We live, that is, by words as much as by bread. Such a claim is “weak” in the sense of not requiring much demonstration. It asserts merely what few would deny when reminded, though many forget — in the present case that an anti-bourgeois rhetoric, especially if combined with the logic of vested interests, has on many occasions damaged societies. Rhetoric against a bourgeois liberty, especially when backed by violence, prevented innovation in Silver Age Rome or Tokugawa Japan. It stopped growth in twentieth-century Argentina or Mao’s China. It suppressed speech in present-day Burma or Saudi Arabia. Such words-with-guns in 1750 would have stopped cold the modern world being born in Holland and England. In the twentieth century the bad rhetoric of nationalism and socialism did in fact stop its later development, locally, as in Italy or Russia. Nationalism and socialism can to this day reverse it, with the help of other rhetorics such as populism or environmentalism or religious fundamentalism, by way of politics.
Yes, the politics in the eighteenth century depended on material power, such as on the material freeing of many ordinary people from the idiocy of rural life. Yes, the imperial adventures of the Europeans depended on the military revolution — drilled firing of muskets and naval guns. One can grant material causes that much. But the politics also depended heavily on rhetoric, the very words and ideas, such as the widespread translation of Prince NNN’s of the Netherlands manual for drilling infantrymen in massed gunfire, and the widespread use of Italian plans for cannon-resistant fortifications. ***check in NNN And in sweeter ways, too. As Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba put it in their classic study of political attitudes, the good “civic culture” to which they attribute the success of Western liberalism is “based on communication and persuasion.” 434 It is a bourgeois rhetoric. “Civic,” after all, is from Latin cives, citizen of a city state, and “bourgeois” means at root merely such a citizen, standing in the forum or agora to argue his case among the vegetables and jars of wine offered there for sale.
The stronger claim, harder to demonstrate, tells a story of origins, a sufficiency as against a merely long-run necessity assigned to bourgeois rhetoric in making and keeping the modern world. The rhetorical change c. 1700, admittedly, was in its origins not entirely autonomous. The story is not a Hegelian one of the Weltgeist and the Cunning of Reason. Consider again the guns, again, for which some people reach when they hear the word “culture.” Consider trade, internal and external. Consider sheer rising numbers of bourgeois.
But neither should one turn Hegel on his head in the style of Feuerbach or Marx. The rhetorical change was not a mere superstructure atop such material bases. Values are not only a reflection of material interests. Values change on their own, too. If they don’t, after all, the numerous materialists could save their breath. According to their own passionately held idea, their idea won’t express anything that material interest and the infrastructure have not already made inevitable. Sit it out.
But in fact the mere idea of a free press, if permitted politically and if accompanied by cheap printing borrowed from China, will lead eventually to independent newspapers, political pamphlets, Puritan courtesy books, epistolary novels, and guides to young men climbing the social ladder. The mere idea of a high-pressure steam engine with separate condenser, if permitted and if accompanied by skilled machinists trained in making precision scientific instruments, will lead eventually to the mere idea of a steamship and a steam locomotive, and then to the steam generation of factory power and electricity. The mere idea of the Galilean-Newtonian calculation of forces, if permitted and accompanied by mathematically educated people, will lead eventually to the mere idea of methodical calculations of flows of water for the improvement of Bristol’s port. 435 Above all, as Albert Hirschman suggested in 1977, the mere idea that “commercial, banking, and similar money-making pursuits [were] honorable . . . after having stood condemned or despised as greed. . . for centuries past” will lead — and did lead, though at first, Hirschman observes, “nowhere [in Europe was it] associated with the advocacy of a new bourgeois ethos” — exactly to . . . a new bourgeois ethos. 436
Si non, non. China invented paper and printing and clocks centuries before the dull Europeans caught up. For two-thousand years the Chinese system of examinations encouraged humanistic learning, as European universities did only later, and haltingly. The extremely rigorous examinations under the Xing (or “Ch’ing,” 1644-1911) yielded about 18,000 degree holders a year, a figure comparable to the universities in a Europe of very roughly the same population as China in, say, 1644 — at any rate comparable until the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, when the Humboldtische reforms in Europe after 1806 [***check: foundation of University of Berlin] and the explosion of population in China would have caused a great divergence in graduates proportionate to population. The 18,000 did not rise but the number of graduates in Europe did, and especially in chemistry and other physical sciences. 437 But for all the learning of China — censored in somewhat the same style as the Index of Forbidden Books emanating from the Vatican, but in China with more effect because there were no equivalents of the Protestant presses — the government in the eighteenth century executed a lexicographer, arrested twenty-one of his family, and condemned his two sons and three grandsons to slavery for printing the full name of the Emperor. 438 Islam carried the torch of classical learning to the West, knew much more than did Europe about Chinese technology, using paper for example hundreds of years before the Franks did (the Arabs kept the technique secret and exported paper to Europe until the thirteenth century). But the first printing press in Turkish was not operating until 1727, and in Arabic not until 1822, two-and-a-half or three-and-a-half centuries after Europe (the cursive Arabic script, used also for Turkish until Ataturk, was an obstacle to the character-by-character printing possible with Chinese or European writing), and were anyway closely censored — though printing under the Ottomans in Hebrew in places like Salonika was by then already centuries old. Islamic religious authorities objected to writing the Koran as against memorizing it. 439
One must take factual care. Down to the eighteenth century, after all, some Europeans were burning witches and heretics, and still in the sixteenth century all of them were, against a long tradition in much of Islam of toleration — though a tradition that the Ottomans overturned in response to political disorders. 440 The French state was very vigorous in the seventeenth century in censoring books (it went on doing it under Church auspices into the nineteenth century), and therefore Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) lived and published in Rotterdam. Right down to 1848 the cruel caricatures of the pear-shaped visage of King Louis-Philippe had to be printed in Holland and smuggled into France. London published the Scottish Enlightenment, Amsterdam the French. In England the censorship of the theater — easy to do until electronic reproduction, because it was after all public and in one place — waxed and waned from Elizabethan times, depending on epidemics and the fortunes of Puritanism. The morality plays of late medieval times, such as the York Cycle, were suppressed under Elizabeth, as papist in tone. 441 Censorship of the English theatre, entire under Cromwell, was brought back in 1737 by Walpole indignant at a Fielding play, and held sway in the land of our first liberties, astonishingly, until 1968. Or consider in the land of our second liberties the Motion Picture Code, constraining Hollywood from DDDD ***on to portraying married couples as sleeping in twin beds, and if sleeping, gingerly. The clichés of Orientalism — which claim that the East was a region of utter (if rather sexily Romantic) slavery whereas the West was gloriously free from the time of the Greeks or at the latest from the time of the Germanic tribes of the Black Forest (with the inconsequential exception, in both Greece or the Black Forest, of the 90 percent of the population who were women and foreigners and unfree men) — are imperfect guides to the true facts of East and West. When we Westerners incline to swelling pride about our westernity it is time to beware.
Yet the quasi-free habits of Holland and England and Scotland around 1700 granted the permission to entertain mere ideas. They were new. Political ideas that would have given their speaker an appointment with a Rhineland witch-burner or an Elizabethan drawer-and-quarterer circulated reasonably freely in the North-Sea lands in the early eighteenth century, at any rate by the standards of the nervous autocracies in contemporary France or China or Russia (though France like Sweden opened up in the turbulent 1780s, as did China and Russia finally in the turbulent 1890s). “There is a mighty light,” wrote the Earl of Shaftesbury (who had been tutored as a boy by John Locke) to a Dutch friend in 1706, “which spreads itself over the world especially in those two free nations of England and Holland, on whom the affairs of Europe now turn.” 442 What made the light unceasing, and made Europe wake up, was the unique change in language, a new way of talking about profit and business and invention, about calculation and the bourgeoisie, the affirmation of ordinary as against noble or holy lives. The bourgeoisie gradually disentangled itself from the literary and theological ideologies that had defined honor for thousands of years. When permitted, that is, the mere idea of honor to be had in the middle station — in trade, in profit, and in devising machines and commercial proposals — led eventually to the modern world.
The economic historian Joel Mokyr has called it the “industrial Enlightenment,” a third project of the French philosophes and the Scottish improvers. 443 The historian Roy Porter speaks of the old question “How can I be saved?” (to which one could add, “How can I be ennobled?”) yielding to the new question, “How can I be happy here below?” 444 The questions changed, and so did the rhetoric of the replies. “The displacement of Calvinism,” writes Porter about the intolerant and world-denying “reformed” Christianity that still in 1706 had within living memory held supreme power among the Dutch, Swiss, Scots, English, and New Englanders, “by a confidence in cosmic benevolism blessed the pursuit of happiness, and to this end Britons set about exploiting a commercial society. . . . Human nature was not flawed by the Fall; desire was desirable.” 445 Remember the broad-church preachers in England in the 1690s.
In Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) the absurd characters the philosopher Square and the clergyman Thwackum embody the debate between Nature and Revelation: “Square held human nature to be the perfection of all virtue, and that vice was a deviation from our nature, in the same manner as deformity of body is. Thwackum, on the contrary, maintained that the human mind, since the fall, was nothing but a sink of iniquity, till purified and redeemed by grace.” 446 The same debate was rehearsed in more heavily censored France, as in Diderot’s private Supplement to the Bougainville Voyage (1772; published only in safely revolutionary 1796). The imagined Tahitian wise man, Oirou, who has offered his wife and his daughters to the pleasures of a French priest, replies to the priest’s refusal: “I don’t know what this thing is that you call ‘religion,’ but I can only have a low opinion of it because it forbids you to partake of an innocent pleasure to which Nature, the sovereign mistress of us all, invites everybody.” 447 Compare King Charles’ philosophy of pleasure.
Some decades earlier than Diderot during the bourgeois shift of ethical rhetoric, Benjamin Franklin, that wandering child of Puritans, had exclaimed, “’tis surprising to me that men who call themselves Christians . . . should say that a God of infinite perfections would make anything our duty that has not a natural tendency to our happiness; and if to our happiness, then it is agreeable to our Nature, since a Desire of Happiness is a natural principle which all mankind are endured [endowed] with.” 448 Samuel Johnson used to say in the 1770s, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” 449 By 1776, a few days before Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence (which Franklin helped revise), George Mason wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, of May 15, “that all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, … namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” God’s law was replaced by natural rights (the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to spiff up George Mason’s phrase — the idea itself was a century old by then). 450 Negotiated rights — deal-making and at length voting — replaced the God-given laws of social position, at first in stirring declarations and at long last in fact.
To employ an old-fashioned but still useful vocabulary, devised in 1861 by Henry Maine, the northwest of Europe, and Britain in particular, changed from a society of status to a society of contract, at any rate in its theory about itself. 451 As Johnson had written of the Western Islands of Scotland, “Money confounds subordination, by overpowering the distinctions of rank and birth.” 452 Christopher Bayly has made a similar point about the confounding power of the cash nexus in the Islamic world at the time Johnson wrote. 453 In northwestern Europe inheritance gave way to self-creation — again, at least in theory. Honest invention and hopeful revolution came to be spoken of as honorable, as they had seldom been spoken of before. And the seven principal virtues of pagan and Christian Europe were recycled as bourgeois. The wave of gadgets, material and political, in short, came out of a bourgeois ethical and rhetorical tsunami around 1700 in the North Sea.
That’s the claim.