©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Bourgeois Virtues?

by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
Forthcoming, June 2012, Schweizer Monat
Filed under editorials and academic interests [bourgeois virtues]

Seven. That's the number of the primary virtues according to the Western tradition from Plato through Adam Smith. Or according to the Confucian tradition since 479 BCE. Or according to a startling book, published in 2004 under the auspices of the American Psychological Association, written by forty professors of psychology and edited by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Or, when you come to think about it, according to pretty much any theory of what makes for a flourishing human life.

Justice is one primary virtue, of course, the balance and respect in society so characteristic of Switzerland-well, I suppose not always, and not for every single immigrant, and until 1971 not for every single woman voter; but usually. Temperance is another, the balance in a soul, controlling desire. Courage is the third. What person could flourish if like Oblomov he stayed in bed out of uncontrolled fear, or out of ennui, an aristocratic version of cowardice? Prudence is the executive virtue, as St. Thomas Aquinas called it-know-how, savoir faire, self-interest. It rounds out the four virtues most admired in the tough little cities or tougher big empires of the classical Mediterranean. The Romans called the four of justice, temperance, courage, and prudence the "cardinal" virtues, on which a society of warriors or orators or courtiers hinged (cardo, hinge). The Christians called them, not entirely in contempt, "pagan."

Christianity added its own three others virtue, in St. Paul's words "faith, hope, and love, these three abide. But the greatest of these is love." The three are called "theological" or-flatteringly to Christianity, since we all know alleged Christians who in their xenophobia or homophobia or X-phobia do not practice them-"Christian" virtues. The three holy virtues smell of incense, but can be given entirely secular definitions, as the Peterson and Seligman volume does. Faith is the backward-looking virtue of having an identity, a place from which one must in integrity start: you are a mother, a daughter, a wife, a schweitzer, a woman, a teacher, a reader, and would not think of denying them, or changing them frivolously. Hope, by contrast, is the forward-looking virtue of having a destination, a project. Where are you going? Quo vadis? If you are literally hopeless you go home tonight and use your military rifle (you are Swiss, so you have one) to shoot yourself. And love, the greatest of these, is the point of it all: love of husband, love of country, love of art, love of science, love of God.

Four plus three equals seven. The seven primary virtues arise from the accident of the Roman Empire merging with a heretical Jewish sect of the first century CE. But such an accidental assemblage is surprising apt. The seven are "primary" in the same sense that red, blue, and yellow are "primary" colors. You can get from red and blue to purple, but not from purple and green to red or blue or yellow. You can get from justice and courage to the virtue of honesty, or from hope and courage to the virtue of optimism, but not the other way.

And they are primary, too, in the sense that a life without one, or a life not exercising some idiosyncratic combination of all seven, looks notably defective. In Aristotelian terms, it fails in the purpose, the telos, of a human life. When in 1937 Winston Churchill praised Mussolini as having "amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control, and perseverance"-that is, Courage, Prudence, Temperance, and Courage again, with Faith, to which could be added Il Duce's Hope for a new Roman Empire-he was praising, as an aristocrat raised at Harrow School and Sandhurst military college would, an almost complete set of the pagan virtues, with a little Christianity thrown in. Churchill said on another occasion that if had been an Italian he would have become a Fascist. Yet presumably even he found the Love and Justice in fascism a trifle deficient. Five out of seven doesn't make it.

Nor do unbalanced and partial sets of virtues-they are called "sins"- make it in a commercial and innovative society. The "bourgeois virtues" are merely the primary seven exercised in Switzerland or the United States or Japan in a time of innovations tested in markets. They are of course imperfectly exercised, considering the crooked timber of humanity. But virtues, not vices of greed or expropriation, made the modern world.

How? A rich society depends on its bourgeoisie to innovate. But the society needs to accept bourgeois virtues, instead of crushing them with aristocratic pride or peasantly envy or clerical/bureaucratic anger. Toward 1800 many northwestern Europeans, and toward 1900 other Europeans, and then toward 2000 many ordinary people elsewhere, came to accept the outcome of the bourgeois market and its disturbing innovations with more or less good grace. As the historian Christine MacLeod puts it, by the standard of the "aristocratic cultural hegemony" of earlier times "the inventor was an improbable hero," buying ideas low and selling them high. Yet certainly in Britain by the middle of the nineteenth century the inventor and innovator and reorganizer had become exactly that, an acknowledged benefactor of the world. The Dutch and the Americans, then the British, and then many other people for the first time on a big scale, such as late in the nineteenth century the Swiss and the Swedes, looked with favor on the market economy, and even on the creative destruction coming from its profitably alert innovations.

In 2005 the philosopher from Switzerland who writes eloquently in English, Alain de Botton, spoke of his boring and bourgeois hometown, Zurich, whose "distinctive lesson to the world lies in its ability to remind us of how truly imaginative and humane it can be to ask of a city that it be nothing other than boring and bourgeois." He quoted Montaigne, writing in the last decades of the sixteenth century:

Storming a breech, conducting an embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. [But] rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating, and living together gently and justly with your household-and with yourself-is something more difficult. Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and tense as those of other lives.

That's what made the modern world-coming to admire buying, selling, and loving together gently and justly as against the glittering deeds of aristocrats. It empowered the bourgeoisie to innovate. And innovate they did. Swiss income per head in real 2010 US dollar went from $3 a day in 1800 to $125 a day now.

Realizing that ethical ideas made the modern world changes how you look at the economy and economics. If the innovation was a consequence, as I would argue, of a new dignity and liberty for the exercise of bourgeois virtues, then we could be modestly happy about it, without falling into the sin of pride. If our bourgeois building was not raised on foundations of imperialism or exploitation or unequal trade, as I would also argue, then we could admire it, though self-critically. If serious innovation were not immoral, then we could practice ethics more grown-up than a right-wing Greed is Good or a left-wing Down with the Bosses. To put it another way, we need to get beyond the understanding of the economic past that seemed plausible in 1848, and even to some in 1914, before the full development of professional history-sweet peasants, romantic Middle Ages, wicked mill owners, wretched machines, alienated workers, irritating consumerism on the part of social classes so obviously inferior to ours.

When bourgeois virtues do not thrive, and especially when they are not admired by other classes and by their governments and by the bourgeoisie itself, the results are sad. As the economists Virgil Storr and Peter Boettke note about the Bahamas, "Virtually all models of success to be found in the Bahamas' economic past have to be characterized as piratical," with the result that entrepreneurs there "pursue 'rents' rather than [productive] profits." It hasn't worked very well to depend on a piratical greed, which is to say a self-interested prudence without the balance of other virtues such as justice (except, to speak of the actual history of piracy, democratic justice on shipboard among the pirates themselves). Contrary to a widespread opinion on left and right, such piratical Prudence Only is not characteristically bourgeois.

A balanced set of bourgeois virtues is not hypothetical. For centuries in Venice and Holland and then in England and Scotland and British North America, then in Belgium, Northern France, the Rhineland, Geneva, Sydney, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Bombay, Shanghai, and in a widening array of places elsewhere, against hardy traditions of aristocratic and peasant virtues and vices, we have practiced them. We have fallen repeatedly, of course, into bourgeois vices. Sin is original. But we live in a commercial society, most of us, and a society of markets and innovation does not automatically make us sinful. Rather the contrary.

The leading bourgeois virtue is, I admit, the Prudence to buy low and sell high. But it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence-Herbert Hoover, for example, energetically rescuing Belgians from starvation after 1918.

And another is the Temperance to save and accumulate, of course. But it is also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here-Eleanor Roosevelt negotiating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Another is the Justice to insist on private property honestly acquired. But it is also the justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are, to view success without envy, making innovation work since 1776.

Another is the Courage to venture on new ways of business. But it is also the courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer, resisting the despairing pessimism of many intellectuals left and right since 1848.

Another is the Love to take care of one's own, yes. But it is also a bourgeois care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, wishing well of humankind, finding human and transcendent connection.

Another is the Faith to honor one's own community of business. But it is also the faith to build monuments to the glorious past, to sustain traditions of commerce, of learning, of religion, finding identity in Bern and Chicago and Ösaka.

And another is the Hope to imagine a better machine. But it is also the hope to infuse the day's work with a purpose, seeing one's labor as a glorious calling, 1533 to the present.

"Bourgeois virtues" is no contradiction. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays.

Yet innovation, even in the ethical capitalism I preach, and I see, has continued to be scorned by many of our opinion makers now for a century and a half, from Thomas Carlyle to Naomi Klein. At the behest of such a clerisy we can if we wish repeat the nationalist and socialist horrors of the mid-twentieth century. If we imagine only the disruptions of a pastoral ideal, and reject the gains from innovation, we can stay poor shepherds and dirt farmers, with little scope for intellectual and spiritual growth. If we worship hierarchy and violence and the nation, we can hand our lives over to the military-industrial complex. If we abandon economic principles in our worrying about the environment, we can revert to $3 a day, and live in huts on a hillock in the woods by Walden Pond, depending on our friends in town to supply us with nails and books. Now in the early twenty-first century we can even if we wish add for good measure an antibourgeois religiosity, as new as airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and as old as the socialist reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

But I suggest that we don't. I suggest instead that we recoup the bourgeois virtues, which have given us the scope, in Wilhelm von Humboldt's words 1792, to pursue Bildung, "to develop the highest and most harmonious of our powers to a complete and consistent whole." We will need to abandon the materialist premise that reshuffling and efficiency, or an exploitation of the poor, made the modern world. And we will need to make a new science of history and the economy, a humanistic one that acknowledges number and word, interest and rhetoric, behavior and meaning.