In Defense of Bourgeois Civilization

The following essay was commissioned as part of this week’s symposium on “the bourgeois spirit.” See also Dawson’s Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind, and Gerard Russello’s account of Dawson’s contribution.


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Tell me this. Would you rather that your neighbor had a Serta brand iComfort mattress with Cool Action Memory Foam nicely elevated above a carpeted floor in a suburban home, or that he had to sleep on a pile of straw crawling with bugs that gnawed at his flesh all night before they hid back into their nests in a dirt floor covered with layers of animal waste, in a shelter filled with soot because there is no ventilation?

I suspect most people would wish their neighbors had nice, clean beds. If it is good for you to want that for your neighbor, then it’s also good for you to want it for your family and even for yourself. It is not wrong to desire to live well. And yet such a choice would not have been available to you or anyone before modern times. And for this reason, I would further suggest that we are all in one sense blessed to live now instead of 1,000 years ago, when buggy straw was the norm.

What has made the difference is the unleashing of creative human energy through free exchange, private ownership, and capital accumulation. These institutions turned the unimaginable poverty faced by all our ancestors into the age of plenty into which we were all born.

A few more questions.

●        If you get an infection in your leg, would you like it healed with an antibiotic cream or have the leg sawed off and replaced with a tree limb?

●        How many of your children would you like to die in childbirth: zero or six out of nine?

●        Would you rather have your teeth pulled with or without anesthesia?

If you said the former in each case, this makes you a member of the bourgeoisie. It means that you would rather live in the 21st century than the 12th. Is this an evil preference? Some people, not Manicheans but Catholics, really do think so.

Do you expect to live to old age, meaning 75 or so? You probably will. Most everyone, even in poor countries, does. But this expectation would only be likely to be realized since the 1950s. For most all of human history until the 19th century, the average lifespan was between 26 and 32 years old. Mostly this average was due to ghastly high rates of infant death. Every woman who lived to raise a child into a teenager carried in her heart deep sorrow for the several who had died.

We can’t even imagine this world, so it behooves us to read about it, in history books and literary classics like The Canterbury Tales, and the chronicles of the Crusades. For all the cultural riches that existed then, theirs was a world with no indoor-plumbing, electricity, or refrigeration. People could only eat what could be grown within a mile of their houses, all meat had to be heavily salted to be preserved, and their pathetic shelters were at all times as hot or as cold as the weather outside.

What if you were twice as likely to die from homicide as accidental death in a world that was unbelievablly violent, where deadly brawls were just part of daily life, where no one even bothered to investigate much less prosecute murder? If you don’t like this picture, you would not want to go back. I would not want to go back.

People who long for life before the age of the bourgeoisie need to think about this. But Christopher Dawson, prolific philosopher and author of the essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeoisie Mind” has evidently not thought about it. He writes eloquently, almost in a dreamlike state, of the supposedly tragic transition from the civilization of love (the Baroque, he calls it) to the gritty, moneyed world of the bourgeoisie and how this made the world such an ugly place.

Dawson declares that it is “obvious that the Christian ethos is essentially antibourgeois, since it is an ethos of love.” Like Rousseau and other utopians, he longs for a rural life untainted by development, while condemning  “machine-made urban and suburban culture” that he says has “destroyed almost everything that made life worth living.”

Well, it is a good thing that modern life is “almost” not worth living, because under his scheme most of us would not be alive. As you contemplate precisely what he is saying, consider two charts that make my point. The first covers life expectancy, and it uses data that is agreed upon by every serious expert who has ever covered this area.

The years in question are 0 to 2000 but you can look back as far as you want to and observe that nothing much changed in all of human history until the last two centuries. Understanding this helps you make sense of this chart too:

This chart cuts off years 0 to 1000, but you can just draw a straight line and see what happened. By modern standards, the truth is that the planet was almost unpopulated until about 1820 or so. This is not because our reproductive systems did not work. It is not because people had no interest in reproducing themselves. It is not because most of the population took vows of chastity. It is because it was hard to stay alive very long. Death ruled and life was rare. This is not love. It is, by modern standards, a living horror.

Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the material conditions of life began to change. Life received a gigantic boost in its battle against the grave. Population increased. Income increased. The middle class was born. The merchant class started making money. Lives lengthened. Innovations spread. People could have ready access to food, clothing, shelter, and scattered luxuries. The development never stopped. It culminates in our time, when I can carry a wireless device to speak in real time to any person on the planet (with optional video), when I can saunter over to the local grocery and pick up any food from nearly anywhere on the planet (even pricey “local” produce) for a small fraction of my monthly income, when the biggest problems are comparatively petty (the dry cleaners lost my shirt, the tomatoes I bought aren’t ripe, the person sitting next to me on the airplane is fat, etc.) as compared with anything our ancestors faced.

This shift started slowly in the late Middle Ages in the Catholic countries of Europe: Spain and Italy in particular. The change accelerated over the following centuries, and began to take off at the Industrial Revolution, before absolutely skyrocketing in the late 19th century. To take just one example, consider how people got information from here to there. From the beginning of recorded time until 1837, information could only travel as fast as the runner, the horse, or the sail. Then the telegraph appeared, assisted by the invention and marketing of electricity. History turned on a dime. Humanity could be connected. We could learn from each other, discover new things, spread the good news, stay in contact when we travelled. The pope could come to America, and then jet off to Australia.

Every innovation in this period led to a gigantic leap forward for life: from horses to railroads, stream to coal, coal to oil, iron to steel, analog to digital, and onward. While Original Sin guaranteed that these inventions would sometimes be used in the service of warfare or tyranny, the staggering majority of these inventions redounded to the well-being of hundreds of millions of people. They have diminished human suffering—something the Church has always urged in the form of the Corporal Works of Mercy, and which she strives to assist. If suffering were good in itself, why would the Church be the largest private provider of health care in the world? The result of all these inventions and advances was stark:  The world population is now at 7 billion. That’s seven billion wonderful lives, of equal value and sanctity to yours, dear reader—served by a global economy is that is integrated and mind-bogglingly complex in every way.

At this point, perhaps you are asking yourself why I am bothering even to write these things that surely everyone knows. Surely we all know just how deeply blessed we are to be alive in our times, to have access to everything, to enjoy such immense opportunity, to be surrounded by technologies and systems that alleviate suffering and say “yes” to life in all ways. Why bother pointing all this out?

I point it out because even now, the world is filled with thinkers who casually imagine that all of this is either irrelevant or even awful. They long for a past they did not and will not experience. They romanticize some imagined idyllic age of perfect poverty and universal togetherness, a time without classes or conflicts, a time of beauty and peace.

The eminent Professor Dawson is only one of the many thinkers who have become victims of this fantasy. His fallacy is obvious enough. He picks beautiful things from the past  (the artworks of Bernini) and ignores the ugly things (the slavery, plagues, and casual brutality that surrounded Signore Bernini all through his life). Then Dawson focuses on the ugly things of the present (fill in your pet peeves here) and ignores the benefits (for instance, we can buy his books on Amazon; you can read his essay online; you know how to read in the first place). He then takes the broad brush of the comfortable philosopher to paint an image of the past as serene and pastoral, and the present as wicked beyond redemption. Why are we willing to follow him down this primrose path to Neverland? Because despair and snobbery are universals of the human condition. Technology has no effect on them.

All people everywhere are open to the idea that their own age is uniquely awful, whereas “back then” they had things right. Ah yes, two ages: the magnificence of the Baroque and the ghastliness of the bourgeoisie. So for Dawson, modern life offends “the aesthetic sense.” The growth of the subburbs are “cancerous” — and never mind that millions of people actually choose to live in suburbs because the philosopher-king knows what’s best for them, better than they do.

This whole way of viewing things is not only factually wrong. It sneers at the choices of real people, their health and happiness, and even their very existence. It insults the efforts of millions of charity workers who work to lift up those in poverty, the philanthropists who fund our charitable organizations, the prayers of everyone who has been moved by the continued existence of poverty in our world to hope for material improvement.

Seeking to improve the lot of humankind is virtuous. And this is precisely how the class that the Marxists chose to dub the bourgeoisie was created: by human hands, hands that worked hard to steward the gifts of God and defend man from the hazards of fallen nature. The bourgeoisie made it possible for this planet to sustain 7 billion people instead of the half billion that could scrape by at any time before this revolution took place.

Take away the “money economy” that Dawson so casually dismisses and you create the conditions that will cause these population numbers to plummet. It’s happened before. In China, Cuba, Russia, and Cambodia, the vital statistics actually reversed themselves in the course of famine and ruin. This societies were not beautiful. They were not aesthetically pleasing. They were not holy and contemplative. The philosophers who believed they making a paradise actually created a series of hells on earth.

We are all blessed to be alive in our times, to enjoy our material comforts, to give our kids opportunities that no one in history has had, to enjoy art from all times and lands, to have access to vaccines and Vatican documents, to use technology in every way. We are free to embrace these opportunities. We are also free to take vows of poverty, to eschew all these pleasures — and if we find that our material desires are distracting from our spiritual lives, so we should . But grinding poverty is no longer imposed by material circumstances on hundreds of millions of people whom God did not call to the monastic life. You can thank the bourgeoisie for that.

The watchwords are freedom and reason. We can only make these choices for ourselves. Freedom is what has granted us a world that allows us all the means to experience all the beauty in world history. We can savor Bernini’s sculptures, Michelangelo’s paintings, and Palestrina’s music. Or we can travel to any place on the globe to admire the most the oldest cathedrals or stand in awe at modern skyscrapers. This is the world that the bourgeoisie made. This is the world that freedom made. It merits not scorn but gratitude.


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