Politics as a Vocation by Max Weber — A Summary

Originally a lecture presented in 28 Januray 1919.

Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures, edited with an introduction and notes by David S. Owen and Tracy B. Strong, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004). [This edition also has the lecture “Science as a Vocation” along with a valuable Introcution and critical apparatus.]

There are many elements to this essay. One, it is an intervention by an important figure — perhaps the most well known intellectual of the time — at an important moment in German history: Germany had just been defeated in World War I. Two, it has what might be called an ethical dimension: what kind of person must one be in order to take up politics as a vocation? Three, there are issues that are of historical interest elements of which Weber draws from the distant and recent history and from Asia to (of course) Europe to America. Four, there are a number of conceptual elements. There are others besides. Anyway, as I have often done, it is the conceptual elements that I am mainly interested in. For the ethical part, I have merely provided extracts (see the last section).

The divisions are mine. The commentary is relevant but not crucial to understanding the summary. It may be read at leisure. Two pieces of trivia: the famous definition of the state and the equally famous remark that Machiavelli’s The Prince is “harmless” when compared to Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra appear in this lecture.


What is politics?

“The concept is extremely broad and includes every kind of independent leadership activity.” Such leadership can be found in the the central bank, a trade union, a municipal corporation, in the family. But I wish to talk about the leadership of a political organisation; more specifically, a state.

But what is a state? The state cannot be defined in terms of its activities. This is because there is not only no task that has not been undertaken by some state but also because there is no task that is exclusively undertaken by the state. The state can only be defined on the basis of the specific means peculiar to it: the use of violence.

The logic is simple here. If there were certain number of activities — this could very well be a large number so long as it is limited — that all states undertook to fulfil, then we could be able to define state as that organisation which does those things. Better, if there were certain things that only the state did, we could say that the state is that organisation, the only one in fact, which does them. But this is not the case, Weber says. The state takes upon itself an imponderable number of activities which are not exactly unique to it — i.e. which can be and are often taken up by other organisations. Therefore the uniqueness of the state cannot be defined on the basis of its activities.

But what is peculiar and unique to the state, Weber claims, is the legitimate use of physical violence. And hence, his definition of the state hinges on this claim. The qualifications are important. Other organisations might, and do use, violence. But not legitimately. Also, the state might indulge in non-physical violence (such as structural violence to take just one example among many which were articulated after Weber’s death). But so does other organisations: notably, the society and the family in the case of structural violence.

‘Nowadays … we must say that the state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory — and this idea of “territory” is an essential defining feature. For what is specific to the present is that all other organizations or individuals can assert the right to use physical violence only insofar as the state permits them to do so. The state is regarded as the sole source of the “right” to use violence. Hence, what “politics” means for us is to strive for a share of power or to influence the distribution of power, whether between states or between the groups of people contained within a state.’

Weber is not saying that the monopolisation of legitimate physical violence is the only thing that the state does. He is saying that it is what only the state does.

To say that something is political is to say that it involves the ‘distribution or preservation of power, or a shift in power … [And] whoever is active in politics strives for power, either power as a means in the service of other goals, whether idealistic or selfish, or power “for its own sake,” in other words, so as to enjoy the feeling of prestige that it confers.’


Now, if this state is to exist — this organisation which embodies the rule of some over others based on the legitimate use of violence — then those who rule must be obeyed by those who are ruled. When do they do so and why? What are the internal justifications of such rule? And what are its external supports (see end of next section for this)?

There are three basic internal justifications. ‘First, the authority of “the eternal past,” of custom, sanctified by a validity that extends back into the mists of time and is perpetuated by habit. This is “traditional” rule, as exercised by patriarchs and patrimonial rulers of the old style.’

‘Second, there is the authority of the extraordinary, personal gift of grace or charisma, that is, the wholly personal devotion to, and a personal trust in, the revelations, heroism, or other leadership qualities of an individual. This is “charismatic” rule of the kind practiced by prophets or — in the political sphere — the elected warlord or the ruler chosen by popular vote, the great demagogue, and the leaders of political parties.’

When Weber refers to “charisma”, he is transliterating the Greek χάρισμα. “Gift of grace” is the literal translation of this Greek word. And while the word was not unknown in English, it is Weber’s use of the word led to its widespread adoption and use.

‘Lastly, there is rule by virtue of “legality,” by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statutes and practical “competence” based on rational rules. This type of rule is based on a person’s willingness to carry out statutory duties obediently. Rule of this kind is to be found in the modern “servant of the state” and all those agents of power who resemble him in this respect.’

These three legitimations — traditional, charismatic, and legal — are “pure” types. They do not occur in their pure form in reality but in complex variants, transitions and combinations.


“What interests us here above all is the second of these types: rule based on the acquiescence of those who submit to the purely personal “charisma” of the “leader.” For this is where we discover the root of the idea of “vocation” in its highest form..”

The German for “vocation”, which can also be translated as “profession”, is Beruf. It derives from the root rufen meaning “to call”. Hence, it is also translated as “calling” (which means profession in English as well). But Weber refers to “the idea of a Beruf in its highest form” and laters talks about “Beruf in the deepest meaning of the word”. What is he getting at?

Well, first, Beruf conveys a religious notion: that of being called to eternal salvation through or by God. This is not news. We find this in Paul’s Letters. Paul’s word for “calling” in this sense is κλησις [klēsis]. To take just one example:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling [κλησεως, klēseōs] to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6, NRSV)

But, second, according to Weber, Beruf is also “a man’s sustained activity under the division of labour, which is thus (normally) his source of income and in the long run the economic basis of his existence”. This is the modern secular sense conveyed by equivalents like vocation and profession. This idea, he claims, is the innovation of Martin Luther, and appears for the first time as Beruf in Luther’s translation of the Greek Septuagint Bible [completed by 1534], specifically in the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. (The Book of Sirach was originally composed in Hebrew but manuscript portions of the Hebrew text were discovered only in the late 19th century and in the 20th century.) Weber:

Luther translates the words in Jesus Sirach with “beharre in deinem Beruf” and “bliebe in deinem Beruf ”, instead of “bliebe bei deiner Arbeit”. … Luther’s translation of the passage in the Book of Sirach is, so far as I know, the first case in which the German word Beruf appears in its present purely secular sense. (The Protestant Ethic, Chapter 3, note 3)

The relevant passage is Book of Sirach 11:20–2. I present Brenton’s English and Luther’s German translation, both from the Septuagint Greek.

Brenton: wax old in thy work [έργω, ergō]. … trust in the Lord, and abide in thy labour [πονώ, ponō].
Luther: Beharre in deinem Beruf …Bertraue du Gott, und bleibe in deinem Beruf.

The full passage, should the reader be interested, is: Stand by your agreement and attend to it, and grow old in your work. Do not wonder at the works of a sinner, but trust in the Lord and keep at your job. (NRSV)

Weber is saying that instead of translating ergon with Arbeit, Luther chose Beruf, and that in doing so gave expression to the notion of “of a life-task, a definite field in which to work”, i.e. a calling in the secular sense, which did not exist before. (Ergon is deed, task, or work, in Greek; Arbeit means work in German [recall the infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” — which, loosely rendered, is “Work makes you Free” — emblazoned on the gate at the entrance of Auschwitz].)

Anyway, by Beruf, Weber means “calling” in both its religious and secular senses.

The charismatic leader is one ‘held to be the inwardly “chosen” leaders of humankind. People do not submit to them because of any customs or statutes, but because they believe in them. Such a leader does indeed live for his cause and “strives to create his work [trachtet nach seinem Werk].” …But the devotion of his followers, that is, his disciples and liegemen, or his entirely personal band of supporters, is directed toward his person and his qualities.’

Weber is quoting Friedrich Nietzsche here.

“Oh Zarathustra,” they said. “Are you perhaps on the lookout for your happiness?” – “What does happiness matter!” he answered. “I haven’t strived for happiness for a long time, I strive for my work [ich trachte nach meinem Werke].

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV, The Honey Offering.

All sorts of charismatic leaders have emerged in the past. Two of the most important in types today are the free ‘demagogue’ and the parliamentary ‘party leader’. Both are indigenous to the West.

Now, these demagogues and party leaders, these professional (or vocational) politicians in other words, are not the only ones nor the most decisive ones in the struggle for power. The material resources necessary to make use of physical force where required are also important. These are the external supports. They include ‘the administrative personnel and the material resources of administration.’

The administrative personnel obeys the rulers because of their charisma. But not just this. There are two other factors which appeal to the personal interest of these personnel: material rewards (e.g. salaries) and social honor (e.g. prestige enjoyed by civil servants). By these, their obedience is secured.


All forms of state can be classified into two types based on whether the administrative personnel own the means of administration or is separated from it. The means of administration could consist of ‘money, buildings, the materials of war, vehicle pools, horses, or whatever’. To own the means of administration is to use them as one would use things that one owns, and not as directed by somebody else who actually owns them.

We may call those political organisations in which the lord does not autonomously control the means of administration an ‘organization subdivided into estates’. These are the organisations in which administrative staff owns the means of admninistration. In the “estates”, the lord is dependent upon his vassals who pays for the administration of his fief. The vassals also pay for ‘the equipment and provisioning needed for a war; his subvassals did likewise.’ This had important consequences for the authority of the lord because the lord’s power was dependent on the loyalty of the vassal which in turn was dependent on the fact that the vassals social status derived legitimacy from the lord.

But in many cases, we also find that the lord personally takes up administration himself by having men personally dependent upon him. He pays from his own pocket for the administration, he creates an army which is dependent upon him personally by equipping and provisioning it out of his granaries, magazines, and armories. ‘In this second case he relies either on members of his household or else on plebeians, men from strata of society without either property or honor of their own, men who are dependent upon him entirely for their material well-being, since they have no power at their disposal to compete with his.’

The development of this form of political organisation begins when the monarch [Fürst, as in “first”, and also translatable as prince] expropriates (enteignet) ‘the autonomous, “private” agents of administrative power who exist in parallel to him, that is to say, all the independent owners of the materials of war and the administration, financial resources, and politically useful goods of every kind’.

The bureaucracy of the modern state is the most rational development this type of political organisation. In the modern state, ‘control of the entire political means of production is concentrated in a single culminating point so that not a single official is left who personally owns the money he spends, or the buildings, supplies, tools, and military equipment that are under his control. In the modern “state” — and this is an essential element of its definition — the “separation” of the administrative staff, that is, of officials and employees, from the material resources of administration, has been completed. It is at this point that the very latest development emerges, for we now see before our very eyes the attempt to bring about the expropriation of this expropriator [die Expropriation dieses Expropriateurs] of the resources of politics and hence of political power.’

Weber means the expropriation by the modern state of the (original) expropriator, i.e. the monarch or the prince. Just as the monarch expropriated the ‘autonomous, “private” agents of administrative power’, the modern state expropriates him in turn.

Weber uses the “Expropriation” instead of the German Enteignung (which he does use earlier) because he is adopting a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (Chap 32, The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation):

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated [Die Expropriateurs werden expropriiert.]

‘I shall confine myself to the purely conceptual point that the modern state is an institutional form of rule that has successfully fought to create a monopoly of legitimate physical force as a means of government within a particular territory. For this purpose it has concentrated all the material resources of organization in the hands of its leaders. The modern state has expropriated all the autonomous officials of the “estates” who previously controlled such things as of right and has put itself in the shape of its highest representative in their place.’


In this process of political expropriation, which has occurred with varying success in all countries on earth, “professional politicians” in another sense. ‘This consisted of people who, unlike the charismatic leaders, did not wish to become masters themselves, but to enter into the service of political masters. In these conflicts they put themselves at the disposal of the monarch and treated the implementation of his policies as a way of earning their own material living, on the one hand, and of acquiring a life’s ideal on the other.’ But before discussing them, it is important to be clear about the implications of the existence of such politicians.

One might pursue politics, i.e. seek to influence the distribution of power between and within political structures, as an occasional politician. Most of us are occasional politicians: when we vote, protest, applaud a political speech, etc. So are those ‘local agents and committee members of political party associations who, as a rule, pursue such activities only as occasion demands and who do not make it the primary “task of their lives,” either materially or as an ideal.’ So also are those members of councils and advisory bodies who function only when summoned. Indeed, so are our members of parliament whose engagement with politics is often only when the parliament is in session.

Such occasional politicians were found in the past among the “estates” who owned the means of admnistration. ‘A major portion of them were far from willing to pass their lives wholly or chiefly, or even more than occasionally, in the service of politics. Instead, they used their seigneurial power to maximize their own rents or profits and became politically active in the service of their political associations only when their overlord or their peers expressly called for it.’ But these were not sufficient for the monarch who needed to ‘assemble a staff of assistants consisting of people who were entirely and exclusively devoted to serving him as their principal profession.

‘What did the “full-time” politicians look like in all these cases?’

‘There are two ways of engaging in politics as a vocation. You can either live “for” politics or “from” politics. These alternatives are not by any means mutually exclusive. On the contrary, as a rule people do both, mentally at least, but for the most part materially, as well. Whoever lives “for” politics makes “this his life” in an inward sense. Either he enjoys the naked exercise of the power he possesses or he feeds his inner equilibrium and his self-esteem with the consciousness that by serving a “cause” he gives his own life a meaning. In this inner sense, probably every serious person who lives for a cause also lives from it.’

Given this, the distinction has really to do with the economic aspect of the vocation. The distinction in other words lies in this; that those who live “from” politics are those who seek to make it their permanent source of income whereas those who live “for” politics are those for whom this is not the case.

Now in order that one be able to live for politics, a person must be economically independent. A person who wishes to live for politics must be wealthy. But not just this, such a person must also be in a position to make himself “available” for politics. ‘This means that his sources of income must not require him constantly to devote all or most of his thoughts and energy personally to the task of earning his living.’

If the leaders are men who live exclusively for politics, their recruitment is plutocratic. That’s to say, those who live for politics are the wealthy. This doesn’t mean that these leaders will not try to life from politics. “It means only that professional politicians are not directly compelled to seek remuneration for their political services as everyone without means is forced to do. But by the same token, this is not to suggest that politicians with no independent means entered politics solely or even principally with an eye to providing for their own material welfare, or that their concern for their “cause” was not uppermost in their minds, or even present at all.’

Plutocracy from ploutos (πλουτος) + kratos (κρατος). Ploutos means riches or wealth. Kratos means rule, also strength/power. Pluto is also a Greek god, equivalent to Hades, who rules Tartarus, the under- or nether-world. It is after this god that the ex-planet is named! The philosopher Plato has an explanation, the first such explanation, connecting the all three, i.e. ploutos, Pluto, and Hades, which he gives in Cratylus (403b).

As for Pluto, he was given that name because it accords with his being the source of wealth, since wealth (πλούτος, ploutos) comes up from below the ground. It seems to me that most people call him by the name ‘Pluto’, because they are afraid of what they can’t see (άειδες, aeides), and they assume that his other name, ‘Hades’, associates him with that.

And in order to recruit politically interested people, both leaders and their followers, non-plutocratically, i.e. those who do not own property or have wealth, those leaders and their followers will have to extract a regular and reliable income from the practice of politics. Such politicians could be pure benificiaries or draw salaries. In the former case, they derive income from fees and other payments for services (including tips and bribes). In the latter case, they receive fixed benefits in cas or kind regularly.


‘In his struggles with the estates, the ruler sought the assistance of politically exploitable strata who did not form part of the estates. These included, first and foremost, the clergy. … The aim everywhere was to acquire literate administrators who could be deployed by the emperor or princes or the khan in their struggle with the aristocracy. Members of the clergy, especially if they were celibate, stood outside the hustle and bustle of ordinary political and economic interests and, unlike the ruler’s vassals, were not exposed to the temptation to compete with him for political power of their own to pass on to their heirs. The cleric was “separated” from the machinery of the ruler’s administration by the characteristics of his own status group.’

‘A second stratum of this kind consisted of men of letters with a humanist education. There was a time when men learned to make speeches in Latin and write verses in Greek in order to qualify as political advisers and above all to compose political memoranda on behalf of a ruler.’

‘The third social stratum was the court nobility. Once the rulers had succeeded in depriving the aristocracy of its political power as an estate, they attracted the nobility to the court and enrolled them in their political and diplomatic service.’

‘The fourth category was a specifically British phenomenon: this was a patrician class comprising the minor nobility and the urban inhabitants of independent means, known technically as the “gentry.” This was a stratum that the monarch had originally attracted in his conflict with the barons and that he put in charge of the offices of “self-government,” only to become increasingly dependent upon them subsequently.’

‘A fifth stratum was peculiar to the West, particularly on the Continent, and it was of crucial importance for its entire political structure. This was the class of university-trained lawyers. Once Roman law had been transformed under the late Roman bureaucratic state, it continued to exert a powerful influence over a long period of time. Nowhere was this more evident than in the circumstance that, in its advance toward the rational state, the revolution of the machinery of politics was undertaken everywhere by trained lawyers.’

‘Since the founding of the constitutional state, and even more markedly since the establishment of democracy, the demagogue has been the typical political leader in the West. … The political publicist, and above all, the journalist is the most important representative of the species today.’

Yet another figure is that of the party official. This figure has emerged in recent decades. The party officaisl are those ‘who do the continuous day-to-day work within the [party] organization or of those on whom the party apparatus depends for either money or personnel.’

A fascinating digression!

This section is an extract.

The genuine official [i.e. the bureaucrat] … should not be politically active but, above all else, should “administer,” impartially. This applies also to so-called “political” civil servants [such as ministers belonging to the party that has formed the government], officially at least, as long as there is no threat to “raison d’etat,” that is, the vital interests of the dominant order. Sine ira et studio — that should be the official’s motto in the performance of his duties. He should therefore abstain from doing what politicians, the leaders as well as followers, must always necessarily do, namely, to fight.

Raison d’etat is French for “reason of state”, a translation of the Italian Ragione di Stato. Probably first articulated by the Italian Jesuit priest Giovanni Botero in his Della Ragion di Stato [1589].

The state is a firm domination over peoples. And the reason of state [Ragione di Stato] is the knowledge of the appropriate means for founding, preserving, and expanding such a domination.

The terms means something quite different now.


Sine ira et studio is Latin meaning without anger and partiality. It is a quotation of the Roman historian Tacitus who declares right at the beginning of his Annals:

Hence my design, to treat a small part (the concluding one) of Augustus’ reign, then the principate of Tiberius and its sequel, without anger and without partiality [sine ira et studio], from the motives of which I stand sufficiently removed.

For taking sides, struggle, passion — ira et Studium — are the politician’s element, especially the political leader’s. His activity is subject to an entirely different principle of responsibility, in fact, the very opposite principle to that of the official. When an official receives an order, his honor lies in his ability to carry it out, on his superior’s responsibility, conscientiously and exactly as if it corresponded to his own convictions. This remains the case even if the order seems wrong to him and if, despite his protests, his superior insists on his compliance. Without this discipline and self-denial, which is ethical in the highest degree, the entire apparatus would collapse.

In contrast, the point of honor of the political leader, that is, the leading statesman, is that he acts exclusively on his own responsibility, a responsibility that he may not and cannot refuse or shuffle off onto someone else. It is precisely civil servants of high moral stature who make bad politicians, in other words, who act irresponsibly from a political standpoint. We must judge them, therefore, to be ethically inferior politicians of the kind we in Germany have unfortunately had time and again in leading positions. That is what we call “government by civil servants” [Beamtenherrschaft].

Weber has a very long section discussing in some detail the role and the development of the last two figures: the journalist and the party official (for this latter figure, he goes into even more depth about the development of party organisation). Much of this is of historical interest and deals with the development of party organisations in the US, England, and Germany in what was then the recent few decades. The point of all that seems to be the following conclusion:

It is not possible to see today, therefore, how the business of politics can take the outward shape of a “profession,” and even less what prospects of a worthwhile political challenge might open up for people who are politically talented. The man who is compelled by his financial situation to live “from” politics will always find that the typical direct paths will involve choosing between journalism or a post as party official. Or else he could consider a post with one of the representative bodies: trade union, chamber of commerce, farmers’ association, craft workers’ chamber, industrial chamber, employers’ associations, and so on, or the appropriate positions in local government. Nothing further can be said about the outward shape of the profession except that the party official shares with the journalist the odium of being “déclassé.” He will, unfortunately, always have the actual or unspoken rebuke of “hired hack” ringing in his ears, in the case of the journalist, or “hired speaker,” in the case of the official. Anyone who lacks inner defenses against accusations of this kind and is unable to find the proper retort to them should avoid such a career, because in addition to the risk of exposing himself to grave temptations, he may find that it turns out to be full of disappointments.


This is the ‘ethical’ part of the essay. Extracts.

We may inquire what inner pleasures may be expected from a political career and what are the personal qualifications called for in those who choose it?

Well, to start with, it provides a sense of power. Even in what may be quite a modest post formally, the professional politician may feel he has been raised above the commonplace by his discovery that he has influence on people, that he has his share of power over them, but above all that he holds in his hands a strand of some important historical process.

But the question now confronting such a politician is: What qualities does he need to do justice to this power (however narrowly circumscribed it may be) and hence to the responsibility that it imposes on him?

We can say that three qualities, above all, are of decisive importance for a politician: passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.

Passion in the sense of a commitment to the matter in hand [Sachlichkeit], that is, the passionate dedication to a “cause” [Sache], to the God or demon that presides over it. …[But] mere passion, however sincerely felt, is not enough in itself. It cannot make a politician of anyone, unless service to a “cause” also means that a sense of responsibility toward that cause is made the decisive guiding light of action. And for that (and this is the crucial psychological characteristic of the politician) a sense of proportion is required, the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure.

What is needed, in short, is a distance from people and things. The “absence of distance,” pure and simple, is one of the deadly sins of every politician and one of those qualities which, if instilled into our intellectuals, will condemn them to political impotence. For the heart of the problem is how to forge a unity between hot passion and a cool sense of proportion in one and the same person. Politics is made with the mind, not with other parts of the body or the soul. And yet if politics is to be an authentic human activity and not just a frivolous intellectual game, commitment to it must be born of passion and be nourished by it. Even so, the ability to keep the soul in check is what characterizes the passionate politician and distinguishes his attitude from the “sterile excitement” of the amateur. This can be achieved only by acquiring the habit of distance, in every sense of the word. The “strength” of a political “personality” means, primarily, the possession of these qualities.

‘[W]hat is the true relation between ethics and politics?

We need to be clear that all ethically oriented action can be guided by either of two fundamentally different, irredeemably incompatible maxims: it can be guided by an “ethics of conviction” or an “ethics of responsibility.” This does not mean that an ethics of conviction is identical with irresponsibility or an ethics of responsibility with a lack of conviction. Needless to say, there can be no question of that. But there is a profound abyss between acting in accordance with the maxim governing an ethics of conviction and acting in tune with an ethics of responsibility. In the former case this means, to put it in religious terms: “A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God,” while in the latter you must answer for the (foreseeable) consequences of your actions.

But even this does not exhaust the problem. No ethic in the world can ignore the fact that in many cases the achievement of “good” ends is inseparable from the use of morally dubious or at least dangerous means and that we cannot escape the possibility or even probability of evil side effects. And no ethic in the world can say when, and to what extent, the ethically good end can “justify” the ethically dangerous means and its side effects.

[With the] problem of justifying the means by the ends, we see the inevitable failure of an ethics of conviction in general. And in fact, it logically has only one possibility. That is to repudiate every action that makes use of morally suspect means, logically. …It is not possible to reconcile an ethics of conviction with an ethics of responsibility or to decree which end can justify which means, if indeed you wish to make any concessions to this principle at all.

My colleague F. W. Foerster … expresses the belief in his book that we can get around the difficulty with the aid of the simple thesis that nothing but good can come from good and nothing but evil from evil. … [But] as far as a person’s actions are concerned, it is not true that nothing but good comes from good and nothing but evil from evil, but rather quite frequently the opposite is the case. Anyone who does not realize this is in fact a mere child in political matters.

It is in this connection, i.e., the propriety of the ethics of resposibility for politics, that Weber makes that famous comparison between Kautilya and Machiavelli. The general thesis, of which the connection I just mentioned is just a specific instancem is that there need not be one ethics for every area of life.

This specialized approach to ethics made it possible for Indian philosophy to develop an internally consistent treatment of the royal art of politics, focusing entirely on its own particular laws and indeed intensifying them radically. A genuinely radical “Machiavellianism,” in the popular sense of the word, received its classic formulation in Indian literature as early as Kautilya’s Arthashastra (long before the Christian era, allegedly from the time of Chandragupta). Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless in comparison.

However, the unworldly imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount, which are in complete harmony with an ethics of conviction, and the absolute demands made by the religious natural law based on it retained their revolutionary power.

Whoever makes a pact with the use of force, for whatever ends (and every politician does so), is at the mercy of its particular consequences. The man who fights for his faith, whether religious or revolutionary, is particularly exposed to this risk. We need not look beyond the present to find examples. Anyone who desires to use force to establish absolute justice on earth needs followers, a human “apparatus.” He must be able to hold out the prospect of the necessary internal and external prizes (heavenly and earthly rewards), or else this apparatus will not function.

The leader is entirely dependent for his success on the functioning of this apparatus. He is dependent, therefore, on its motives, not on his own. He is therefore dependent on being able to keep providing the followers he relies on … with these rewards in perpetuity. Since his activities must be carried out under these conditions, it is evident that what he in fact achieves is not in his own hands but is laid down for him by the predominantly base motives governing the actions of his followers. For they can only be kept under control as long as at least some of them, though probably never a majority, are inspired by a genuine belief in him personally and his cause.

But this belief, even when it is subjectively sincere, is in very many cases really no more than the ethical “legitimation” of the desire for revenge, power, booty, and the rewards of office. And we must not let ourselves be persuaded otherwise about this, since the materialist interpretation of history is not a hansom cab to be picked up on an impulse, and it makes no exceptions for the agents of revolutions!

The last sentence is a cheeky remark. The reference to Marx (and by extension, in this case, to ‘agents of revolutions’) is obvious. But there is also a less obvious reference to Arthur Schopehauer who had said, in the On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason [1847], that:

The law of causality therefore is not so accommodating as to let itself be used like a hired cab, which we dismiss when we have reached our destination.

Anyone who wishes to engage in politics at all, and particularly anyone who wishes to practice it as a profession, must become conscious of these ethical paradoxes and of his own responsibility for what may become of him under the pressure they exert. For, I repeat, he is entering into relations with the satanic powers that lurk in every act of violence.

In truth, politics is an activity of the head but by no means only of the head. In this respect the adherents of an ethics of conviction are in the right. But whether we should act in accordance with an ethics of conviction or an ethics of responsibility, and when we should choose one rather than the other, is not a matter on which we can lay down the law to anyone else.

[In our age] conviction politicians may well spring up in large numbers all of a sudden and run riot, declaring, “The world is stupid and nasty, not I. The responsibility for the consequences cannot be laid at my door but must rest with those who employ me and whose stupidity or nastiness I shall do away with.” And if this happens, I shall say openly that I would begin by asking how much inner gravity lies behind this ethics of conviction, and I suspect I should come to the conclusion that in nine cases out of ten I was dealing with windbags who do not genuinely feel what they are taking on themselves but who are making themselves drunk on romantic sensations.

By the same token, I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being — whether young or old in actual years is immaterial — who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” That is authentically human and cannot fail to move us. For this is a situation that may befall any of us at some point, if we are not inwardly dead. In this sense an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a “vocation for politics.”

Three references here: to Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, and Martin Luther.

Kant had declared at the beginning of his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ that ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’ [Kant’s term for “immaturity” is Unmündigkeit. Weber’s term for “mature” is reifer.]

As for Aristotle, he had stipulated in his Nicomachean Ethics (1095a5) that “the young are not fit to be students of politikē [or politics; the term is usually, but problematically, translated as political science].

And the words “Here I stand [hier stehe ich], I can do no other [ich kann nicht anders]” are attributed to Martin Luther who is said to have uttered them at the Diet of Worms in 1521.

The only man who has a “vocation” for politics is one who is certain that his spirit will not be broken if the world, when looked at from his point of view, proves too stupid or base to accept what he wishes to offer it, and who, when faced with all that obduracy, can still say “Nevertheless!” despite everything.

Published by


I am a chronic procrastinator.