Max Weber

The Person

Max Weber wascontinually beset by psychic torment. It is impossible to understandhis work without reference to the inner conflicts that attended hisintellectual production. But it would be inadvisable to focus here onall the details of Weber's psychic turmoils. The commentator shoulddiscriminate; otherwise he will succumb to what Hegel once called the"psychology of the valet," the detailed analysis of small humanparticularities that do not touch upon a man's historical andintellectual significance.

Weber's inner tensions stemmed largelyfrom the tangled web of his relations with his family, as well as fromhis attempts to escape from the stultifying political atmosphere of theKaiser's Germany in which he lived and worked. His ambivalence towardauthority in his personal life and his fascination with the topic in hiswritings, his double concern with rationality and with the ethic ofresponsibility, his attraction to innerworldly asceticism and hispartial identification with the heroic life-styles of charismaticleaders--these and many other themes in his work have their source inhis biography.

In the Father's House

Max Weber was born onApril 21, 1864, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber and his wifeHelene. Both parents descended from a line of Protestants, who had beenrefugees from Catholic persecution in the past but had later becomesuccessful entrepreneurs. Weber's paternal grandfather had been aprosperous linen dealer in Bielefeld, where the family had settled afterbeing driven from Catholic Salzburg because of their Protestantconvictions. While one of his sons took over and expanded the familybusiness, another, Weber's father, worked for a while in the citygovernment of Berlin and later as a magistrate in Erfurt (where Max wasborn) but then embarked upon a political career in the capital. InBerlin he was first a city councillor and late a member of the PrussianHouse of Deputies and of the German Reichstag. He was an importantmember of the National Liberal Party, the party of those liberals whohad made their peace with Bismarck and now supported most of hispolicies. Very much a part of the political "establishment," the olderWeber lived a self-satisfied, pleasure-loving, and shallow life. Hewas a fairly typical German bourgeois politician, at home in thewheeling and dealing of political affairs and not given to engage in any"idealistic" ventures that might undercut his solid anchoring with theestablished powers.

Weber's mother, Helene Fallenstein, came froma similar background but was made of wholly different cloth. Herfather, who descended from a line of school teachers, had been a teacherhimself, a translator, and romantic intellectual. After having foughtin the war of liberation against Napoleon, he settled down to the ratherprosaic life of a Prussian civil servant. When his first wife died, hemarried Emilie Souchay, the daughter of a prosperous merchant inFrankfurt. His financial position now assured, her retired to live inHeidelberg where he endeavored to be a kind of patron of the residentacademic community. The Souchays descended from Huguenot emigrants whohad been driven from their native France after Louis XIV had outlawedFrench Protestantism. They became very wealthy in Germany but continuedthe cultivation of an intense Calvinist religiosity.

The youngWeber grew up in a cultured bourgeois household. Not only leadingpoliticians but leading academic men were among its frequent houseguests. Here Weber met, at an early age, historians Treitschke, Sybel,Dilthey and Mommsen. But his parents' marriage, though at first aseemingly happy one, was soon to show signs of increasing tension, whichcould hardly be hidden from the children. Weber's mother, with herstrong religious commitments and her ingrained Calvinist sense of duty,had little in common with a husband whose personal ethic was hedonisticrather than Protestant.

Max Weber was precocious, yet sickly,shy, and withdrawn. His teachers complained about his lack of respectfor their authority and his lack of discipline. But he was an avidreader. At the age of fourteen, he wrote letters studded withreferences to Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Livy, and he had an extendedknowledge of Goethe, Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer before he entereduniversity studies.

The parental household was ruled with astrong authoritarian hand by his father, who may perhaps havecompensated for his flexibility in things political by being aninflexible disciplinarian at home. Although his mother made efforts todraw Max to her side and to cultivate in him the Christian piety sheprized so highly, Max tended in his youth to identify with his fatherrather than with her. This identification may explain why thepreviously withdrawn and encapsulated young Weber suddenly became verymuch "one of the boys" when he went to the University of Heidelberg ateighteen. He joined his father's duelling fraternity and chose as hismajor study his father's field of law. He became as active in duellingas in drinking bouts, and the enormous quantities of beer consumed withhis fraternity brothers soon transformed the thin and sickly lookingyoung man into a heavy-set Germanic boozer proudly displaying hisfencing scars.

These distractions did not keep Weber from hisstudies. Apart from his work in law, he attended Knies' lectures ineconomics and studied medieval history with Erdmannsdoerffer andphilosophy with Kuno Fischer. Immanuel Bekker introduced him to Romanlaw and Roman institutions. In addition, Weber read a great deal intheology in the company of his elder cousin, the theologian OttoBaumgarten. After three terms, Weber left Heidelberg for militaryservice in Strasbourg. Here he came under the influence of his uncle,the historian Hermann Baumgarten, and his wife Ida, Helene's Weber'ssister.

The Baumgartens soon became a second set of parents forWeber. Their influence on his development proved decisive. HermannBaumgarten had been a liberal comrade-in-arms of his father, but unlikehim, had never made peace with the Bismarckian Reich and still adheredto the unalloyed liberalism of his youth. He refused the compromisesthat had advanced the political career of Weber's father. Baumgartenwas content with a maverick role as an unreconciled 1848 liberal, onewho was basically at odds with the dominant tendencies of the day andpreferred the role of a German Jeremiah. His wife Ida was in many wayslike her sister, Weber's mother, sharing her deep Calvinist piety and athorough devotion to religious principles. She differed from her,however, in being forceful, even dominant, rather than withdrawn.

Unlikehis father, who treated young Weber with patronizing authoritarianism,the uncle regarded the nephew as an intellectual peer. From theStrasbourg days to the time of Baumgarten's death in 1893, as Weber'sletters eloquently testify, the uncle was his main mentor and confidantin matters political and intellectual. The influence of his aunt wasequally strong. Contrary to his mother, who had not succeeded instirring his interests in religion, his aunt led him to immerse himselfin religious reading, especially in her favorite theologian, the NewEngland divine William Ellery Channing. More generally, Weber wasgreatly impressed with Ida's forceful personality, the uncompromisingreligious standards with which she ran her household, and her deep senseof social responsibility which led her to spend a great deal of time incharitable work. He came to appreciate the values and orientations ofhis mother when seeing them put into action by her sister. It is mostprobably in the Strasbourg period that Weber acquired his lifelongsense of awe for the Protestant virtues, even though he was unable toshare the Christian belief on which they were based. He never lostrespect for men who not only believed as Channing did but who actuallylived his moral philosophy.

In the Strasbourg days, Weber partlyfreed himself from the model of a father whom he came to see as anamoral hedonist. He now tended to identify, though never fully, withthe moral sternness represented in different, and even partlycontradictory, ways by his uncle and aunt. He was to live with thestrain created by these identifications for a long period to come.

Weber'sfirst love was his cousin, the Baumgartens' daughter Emmy. Hisengagement to her lasted for six years, throughout which time therelationship was tension-ridden and brittle. Emmy was in frail healthboth physically and mentally. After years of agonizing doubts and guiltfeelings, Weber finally broke the engagement to Emmy, who had beenconfined to a sanitarium for much of that time.

In the fall of1884, his military service over, Weber returned to his parents' home tostudy at the University of Berlin. His parents wanted him back not onlyto control his rather free- wheeling ways but also to remove him fromthe influence of the Baumgartens. For the next eight years of his life,interrupted only by a term at the University of Goettingen and shortperiods of further military training, Weber stayed at his parents'house, first as a student, later as a junior barrister in Berlin courts,and finally as a Dozent at the University of Berlin. In thoseyears Weber was financially dependent on a father he increasingdisliked. He had developed a greater understanding of his mother'spersonality and her religious values during his stay in the household ofher sister, and he came to resent his father's bullying behavior towardher.

From Coser, 1977:234-237.


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