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.


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.

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog.

  • Bill Russell

    Brilliant. And as much as I love Chesterton his “Distributism” was sheer romanticism which he could indulge whilst living off the capitalist system he satirized – his own life could have be lengthened had he heeded basic bourgeois standards of nutrition. That kind of utopianism gives the impression that Christianity is unreal. He was such a magnificent man in so many ways, but he did not detect the snobbery couched in his disdain for the real working world.

  • Yes, thank you, I agree. I should say that I did not jump at this chance to engage in this debate. I don’t go for these kinds of things. But this Dawson article was just too much. It is historically uninformed. It shows a strange kind of ingratitude for the blessings God has given us in our times. It is replete with grave misunderstandings of cause and effect. It is the worst kind of armchair theorizing. And it is deeply, deeply dangerous for the future of life on earth. Reading it made me wince, paragraph after paragraph.

    In any case, thanks for reading my response.

  • Averroes

    The problem with Mr. Tucker’s analysis is that it’s entirely materialistic. In his view, the better society is the one that has air conditioning, antibiotics, and the Internet, ipso facto. He ignores the true measure of a society – to what extent does it help its citizens get to Heaven. Of course we won’t know for sure until we reach the next world, but I would be willing to wager that the percentage of people who lived and died in the first decade of 13th century France is higher than the percentage of people who lived and died in the first decade of 21st century France, by a wide margin. Viewed from that perspective, which society would you rather live in? Which society would you rather your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live in? Life is short (even today), death is certain, the world to come is everlasting.

    • Averroes

      Sorry, I left out a phrase in the fourth sentence of my post that denudes it of meaning. It should read:

      Of course we won’t know for sure until we reach the next world, but I would be willing to wager that the percentage of people who lived and died in the first decade of 13th century France AND MADE IT TO HEAVEN is higher than the percentage of people who lived and died in the first decade of 21st century France, by a wide margin.

  • David

    This reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw: “He who dies with the most stuff wins!” It could also be worded “He who lives the longest gets more glory!”

    All of the things you mention Mr. Tucker are indeed blessings, but it appears you are looking at life from the material aspect, whereas Mr Dawson is looking at life more from the spiritual perspective. There are some things he says that can be taken as ungrateful for the blessings we have today but his overall argument is that to much prosperity, or to great an attachment for material thigs can pull us away from what we as christians believe is more important.

    It is trite, but must be stated that whether we live 25 years or 75 year we all die, and eternity is a long time.

    • David, you have a point but it is not rather presumptuous to purport to know the state of souls of billions of people stretching over hundreds of years during which time you were not alive? No historian can know such a thing, not even about his own time much less those of hundreds of years ago. Moreover, Dawson says that life in the last two hundred plus years is not worth living due to the increase of living standards. That kind of statement is just stunning.

  • Sam Schmitt

    “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).”

    It sounds like Jeffrey is doing the same, just in the opposite direction. There are wonderful things now, but also some that are horrible. Infant mortality (physical evil) was high back then, but now we have widespread abortion (moral evil). Are more people physically better off now than in the past? Certainly. Would I like to have the standard of living of a 12th century peasant? No, just as I would not like to have the standard of living of a 21st century Somali war refugee. So comparing now with then is something of a fool’s game.

    One has to ponder the implications of this a little more deeply. Why has the modern world not produced an artist on the order of Michelangelo or Bernini, Dante or J. S. Bach? Could it have something to do with the fact that we are all comfortable and “secure,” which as Christianity has traditionally taught is not bad in itself, but can become an idol distracting us from deeper realities.

    • John Zmirak

      Well, Sam, the modern (post-industrial) world did in fact produce (to pick just a tiny sampling):

      Dostoevsky, Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, Peguy, Mauriac, Bernanos, Waugh, Dickens, Chesterton, Twain, Faulkner, Borges, Burgess and Proust.

      The Solesmes revival, Pugin, Gaudi, Otto Wagner, Rodin, Mestrovic, Sargent and Chagall.

      Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Weill and the many greats of Broadway and Hollywood scores.

      It also allowed millions of sons of the uneducated to live past childhood, learn to read, and enjoy some of these great things.

      I have no idea whether the PERCENTAGE of people in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance who focused on the spiritual life was higher or lower. It is literally impossible to say. But if you want to talk about the production of great (or even very good works) per century, I wouldn’t put the 19th or even the 20th below the 10th or the 16th.

      More important is the question raised by another commentor:

      “It is trite, but must be stated that whether we live 25 years or 75 year we all die, and eternity is a long time.”

      Yes, this is true. But so what? Is there any reason to believe that a life of hard-scrabble struggle for existence is more sanctifying than a life spent fending off the distractions of affluence? Read Russian authors for a picture of how serfs lived–in profound religious ignorance, superstition, envy and resentment at their oppression. If that is any gauge (and it’s the closest detailed literary picture we have of pre-modern life in the West) there was nothing especially edifying about it.

      Furthermore, if we are so presumptuous as to say we KNOW that lives of poverty ARE more sanctifying–and that we will therefore promote economic policies like socialism that are guaranteed to promote scarcity–then aren’t we setting ourselves up as Grand Inquisitors, pulling the levers of history in order to help those other, “lesser” souls stumble more easily into Purgatory?

      I have another idea: If earthly life is of no significance at all, why don’t we save EVERY SINGLE SOUL by a simple means: Drown every baby in the baptismal font. SHOOOM, they’ll go STRAIGHT to heaven.

      Leave aside the issue that the drowner commits a sin. (He can repent, and imperfect contrition will suffice.) What are the OTHER objections to this idea? If you can’t think of any, congratulations! You’re a Catholic Manichaean–one of many.

      • Sam Schmitt

        I wouldn’t put T. S. Eliot in the same league as Dante, or Mestrovic with Michelangelo, and I certainly don’t know how much holier people were or were not in past ages. My point wasn’t to compare artist to artist or saint to saint, but rather culture to culture. If the measure of a civilization is based primarily on material prosperity, it goes without saying that ours wins hands down.

        But if the worth of a civilization has more to do with moral, spiritual and cultural vitality, the picture turns decidedly against us. I suggested looking at the arts as a barometer of the culture, and on that basis (as with many other indicators) it is difficult to argue that ours is superior.

        I do not think that material prosperity has *nothing* to do with the health of a civilization, or that people are better off without technological advances. A certain level of wealth and stability is necessary to support the arts, schools, etc. It’s a matter of what’s primary.

  • I’m impressed with seeing this article. Thank you for acknowledging some of the obviously realities of the “good old days” and refusing to put a smiley-face on them.

  • David

    Perhaps I should be more careful of what I write. I apologize if my “eternity is a long time” statement implies a presumption of sanctification based on poverty or wealth. I have read and am in the process of reading several of Prof. Dawsons books and wanted to defend what I felt was unjust criticism.

    However, Mr. Zmirak your words cut deep and I felt the need to add to my comments. I have read Russian authors (Solzhenitsyn is my favorite). His speech at Harvard in 1978 should be read by anybody concerned with our current political atmosphere, PERHAPS you should reprint it on Crisis?

    I have on occasion stood (at the required distance) outside of a local abortion mill holding signs and freezing my butt off.

    I have also read St. Augustine and am familiar with his condemnation of Manichaeism and agree with him. My understanding of his teaching is that wealth is a blessing that facilitates our lives while we live in this “earthly city” so that we might attain the heavenly one, but I make NO judgement of how others do or do not practice the virtue of temperance.

    • John Zmirak

      Thanks, David. I’ve been active in the pro-life movement since I was 11 years old, and I spent my freshman year at Yale pressing that Solzshenitsyn speech on my blase classmates. So I know what you’re talking about. I think that the Devil has particular temptations he stores up for different nations and stations in life. Some afflict the rich, some the poor. Some are more rife in ages of faith (intolerance, persecution) others in ages of “reason” (indifferentism, presumption). I don’t want us as Catholics either to fall for the siren song of Progress OR to lapse into a whiskeyed, nostalgic haze. We were born in this time for a reason, and have to do our best to sanctify it.

      • James

        Good luck trying to evangelize when the Catholic brand (and even its moral principles) have been diluted beyond recognition. Perhaps if modernism hadn’t pushed the Church into existential crisis, we could have more influence in the fruitless effort to prevent post -Christian civilization from committing suicide.

        All of the great artists you mentioned were mostly reacting against modernity, and I noticed you included none from the later 20th century. Modernity’s drawbacks have been increasing at a faster rate than its benefits ever since the Reformation, and in the middle of the last century it became a net negative.

        Modernity and “progress” have jumped the shark.

  • Sarto

    Dang it John old Yalie, I really didn’t mean to differ with you again. I know it irks the heck out of you, but I press on. Mr. Tucker, I don’t know if you can really justify something by pointing to its compass opposite. My nice house OR an amputated limb and a stick for a crutch? Come on. I suspect that approach to logic is listed somewhere among the fallacies.

    I prefer to think instead in terms of a question asked in the future, after our lifestyle (and I am guilty) has consumed all our non-renewable resources: Was devouring everything the best that you guys of the 20th./21st centuries could do?

    Because we run into a matter of simple math: There isn’t enough for us to live the way we consider “normal.” Somehow, somewhere, we have to reconsider our sense of entitlement and figure out a new way to be alive. Dawson was on to something. Laissez-Faire is a pretty poor rebuttal.

    And, oh yes. I was holding a pro-life banner a few weeks ago. I was also in an anti-death penalty rally a few days later. And that is why I am respectfully disagreeing with Crisis yet one more time. Bernardin was right: It is a seamless garment.

    • Mark

      As modern liberalism has commandeered the “spirit of Vatican II” — that seamless garment continues to morph into a cloak which shields moral relativism.

      Please be careful.

      • Sarto

        As someone who lived through those times and as someone who tried to understand what happened in Vatican II, I would say liberalism created Vatican II and it has been hijacked by conservatives who have suppressed its open spirit.

        When he called for the Council, Pope John XXIII said he wanted to open the windows and let some fresh air in. That does not sound like a conservative attitude to me.

        The thing that alarmed the next popes was the notion of inner authority. In a conservative institution focused church, the authority is on external authority guiding the conscience of “the faithful.” But Vatican II opened the door to the role of prayerfully formed and carefully instructed inner authority. The problem became obvious with the Birth Control Encyclical. Pope Paul VI did everything he could to avoid giving lay people a say in the formation of their consciences. And so he wrote Humanae Vitae, with its frequent admonition: “Listen to the Magisterium.” The interesting thing is this: Before Humanae Vitae, the Catholi lay people were begging for the pope to give them permission to practice artificial birth control under some circumstances. An appeal to external authority. When Pope Paul said no, millions decided to follow their own inner authority. This is really ironic. If the pope had said yes, people would have continued to guide their lives by external authority. Because he said no, they discovered their inner authority as married people trying with the help of the Holy Spirit to live their sacrament.

        • James

          And this is exactly the drawback of modernity that Mr. Tucker does not acknowledge. All of this material plenty has had the effect of making most people anoint themselves as their own God. It has destroyed the authority of the Church and of all traditional institutions. The Church has lost her consensus of faith and moals, and our civilization has lost faith altogether. All of this wealth has led to mass secularization, and Mr. Tucker has only confirmed the arguments of secularists who triumphantly insist that only backwards, poor and ignorant societies value religious faith and objective morality. As regions like Latin America develop economically and rapidly secularize, while birth rates collapse, atheists will continue to make this argument.

          • John Zmirak

            The genie is out of the bottle. Every human being in the history of the world–apart from those faithfully pursuing vows of poverty–has pursued his own material betterment and that of his children. It is part of our God-given nature, and is not even a result of the Fall. The free economy and modern technology makes this pursuit vastly more successful. This also is not morally problematic in itself–in fact, it is overall good. It has the secondary side-effect of making Faith less attractive. Just so, there are fewer atheists in foxholes than in university libraries. That does not mean we should pursue war and ignorance because they “produce” more desperation and hence more faith.

            The Church faced various challenges throughout her history: the power of Classical reason, the breakdown of the Empire into feudalism, the rediscovery of Aristotle, the rise of the middle class, the encounter with the New World and its peoples, the rise of technology and science… and in every case she adapted her non-essential practices and modes of expressing her teachings so as to work WITH what was good in the new development. She never clung blindly or stupidly to past conditions, simply because those were more “congenial.”

            I don’t know how to say this any more clearly:

            If Christianity really were incompatible with the legitimate desire of people to escape poverty, disease, and political subjugation, it would be AN EVIL RELIGION THAT SHOULD BE EXTIRPATED FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH. That fact alone would prove its falsehood, with no need for further discussion.

            To assert that Christianity does depend on poverty, ignorance, disease, and authoritarian government is to agree with the likes of Voltaire and Christopher Hitchens.

            Yes, we are faced with new challenges now that most people aren’t one case of influenza (or one difficult childbirth) away from an early grave. That is the challenge God presented us with by allowing us to be born in the modern era. Either we man up and learn how to evangelize people who AREN’T dying of the plague or stumbling around from rickets, or we admit the whole thing was a lie and move on.

            You pick.

            • Sarto

              It is interesting to see that many young moral theologians (mostly laymen and women) have been busy developing a moral theology based on the rediscovery of the virtues, which would be a strong return to the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas. And this perspective would be a great moral guide for people living in the modern world where there is so much temptation to excess.

            • James

              Well, we’d best figure out a way to do this quickly. Most of our hierarchy still seem to think selling out the store in the guise of aggiornamento is the way to go, despite the fact that the brave new new secular order is inching ever closer to open persecution.

              Perhaps our godless civilization will collapse on itself, and in the resulting misery a new spiritual awakening can occur. We may have reached the point where reform is impossible and reconstruction is the only way.

              Like you, I do not wish to see this. But it seems that from time to time a divine chastisement seems to be the only thing that can effectively wake people up.

              Let us hope and pray that isn’t the case here.

        • Mark

          “When Pope Paul said no…” – Sarto

          “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

          The Pope alone did not say no, Jesus Christ said no through him.

          “millions decided to follow their own inner authority.” – Sarto

          Just a tired old euphemism for disobedience motivated by pride.

          Fr. Hardon > Phil Donahue

          • Sarto

            Not really, Mark. They decided to be spiritual adults. When that happens, you listen to many voices, including the voice of the Church. Then, in the end, you prayerfully and faithfully follow your conscience. That is what adults do. As I have mentioned more than once, absolutes exist. But they can be challenged by three possibilities. 1) Better logic. Many sincerely Christian moral thinkers are not convinced by the natural law logic of Humanae Vitae. 2) New information. The natural law thinking followed, for instance, by Pius XI, believed that there was a one to one corresponance between the sex act and the possibility of life. We now know about fertile and infertile periods. We also know that the process is statistically haphazard. Does that change things? Some people think so. Also under new information: Sexuality is not just a biological process. Humanae Vitae seems to reduce sexuality to simple biology. 3) Another perspective. From the east, the Grand Teton is sharply pointed. From the north and south, it is wedge shaped. Who has the better perspective? A celibate pope who was never a parish priest in the middle of the folks, who pointedly refused to show up and listen to the lay people he had invited as they described their struggles? Or the married people themselves, serious about the crosses that come with their sacrament, looking at their own lives, and praying for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit?

  • Martin

    Article and comments both thought provoking and wonderful, thanks to each of you. I heard an interesting statistic, quoted years ago on a radio show, that I have remembered since. I am startled by the number of times I reference it, but I find it is quite relevant to the discussion at hand.

    The statistic: the amount of information which an individual living today processes in a 24 hour period, is equal to that, which an individual living in the 18th century processed their entire life!

    I’ve pondered this for some time and find it quite plausible, when one considers the age of information and travel we live in, as mentioned in the article. Consider the fact of just “driving” to the grocery store.

    We must certainly ‘create’ or ‘allow’ the TIME in our lives to render a balance to the abundance of 21st century blessings, so as to recognize them as such… and be critically minded enough to know what IS and IS NOT part of the quoted “seamless garment”. My true level of discontent is that we are NOT sharing this sense of balance with future generations

    Thanks again for the article and a Blessed Christmas Season to all.

    • Sarto

      It is vital to distinguish information–which any computer can process–from wisdom, which needs the help of the Holy Spirit and the courage of the human heart.

      • Martin

        Exactly!! One must create the space in life so as not to be encumbered by the myriad bits(bytes) of information we come into contact with daily.

        This was made even more concrete on a visit to Bedford Forest, VA where they’ve been restoring Thomas Jefferson’s summer home. They have a replica of his favorite chair, and they stated that he would sit for two or three hours doing what he loved most.

        To THINK!!

  • CD

    Mr. Tucker and the previous commentators are surely aware that Christopher Dawson penned this essay in 1935?

  • Mary

    Life is full of trade-offs. Even if our answers to those three questions would determine what era we would chose to live it, it does not mean that era is better in every respect.

  • Jared B.

    Dawson & Tucker substantially agree in the former essay and this response. Dawson’s point (one of them) was that bourgeoisie culture is spiritually vacuous and is only justifiable on grounds of materialism and technocracy—and Tucker’s response seems tailor-made to demonstrate Dawson’s thesis. Dawson leveled a lot of serious criticisms against the bourgeois, and this is the best defense that could be mustered?! Pure materialism, without a whit of philosophical or theological thought, other than a perfunctory mention of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

    I have greatly admired Tucker’s past articles explaining the fundamentals of free-market economics and shared them with socialist-leaning friends. But stuff like this is a big red flag, I think, that sound economic logic does not necessarily add up to the whole ideal of a Christian civilization.

    • John Zmirak

      If you consider the betterment of the human condition, the saving of millions of lives from death in the cradle, the lifting of millions from ignorance and day-to-day anxiety over hunger “mere materialism,” then I have no interest in your spirituality, which has less in common with Christianity than Hinduism.

      • Jared B.

        OK I guess I was expecting / deserving of that reply. What I mean is that Dawsons’ critique involved a lot of cultural, historical & theological grounding; contrary to the glib remarks in this article and comments, the guy has clearly done his homework. He’s made a lot of claims about the merit of bourgeois society (and made several assumptions about how to define it) that Jeffrey Tucker doesn’t rebut so much as ignore. It hits one point and one point only, thus the “mere”.

        I *want* Tucker to be right—I strongly suspect that if there were some ideal neo-Baroque culture in the world today, I myself would be able to find no place in it—but if it is right, it better be able to answer for itself on more than purely economic / technocratic arguments.

        I guess the two responses taken together (probably the others on the site this week fill this gap) sort of talk past one another: Dawson said “The Bourgeois is responsible for the destruction of what was left of Christendom!” and Tucker says “The Bourgeois is responsible for improving our standard of living!” Of course, there’s no reason they can’t both be right..

        • John Zmirak

          I think one of the commentors put it best, when he asked:

          “‘Well I guess the question is (assuming that lack of goods could help spiritually) “is it moral to allow millions or billions of people die as a result of religion-induced poverty in order to gain spiritual fruits?’”

          This is easy. Any religion which taught this would be ipso facto not just false but evil. Mirroring as it does the Albigensian attitude toward life, it would deserve a similar death.

          That is what I find so repugnant about Dawson’s essay. It argues that Catholicism is such a religion. I am convinced in my bone that he is wrong. If I thought otherwise, I would be working to lead people OUT of (not INTO) the Church.

          • Jared B.

            Agreed about what kind of religion Catholicism really is. I didn’t find anything Dawson wrote repugnant because I’m just not convinced that Dawson was, in fact, arguing anything of the kind. He said, in effect, that pre-industrialized Western societies such as the Medieval and Baroque got a lot of things right and that modern capitalist societies are getting a lot of things wrong. After a second read-through, I think people are jumping to counter-attack Dawson unnecessarily. The whole question has got to be parsed into more than a single all-or-nothing issue of whether the Bourgeois are devils or saints.

            * Are the Bourgeois really responsible for all of the positive gains that Tucker attributes to them? Everyone’s assuming that the scientific & medical revolutions would have been impossible without the concurrent changes in economy & society—is that just a leftover stereotype about the dark/middle ages?
            * Is the “Bourgeois spirit” coterminous with capitalism, or should the two be differentiated more?
            * For that matter, should we be using the terms Bourgeois and ‘middle class’ interchangeably? Dawson, Tucker, and then Zmirak all offer contrary ways to define this class at all.

            There just isn’t enough of a consensus on the historical record—what factors played what role in shaping the world today, good and bad—to agree on what I think was the real gist of Dawson’s essay: sifting the wheat from the chaff, getting rid of anything pathological about the “Bourgeois soul” WITHOUT throwing away what has been gained by their [our] advancement. Right now it seems to fall into two extreme schools: A) Bourgeois capitalist society is awful and it’s all the Protestants’ fault, B) Bourgeois capitalism is a boon to humanity and you have some Catholic theologians to thank for it.

            • Sarto

              Great post. Einstein talked about the chaos created by modern capitalism and was strongly in favor of socialism.

  • Dan

    Had an interesting discussion with my parents recently along these lines. They are in their 80’s. We were discussing Social Security and the thought had entered their minds that perhaps they shouldn’t be colleting Social Security.

    Both my parents were raised in poor families and learned the value of hard work. They have had great success, married for almost 60 years, raised 10 children, and now living a comfortable retirement. But somewhere, somehow, something has gone terribly awry.

    The country is now over 15 trillion dollars in debt and it is past time to ask ourselves how much of the affluence and long life spans have been purchased by borrowing money that will have to be paid back by future generations. Yes the material affluence and the medical care that allows us to live long lives is great, but I would be content with a lot less if it meant a better life for the young people of today who face a very uncertain future.

  • Well I guess the question is (assuming that lack of goods could help spiritually) “is it moral to allow millions or billions of people die as a result of religion-induced poverty in order to gain spiritual fruits?”

    I’m not sure how to answer this one really because (1) the spiritual is always more important than the material, (2) but people shouldn’t survive despite religion…so I’m in a conundrum. Unless somehow, the deaths of millions was a spiritual loss greater than the gain I’m at a loss to answer.

    I blame Plato.

    • Sarto

      I think that’s a phony either/or. Maybe we are faced with a different kind of conundrum: The resources of our planet are finite. If everyone on earth were to live at my modest lower middle class level, it would take the resources of two and a half planets. But we have only one. So, along with coming to terms with our periodic lust to go to war, we also need to find the intellectual, spirirtual, emotional, and social resources to come to terms with the fact that the infinite expansion demanded by capitalism is not possible. Democracy, which cannot vote for self-sacrifice, will probably fall, replaced by some authoritarian power that will allocate the resources as it sees fit.

  • richard

    A perceptive post. Needed to be written and read.

  • This was a peculiar essay. One needs to contemplate the whole “materialism for the sake of the spiritual” line that has been preached here lately. That would be a fascinating philosophical exercise. I do not think this very new in Catholic thinking. St. Teresa of Avila is said to have proclaimed that she, Teresa could do nothing, Teresa plus God could do many things, but Teresa plus God and 100 ducats could do all things. For the Catholic Church to have survived this long, there has to be someone in it who sees the writing on the wall.

    One factual error: the honest, thrifty bourgeois did not bring about capitalism, or he didn’t bring it about by himself. The plundering of the Americas, particularly gold and silver, the slavery of Africans in the New World, the imperialism of the British East India Company (a government monopoly complete with army) were all vital parts of what Marx called the primitive law of capital accumulation. In other words, capitalists didn’t get their wealth by working hard and being clever: they got it by plunder and genocide, to the point that Marx says that capital enters the world dripping head to toe with blood.

    All the same, I am still left wondering how it is still true that it is easier for the camel to pass through an eye of a needle et al. When Christ was speaking about the poor, about the widow’s mite, about the rich man and Lazarus, etc. there was no such thing as the “voluntary poor”. Such a distinction begs a whole list of questions. And the Church has certainly not always been on the side of material progress, at least on the unofficial level. Pope Gregory XVI banned the gas lights and the railroads in the Papal States in the middle of the 19th century claiming that the railroads were “les chemins d’enfer”. Perhaps it was once the opinion of the clergy that keeping the people poor and ignorant made them easier to control. It seems that this was the subtext to clerical fascism in France and the Spanish-speaking world. But then again, modern right-wing American Catholicism, though a definite minority tendency, is a strange beast indeed.

    • TomD

      Anyone with knowledge of 20th century history knows that Marxism/Communism is responsible for over 100,000,000 deaths in the last century, from the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Pol Pot. So if “. . . the world is dripping head to toe with blood,” it is directly from Marxism/Communism.

      The 20th century would have been a dark century indeed if not for the opposition of the United States to Imperialist Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Communist Soviet Union.

      By chance, last night I watch Journey from the Fall (2007), a movie directed by Ham Tran, a Vietnamese-American, depicting the aftermath of US withdrawal from Saigon on April 30, 1975. Over 1 million Vietnamese died after we abandoned the people of Vietnam to the Communists, either killed in “re-education camps” or fleeing for their lives in small boats on the open seas from the tyranny of Vietnamese communism. If we as Americans should be ashamed of anything in our recent past, it is the abandonment of the Vietnamese people to Communist tyranny.

      For all the faults of capitalism, they pale by comparison to the tyranny and evil of Marxism and Communism.

      • Sarto

        Read “Fire in the Lake” for a historical/cultural appraisal how we lied our way into Vietnam as part of the Cold War, found ourselves bleeding to death, and then left. All those millions would not have died if we had not started the Vietnam War and turned that part of the world upside down. Sigh. Sound familiar?

        • TomD

          “All those millions would not have died if we had not started the Vietnam War . . ..” Such ahistorical nonsense. We did not start the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese started the Vietnam War. Hanoi authorized communists in South Vietnam to begin a low-level insurgency in December 1956, before US military involvement in the region. Communist aggression initiated and expanded the Vietnam War.

          WE “. . . turned that part of the world upside down?” We did it? Communist aggression turned that part of the world “upside down.” What is it with this Leftist blame-America obsession? After millions of deaths are caused by communist aggression in the 20th century, we are somehow responsible? Read Michael Lind’s Vietnam: The Necessary War for historical balance about Vietnam.

          • Sarto

            Let’s see…. Ho Chi Minh had been fighting the French colonialists and along came the Japanese who kicked the French out. The United States approached Ho and said, if we train and arm you, and if you fight Japan for us, on the solemn word that we gave so often to the Indians, you will have your own independent nation, “until the sun no longer shines, etc….”

            And so Ho fought the Japanese. After the war, all the allies went to Paris to decide what the world would look like in the future. Ho was on a plane, expecting to arrive their and help negotiate the future of Vietnam. When he got to some airport in India, he discovered that the allies had given Vietnam back to the French. So, with his better arms and better training, he went back to Vietnam and started his war with the French colonialists again.

            Fast forward to the French defeat. The United States saw that Ho was the national champion of the Vietnamese, and so the U.S. forced the division of the country into north and south, promising free elections, with the usual “on my solemn word, blah,blah, blah.”

            Then the U.S. realized that if there were fair and free elections, Ho would win and the country would be reunited. And so, breaking their word, the U.S. engineered a “free” election in South Vietnam, and a stooge was named president. This was the so-called “democracy” so many U.S. soldiers died defending. But when the stooge did not serve us well, we helped overthrow him and put in another stooge.

            Then, in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the U.S manufactured a reason for going to war with North Vietnam.

            All this is verifiable history. Get off your conservative high horse and go look it up.

        • TomD

          As just one example of an accurate history of Vietnam prior to US involvement, the attempt to minimize or explain away the mass murder in North Vietnam that accompanied “land reform” in the 1950s constitutes one of the most shameful chapters in the sorry history of the American left.

          “Land reform” was a euphemism for campaigns by the communist government seeking to subordinate the majorities of peasant society to tiny cliques of unchecked and corrupt party functionaries.

          The North Vietnamese “land reforms,” known as collectivization, began on March 2, 1953, with the “Population Classification Decree,” that divided the subjects of Ho Chi Minh’s dictatorship into five categories, from “landlord” (a party functionary) to “agricultural worker” (their slaves). In mid-1953 alone, somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 Vietnamese were summarily executed for being of the wrong class category (i.e., an educated person who refused to toe the party line); many more were imprisoned in the Vietnamese gulag.

          By the mid-1950s, after this “land reform” and well before US military involvement, the Vietnamese people were desperately voting with their feet; ten times as many people fled from the North to the South as to the North. More would have fled to the South, except they were murdered first. Given the general corruption in Vietnam in the post French colonial period, this imbalance in “migration” from North to South speaks volumes about the unique evil of the North Vietnamese regime in the mid-1950s.

          I am now done wasting any more time on you, Sarto.

          • Sarto

            Oh, cool it. I write to thank you, because you filled me in on a part of history I did not fully know. But then that led me to something even more interesting: A site on “Democide” which gives a thorough summary of all the casualties of war, genocide, and “Democide” during the twentieth century. Amazing and sickening. Stalin alone accounted for 45 million dead. The communists cost the lives of 110 million. And on and on. Oh, and the United States played its own bloody role–in the Philippines, in China, during WWII with the firebombing of civilians, after the war, when it sent two million refugees back to Russia and almost certain death, during the Korean War, and during the Vietnam War. The author notes that the U.S. has never officially regretted any of the bloodletting.

            But the whole thing is a denunciation of authoritarian regimes and other tyrannies, which are responsible for most of the loss of life, and a plea for democracy. Horrible pictures of men, women, and children–either dead or about to die.

            I left this site shaken and thoughtful.

    • John2

      “modern right-wing American Catholicism, though a definite minority tendency, is a strange beast indeed.”

      So is passe, left-wing, Communist “Catholicism”.

      I hope you enjoyed that little exchange.

  • Michael PS

    I am sure these advances must be a source of infinite satisfaction to the poor, “whether in Burkina Faso, in the South Bronx, in Kamagasaki, in Chiapas, or in La Courneuve” and why bourgeois civilization and its values are so enthusiastically embraced in Basra, Mogadishu, or Nablus.

  • Vanmind

    Great stuff, Mr. Tucker. Keep ’em coming.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Some great stuff here, Gents. But there are also a few lines that make me wonder if some folks might have done a bit too much acid just as it was hitting the colleges in the years following Vatican II. Two years after the VII closed Dietrich Von Hildebrand wrote A Trojan Horse in the City of God, explaining how even then the actual proceedings of the council were being misrepresented and twisted to achieve ends incomaptible with Church Teaching. One of the popular and destructive lies that emerged even after that book was that Pope John XXIII was an enlightened modernist who would never have written Humane Vitae, a reactionary document that was designed to abort the developement of Truly Catholic Freedom of Conscience. All Catholics must what evil that license has wrought, for without it the leap to mass abortion would have been too much for a Christian land.

    • Sarto

      Just finished Von Hildebrand’s master-work, “Transformation in Christ.” Rigid, humorless, ultra rational. When he lays down the super-organized steps that must be taken toward holiness, I kept thinking about the wonderful disorganized St. Francis of Assissi. Or the intuition that salvation is a drama ala Balthasaar, with his poetic, passionate Heart of the World–a little book I read every Lent which always leaves me gasping. Give me Abbot Marmion for the old traditional but deeply scriptural spirituality, or the passionate Thomas Merton any time.

      • John2

        I, too, recently finished “Transformation in Christ.” This is my third time. Although Hildebrand reminds us of how far we have to go, the book is a source of joy, more and more every time.

        All Hildebrand does is invite you to distinguish true spirituality from natural (OK, I’ll say it; fake) spirituality, then discard the fake and go to the real. This is an alternative statement of what we were made for.

        “Rigid, humorless, and ultra-rational” do not sound like the proposed transformation.

        • Sarto

          I selected this dazzling passage, selected at random: “A person confined within his natural attitude may not squander his interests on a multitude of trivial irrelevancies: he may concentrate upon an important cause, consecrate himself to a noble vocation, or be overwhelmed with a great love. However, he will then be exhausted, as it were, by that one thing, valuable, maybe, but yet only one among many human concerns. Everthing else is obscured, and he cannot afford to pay adequate attention even to a genuine good if it be unconnected with the thing which now engrosses his interest.”

          Ohhh, the soaring poetry! The quick leap of my enthralled heart! O.K., I admit it. I am a heart person and this book written in this style leaves me dry. Give me one of the parables. Or Anthony de Mello.

          • John Zmirak

            Von Hildebrand is only readable for me in his polemic mode. When he waxes philosophical his offbeat (realist-phenomenological) method leaves me instantly confused. Do treat the man with the respect he deserves, however–as someone who put his life on the line for years fighting the Nazis in Austria. Von Hildebrand was the press secretary for Ignaz Dollfuss, and his anti-Nazi journalism put him on the short list of the men the Gestapo most wanted to kill. He fought Hitler early on, when there was still a real chance of stopping him. For that alone, he merits our respect.

  • Gabriel Austin

    “It is a good thing that modern life is “almost” not worth living, because under his scheme most of us would not be alive”.

    We will all not be alive in a few years. Is being alive the summum bonum?

    What is rotting our country and our civilization is Comfort. We have grown to expect being coddled. Teste the cited example of the elderly couple viv-a-vis Social Security. I have often thought that those who had the experience of the great depression have an advantage over those who did not.

    Add to this that we now depend on a volunteer army for our prestige and our defense; should this not be the responsibility of every citizen? No matter how well taken care of, wounded soldiers are still wounded. They may be “less wounded” than soldiers of centuries past, but they are still wounded.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    @Gabreil: The Great Depression generation are generally doing quite well finanacially and physically. Previous generations simply did not live that long. comfort in itsefl is not a bad thing. What we have now, however, is the craving not only for uncomfort but unearned pleasure. One of the contributors to this discussion lamented that Holy Mother chruch did not embrace the diea of no-consequence copulation. Well unti about 1927 no Christian group dared to inuslt God in that way, and now we are paying with a society that demands its thrills and then screams when denied them. As for the soldiers who defend our rights, please remember that with each war there are medical advances that enable soldiers to survive wounds that would have killed them in previous wars. It is no comfort to those who have lost loved ones in war or to those who must live with handicaps, but the fact is that in previous wars, such as Word War II, the losses were so horrendous that if the public then had the sensitivities of people today….well, it is intellectually dishonest to say that one knows what would have happened. Don’t look for peace to break out any time soon.

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