains a highly important element in social structure, although of course in a greatly changed sense” (p. 262) − 1. “Genuine charisma is absolutely [linked] to this objectified form” (p. 262); 2. “routinization” + “successors of the charismatic hero” (p. 262), i] inherited “office charisma,” 3. charismatic source for and guarantee for the legitimacy of existing social order and property law, upon which successors depend; i) “Thus English parliamentary kingship is formed in a more genuinely charismatic fashion than kingships on the Continent. On the Continent, mere birth-right equally endows the fool and the political genius with the pretensions of a sovereign” (p. 264 = conclusion); j) cf. Victor Turner’s example of the Franciscans.
  4. Critique: a) are the political and economic liberties, and the material prosperity thus produced, along with a specific entrepreneurial power of charismatic authority, really unintended by-products of the Protestant/Calvinistic (aka Hebrew/biblical) work ethic? Or are they the natural and intended fruit of religious liberty?


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