Greg, as always, thanks for taking the time to engage. As I read him, Dawson is not singling out a particular socio-economic class and neither am I. As a long-term member, I have a vested interest in the middle class. This seems to be a common interpretation of Dawson’s critique and much of what you say assumes it. Dawson’s language, I confess, can lend itself to this interpretation at times.

Yet, the fact that he connects the bourgeois mind with Bolshevism on the one hand and the French Revolution on the other hand ought to give pause about reading Dawson in this way. In truth, my intention was not to indict any class or group, but to argue that one should not read Dawson in those terms. In other words, Dawson is not criticizing the middle class that created an entrepreneurial spirit and built modern nations. He is certainly on the side of every shop keeper, which I take to mean every small business person out there. There were plenty of merchants in the Middle Ages. Nor are corporations as such even his primary target although his position has implications for how they are managed. Instead, he is wrestling with revolutions that change social orders and the philosophical bases for them, in particular the French and Russian revolutions. In this respect, he is no different than an Edmund Burke or a Samuel Taylor Coleridge or any number of thinkers since.

Admittedly the use of bourgeois causes a visceral reaction owing to the history of the term and its many shades. It is, however, a mentality that Dawson seeks to capture, and he grounds it historically in the emergence of late medieval/early modern urbanites whose place in society Dawson thinks contributed to a view of persons as isolated individuals, disconnected from the land and from one another. While the French Revolution led to a form of democracy and the Russian to communism, Dawson finds a common thread in a particular view of humanity he associates with the bourgeoisie who led the charge.  This is the connection between a bourgeois mind and a particular class of persons, but I think Dawson makes the connection primarily for historical and pedagogical purposes.

His primary intention remains to critique an understanding of human nature. This is not an indictment of any particular business person except insofar as that person tends to embrace in some manner the view of humanity that Dawson associates with the bourgeois mind. The fact that Dawson claims English Nonconformity resisted the bourgeois mind because it propagated a religious basis for social cohesion rather than an economic one should confirm as much. Here we can see that the bourgeois mind is a version of a secularized understanding of human nature. 

You interpret “bourgeois industrialist” as singling out a class of individuals whereas Dawson, in my view, sees it as a mindset that may or may not be present. When the Green family of Hobby Lobby raised the minimum wage of their employees last year, it was no doubt an extension of their religious outlook, which fueled their desire to treat employees as “family.” They are not “bourgeois industrialists” in the way Dawson defines bourgeois precisely because their religious commitments prompt them to view humans differently. 

Despite some of his protests against the Reformed, Dawson’s fundamental convictions about the social nature of the human person resonates with Abraham Kuyper’s argument that the organic nature of life is the foundation of the social or ecclesial organisms that come after it. Kuyper insists that the organic character of the church stems from the organic character of humanity that is part of the order of creation. His coming to this conclusion is due as much to his pastoring in the Dutch countryside as it is to his assimilation of Romanticism into a Reformed framework. Indeed, sphere sovereignty takes part of its rationale from the organic layers of creation and the various spheres arising from them.

From this angle, the middle class does not join the wealthy and the poor, they are all joined by a prior order of creation that reveals itself in the social nature of the person and the various bonds that flow from that nature. One might call this natural law, or, in good Lutheran fashion, speak of the orders of creation to point toward the given structures of life and the human person. Admittedly Dawson sometimes yearns for the yesteryear of the medieval world, but what he is most keen to defend is the organic connection among the various orders of society, which is grounded in the fundamentally relational structure to creation. 

His statements about priest and king being bound to the land and the people ultimately point back toward a view that sees social and moral responsibility for the common welfare as stemming from a prior relational view of human persons. In Dawson’s words, “[king and priest] were not individuals standing over against other individuals, but parts of a common social organism and representatives of a common spiritual order.” This no more means Dawson thinks kings and priests were morally pristine than his indictment of the bourgeois mind means he thinks any individual bourgeois is morally suspect. The medieval world of king and priest may be part of human history, but we lose the understanding of the organic layers of creation at our peril.

Capitalism, at its best, unleashes the creative impulse commensurate with all human freedom. The early Genesis account of human creation bespeaks of a divine artist who invites humans to participate in forming their lives through the endowment of the divine breath that brings freedom. Free markets, then, that allow for entrepreneurial activities help guard the sacredness of human freedom and the dignity of human work. At the same time, as John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, human freedom is more than simply economic freedom. Dawson’s depiction of the bourgeois mind at its purist refers to a secularized position that reduces the human person to economic agency, which is to dis-embed economic freedom from the broader understanding of human freedom and the organic relations of creation.

An interesting application of Dawson’s insights is to the current debate over pay inequality. On the one hand, his analysis supports the kinds of arguments that suggest part of the disparity of pay between men and women stems from the choices they make in relation to who they are as men and women. Men and women will make different choices as to how long they work, what kinds of jobs they have, etc., in relation to their make-up as men and women and their organic relatedness to other orders such as the family. One needs a thicker account of the biological and psychological differences between men and women to explain pay disparity fully, which is simply to say that they cannot be treated merely as economic actors. On the other hand, he would worry over the competing desires corporations and governments face that might lead to a kind of rational planning that does not see human persons as a whole. 

If you do not think the bourgeois mind is out there, take a close look at the commercial infertility and surrogacy industry and ask yourself whether children are being viewed as commodities or the women who bear these children, especially in places like India.To reduce any human person to an economic actor is for Dawson to exhibit a bourgeois mentality regardless of what “class” one belongs to.  

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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