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Weber's essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is his most famous work. It is argued that this work should not be viewed as a detailed study of Protestantism, but rather as an introduction into Weber's later works, especially his studies of interaction between various religious ideas and economic behavior. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber puts forward the thesis that the Puritan ethic and ideas influenced the development of capitalism. Religious devotion has usually been accompanied by rejection of mundane affairs, including economic pursuit. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addresses that paradox in his essay.
He defines "the spirit of capitalism" as the ideas and habits that favor the rational pursuit of economic gain (Weber 2). Weber points out that such a spirit is not limited to Western culture, when considered as the attitude of individuals, but that such individuals Ð'- heroic entrepreneurs, as he calls them Ð'- could not by themselves establish a new economic order, which was capitalism (Weber 3). Among the tendencies identified by Weber were the greed for profit with minimum effort, the idea that work was a curse and a burden to be avoided, especially when it exceeded what was enough for modest life. Weber writes, "In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of capitalism could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to whole groups of man (Weber 3)."
After defining the spirit of capitalism, Weber argues that there are many reasons to look for its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation. Many observers like William Petty, Montesquieu, Henry Thomas Buckle, John Keats, and others have commented on the similarity between Protestantism and the development of the capitalism, or the spirit of it (Weber 4).
Weber showed that certain types of Protestantism favored rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities which had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct, the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain (Weber 4). A common illustration is in the cobbler, hunched over his work, who devotes his entire effort to the praise of God. Weber stated that he abandoned research into Protestantism because his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, a professional theologian, had initiated work on the book The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Sects (Weber 4). Another reason for Weber's decision was that that essay has provided the perspective for a broad comparison of religion and society, which he continued in his later works.
The phrase "work ethic" used in modern commentary is a derivative of the "Protestant ethic" discussed by Weber. It was adopted when the idea of the Protestant ethic was generalized to apply to Japanese, Jews and other non-Christians (Weber 4).
Throughout his essay, Weber makes both empirical and theoretical arguments. It is therefore important to understand the differences and connections between the two kinds of arguments. An empirical argument is based on observation or experiment; it describes facts that can be proven. For example, Weber's claim that Protestants are more involved than Catholics in capitalistic activities is an empirical argument, based on his observations in Germany and elsewhere (Weber 4). Other studies might question the validity of such a claim, and in fact Weber has been criticized for many of the empirical arguments that underlie his study. Theoretical arguments are more speculative; their purpose is to give meaning to empirical observations. For example, Weber notices a correlation between ascetic Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. What could explain such a connection? It is not possible to simply run an experiment or do a statistical study; this might show correlations, but it will not tell a causal story. Thus, Weber explores more about the "spirit" of capitalism, and about ascetic Protestantism, hopefully getting an accurate description of each, which is empirical, or experimental, work (Weber 4). He then attempts to tell a coherent story about what happened, given the information available, which is theoretical. He looks at his information through the lens of his theory, and ideally his theory would account for all of the relevant facts available (Weber 6). In reality, the world is far too complex for any theory to possibly capture all of its details, and Weber himself is very cautious about the limited ability of any theory to explain the world. However, theory is still useful, since it is the only way to give empirical facts any broader meaning (Weber 4).
Weber's study has important suggestions for how we look at religion. Weber does not simply take religion on its own terms, seeing what it means to its founders and followers. For Weber, religion also has another function. It can create broader social values and be instrumental in the creation of social institutions completely unrelated to its own goals and ends (Weber 5). Religion has a generative power, and the influence of its ideas should be studied in areas seemingly unrelated to its theological principles, such as the creation of economic institutions (Weber 5).
Weber, in his last chapter, sums up the very "spirit" of capitalism. Many commentators on capitalism tend to assume or argue that its existence is inevitable, that it is fundamental to human nature, or reflects an important step in a universal series of stages. Weber's account brings such claims into question. According to Weber, the "spirit" necessary for successful capitalistic activities is not natural (Weber 5). Striving for profit is not the only way to approach economic activities; one could, for example, simply strive for subsistence or a traditional