The Discreet Virtues of the Bourgeoisie

Deirdre McCloskey describes how Europe after 1600 half escaped the ancient condemnation of economic life.

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.


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