If I had world enough and time, I would—well, I would do many things, but one project I would undertake would be to read Professor Deirdre McCloskey’s “bourgeois trilogy”: three books thus far of a projected six-book series. The titles to date (each in excess of 500 pages) are THE BOURGEOIS VIRTUES, BOURGEOIS DIGNITY, and BOURGEOIS EQUALITY; together they represent a substantial part of Professor McCloskey’s ongoing defense of capitalism and, moreover, part of her claim that what launched modern capitalism was nothing less than a “moral revaluation” that took place in Western Europe several hundred years ago.
Professor McCloskey has her critics, but none that I know of have denied the impressive breadth (and depth) of her scholarship or the clarity of her prose. Given my own attitude towards capitalism—i.e. it is of the devil and should be done away with—you wouldn’t think I’d be drawn towards one of its most formidable defenders; but apparently I contain multitudes. Unfortunately, until I can find the time and energy to get through the 1500+ pages of Professor McCloskey’s ongoing cri du coeur pour les bourgeois, I’ll have to content myself with samplings of her work.
At the same time, though, I can also read some of the more thoughtful critics of the bourgeois mentality which McCloskey venerates. One such critic whom I have frequently cited was Paul Goodman; another was the late Christopher Dawson, something of a cult figure among Anglophile conservative Catholics. Dawson was not responding to Professor McCloskey, whose work has come after Dawson’s demise. but his critique of the bourgeois remains instructive.
Here are some relevant excerpts from Dawson’s “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” (in turn excerpted from his 1956 book THE DYNAMICS OF WORLD HISTORY):
Let us admit that it is no use hunting for the bourgeois. For we are all more or less bourgeois and our civilization is bourgeois from top to bottom.* Hence there can be no question of treating the bourgeois in the orthodox communist fashion as a gang of antisocial reptiles who can be exterminated summarily by the revolutionary proletariat; for in order to "liquidate" the bourgeoisie modern society would have to "liquidate" itself.
[In modern times] we have seen the bourgeois culture, the bourgeois mind, even the bourgeois standards of life advancing and expanding until they became diffused throughout the whole social organism and dominated the whole spirit of modern civilization.
The victory of bourgeois civilization has made England rich and powerful, but at the same time it has destroyed almost everything that made life worth living. It has undermined the natural foundations of our national life, so that the whole social structure is in danger of ruin.
The distinctive feature of the bourgeois culture is its urbanism. It involves the divorce of man from nature and from the life of the earth. It turns the peasant into a minder of machines and the yeoman into a shopkeeper, until ultimately rural life becomes impossible and the very face of nature is changed by the destruction of the countryside and the pollution of the earth and the air and the waters.
But if the bourgeois is the enemy of the peasant, he is no less the enemy of the artist and the craftsman. As Sombart has shown in his elaborate study of the historic evolution of the bourgeois type, the craftsman like the artist has an organic relation to the object of his work. "They see in their work a part of themselves and identify themselves with it so that they would be happy if they could never be separated from it." For in the precapitalist order "the production of goods is the act of living men who, so to speak, incarnate themselves in their works: and so it follows the same laws that rule their physical life, in the same way as the growth of a tree or the act of reproduction of an animal, obeys in its direction and measure and end the internal necessities of the living organism." The attitude of the bourgeois on the other hand is that of the merchant whose relation to his merchandise is external and impersonal. He sees in them only objects of exchange, the value of which is to be measured exclusively in terms of money. It makes no difference whether he is dealing in works of art or cheap ready-made suits: all that matters is the volume of the transactions and the amount of profit to be derived from them. In other words, his attitude is not qualitative, but quantitative.1
It is easy enough to see why this should be. For the bourgeois was originally the middleman who stood between the producer and the consumer, as merchant or salesman or broker or banker. And thus there is not merely an analogy, but an organic connection between the role of the bourgeois in society and the economic function of money. One is the middleman and the other is the medium of exchange. The bourgeois lives for money, not merely as the peasant or the soldier or even the artist often does, but in a deeper sense, since money is to him what arms are to the soldier and land is to the peasant, the tools of his trade and the medium through which he expresses himself, so that he often takes an almost disinterested pleasure in his wealth because of the virtuosity he has displayed in his financial operations. In short the bourgeois is essentially a moneymaker, at once its servant and its master, and the development of his social ascendancy shows the degree to which civilization, and human life are dominated by the money power.
This is why St. Thomas and his masters, both Greeks and Christians, look with so little favour on the bourgeois. For they regarded money simply as an instrument, and therefore held that the man who lives for money perverts the true order of life.
For a definition of the “bourgeois,” Dawson cites Werner Sombart:
According to Sombart, the bourgeois type corresponds to certain definite psychological predispositions. In other words there is such a thing as a bourgeois soul and it is in this rather than in economic circumstance that the whole development of the bourgeois culture finds its ultimate root. In the same way the opposite pole to the bourgeois is not to be found in a particular economic function of interest, as for instance the proletarian or the peasant, but rather in the antibourgeois temperament, the type of character which naturally prefers to spend rather than to accumulate, to give rather than to gain. These two types correspond to Bergson's classification of the "open" and "closed" temperaments and they represent the opposite poles of human character and human experience. They are in eternal opposition to one another and the whole character of a period or a civilization depends on which of the two predominates.
Dawson finds this “eternal opposition” of “open” and “closed” temperaments reminiscent of Augustine’s “two cities” (a city of man and a city of God) which are oriented according to two very distinct dynamics (or, as Augustine had it, “loves”); for Dawson, the bourgeois seeks only to live comfortably within the city of man, while the “antibourgeois” seeks to break free, intuiting that something greater lies beyond. What fuels the antibourgeois temperament is nothing less than the lure of “the erotic,” a term which Dawson (like Sombart before him) uses in a very different way than it is commonly used today. “Erotic” for Dawson and Sombart means life-affirming, expansive, creative, and open to such things as spirituality, inspiration, and grace. By contrast, “bourgeois” for them is about prudence, calculation, respectability, and practicality; it is a commonsense virtue (I think Deirdre McCloskey would agree) utterly opposed to (and in fact horrified by) the apparent foolishness of the artist, the bohemian, the mystic, the prophet, the poet, the visionary, and the saint. It comes down to this, says Dawson, quoting Sombart: “The bourgeois and the erotic types constitute, so to speak, the two opposite poles of the world.”
Dawson was writing, of course, from an explicitly Catholic orientation, and so his ultimate argument against the bourgeois ethic was based on his reading of the gospels:
The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the "open" type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction. For what is the Pharisee but a spiritual bourgeois, a typically "closed" nature, a man who applies the principle of calculation and gain not to economics but to religion itself, a hoarder of merits, who reckons his accounts with heaven as though God was his banker? It is against this "closed," self-sufficient moralist ethic that the fiercest denunciations of the Gospels are directed. Even the sinner who possesses a seed of generosity, a faculty of self-surrender, and an openess of spirit is nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the "righteous" Pharisee; for the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace.
In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs. "For a man's life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses." It even condemns the prudent forethought of the rich man who plans for the future: "Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?"
One does not need to be a Christian or even a theist to understand and to appreciate the choices thus outlined: to live prudently or to spend ourselves recklessly2, to accumulate or to empty ourselves (kenosis, a Greek term meaning “emptying out,” is a key concept in Christianity) either for the sake of others or for the sake of our own spirit, to value quantity or to value quality, to consider life an investment or to consider it an adventure.
I would not be so bold as to claim that there is only one right answer or one right way to live, nor would I claim that I have the courage to live out my own preferred style; but given the options described above, I know for certain which side I’m on.
*Dawson’s observation that we are all bourgeois now pre-dates Richard Nixon’s famous “We are all Keynesians now”; I think it also has much wider application.
1 One may be reminded here both of Rene Guenon’s THE REIGN OF QUANTITY and of Robert Pirsig’s ZEN & THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, a book which was obsessed with the notion (lost to moderns, according to Pirsig) of “quality”—Matthew Crawford’s recent work echoes Pirsig’s concerns.
2 “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” sang Neil Young, with no apparent reference to God.