Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Two Cheers for the Bourgeoisie

Mr. and Mrs. Our Town, Stand up and take a bow.

It is clear to unbiased eyes that the achievements of liberal bourgeois societies since the 18th century - the American and French revolutions, universal suffrage, women's liberation, modern medicine and technology - are cause for admiration, not hatred. At the very least, we must ask, what other ruling class has done better? To put the question in concrete terms: Who would rather live as an ordinary member of a tribe of hunter-gatherers or a medieval theocracy than a bourgeois democracy?

Adam Kirsch's book review delights me in part because he hits on the reason for why things have gone wrong; the three qualities a bourgeois democracy desperately needs, but which has been bleaching out of ours almost since the dawn of it: virtue, virtue, and more virtue.

It is this denigration of virtue, of any human goal other than self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, that has made so many modern writers take up arms against the bourgeois order. Bourgeois life, its critics have argued, shuns all the passions and ideals that make human beings great. It produces, not Aristotle's great-souled man, but Lawrence's wet meringue. And there is at least some degree of truth in this indictment. The only way to counter it is to show that the bourgeois and liberal ideal is not purely process-oriented but has a positive content; that it demands and encourages its own set of virtues, different from those of the classical hero or Christian saint, but admirable in their own right.

And as for that bourgeois bugbear Karl Marx, maybe he was just an impressionist painter ahead of his time.

Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. "Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it," he wrote to Engels in July 1865. "Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole." It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers or political essayists, that he looked for insights into people's material motives and interests ....