The Discreet Virtues of the Bourgeoisie: How Europe after 1600 Half Escaped the Ancient Condemnation of Economic Life.
by Deirdre McCloskey
EUROPEAN CULTURE IN CLASSICAL and Christian times spurned work and the bourgeoisie. Yet from 1600 to 1800, startlingly, it developed a lively appreciation of the 'bourgeois virtues', from which came the stirrings of enterprise that made the modern world.
But after 1848 the artists and intellectuals turned sharply against capitalism. From this, alas, came the events of 1914 and 1917 and all our woe.
That's the forward story. But the historical evidence of how people have felt about capitalism and the bourgeois life, and what capitalism and the bourgeois life might have to do with ethics, is perhaps best assembled backwards.
Nowadays the clerisy--which is what Coleridge and I call the artists and intellectuals, the writers of books, and the readers of History Today--often disdains the bourgeoisie. It is highly suspicious of capitalism. A notion such as 'bourgeois virtues' would seem to it quite absurd. In Nick Hornby's comic novel How to Be Good (2001) the husband of the narrator goes anti-capitalist mad and starts giving away his money and his children's superfluous toys. He and his guru are going to write a book:
" 'How to Be Good', we're going to call it. It's about how we should all live our lives. You know, suggestions. Like taking in the homeless, and giving away your money, and what to do about things like property ownership and, I don't know, the Third World and so on."
'So [replies his annoyed wife, a hard-working GP in the National Health Service] this book's aimed at high-ranking employees of the IMF?' She comes to understand--as he, does too, finally--that, on the contrary, private property, with the virtue of justice, protects the beloved family. Work, depending on the virtues of temperance and prudence, is desirable, to acquire the property protecting the family. If any would not work, said St Paul, neither should he eat. So also is the virtue of prudent stewardship in managing the family's property desirable--though the lilies of the field toil not. For anonymous dealings among humans, she realizes, if not for lilies and the internal affairs of families, the right prescription is bourgeois virtue.
Yet she cannot quite stop feeling that 'maybe the desire for nice evenings with people I know and love is essentially bourgeois, reprehensible --depraved, even'. Such is the agony of the anti-capitalist clerisy.
True, the feeling has been eroded recently, by the failures of socialism in practice and by the successes of let-it-rip capitalism in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and now, of all places, Communist China and Licence-Raj India. Yet the antibourgeois, anti-capitalism hangs on, more in the already capitalized West than in the up-and-coming East. In university departments of English and sociology, if in few other places, Marxism still rules.
Peel back the history two or three generations. In the 1930s and 1940s even economists believed that capitalism was doomed and socialism inevitable and the bourgeois life an ethical scandal. In 1935 the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga noted that,
"... in the nineteenth century, 'bourgeois' became the most pejorative term of all, particularly in the mouths of socialists and artists, and later even of fascists."
As the economist/historian Joseph Schumpeter put it in the darkest days of the twentieth century, 'the very success [of capitalism] undermines the social institutions which protect it'. When his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy appeared in 1942 most people were persuaded that every Western institution, from capitalism to democracy, was failing. A couple of years later Jean-Paul Sartre, in similar terms, announced 'on the whole, the failure of the democratic point of view'.Considering the apocalyptic battles raging then, a retribution on the people of the twentieth century for the intellectual sins of their grandparents, such opinions were not unreasonable. Most thinking people in 1942 and 1944, and for a long time afterwards, believed any bad news about capitalism and its liberal democratic politics to be true. Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, at another moment of pessimism in the West, after Vietnam but before the British coalminers' last strike, after US President Carter's gloomy speech to the nation in June 1979, styled the 'malaise' talk, but before the democratization of the Philippines, Korea and Taiwan; before the collapse of the Soviet empire; before the liberalization of Latin American governments, before the prowl of Asian and Celtic tigers. He believed then that
"...bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas ... The political crisis of capitalism reflects a general crisis of western culture ... Liberalism, the political theory of the ascendant bourgeoisie, long ago lost the capacity to explain events."
Viewed over a longer period, however, the most amazing political fact since, say, 1800 is, as Tocqueville noted as early as 1835, the spreading idea of equality in freedom, that theory of the ascendant bourgeoisie. According to the website of Freedom House, the percentage of 'free' countries rose from 29 per cent in 1973 to 46 per cent in 2003, containing 44 per cent of the world's population. The world continues to draw on a lost, failed, used-up liberalism. Think of Ukraine and Nepal. Liberal democracy keeps on explaining events. And the first of the two most amazing economic facts about the modern world keeps on explaining events, too: the world's population increased from 1800 to 2000 by a factor of about six. Goodness! The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed the fastest growth of human population since the drought-pushed, language-enabled march of a little group of Homo sapiens out of the African homeland around 60,000 years ago: six times more souls.
The second and still more amazing fact uncovered by economic historians in the past fifty years is that, despite the rise in population since 1800, the goods and services consumed by the average person has not fallen. The forecasters of doom from Thomas Malthus to Paul Ehrlich have been mistaken.
'We cannot absolutely prove', wrote the liberal historian Thomas Macaulay in 1830, 'that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason.' Astonishingly, the optimistic, Whiggish Macaulay was exactly right. The amount of goods and services produced and consumed by the average person on the planet has risen since 1800 by a factor of about 8.5. Even in Africa the factor of increase has been about 3. In places like Britain or Japan, in which the rule of law and the making of contracts has long been a feature, the factor is more like 20.
I say 'about' 8.5 times worldwide since 1800. If the factor were 3 or 4, or 10 or 20, the conclusion would be the same: liberal capitalism has succeeded. And like liberal democracy, its success continues. The fact should delight us.
And yet the clerisy complains.
Peel back the history, another four or five generations. After 1848, or a little before, the European clerisy, out of Romantic passion, formed up into anti-bourgeois gaggles of bohemians and turned on the bourgeois virtues that had nourished them. Karl Marx observed that a 'small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class', as, for example, Engels and he himself had. It was not such a small section. What Cesar Grana described in 1964 as the 'modern literary irritability' about bourgeois life evident in Stendhal, Poe, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Dickens, became after the failed revolutions of 1848 a political creed. The sons of bourgeois fathers became enchanted in the 1840s and 1850s by the revival of secularized Faith called nationalism and of secularized Hope called socialism.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they brought European high civilization and then its rulers along with them, and afterwards the whole world: thus antibourgeois thinkers including Mill (in his later years), Marx, Engels, Mazzini, Carlyle, Morris, Ruskin, Chernyshevsky, Renan, Zola, Kropotkin, Bellamy, Tolstoy, Shaw, Hobson, Lenin. Thus the 'International' (1871-88), from the French original:
"Arise ye prisoners of starvation, Arise ye wretched of the earth. For justice thunders condemnation: A better world's in birth."
Or, on the nationalist side, 'Das Lied der Deutschen' (The Song of the Germans) of 1841, containing the lines 'Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles,/Uber alles in der Welt'. It was in fact an appeal for German unity at a time when nationalism was liberal, not an appeal for the German conquest of Europe. In its hopeful faith the clerisy sometimes evoked a nostalgia for the aristocratic virtues of a Europe before the economists and calculators took charge. Sometimes it imagined a peasant-cum-proletarian future, a Nowhere of post-bourgeois virtues. Sometimes both. Baudelaire in 1857 quoted with approval Poe's sour observation in 1849,
"The world is infested now with a new sect of philosophers ... They are the Believers in everything Old ... Their High Priest in the East is Charles Fourier, in the West Horace Greeley."
As Shaw noted in 1912,
The first half of the 19th century despised and pitied the Middle Ages as barbarous, cruel, superstitious, and ignorant ... The second half saw no hope for mankind except in the recovery of the faith, the art, the humanity of the Middle Ages ... For that was how men felt, and how some of them spoke, in the early days of the Great Conversion, which produced, first, such books as the Latter Day Pamphlets of Carlyle, Dickens' Hard Times, and the tracts and sociological novels of the Christian Socialists, and later on the Socialist movement which has now spread all over the world."
For such anti-bourgeois nostalgias the twentieth century paid the butcher's bill. Except in the United States the payoff from capitalism to the ordinary man came too late to short-circuit the rise of socialist parties. Everywhere the ruling class found it could use patriotism to stay in charge, and anyway believed most ardently in its own racism, nationalism, imperialism and clericalism. The result was a clash of-isms in the European Civil War, 1914-89, and its spawn overseas. Capitalism was nearly overwhelmed by nationalism and socialism and national socialism, Kaiser Billy to the Baathists. Peel back.
Before the disappointments of 1848, however, the new clerisy accepted capitalism, well before much of its material fruit was evident. J.S. Mill in the first edition of his Principles of Political Economy in 1848 and before him Alessandro Manzoni, Victor Hugo, Thomas Macaulay, Tom Paine and Daniel Defoe had associated free markets with liberalism and with the new freedoms of 1830, 1789, 1775 and 1689. By 1848, materially and politically speaking, capitalism had in practice triumphed, at least in Europe and its offshoots. It was beginning, just, to uplift the wretched of the earth. The perspicuous Macaulay wrote in 1830 that
"If any person had told the Parliament met in perplexity and terror after the crash in 1720 that in 1830 ... that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels. Yet the prediction would have been true."
Peel back. In eighteenth-century Europe certain theorists such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume and Adam Smith articulated a balanced ethical system for a society of commerce, veritable 'bourgeois virtues', fanciful and calculative together. Japan embarked independently on an eerie parallel of this European venture, starting from a different theory of 'the good'. It was a stunning ethical development. The cool, bourgeois, calculative virtue of Prudence took the place of the warm, aristocratic, non-calculative virtue of Courage. In 1811 Jane Austen's best characters show both sense and sensibility. They calculate their marriage prospects but take a serious, almost Puritan attitude towards their ethical maturation. Austen's little stage is the gentry. But her ethical world is bourgeois.
Contrast the world of Shakespeare. The warm virtues, Love and Courage, Faith and Hope, the virtues praised most often by Shakespeare, and least by Adam Smith, are specifically and essentially non-calculative. The play Henry V (c.1599) does not of course tell us what the real King Henry was doing in the weeks leading up to Sunday, October 25th, 1415, when he met the French army at Agincourt. It tells us what was expected to be mouthed by noblemen in the last years of Elizabeth's England, a place in which only rank ennobled, and honour to the lowborn came only through loyalty to the nobles. Before Agincourt, Shakespeare's Henry declares,
"... for he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition."
Out of earshot the King's uncle grimly notes how disadvantaged the English are in terms of numbers: 'There's five to one; besides they all are fresh'; at which the Earl of Salisbury exclaims, 'God's arm strike with us! 'tis a fearful odds'. The King enters the scene, and the Earl of Westmoreland continues the calculative talk:
"O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/That do no work today!"
To which Henry replies, scorning such bourgeois considerations,
"If we are marked to die, we are enow To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon St Crispin's Day."
This is not bourgeois, Prudential rhetoric. It counts not the cost.From Shakespeare one does not much need to peel back: he reflected the ancient Christian and ancient aristocratic disdain for the bourgeoisie. For most of history the making of money has been in bad odour. Merchants stood at the bottom of the four Confucian classes, below the peasants. Christian thought from Jesus to John Paul II has declared that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. No aristocrat worked, except at war and oratory. All this changed sharply in north-western Europe after Shakespeare.
It is no surprise that in a commercial democracy such as ours the word 'honesty' has come to signify our master virtue, the egalitarian and bourgeois equivalent of an aristocratic and anti-commercial 'honour'.
The very language shows the change. In On Duties (c.44 BC) Cicero had declared that the four pagan virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence constitute a man's honestas, there meaning simply 'rectitude, moral worthiness'. But in Latin honestas also meant 'honour' in the aristocratic sense, that is, reputation. Instead, the Romans used the original of our 'sincere', originally meaning 'pure', for what we now call 'honest'. Sinceritas was not highly esteemed in a shame culture of aristocrats, and in fact this particular form is not attested before Augustus. For Romans and for a long time after, ethical goodness was what was worthy of esteem in a man of honour. 'To live honourably' is the modern English translation of the advice in Justinian's treatise on Roman law in AD 533, honeste vivere, not our modern 'live honestly'. Truth-telling was distinctly secondary to this notion of honestas. Think of the haughty virtues, the dignitas, of an English lord c.1600, or of a Mafia don.
Othello's addresses to 'honest Iago' and 'my friend, your husband, honest, honest Iago' just before he discovers Iago's lies are therefore not quite such crude cases of dramatic irony as they seem to us now. In Othello as elsewhere in Shakespeare the word most usually means 'honourable', as men still speak in jest of the purity of an 'honest' woman.
The same happens in French--honnete has an obsolete sense of 'civil, courteous'; and honnelete an obsolete sense of 'virtue, decency'. Now in French the words mean 'truth telling'. The identical change happens, too, in Germanic languages. The usual Dutch or German words for 'honesty' mean now truth-telling, but in pre-1700 English, they meant this or that feature of noble honour. In modern Dutch eerlijkheid means honesty. Hence the proverb, Eerlijkheid duurt 't langst, 'honesty lasts the longest', that is, 'honesty is the best policy'. But it arises, as does 'honesty' in French and English, from honour words from a very different society. The Dutch element eer itself still today means simply honour, eerbaarheid chastity, eergevoel ('honour feeling') 'sense of honour', eren 'to honour or revere'. And erezaak 'a point of honour'; even the aristocratic notion of eerverlies, 'corruption of blood lines'.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that in English 'honest' in sense 1.a, meaning 'held in honour' or 'respectable', from honestas by way of French, was obsolete after 1692. This is just about the time that England became as bourgeois as the Dutch Republic. The Bank of England was founded in 1694 in imitation of Dutch models, for example; and the nation like the Netherlands acquired a public debt. The last citation of the meaning 'commendable', sense 2.a, is Pope's Iliad of 1715-20. That is just about the time England and Europe generally had its first fully capitalist financial crash, the South Sea Bubble. Financial crashes characterize capitalism precisely because a market society depends on the honesty of strangers, in the modern sense. The meaning of honesty as our usage of 'sincere', says the OED, is 'the prevailing modern sense', sense 3.c, though used occasionally this way from pre-1700 English. In Othello the two senses of it. honorable and sincere, mingle.
Respect for work has been historically rare. Until the quickening of commerce in bourgeois societies, in fact. work except for praying and fighting was despised. It was the rare stoic philosopher who viewed physical labour as anything but dishonouring. The historical anti-work attitude may have been what prevented classical Mediterranean civilization or medieval Chinese society from industrializing. Nowadays it is a problem for many poor societies. Women and slaves work. Real men smoke.
A 'gentleman' in seventeenth-century English was precisely someone without an occupation. The contemporary French phrase was le honnete homme, the 'honourable' man being one who did not work. The early twentieth-century irony in America about the convention is to call a bum a 'gentleman of the road', as earlier in England a highwayman was a 'gentleman of the highway'. Such a man is very willing to brawl, but not to be seen to work even at that. Thus the Prince Hal of Henry IV drinks and whores away the days and nights with Falstaff, and we are indulgently amused. We look for virtue in this romanticizing of idleness, on the circular argument that an idle man is a sort of gentleman and therefore must be virtuous-though Prince Hal explains that princes need this common touch.
Down to the nineteenth century, with fading resonances even now, the phrase 'a gentleman of business' was considered an absurdity, a flat contradiction. Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a joke in its very title, since in French as in English in 1670 such a phrase was an absurdity, meaning 'the burgher m'lord'. The economist David Ricardo wrote in 1817 that a remission of rent to farmers from their landlords 'would only enable some farmers to live like gentlemen'. He feared having an income without having to work for it would corrupt men of business in agriculture: 'gentlemen' were non-workers. Dickens reasoned similarly. He portrayed gentlemen without occupations as parasites. Yet his heroes, all of them crypto-gentlemen, achieve success not by working but by inheriting. He had a conservative's nostalgia for a simpler time when the rich were charitable and the poor unspoilt and income fell upon a gentleman like a gentle rain.
Until the rise of bourgeois virtues, nothing had changed for centuries in this matter. The aristocrats of the ancient Mediterranean, entangled in the economy though they were, affected to disdain trade. Plato's Socrates declares in The Republic that 'the more men value money-making, the less they value virtue'. Aristotle says of retail trade that it is 'justly to be censured, because the gain in which it results is not natural made, but is made at the expense of other men'. By 'natural made' he means grown from plants and animals. Aristotle is exhibiting here a hardy physiocracy that views only agriculture as 'productive' and only landowning as honourable. Late in the Politics he says that, 'the life of mechanics and shopkeepers ... is ignoble and inimical to goodness'. In the same vein in 44 BC Cicero declares to his son Marcus that
"... trade, if petty, is to be considered vulgar; but if wholesale and on a large scale ... it is not to be greatly criticized... But of all the gainful occupations none is better than cultivation of the soil, none more fruitful, none more sweet, none more appropriate to a free man."
It was such aristocratic snobbishness about urban production in the ancient world that made the virtues seem non-bourgeois, thankfully not seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil. The nineteenth-century revival by schoolmasters and divines of Hellenic culture revived the ancient attitudes, in about 1848. Free men of landed wealth, the leisured citizens of the polis, or the boys at Eton and Rugby, were to do the great-souled stuff. It is all slightly absurd. After all, the England of the Hellenic revival was the first industrial nation. In view of the highly commercial character of the Greeks from at the latest the seventh century BC onwards, the anti-commercial construct of the Greek-labelled virtues is bizarre. The urns from which we learn so many details of Greekness contained olive oil, a profitable product en route to a startling array of places. The notion that the aristocracy of Greece and the senatorial class of Rome was nobly landholding, and would never think of lending money at interest or investing in a scheme of apartment building for profit, is wrong. Athens and Rome were great commercial empires.
And so today. We owe our educations and our leisure and our dignities to commerce. We are all bourgeois now. It is perhaps time to reassess the bourgeois virtues. 'How much longer', asked John Stuart Mill in 1869, 'is one form of society and life to content itself with the morality made for another?' An excellent ethical and historical question.
Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (University of Chicago Press, 2006); Cesar Grana, Bohemian versus Bourgeois: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (Basic Books, 1964); Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976); Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford University Press, 1992);Thomas B. Macaulay, 'Southey's Colloquies on Society,' Edinburgh Review January 1830.
Deirdre McCloskey is Professor of History, Economics, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.