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Christopher Dawson: “the opposite poles of human character and human experience”

23 April 2016

Christopher H. Dawson.jpg


“While we may congratulate ourselves that English social life has not been poisoned by class hatred and class war, it does not follow that the complete penetration of English culture by bourgeois standards and ideals is a good or admirable thing. It is even possible that the victory of the bourgeois has meant the destruction of elements that are not merely valuable but essential to English life, since the English tradition is something much wider and deeper than the machine-made urban and suburban culture by which it has been temporarily submerged.
Actually we have only to open our eyes to see that this criticism is justified. The devastated areas of industrial England and the cancerous growth of the suburbs are not merely offensive to the aesthetic sense, they are symptoms of social disease and spiritual failure. The victory of bourgeois civilization has made England rich and powerful, but at the same time it has destroyed almost everything that made life worth living. It has undermined the natural foundations of our national life, so that the whole social structure is in danger of ruin.
Looked at from this point of view the distinctive feature of the bourgeois culture is its urbanism. It involves the divorce of man from nature and from the life of the earth. It turns the peasant into a minder of machines and the yeoman into a shopkeeper, until ultimately rural life becomes impossible and the very face of nature is changed by the destruction of the countryside and the pollution of the earth and the air and the waters.
This is characteristic of modern bourgeois civilization in general, but nowhere is it more striking than in England. And since English culture has been historically and peculiarly a rural one, the victory of bourgeois civilization involves a more serious breach with the national tradition and a more vital revolution in ways of life and thought than in any other country of Western Europe.
But if the bourgeois is the enemy of the peasant, he is no less an enemy of the artist and the craftsman. As Sombart has shown in his elaborate study of the historic evolution of the bourgeois type, the craftsman like the artist has an organic relation to the object of his work. “They see in their work a part of themselves and identify themselves with it so that they would be happy if they could never be separated from it.” For in the precapitalist order “the production of goods is the act of living men who, so to speak, incarnate themselves in their work: and so it follows the same laws that rule their physical life, in the same way as the growth of a tree or the act of reproduction of an animal, obeys in its direction and measure and end the internal necessities of the living organism.” The attitude of the bourgeois on the other hand is that of the merchant whose relation to his merchandise is external and impersonal. He sees in them only objects of exchange, the value of which is to be measured exclusively in terms of money. It makes no difference whether he is dealing in works of art or cheap ready-made suits: all that matters is the volume of the transactions and the amount of profit to be derived from them. In other words, his attitude is not qualitative, but quantitative.
It is easy enough to see why this should be. For the bourgeois was originally the middleman who stood between the producer and the consumer, as merchant or salesman or broker or banker. And thus there is not merely an analogy, but an organic connection between the role of the bourgeois in society and the economic function of money. One is the middleman and the other is the medium of exchange. The bourgeois lives for the money, not merely as the peasant or the soldier or even the artist does, but in a deeper sense, since money is to him what arms are to the soldier and land is to the peasant, the tools of his trade and the medium through which he expresses himself, so that he often takes an almost disinterested pleasure in his wealth because of the virtuosity he has displayed in his financial operations. In short the bourgeois is essentially a money-maker, at once its servant and its master, and the development of his social ascendancy shows the degree to which civilization and human life are dominated by the power of money.
This is why St. Thomas and his masters, both Greeks and Christians, look with so little favour on the bourgeois. For they regarded money simply as an instrument, and therefore held that the man who lives for money perverts the true order of life.
“Business,” says St. Thomas, “considered in itself, has a certain baseness (turpitudo) inasmuch as it does not of itself involve any honourable or necessary end.”
We find this criticism repeated at the time of the Renaissance by humanists like Erasmus: indeed, it is the basis of that aristocratic prejudice against the bourgeois which has never entirely disappeared and which reappears in all sorts of forms from sheer idealism to pure snobbery in the most unlikely times and places.
Thus the classical Marxian opposition of bourgeois and proletarian is but one of a whole series of oppositions and class conflicts which the rise of the bourgeois has aroused. There is the aristocratic opposition of which I have just spoken. There is the opposition of the artist which did so much to bring the name of the “bourgeois” into disrepute in the nineteenth century. There is the opposition to the bourgeois in so far as he is the representation and incarnation of the money power—an opposition which has found a new expression in the Social Credit movement. And finally there is the opposition between bourgeois and peasant, which is more fundamental and deep-rooted than any of them.
But while all these oppositions are real and each implies a genuine criticism of bourgeois culture, none of them is absolute or exhaustive. There is a more essential opposition still, which has been pointed out by Sombart and which goes beyond economics and sociology to the bedrock of human nature. According to Sombart, the bourgeois type corresponds to certain definite psychological predispositions. In other words there is such a thing as the bourgeois soul, and it is in this rather than in economic circumstance that the whole development of the bourgeois culture finds its ultimate root. In the same way the opposite pole to the bourgeois is not to be found in a particular economic function of interest, as for instance the proletarian or the peasant, but rather in the antibourgeois temperament, the type of character which naturally prefers to spend rather than to accumulate, to give rather than to gain. These two types correspond to Bergson’s classification of the “open” and “closed” temperaments and they represent the opposite poles of human character and human experience. They are in eternal opposition to one another and the whole character of a period or a civilization depends on which of the two predominates.”
– Christopher H. Dawson,  in his book Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind (1935)

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