Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedyby John Patrick Diggins. Basic Books, 334 pp., $35.
August 18, 1996        

Very few intellectual reputations are as secure nowadays as Max Weber’s. Nor, for that matter, are many intellectuals so lionized in their own day as this founding father of 20th-century social theory. Austere, enigmatic, formidably erudite and forbiddingly abstruse, Weber seems an unlikely culture hero. Yet he was at least as well known in his own country just before and during World War I as his eminent contemporaries Bertrand Russell and John Dewey were in theirs.

Max Weber was born in 1864 into an upper-middle-class German family, the eldest son of a prosperous, worldly father and a cultivated, repressed mother. His father bullied, his mother doted; the young Max grew up sickly but precocious and strong-willed. After some mild and conventional undergraduate dissipation, he got serious: by the age of 30 he was a full professor. At his dissertation defense, the renowned classical historian Theodore Mommsen proclaimed the brilliant young scholar his chosen successor.

But Weber was struck down. He had long resented the way his father treated his mother. One day, at the age of 33, he chastised the older man angrily and humiliatingly before the whole family. A few months later his father died unexpectedly. Max was overwhelmed with remorse, and soon afterward suffered a mysterious nervous collapse. For nearly four years he could not read, write, or teach, indeed could barely speak or sleep. Fortunately, an adoring wife and an independent income saw him through. Though psychically frail and still unable to teach, he resumed his prodigious scholarly labors. His international reputation and political pronouncements eventually made him a public figure.

Weber read very widely, ranging over the history, economy, religion, law, culture, and social organization of Europe, India, and China in ancient, medieval, and modern times. From this mass of material he fashioned such grand theoretical structures as his celebrated typologies of religious and political authority and his comparative analyses of capitalism and democracy. His writings on method were extremely influential, especially his introduction of “ideal types” -- simplifying abstractions that facilitate analysis; his reflections on the role of ideas in historical causation; and his views on relativism, or “value-neutrality,” in the social sciences. Probably Weber is best known today for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. His description of the striking fit between Calvinist doctrine and entrepreneurial practice has been tremendously fruitful, spurring scholarly debate (and college bull sessions) to this day.

Weber was also keenly interested in contemporary politics. His father had been a member of the Reichstag, and Max studied law before succumbing to the lure of the archives. He admired Marx profoundly but had grave doubts about socialist strategy and tactics. One of Germany’s foremost experts on labor conditions and a harsh critic of the Kaiser, the Junkers, capitalists, politicians, and bureaucrats, he was nonetheless equally hostile to revolutionaries and radical reformers. He defended Jews and leftists against academic persecution and actively supported women’s rights; but he also welcomed World War I and deplored the workers’ uprising of 1918.

Weber’s wartime newspaper articles and speeches won him enormous prestige: he was asked to help negotiate Germany’s surrender and was spoken of as a presidential candidate for the new German Democratic Party. But his scruples and his health kept him aloof. But for his death in 1920, Weber would surely have been one of the leading figures in the Weimar Republic.

John Patrick Diggins’s Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy is a reasonably good introduction to this daunting personage. Diggins is a pedestrian thinker and an awkward stylist, but he keeps things moving and skillfully balances the public and the personal. Best of all, he quotes abundantly and discriminatingly, so one forgives his own verbal infelicities (e.g.: “in Weber’s estimate, Marx was trying to preserve the perishable by identifying action with the making of history” and “Whether or not methodology would help Weber reestablish his identity, the self’s freedom still depended upon reason as an analytical faculty”).

To revise an old saying: what is new in Diggins’s interpretation is good and what is not new is not so good. The book opens with an extended comparison of Tocqueville and Weber, which is original and illuminating. So are Diggins’s account of Weber’s pivotal trip to America in 1904 and his observations about Weber’s temperamental affinities with the Puritans, the Founders, and Lincoln. But about the central questions-- What did Weber’s doubts, hesitations, and qualifications add up to politically: what did he stand for? What should we take away from his frequent, stirring exhortations to “objectivity” and “responsibility” in scholarship and politics? --Diggins is not all that helpful.

Weber was politically conflicted: “a curious combination,” Diggins writes, “of anarchist impulses and conservative convictions.” That’s a nice phrase, but a little misleading. Jeber’s convictions were radical. He had no illusions about the superior justice or efficiency of capitalism and no doubts about the need for a much higher degree of political and economic equality. But his impulses were conservative. He was supremely attached to the great achievements of European civilization and afraid they would not survive the revolt of the masses. Like Nietzsche and Freud, he despaired of ordinary people-- who were indeed, compared with him, shallow and self-deceiving. He believed in democracy but believed even more fervently in heroism, and he feared the two were incompatible. It was not a foolish fear.

Concluding his famous essay “Politics As a Vocation,” Weber wrote: “What is decisive is a trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life, and the ability to face such realities and measure up to them inwardly.” About all substantive commitments, religious or secular, revolutionary or conservative, Weber was a relativist. But about intellectual courage and moral seriousness-- which is what he meant, I think, by “objectivity” and “responsibility”-- he was an absolutist. “Relentlessness in viewing the realities of life” is also, arguably, what we admire in Greek tragedy. I am not sure what Diggins means by “tragic,” even though (or perhaps because) he intones the word incessantly; but for me, that heroic relentlessness is what links Weber to “the spirit of tragedy.”