Recently the Intercollegiate Review republished John Zmirak’s attack of Christopher Dawson’s criticisms of the bourgeois mind. Zmirak’s essay, however, just like Jeffrey Tucker’s “In Defense of Bourgeois Civilization,” misses Dawson’s fundamental points because it tends to read him as a Luddite who does not understand the benefits economic development.
Dawson’s point has less to do with an indictment of capitalism as much as a mentality he associates with the modern social imaginary. The bourgeois mind is a species of what Charles Taylor has identified as the buffered self. Whereas Taylor understands the buffered self as a mind-centered self with a boundary between the interior and the exterior worlds, Dawson defines the bourgeois mind as a form of individualism that ceases to be open to the organic connections among the various orders of creation. Thus when Dawson indicts an “economic view of life,” he means an outlook that sees economics as the ground of social unity rather than something flowing from an already-existing social unity. There is a fundamentally organic and social nature to existence. In this respect, Thomas Piketty’s criticism of economists as being too concerned with mathematical models and not enough concerned with history resonates with Dawson’s depiction of a bourgeois mentality.
While the bourgeois mind emerges in the urban centers of late medieval Europe, it has particular importance with the third estate and the French Revolution. This “middle class” between aristocracy and priesthood historically occupied a position in society that fostered criticism through enlightened self-interest “without acquiring direct responsibility or power.” Consequently, when the bourgeois took control in France “he never really accepted social responsibility. . . . He remained a private individualan idiot in the Greek sensewith a strong sense of social conventions and personal rights, but with little sense of social solidarity and no recognition of his responsibility as the servant and representative of a super-personal order.”
By claiming that the spirit of the Gospel is “of the ‘open’ type” and that this stands in opposition to the spirit of calculation, Dawson is resisting the buffered self and all forms of political philosophy that would reinforce this self. Francis, the mystics, and the baroque spirit embody the anti-type because the ecstatic is always about an outward movement to the other that opens up the self. One cannot be ecstatic and buffered at the same time, an insight that global pentecostalism carries within its bosom.
In his analysis of cultural formation, Dawson claims that culture is a common way of life that invariably emerges from the social nature of humanity. The cultural is prior to the political insofar as common life precedes any reflection on how to organize that life in ways commensurate with human flourishing. This common life stems from the intersection between work (the economic), place (the environment), blood (the ethnic), and freedom (the psychological).
Cultures begin to take on distinctive elements in organic relationship to the contours of their particular environments. This is another way of claiming that regionalism stems from the land. The rough climate of the plains, the flat and lush landscapes of the south, or the combination of coast and mountains in the west all shape the people who inhabit those regions, giving rise to distinct identities. Persons are persons-in-relation even as the Trinitarian God is person-in-relation.
This organic connection to the land was the life blood of the literary realism that emerged during the Gilded Age and Le Belle Epoch (1865-1920) and continued even after. How can one read Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, or Henry James, among others, without getting a strong sense for the rich regionalism of the American landscape? Ethnicity takes its initial rooting in this organic connection between humans and the land. Indeed, the Lockean principle of the right to own property could be grounded in the social nature of existence as revealed through the role of place and geography in forming the cultural life so necessary for a democracy of the people and for the people.
One might be led to think of human culture as determined fully by environmental and ethnic forces if it were not for the psychological dynamic of culture formation. This is what makes possible a genuine fusion between persons, ethnicity, and environment that leads to entrepreneurial and artistic enterprises. To protect human dignity, then, involves not merely a protection of that liberty that forms the basis of conscience, but of the organic relationship to creation and the way it offers a mold that shapes liberty. In terms of a conservative political philosophy, this translates into a strong impulse to maintain the orders of creation in their relationship to one another as much as political life allows.
There is a homogenizing tendency in the bourgeois mind, as Dawson makes clear when he states that “the Bolshevik philosophy is simply the reductio ad absurdum of the principles implicit in bourgeois culture.” One finds this tendency in efforts to flatten out biological and psychological distinctions between men and women for example. There is a form of egalitarianism that would destroy the orders of creation. Here conservative philosophy would fault the bourgeois mind as failing to see how the psychological element of culture formation diverges in creative ways between men and women owing to the distinctive interplay between human freedom and human nature.
Charles Taylor finds this homogenizing tendency among elites and their tendency to want to re-make society in their image. Certain strategies of Reform, in Taylor’s words, flatten out human life together and in so doing actually disenchant the world. It has a long history that Protestants and Catholics must share the blame in, but that currently manifests itself in the rational planner of society, the expert who seeks ever greater measures of control based on mathematical models that “predict” human behavior. It’s why I previously connected Dawson’s bourgeois mind to Neil Postman’s technocratic expert. This kind of scientism must be resisted.
Christopher Dawson is no Luddite. For Dawson, the contrast is not between an idealized older political order and a demonic new political order, but between a mentality that sees the interconnected nature of life and embraces responsibility for it and a mentality that would individualize humans and treat them as isolated selves who must forge their own existence. “To the bourgeois politician the electorate is an accidental collection of voters; to the bourgeois industrialist his employees are an accidental collection of wage earners.” The bourgeois mind is the buffered self come of age, closed off from the social organism to protect itself from the intrusion of common life even while it feeds off and criticizes that common life.