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Max the Fatalist

May 21, 2020

Max the Fatalist

May 21, 2020

When the young Max Weber returned home in 1883 after his third semester as a law student at the University of Heidelberg, his mother slapped him. Gone was the lanky eighteen-year-old whose sagging shoulders made him, in the words of his future wife Marianne, a “candidate for consumption.” Thanks to nights of drinking with his fraternity, Max had gained considerable weight, and he had also run up a serious debt, compelling him to trouble his father with frequent entreaties for money. Worst of all, he bore a dueling scar on his cheek. At the time, this was nothing unusual. In German fraternities until the end of the nineteenth century, fencing remained a venerable tradition, a rite of manhood in which the contestants competed for ribbons that they wore on their ceremonial gowns while they sang patriotic songs and downed buckets of beer. But for his mother, Max’s transformation was evidently too much. Her first-born son had been named after his father, an esteemed deputy in the National Liberal Party, and he was expected to conduct himself with restraint.


He soon abandoned his youthful ways and embarked on a scholar’s path. In 1889 Weber, now twenty-five, completed a doctoral dissertation on the history of trading companies in the Middle Ages, a formidable tome that straddled economic and legal history. In 1891, upon completing his habilitation—a second work required for advancement in the German university system—on Roman agrarian history, he secured a professorship in political economy, first at Freiburg and then at Heidelberg. He threw himself into his academic labors with great intensity, consumed by the idea that true worth comes only to a Berufsmensch—an individual who is dedicated to a vocation.

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About the Author

Peter E. Gordon

Peter E. Gordon

Resident Faculty & Seminar Co-chair

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