“How beastly the bourgeois is,” sneered D.H. Lawrence, “especially the male of the species.” What courage and imagination a writer must have to revile a social class that has been under attack for over a generation! Aristocrats (and would-be aristocrats) look down their noses at the bourgeoisie’s convention-bound moralism and dismal commitment to hard work and self-restraint, while the working classes and their intellectual allies deride the bourgeois attachment to the stuff that dreams are made of. (My apologies to the late John Huston for lifting a line he gave to Sam Spade.)
We all have our little conceits, and Lawrence, though he took after his bookish schoolteacher mother, appears to have regarded himself as a true son of the laboring classes and yet—great minds do not shun contradictions—one of nature’s aristocrats. I wonder what young Lawrence thought he was making of himself, when he went to school on scholarship and qualified as a teacher, if not an aspiring bourgeois.
One of the funniest bits on Monty Python turned the tables on the author of Sons and Lovers: A young miner (Eric Idle), dressed in a suit and speaking university English, comes into his parents’ apartment. Derided by his father, a Yorkshire-speaking playwright (Graham Chapman), the son accuses Dad of wearing out his wife, forcing her to meet film stars and dragging her to gala luncheons. “There’s nought wrong wi’ gala lunches, lad!” protests the father as he goes into paroxysms of agony.
“It’s his writer’s cramp,” moans Mother sympathetically.
The son leaves, but not before telling Dad, “There’s more to life than culture.”
The humor of inverted snobbery depends not only on familiarity with Lawrence but on recognition of the class system that was being overturned in the 1960’s. The Beatles got rich mocking the middle class, until they began reading their tax bills: “Let me tell you how it will be: / There’s one for you, nineteen for me.” In so many ways, Lawrence would find himself at home in an age (we are all 60’s kids now) and a culture where middle-class restraints are derided as mere conformity and self-indulgence, and betrayal of friends and lovers is celebrated as freedom. Every day my e-mail inbox is clogged with appeals from various spammers, all churning out the same advertisement, promising me weekends of bliss with married women who are eager to cheat on their husbands. Marxists never tire of excoriating the “petty bourgeois people” who pay their taxes and support what they imagine to be “the arts,” although that class disappeared long ago, along with dressing decently for church and taking the children to dance lessons and organ recitals.
And yet, while no one wants to seem bourgeois, nearly everyone claims to be middle class. I hear interviews with fast-food service employees complaining that they cannot support their families in a middle-class existence on $12 per hour, and it never seems to occur to them that $12 per hour is a high wage for people without education or abilities that go beyond the cheerful smile they flash as they offer to supersize an order. In fact, the fast-food industry (le mot juste) offers great opportunity to people of quite ordinary abilities, if only they are willing to hustle, but, then, making the best of a bad job is a middle-class characteristic.
Near the other end of the economic spectrum, I have heard complaints from rich businessmen, with assets totaling over $100 million, that “the little guy in this country just can’t get a break from the government.” No one wants to admit that he is poor—or even working class—and the rich must think it is dangerous to put on airs, because many men and women of inherited wealth act like proletarian slobs. Every once in a while, on flights to Europe, I have been bumped up to business or first class. By their manners and dress, my well-to-do fellow passengers might be traveling steerage on a tramp steamer.
Then, if we are all middle class, why can none of us be bourgeois? Is this merely a case of a good word that has been corrupted by class warfare into a term of abuse, or has the bourgeoisie really disappeared? The easy answer to the question is provided by the simple fact that hardly anyone knows the meaning of the term bourgeois. The word, of course, is French, but there are counterparts in Italian (borghese), German (Bürger), and even English (burgess and, historically, citizen). Most of the parallels share the common root burg, which means something like a chartered or incorporated city, whose ruling class is not, strictly speaking, an aristocracy but the members of the corporation. (The older English exception, citizen, comes obviously from city, derived from Latin civitas, which can have the same meaning.) From this we can conclude, at least tentatively, that a bourgeois is urban and a member of the corporation that claims to own and govern a city.
In its origin, then, the bourgeoisie is not an internationally generic class of merchants and moneymen but is made up of countless little bourgeoisies tied to their cities and towns as strongly as a feudal nobility and its serfs and identifiable by its peculiar dress, manners, and customs. A Florentine wool merchant was the enemy of his Sienese counterpart, and he had no class sympathy with the Pisan fleet owner who transported his wool around the Mediterranean. As part-owner of the commune—the private corporation that functioned as a government or at least part of a government—the local bourgeois had a greater stake in his community than a nobleman who, if he was driven from one estate, could flee to another.
Economically minded historians, who like to overlook the messy particulars of human life, tend to see the bourgeoisie as a category defined by wealth and commercial activity. In their accounts, the bourgeoisie developed as craftsmen, merchants, and moneylenders who rose to prominence in the 10th to 12th centuries and challenged the power of the feudal aristocracy, only to be challenged themselves by less-affluent tradesmen and workers. This approach is not wrong, but it is limited. For one thing, the successful bourgeois, and not only in Molière, typically has aspirations to gentility. Dr. Johnson’s friend, old Thrale, was far from being the only brewer to live like a lord, and countless lofty titles in Britain are held by descendants of moneylenders and grain merchants. In medieval and Renaissance Tuscany, the bourgeois had not even displaced the nobles before setting up to ape their manners and marry into their families, and in Pisa the ruling class was a rich amalgam of Germanic feudal nobility and Italian shipping magnates.
The bourgeoisie is not, in fact, defined exclusively by economic status; morals and manners are as significant—though perhaps not as immediately important—as money. Rooted in a stable community, the bourgeois possessed a weighty moral ballast. While far from being averse to risk, he did not necessarily seethe with discontent over his lot in life. A goldsmith was more than content to see his son grow up in the same profession, and he preferred to marry his daughter to a young goldsmith, who could be a powerful ally for his in-laws. Members of the same guild not only tended to intermarry, they also tended to live in close proximity to one another, which explains why so many old street names in Italian cities (such as Rome and Florence), when they are not associated with a church or a prominent local family, refer to tradesmen: rope-makers, wool merchants, fleece-carders, etc. When Saint Thomas was converting Aristotle’s organic account of political evolution from household to village to commonwealth, he substituted vicus—a neighborhood or cluster of streets where guildsmen and kinsmen resided—for village, showing that he understood both Aristotle and the society in which he lived.
By the way, the old tradition of street names is in contrast with the practice of ideological states that name streets and squares after revolutionary heroes and events: Rome has a 20 Settembre to commemorate the conquest of Rome by the Piedmontese army; every city in Jacobin Europe has a Republic Square to honor the destruction of Christian civilization; and here in America no squalid industrial suburb could do without its Martin Luther King Boulevard without incurring the suspicion that perhaps the city fathers are not comfortable with the revolution to subjugate the European-American people who made this country.
As corporate members of their town, bourgeois citizens are an important part of the ruling elite, and, since every ruling elite is possessed of its own code of manners and distinctive traditions, the bourgeoisie naturally favor the sort of education that will distinguish their children from mere artisans. At the higher levels, bourgeois parents will want their children to have some—though by no means all—the accoutrements of young aristocrats. Since the Renaissance this has meant that the sons of bankers and brewers grew up learning Latin and studying some ancient history—this in addition to or preceding their more practical training in law or accounting. Their daughters might be more likely to study French and learn to play the spinet. By the end of the 18th century the educated and semieducated members of the middling classes were also consumers of novels and admirers of the better-known poets. In England, where anyone who did not actually work with his hands wanted to be taken for a gentleman, the habits of cleanliness, self-restraint, and thrift, combined with middlebrow cultural interests, defined the class of people—from clergymen to lawyers to businessmen and their clerks—who are the mainstay of Trollope’s novels. It was in part these cultural aspirations that elevated the people Napoleon sneered at as “a nation of shopkeepers” to a nation of literate ladies and gentlemen whose minds were set on more than getting and spending.
A successful craftsman or man of business might become a millionaire and yet remain a complete boor, as most of them do today. Unless they make a concerted effort, the profit-driven car dealer or neurosurgeon ends up as one of Russell Kirk’s “inhumane businessmen.” Once upon a time the American boor of business could hire tutors for himself and send his sons to Phillips Exeter and Harvard. Today, he is more likely to take classes in wine appreciation or fly fishing. Perhaps it is for the best. To say what an Ivy League education could do for anyone these days requires a greater imagination than I possess. The well-schooled barbarian lawyers and stockjobbers of our time not only do not aspire to any higher plane of existence but actually live within an aura of self-congratulation that should depress anyone who has not lived long enough to come to terms with the times in which we live.
Whatever illusions I still cherished, as an impoverished bookworm living in a Southern village, were dispelled by a trip to Chicago for the first Ingersoll Prizes banquet. There I was, dressed in my tuxedo and wearing patent-leather pumps, sitting at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton. (I am sure I was mistaken for an off-duty waiter.) Near me was a group of well-dressed young business types, and I could not help overhearing their conversation. It is a bad habit, I know, but writers are always on the lookout for material. I was not naive enough to expect observations on philosophy and literature from these pushing young particles, but, accustomed as I was to the rough humor of fishermen and farmers, I was astounded by the vapidity of people who could talk only of TV sitcoms and pop music. The snippet I can never wipe out of my mind went, “I think with Thriller Michael has broken through to a whole new plateau.” Rednecks might cheer on Charlie Daniels for his outspoken patriotism, and their wives might still celebrate dead Elvis’s birthday, but these were what used to be known as “college men” and—I am running out of breath—Michael for Heaven’s sake Jackson. If I could endure the television and pop music they blare in hotel bars today, I’d probably be hearing dissertations on Mad Men and Justin Bieber’s latest arrest.
Well, I can hear my liberal (Marxist, libertarian, neoconservative) readers’ mocking reply, the bourgeois has gone the way of the king, the aristocrat, and the monk. So what? It is not as if they were ever a really creative class. Creativity is found among the free spirits of the aristocracy and the lower classes, people like Sir Philip Sidney or D.H. Lawrence.
I used to accept this Marxist nonsense as more or less the truth, but whatever list of really great writers in our language you can draw up will be dominated by middle-class scribblers, from Chaucer to Eliot and from Ben Jonson to Samuel Johnson, all hardworking craftsmen climbing the ladder of advancement as if they were mere lawyer’s clerks or aspiring bankers. And who could be more middle-class than the son of a Stratford glover, alderman, and bailiff, who longed for a gentleman’s coat of arms? An aristocratic William Shakespeare might have rested content with composing The Rape of Lucrece. The young bourgeois, climbing the ladder of success, had to churn out potboiling plays like Macbeth and Hamlet.
The preeminence of the bourgeoisie in “the arts” is not confined to the nation of shopkeepers. French painters, German composers, and Italian sculptors were mostly from the middling classes. Nonetheless, the generalization cannot be applied too broadly to earlier societies. Roman writers were mostly gentlemen, like Cicero, Catullus, and Vergil, but few came from Rome itself, much less belonged to the senatorial order. Horace, the son of a successful former slave, has the best claim to being something of a bourgeois, but these categories are scarcely relevant to Roman and entirely alien to Greek culture, which was dominated by aristocrats like Alcaeus, Sappho, and Pindar, Aeschylus and Sophocles, Parmenides and Plato. In time, however, well-to-do outsiders like Euripides and Aristotle appear to become more common.
There is little point, however, in comparing ourselves with ancient Greeks. We have never had either their creative energy or their tradition of aristocracy; in fact, we cannot even be bothered to maintain the civilized arts that they invented, seemingly without thinking about what they were doing. No, a grimmer fate is reserved for us. If we wish to rejoin the company of civilized men and women, it will not come about by cobbling together a phony aristocracy out of military officers and worn-out descendants of once-useful families. The best that we can do as Americans is to reacquire the stolid virtues and grinding discipline of our dull-witted bourgeois ancestors. Think about this, for just a moment, the next time you consider seeing the latest George Clooney film or head off to church without a jacket and tie.