Thursday, 21 November 2019

In praise of the bourgeois virtues

Let me tell you a story you've heard before - at the cinema, or on TV, or in pop music. A young, clever person chafes at the tedium, stasis and bigotry of their community and family, whose representatives exhibit a combination of unpleasantness, ignorance and dullness. Some of these representatives are well-meaning, but all are a barrier to achievement, colour, adventure, real life. Through a combination of circumstances, and a meeting with a roguish but good-natured and attractive representative of the wider world, the person strikes out into that world and becomes happy and fulfilled, away from the stultifying expectations of their traditional milieu. This happiness is explicitly achieved through repudiation of, and hostility to, that traditional milieu.

I am not describing a particular film or TV series or song. But in a sense, I am. With various tweaks as required, this is the general framework of many of the stories our culture tells, especially those aimed at children and young people. If it is not the main story, it is a sub-plot or a background assumption. To find happiness and contentment, you must break away from the world into which you were born, and from the people who formed you, and seek your "real self", which is to say the pattern of living that delivers the experiences and sensations which give you pleasure. Rules and ways of life which you did not or would not choose for yourself have no validity or authority; you must decide your own path, in accordance with your own feelings.

Broad brush strokes, yes - but a recognizable picture. The counterculture values of self-actualization and freedom as an end in itself remain ascendant.

The old-fashioned virtues - the bourgeois virtues -  struggle to keep up. The bourgeois virtues I take to be those which, if practised, make the practitioner a useful member of society; a good neighbour, no trouble to the police, a pillar of the community, a safe pair of hands. They decrease the likelihood of his being a heavy user of state services.

They are not, of course, the only virtues; but they are virtues. They are practised, without much thought or reflection but as kind of instinct of civilised life, by millions of people. They include things like diligence, modesty, obedience, tidiness, patience, restraint, punctuality. I call them the bourgeois virtues not because they are only, or can only be, practised by the bourgeoisie, but because they are often derisively associated with the middle-classes, and I would like to reclaim them from the pejorative implications of that association. I would also like to assert their necessity as against the bohemian virtues that are so endlessly praised in modernity.

By the bohemian virtues I mean those that are central to the worldview outlined in my first two paragraphs, which are concerned with the development of the expressive self, the prerogatives of the free individual, the creative and artistic way of life. Bohemian virtues have a strong focus on protecting minorities – of one or more – from the demands of groups. Tolerance is perhaps the archetypal bohemian virtue. Others include open-mindedness, sensitivity, authenticity to self, and so on.

A playwright can craft a superb play while sleeping until 11.30am, drinking a bottle of wine a night, showing up late to every meeting with his agent, and living with two girlfriends in an untidy flat. But to actually stage his superb play successfully you need the bourgeois virtues. You need people to rehearse and show up at the right times; you need someone to organise and publicise the whole thing, to print tickets and book the venue and make sure the insurance policies are correct. You need people to tidy up carefully after the show and remember to hang up the costumes in the right place. And on a broader level a playwright can only flourish in an educated society, a society that can design and build and maintain theatres, a civilised society where people have been taught and enabled to appreciate drama, where study and hard work and sacrifice have created enough prosperity, enough surplus wealth, to enable people to have leisure time.

I’m not especially interested in criticising the bohemian virtues. A society without them would risk becoming conformist, rigid, unforgiving, stifling, hostile to innovation. But I tentatively suggest that they are a little over-valued these days (if you doubt that they form the underlying drumbeat of large swathes of culture, simply pay attention. Listen to lyrics; watch TV programmes; think about the underlying propositions of films). Just as man cannot live by bourgeois virtues alone, so the bohemian virtues must be tamed. They must be kept in their place. In Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton put it this way:

"The virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” 

Virtues on their own can be dangerous. It is good to be courageous; but the Waffen SS were courageous. It is good to be clever; but Harold Shipman was clever. It is good to be loyal; but IRA terrorists were loyal.


We need the idea of the unity of the virtues, and of some telos for virtue, to really understand what virtue involves. But that is for another post - the point I really want to stress at the moment is that we need the bourgeois virtues, and that their pursuit can and often does play a crucial part in enabling someone to live a happy, purposeful life which serves other people and makes society a good place to be. Being pernickety about litter and not swearing in public and not being loud on public transport are never going to be lauded in the history books, but they do contribute massively to the public good. They help people relax and find contentment and peace; they help people feel at home in the world. They treat the world as if it is genuinely a shared place, where we must take into account the needs of others, rather than belonging to the loudest and strongest and least considerate.

There is a rather glib form of pseudo-radicalism that regards good manners, punctuality, smart dress etc. as affectation and hypocrisy. People shouldn't care about mere appearances, or mere forms of speech; what matters is substance. But again, being careful to put others at ease, to show them that you take them seriously and that you value their time, is deeply substantial. 

And in any case bourgeois morality is not just a matter of the small things. A film that pays magnificent tribute to the self-denying virtues is Brief Encounter. In Brief Encounter, we follow the story of Alec and Laura. Both are married people in early middle age who fall deeply in love after a chance meeting and consider running away together. In the end they decide that they do not have the right to ruin the happiness of others - their spouses and children - to fulfil themselves. At the end of the film they part forever (Alec to take up a post in South Africa). They put duty and morality before desire, privileging the feelings and contentment of others over their own. I once visited a school with the rather splendid motto nemo sibi nascitur: "no-one is born unto himself alone". Laura and Alec know this. They treat their marriage vows seriously, because vows matter. They understand that they are vital figures in other people's networks of support and happiness and stability.

It is easy now to mock their "repression", so-called, or their fear of breaking with social convention. The disgraced columnist Johann Hari once wrote of the film that the central characters appeared to him to be "deeply mentally ill", and suggested that the climax sees the two characters "return to miserable, wasted lives". This seems like a view that could only be taken by someone whose mind is entirely addled by the uncritical adulation of the bohemian virtues. Both Alec and Laura are much-loved spouses and parents (and, presumably, fondly-regarded siblings and friends). Alec is a doctor! In what possible sense are their lives "wasted"? If anything, it is giving in to their desires which would be wasteful of all the value and joy they bring in and through their existing relationships.

The possibility that people might find fulfilment in service and sacrifice seems to be literally incomprehensible to Mr Hari. It's worth noting that part of the whole poignancy and subtlety of the film is that Laura isn't miserable or oppressed or abused. Her husband is dull and a bit complacent, but basically a good bloke.

Another interesting thing about Brief Encounter, in light of modern prejudices about morality, is that social pressure - the keenly felt and strongly enforced expectation of decent behavior - helps to stop the lead characters from making the terrible mistake of running away together, and indeed the lesser but still potentially serious one of consummating their relationship. That is worth some reflection, I think.










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