University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa
Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgements
The Argument in Brief: How a Change in Talk Made the Modern World
A Preliminary Showing that Ethical Ideas and Their Rhetoric Mattered
The Outcome was the Bourgeois Era
Part 1: Material Explanations of the World’s Enrichment Do Not Work
1: Modern Growth is a Factor of at the Very Least Fifteen
2: Britain Led
3: It Was Not from Thrift
4: Nor Was It from Original Accumulation, or the Protestant Ethic
5: Foreign Trade Was Not It
6: Nor the Slave Trade, Nor Imperialism
7: Eugenic Materialism Doesn’t Work
8: And Neo-Darwinian Arguments Don’t Figure
9: Strictly “Material” Causes are thus Rebutted
10: Nor Was It Nationalism
11: Nor Institutions Viewed as Constraints
12: Nor Routine Institutional Investments
13: Nor the Sheer Quickening of Commerce
The Rhetoric of the Christian and Aristocratic
and then Bourgeois English Changed
14: The Bourgeoisie is Always With Us
15: But the Bourgeoisie Has Been Disdained
16: There Were Precursors of a Self-Respecting Bourgeoisie
17: Yet on the Whole the Bourgeoisies Have Been Precarious
18: The Dutch Preached Bourgeois Virtue
19: And the Dutch Bourgeoisie Was Virtuous
20: Yet Still Old England Disdained the Market and the Bourgeoisie
21: Aristocratic England Scorned Measurement
22: And So the English Bourgeoisie Could Not “Rise”
23: But in the Late seventeenth Century the English Changed
24: The Words Show the Change
25: NEW CHAPTER UNTITLED YET
26: Bourgeois England Loved Measurement
27: The New Values Triumphed
Our modern world of computers, tolerance, antibiotics, frozen peas, liberty, higher education, and central heating was caused by a change in ideas about the middle class. The ideas of the elite changed, not the actual behavior of the middle-class. Public opinion in England rather suddenly around 1700 stopped sneering at profit and invention and other virtues exercised beyond the temple or battlefield. That is, the modern world arose in the first instance from a change in words and ideas. It changed from “ideology,” to use the word Marx taught us, or from “rhetoric,” as I would prefer. Marx was mistaken to believe that ideological change always reflects economic change. The change in words and ideas led off, and the change in the economy followed. Holland started it, in the seventeenth century, and Britain broadened it, in the eighteenth.
“Capitalism developed,” we say. Actually it is wiser to call what developed in early modern times and enriched us beyond all expectations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by another word, without the misleading connotations of “capitalism”—perhaps simply “innovation.” Using as a synonym for “Modern Capitalism” something like “The Age of Innovation” will point in the right direction. Capitalism, which was another coin struck around 1800 whose exact meaning in our thinking is due mainly to Marx, points in the wrong direction, to money and saving and accumulation. It brings to mind Scrooge McDuck in the Donald Duck comic books and his piles of money. Or in a slightly more sophisticated version it brings to mind Charles Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons and his piles of factories. Economists since the 18th century have liked the idea of piled capital as the maker of modernity, partly because it emphasizes cost and partly because it is easy to describe mathematically. The master equation Q = F(K,L) has since the late nineteenth century delighted the economist, and has satisfied her deeply Calvinist beliefs. But the cartoonists are wrong, and so have been the economists. Piling up isn’t it. Let us gently retire the fraught and misleading word.
The path to the modern was not through rich people piling up more riches. They had always done so. Nor was it through bosses being nasty to workers, or through powerful countries being nasty to weak countries. They had always done that, too. It was instead through innovating in machinery and in business practices. And then it was through innovating in politics, so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of innovation were protected. Innovating became respectable, slowly, in the way people talked about it.
For example, merchants and machine makers and manufacturers in the eighteenth century became for the first time “gentlemen” in the talk of others, applying to the middling sort a word that had been used previously only for the idle and well-born. For that matter some of the idle and well-born, in Holland and England and Scotland and the British colonies, and even in France, took also to innovating. Young gentlemen embarked on bourgeois careers in Rotterdam, Bristol, Glasgow, Boston, or even in Rouen.
In the United States by the nineteenth century a “gentleman”— so called in direct address, if less so behind his back—came finally to mean any white male democratic citizen. By now over 90 percent of Americans identify themselves as “middle class,” which shows up in a political vocabulary in which “middle class” means virtually everybody.1 Every gentleperson from truck driver to congresswoman in the United States thinks of herself as doing a little business, and dreams of innovation. In a much more class-conscious Britain the percentage self-identifying in 2007 as “middle class” was only 37 percent, though it was well up from earlier figures.2 In France in 2004, 40 percent replied “middle” to the question, “To which class do you have the feeling of belonging?” About 23 percent replied “working,” and only 4 percent “bourgeois,” reflecting the unpopularity of the word in European politics.3 In any case, forty percent and more of people in rich countries call themselves middle class, if not the Marx-spoiled “bourgeois.” That was a revolution compared with 1800, not to speak of 1600.
Economic factors, such as trade or investment or exploitation or population change or the inevitable rising of classes or the protections to private property, don’t explain the beginning of the modern world. They were unchanging backgrounds, as I’ll try to show, or they were consequences, or were beside the point, or had already happened long before, or didn’t actually happen at the time they are supposed to have happened. They were not the main causes of the ethical change. On the contrary, for largely non-economic reasons the prestige of a bourgeois prudence rose in the way people talked, within a conversation still honoring a balance of the other virtues. My theme in brief is the old liberal one of Montesquieu, Smith, and Tocqueville, that unusual personal liberty made for unusual national wealth. As the historical anthropologist Alan Macfarlane writes, in summarizing their theme, “political and religious freedom seem to have a close association with the generation of economic wealth.”4 The ethical change led to a reign of sense and sensibility from which we are still benefitting. Its virtues were commercial prudence and family love, combined among the self-defined middle class with an almost insane inventive courage fueled by hope, protected in its politics by faith and temperance, and by a just improvement in the condition of the working classes.
If true—and I admit at the outset that I am not sure it is, though it seems to fit the facts better than the materialist alternatives—a finding that ethical change mattered most would be important. Economic history faces no more important question than why industrialization and the reduction of poverty first started, and especially why it continued.
It had never continued before. Our little joke in economic history when we lecture to undergraduates is that the history of real economic welfare among humans is a “hockey stick” (many economic historians are Canadians). That is, the real amount of food and education and so forth per person ran along a straight handle with little change for the fully five-hundred centuries since the invention of language. Or for the hundred centuries since the invention of agriculture. Or for the ten centuries since commerce revived in the West. Pick whatever length of handle you want. Anyway, for a long, long time nothing much happened to the economic well-being of the average Jack or Jill. Then suddenly in the eighteenth and especially in the nineteenth and most especially in the twentieth century—the very few last centuries out of 500, understand—history reached the business end of the hockey stick. Suddenly economic welfare per person rose at an astounding rate. In many countries it rose 20 times its former level. More. Nowhere did it fall. Worldwide on average the material welfare of humanity rose by a factor of nearly 9. And it has accelerated, rising faster and faster---with a pause for the anti-capitalist disorders of Europe and its empires, 1914-1945. Right now world income per head, all the economists agree, is rising at a faster rate than ever before in history. An ethical change, I say, caused it.
Without the ethical change causing the astounding gain to the average person, the politics would not have changed, either. Without the material and political gains of the modern world the various novel darknesses of recent centuries, such as communism or fascism, racism and nationalism, imperialism and eugenics, could have stopped progress entirely. They almost did. And so for that matter could any of the older darknesses—of religious intolerance or royal tyranny or aristocratic presumption or peasantly envy—could have stopped progress entirely. envy. They always had. The ethical change was Enlightened and it was liberal and it was liberating.
A lot hinges on understanding our economic and ethical past. For instance, if ideas and ethics and “rhetoric” contributed largely to the modern world then maybe we need to redirect our social telescopes occasionally to ideas and ethics and rhetoric. Looking fixedly at trade or imperialism or demography, very interesting though they all are, will not do the scientific job. We need a new, more idea-oriented economics, which acknowledges that language is important to an economy. For such a humanistic science of economics the methods of the human sciences would become as scientifically relevant as the methods of mathematics and statistics now properly are. We would do computer simulations and scrutiny of texts, mathematical modeling and narratology, regression analysis and philosophical analysis. Such an academic reorientation would bring the social sciences and the humanities together for the scientific task.
And there’s a political moral, too. If the economy is not merely the separate sphere of Prudence Only celebrated by modern social scientists, then we can re-moralize it and re-imagine it in the stories we tell. If we understand modern innovation as an upshot of an ethical change, we might want to re-examine our attitudes towards it. If the rhetorical alteration was itself a consequence of liberties—long perfected property rights, the inheritance from medieval liberties, the Early Modern competition among European polities, the decline of serfdom, the fall of religious and secular tyrants, a more free printing press, a reasonably uncensored stage, the emergence of at least a tiny public sphere, all imperfectly implemented 1600-1800 but startlingly new in human history, it seems—then we do not need to be entirely ashamed to be modern and bourgeois. If our bourgeois building was not raised on foundations of imperialism or exploitation or unequal trade, then we can live in it with a clearer conscience. If serious capitalism entails serious ethics, then we can start attending to ethics more adult than Greed is Good or Down With the Bosses. I do not recommend a cold heart in dealing with the nasty-sounding “capitalism,” or with the sweeter sounding “innovation.” But I do recommend a clear brain.
In clearing my brain, and yours, I have adopted what might be an irritating way of organizing the book. I apologize—arrangement is not a strong suit in my rhetorical hand. But I can’t think of any better way to do it. After telling you in brief what I think actually did happen, the first half of the book tells you at some length what I think did not happen. That is, I review and criticize, as fairly and as open-mindedly as permitted by the facts and my fallen nature, some of the numerous accounts of why the Industrial Revolution happened. Without casting into Hell every possible version of the mainly materialist theories suggested up to now, or sneering at their advocates, many of whom are personal friends and admired colleagues, I claim that they are pretty much all wrong. Foreign trade was too small to do it. Capital accumulation didn’t matter very much. The institutions of property rights were established many centuries before. The Catholics did as well economically as the Protestants.
What’s the residue? I say: the sharply changing ideas around 1700 about the economy and the middling life. The method of “residues” used here was recommended as one of four methods of induction by John Stuart Mill, that admirably learned and open-minded scholar, in his System of Logic (1843). “Subducting from a given phenomenon,” wrote Mill in his elevated but lucid style, “all the parts which, by virtue of preceding inductions, can be assigned to known causes, the remainder will be the effect of the antecedents which have been overlooked, or of which the effect was as yet an unknown quantity.”5 In simple language, take out what you know, and what’s left is what you don’t. If the effect of the economic and material antecedents of the Industrial Revolution were small—as I claim they were—then the residue is the effect of the remaining antecedent. The crucial remainder, I claim, is a rhetorical change.
I have used the method of residues in all my scientific and humanistic work since I was a graduate student. It has demerits, which Mill explains, and which I have often encountered. A stylistic demerit is that you can get awfully tired of being told what did not happen. And, worse (to my chagrin I’ve seen it working many times) in criticizing one can arouse sympathy for the sadly erroneous opinions criticized, merely from the sympathy for the victim that any criticism evokes.6 I hope not.
But the method has at least the merit of honoring the alternative explanations, mistaken though they are—at any rate it honors them by studying them a little seriously; sometimes very seriously and at length. The more usual scholarly convention is to not mention the alternatives at all, or to sneer loftily at them in an occasional footnote. I don’t like the convention. It is a bad rhetoric of scholarship, which I have often noticed in the fields I am acquainted with. The rhetoricians of science call the unwillingness to engage in dialogue the “empiricist monologue.” A dialogue such as the one developed here on the causes of the Industrial Revolution is I think a better method.
Dialogue, the physicist David Bohm argues, is “to realize what is on each other’s minds without coming to any conclusions or judgments.”7 That’s a pretty lofty standard. In trying to present what is on people’s minds about the Industrial Revolution I fulfill at least the first half of his procedure. He has in mind the Arab-Israeli conflict among others, so you can see how ambitious he is. The dialogue as defined by Bohm has a parallel in Christian thought—if not always in Christian action—as the virtue of humility. The founding Quaker, George Fox, for example, urged us to listen quietly, and “answer the witness of God in every man, whether they are the heathen . . . or . . . do profess Christ.”8 True, against Bohm’s saintly advice I come here to conclusions and judgments. But at least by beginning in what Bohm calls “shared meaning,” really listening, one clears a space. You can judge for yourself whether my own account in terms of ideas and rhetoric can adequately fill it (the next volume, Bourgeois Rhetoric, offers additional evidence). Anyway the method tries earnestly to be intellectually fair. I am tired of intellectual unfairness from the left or right or center in the evaluation of capitalism. I hope you are, too.
I do not want to claim much originality about the raw materials here. The bulk of what I assert in this and related books is old news among the relevant specialists. Only outsiders will be startled. I am merely an essayist arbitraging among a few of the specialists for our mutual benefit. Economic historians, for example, will I hope find some economic facts and logics that will surprise them a bit, but they will find a great many that will not. We economic historians, for example, have known since the 1960s that capital accumulation can’t explain the Industrial Revolution. The news hasn’t gotten around and about very much, and is resisted by our economist colleagues, and would be scandalous in the Department of English. But it is elderly stuff. Likewise the literary critics have known for just about as long that the European realist novel was a bourgeois product. The notion that you can learn about innovation by reading novels and plays will strike the average economist as strange and unScientific. But it will provoke yawns in the Department of English. And whether or not they agree with it, no one in a Department of Philosophy will be surprised by the “virtue ethics” here used, as against the Kantian or utilitarian systems that arose in the eighteenth century and which have dominated academic philosophy since then. What is original in the book, and therefore less certain, is the claim that in the eighteenth century idealism and materialism connected, and powered the modern world.
The book is a portion of my thinking over the past thirty years about our bourgeois era. I’ve been educated by hundreds of other peoples’ thinking. After learning up to age 40 how to be an economist and historian, my experience since then has been like going to graduate school in a score of programs, from classics to statistics---and not doing very well. Like a graduate student around her first Christmas on the job I’ve learned how ignorant I am. For overlooking what must be a large library of important books and articles relevant to the present argument I apologize, especially to their authors.
In The Bourgeois Virtues, published in 2006, I thanked some of the many people and institutions to be credited, or blamed, for pushing my thoughts along in person. Of the present book the Economic History Workshop at Northwestern heard a version of the first few chapters in March of 2008, and gave me much good advice. Some of Chapters 5 and 9 derive ultimately from my contributions to Roderick Floud and myself, editors, The Economic History of Britain, especially its second edition of 1994 (McCloskey 1994b). I thank Roderick for his encouragement at the time, and lament the shocking breakdown of our friendship. Some of Chapter 14 on Polanyi originated in a paper that Santhi Hejeebu and I wrote in 2000 (Hejeebu and McCloskey 2000; and the little reply, 2003). Some of Chapters 3 and 4 on thrift appeared in Josh Yates, ed., Thrift and American Culture, forthcoming Columbia University Press, 2008 (McCloskey 2008) and inRevue de Philosophie Économique (McCloskey 2007a).
The April, 2004 meetings of the Illinois/Indiana Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America, 24th annual gala at the Drake Hotel heard some of my early ruminations in Chapter 27 on Our Jane as une bourgeoise. Edith Sylla tried to educate me on the early history of quantification (Chapters 21 and 26), but I proved a poor student, as she will see. Anthony Waterman, an extraordinary long-distance friend of mine, read the manuscript with care and saved me from numerous intellectual catastrophes. I thank the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, and especially Bernard Lategan and Stan du Plessis, for providing me with a calm period in South Africa in May of 2008 to work on the manuscript.
And I thank especially the participants in a small conference about this second volume, and the third shortly forthcoming (Bourgeois Rhetoric: How Capitalism became Virtuous, 1600-1776), in January 2008 at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, namely, Paul Dragos Aligica, Gregory Clark, Henry Clark, Jan de Vries, Pamela Edwards, Jack Goldstone, Thomas Haskell, Leonard Liggio, Allan Megill, John Nye, Alan Ryan, Virgil Storr, Scott Taylor, and Werner Troesken, with redoubled thanks to the organizers Claire Morgan and Rob Herritt. It was inspiriting to have so many fine scholars, a number of them dear friends, encouraging me and correcting me and instructing me. Think where a woman’s glory most begins and ends/ And say her glory was: she had such friends.
The Argument in Brief: How a Change in Talk Made the Modern World
Once upon a time a great change occurred, unique for a while to Europe, especially after 1600 in the lands around the North Sea, and most especially in Holland and then in England and Scotland. The change had been foreshadowed in the Hanse towns such as Lübeck and Bergen and Dantzig, and in southern Germany, and especially in northern Italy. It was tried out a bit in other places and times—such as it seems second-century B.C.E. Carthage, or to a limited degree in late seventeenth-century C.E. Osaka. But after Holland and after the eighteenth century and after Britain—meaning to be precise a good deal of England and parts of Lowland Scotland—the change persisted and spread.
The change was the coming of a business-dominated civilization. Much of the elite and then also much of the non-elite of northwestern Europe and its offshoots adopted, in a word, the “bourgeois” values of exchange and innovation. Or at least it tolerated them and honored them on a scale never before seen, especially in the United States. Then so did more of the world, and now, surprisingly, India and China. Not everyone did, and there’s the rub, and the promise.
A hard coming we had of it. Yet the hardness was not material. It was ideological and rhetorical. What made the modern world, as many economic historians are realizing, was not trade or empire or the exploitation of the periphery. These were exactly peripheral. Anyway imperialism had been routine in the Athenian or Ming or Mughal or Spanish empires. Yet the empires, which were commercial empires, too, did not make a modern world. Nor was a class struggle the modern-maker, though Marx and Engels were wise to emphasize the leading role of the bourgeoisie. Recent historians, unless Marxists of an older former sort, have come to see the history of class struggle as precisely not the history of all hitherto existing societies. But neither did a bourgeois civilization come from any of the splendid engines of conventional and bourgeois economics, invented before the historians rediscovered the role of ideas. The economists would like to say that a business-dominated civilization came from the division of labor or increasing returns or the expansion of international trade or the downward march of transaction costs or the Malthusian pressures on behavior. It didn’t, not much. Were I speaking only to my fellow economists I would summarize what did happen as “Neither Karl Marx nor Paul Samuelson alone, but mainly Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter.” To the rest of you I say, “Not matter alone, but mainly ideas.”
The makers of the modern world of computers and frozen peas were the new ideas for machines and organizations—especially those of the eighteenth century and after, such as the spinning jenny and the insurance company, and the new ideas in politics and society, such as the American constitution and the British middle class. The new ideas came to some degree from such material causes as education and the division of labor and even from the beloved of “growth theorists” in economics nowadays, “economies of scale,” a renaming of the proposition that nothing succeeds like success. Good. But I am claiming that the innovations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and its offshoots arose mainly from a change in what the blessed Adam Smith called "moral sentiments." A unique rise of liberty, and especially of talk about liberty, freed human innovation. That is, innovation came largely out of a change in the ethicalrhetoric of the economy.
Understand the words I am using here. You can see immediately that I do not mean by “bourgeois” what the political left and some of the right mean by it, namely, “having a thoroughly corrupted human spirit.” I do not think of the bourgeois revolution as does, say, the great leftist historian of the United States, Charles Sellers, as a plague overcoming, say, America 1815-1846 which would “wrench a commodified humanity to relentless competitive effort and poison the more affective and altruistic relations of social reproduction that outweigh material accumulation for most human beings.”9 I am fond of bourgeois life, and want us all to have it.
But that does not mean I am fond of the mortal sin of greed. Contrary to a common opinion the arrival of a bourgeois, business-dominated civilization has elevated, not corrupted, the human spirit. The Age of Innovation improved ethics, and depended on it. It did not thrust aside, as Sellers elsewhere claims in rhapsodizing about the world we have lost, lives “of enduring human values of family, trust, cooperation, love, and equality.”10 Good lives such as these, I claim at length here and in associated volumes, can be and actually are lived on a gigantic scale in a modern, bourgeois world, freed from the little tyrants of the fields. Christianity and socialism, both, are mistaken to contrast a rural Eden to a corrupted City of Man. Our world is not a utopia, God knows. But neither is it a hell. Believing it is a hell is in fact a heresy with a long history in Christianity, originating in Platonism. And such sophistications aside, our bourgeois world is not to be deemed a Hell, surely, by the mere force of the sneer-word “bourgeois,” at any rate not without factual inquiry.
And the word “ethics,” as I’ve argued at length in The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), is best seen as not exclusively about how you treat other people (by exercising the virtues of justice, secular love, and part of courage). Ethics is also about how you treat yourself (prudence, temperance, and the rest of courage) and how you treat your purposes in life (hope, faith, and transcendent love). Ethics is a theorization of philosophical psychology. The theorizing of ethics changed in Northwestern Europe in the eighteenth century—for the worse in its academic understanding and for the better in the its application of virtue ethics to the economy and polity and for the worse in the academic understanding of the good life. . The high theory became in the eighteenth century abstract, just as the low theory was taking on an admirably practical and bourgeois cast.
What is known as that “virtue ethics,” rediscovered in England after 1958 disproportionately by female philosophers, had been dropped in the late eighteenth century in favor of single-value and abstract systems like those of Kant or Bentham. SuchThe secular sons of Protestantism like Kant and Bentham appeared to want to avoid the Roman Catholic sounding “virtues,” throughby which one might achieve salvation from sufficiently good works. They believed instead in a natural grace on which salvationall depended, the godly grace of Augustine or Calvin translated into Duty or Utility. Kant and Bentham and the rest would have none of the richer Aristotelian-Aquinian talk. The last of the former virtue ethicists was in fact, somewhat, surprisingly, Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759 and 1790.11 I am using the word “ethics,” you see, in the Smithian or Aquinian or Aristotelian sense. It is an ethics of the academic named virtues viewed as a system. Ethics should be the theory, or the practical rhetoric, of the flourishing human life.
And, understand, the word “rhetoric” in the phrase “ethical rhetoric” alleged to have changed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northwestern Europe is not here defined, understand, as “lying speech” or “silly bloviation.” That’s the newspaper definition, true. But like “anarchism” and “feminism,” the word “rhetoric” has an older, exact, honored, and non-newspaper definition. When the economist and sociologist Adam Smith in 1748 taught “rhetoric and belles lettres” to Scottish boys he was not sneering at the R word. Nor was the theologian and chemist Joseph Priestley when in 1777 he published A Course of Lecture on Oratory and Criticism. But Smith’s and Priestley’s descendents in economics and sociology have tended to do, entranced in the 20thand chemistry and even in theology certainly have been sneering for a long time about the formerly honored word “rhetoric.” Entranced in the twentieth century by vulgar Marxism and rat running, by materialism and behaviorism and logical positivism, they gave up language.12 They came to believe in the sufficiency of a human world beyond mere human persuasion.
“Rhetoric” in, say, Aristotle was defined as the available means of non-violent persuasion, peitho. The line is drawn at physical coercion (bia), in order not to merge, say, rape with seduction.13 It underlies all democracies from the councils of hunter-gatherers to fifth-century Syracuse to the new South Africa. “Rhetoric” includes metaphor and first-order predicate logic, story and statistical data. It is not mere ornament for ornament’s sake. It was the basis of education in the West from the fifth century B.C.E. to the nineteenth century C.E., and has Eastern and South Asian parallels, not to speak of the skills of speaking exercised in traditional African law or Native American councils. And it is all we have for sweetly—if not always ethically—persuading ourselves how we should do things, and persuading others, too. Galileo persuaded Europe with the aid of rhetoric that Jupiter had moons; Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to attack Syracuse; Lincoln persuaded Americans to preserve the Union; you persuade yourself to vote Democratic.
That is, rhetoric is what we have for altering our beliefs—short of reaching for our guns, or acting on impulse (or, what amounts to the same thing, acting on our always-already-known utility functions). We Europeans have been ashamed of rhetoric for some centuries now, and so have generated many modern euphemisms, such as “ideology” as Marx defined it, or “deconstruction” as Jacques Derrida defined it, or the “social imaginary” as Jacques Lacan and Charles Taylor define it—“what makes sense of our practices,” writes Taylor, “a kind of repertory.”14 David Bohm’s “dialogue” is merely one of numerous reinventions of the theory of ancient rhetoric after the seventeenth century, when philosophers in the West revived the Platonic, anti-rhetorical notion that clear and distinct ideas were somehow achievable without human speech. Rhetoric is human speech, with yourself or with others. It is reflection, conversation. It is sweet talk (sweets, I say again, are not always good for you). It is creative engagement with others, for good or ill.
A fully agreeing, stagnant, utopian, slave-owning, tyrannical, ant-colony, hierarchical, zombie-populated, or centrally socialized society wouldn’t need rhetoric, since the issues have already been settled. Merely act, following the volunté générale, or the traditions of the Spartanate, or the rules of Method laid down by Francis Bacon, or Thabo Mbeki’s views on AIDS, or whatever else your lord or your utility function says. The rule is: Don’t reflect; don’t discuss. Just do it. For many purposes it is not a crazy rule. Indeed an innovative society depends on tacit knowledge scattered over the economy, and it depends on allowing such tacit and habitual knowledge to be combined by invisible hands. As the economist Friedrich Hayek put it, “civilization enables us constantly to profit from knowledge we individually do not posses. . . . These ‘tools’ which man has evolved . . . . consist in a large measure of forms of conduct which we habitually follow without knowing why.”15 But without persuasion the rules, habits, knowledge institutions would never change. John Stuart Mill called it “the stationary state”: “The richest and most prosperous countries would very soon attain the stationary state, if no further improvements were made in the productive arts.”16 Improvements in the productive arts, as Mill as late as 1871 did not quite appreciate, were about to explode, and depended on Mill’s other concern, liberty of discussion
It is precisely an enormous change in such arts 1700 to the present that made us modern. So we need to focus on how habits change. A society of open inquiry depends on rhetoric in its politics and its science and its economy, whether or not the very word is honored.17 And because such societies are rhetorically open they become intellectually creative and politically free. To the bargain they become astonishingly rich. That’s what I say began to happen on the way to a business-dominated but not thereby value-less civilization, first in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries around the North Sea.
As the American literary critic the late Wayne Booth expressed it, rhetoric is “the art of probing what men believe they ought to believe,” “the art of discovering good reasons, finding what really warrants assent, because any reasonable person ought to be persuaded,” the “art of discovering warrantable beliefs and improving those beliefs in shared discourse.”18 Or as the French political theorist the late Bernard Manin put it, “between the rational object of universal agreement and the arbitrary lies the domain of the reasonable and the justifiable, that is, the domain of propositions that are likely to convince, by means of arguments whose conclusion is not incontestable, the greater part of an audience made up of all the citizens.”19
In Holland and then in Britain 1600-1848, and especially around 1700, I am claiming, the rhetoric about markets, innovation, and the bourgeois life sharply changed. In the earlier outbreaks of proud bourgeois in Augsburg and Nurenburg and the North-German Hanse and Northern Italy and the rest the economic rhetoric did not permanently change. In Holland and especially in Britain it did change, permanently. For the first time a public opinion, an audience made up of citizens (though not by any means all the male indwellers, and few women) began to matter in the politics. It was one of the causes of the rhetorical change. The Dutch Revolt against Spain 1568-1648 and the English tumult 1642-1689, stirring up an environment readied by printing presses and the priesthood of all believers, made ordinary men and women bold. And so a century later the troublesome children of Britain in Virginia and Massachusetts were emboldened, too. From 1517 to 1776 the shared discourse was revolutionized. What was thought reasonable and justifiable shifted for good.
Therefore, and with the resulting economic success of the Dutch in the early seventeenth century and of the British in the early eighteenth century, the virtue of prudence rose greatly in prestige, as compared with the formerly most-honored virtues of religious faith or battlefield courage. As Charles Taylor put it in 1989, what came to “command our awe, respect, or admiration”—what I called in 2006 the “virtues of the transcendent”—was not the high virtues of saint or soldier but “an affirmation of ordinary life.”20 True, saintliness and soldiery continued to be admired, causing what Taylor describes as “a tension between the affirmation of ordinary life, to which we moderns are strongly drawn, and some of the most important [and old] moral distinctions.”21 (The Bourgeois Virtues was written in embarrassing ignorance of Taylor’s thinking, and therefore much of my book redid in 2006 what Taylor had done nearly two decades earlier—describe the “tension” between bourgeois virtues and the older honored pair of aristocratic and peasant/Christian virtues.)
By the time in 1776 that Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations the rhetoric of politics among advanced thinkers was beginning to be routinely thought of as bourgeois in character rather than holy or heroic, partly because Voltaire and Smith and Franklin and Sieyes said so. Shortly after Napoleon assumed the First Consulship in 1799 the Proclamation des Consuls de la République declared that the new constitution, in the embourgeoisfied formula typical of the age, “is founded on the true principles of representative government, on the sacred rights of property, of liberty, of equality.”22 A few years later he merged nationalism with a bourgeois economic program: “We are thirty million men, united by the Enlightenment, property-ownership, and trade.”23
The bourgeois turn was what Edmund Burke lamented in 1790: “the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex.”24 The rhetorical change was to a large degree, though not entirely, also rhetorical in its causes and consequences. Precisely in complaining about “sophisters” Burke was complaining about an age of novel voice and public opinion to which he so signally contributed, as against the ancient routine of abrupt and unargued force, bia, without chance of exit, supported by a hierarchical loyalty. Go tell the Spartans, thou who passeth by,/ That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.[ Obey with generous loyalty to rank and sex, and be glorious. But not bourgeois, liberal, and prosperous.
It is merely a historical-materialist-economistic prejudice to insist that such a rhetorical change from aristocratic-religious values to bourgeois values must have economic roots. It can of course have political, personal, social, religious, historical, linguistic, philosophical, journalistic, literary, accidental roots, too. Charles Taylor attributes the rhetorical change to the Reformation. The economist Depak Lal, relying on the legal historian Harold Berman, and paralleling an old opinion of Henry Adams, sees the eleventh century as the origin, in Gregory VII’s assertion of Church supremacy.25 The trouble with such earlier and broader origins is that modernity came from Holland and England, not for example from thoroughly Protestant Sweden or East Prussia, or from thoroughly Church-supremacist Spain or Sicily.
I would locate the politically relevant change much later in European history, around 1700. Such a dating fits better with the new finding that until the eighteenth century places like China, say, did not look all that less innovative than Europe. In Europe the affirmations of ordinary life, and ordinary death, in the upheavals of the Dutch Revolt and the two English Revolutions set the stage. The economically relevant change occurs in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century, with ruminations affirming ordinary life along the North Sea as the transcendent telos of an economy.26 The preaching changed and so did the way people talked about self-interest and pleasure. Every Sunday in the late seventeenth century English people listened to preachments by liberal Anglicans and liberal non-conformists to the effect that Christ died for your sins precisely so that you could pursue your self-interest. Charles II, he of seventeen admitted illegitimate children, though pious, had expressed the theological point just before the change. God would not damn a man, he said, for taking a little pleasure along the way.27
Of course the notions of natural economic liberty of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith took a very long time to become the default logic of most people. The recent upwelling of protectionism and anti-immigrant feeling shows that it has still not become so entirely. The economist and priest Anthony Waterman has argued that until well into the nineteenth century even the policy wonks did not think in Smithian ways even in ”free-trade” Britain. Even now, he notes, Christians and socialists and especially Christian socialists hold onto an older and organic view of society---embodied for example in a book that Waterman and I hold dear, The Book of Common Prayer---rather than admiring what we economists think lovely, a “spontaneous order.”28 “Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union,” says the 1662 version in a Prayer for Unity, “as there is but one Body, and one Spirit. . . one God and Father of us all; so we may henceforth be of all of one heart. . . and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee.”29
The bourgeois turn was a probing, as the loyalty to rank broke down, as the holy, catholic, and apostolic church fragmented, and indeed as the loyalty to sex altered in character, of what people believed they ought to believe about ordinary life. It changed the way influential people offered warrantable beliefs to each other about imports of cotton textiles or the dignity of inventors or the basis of legitimate power, or for that matter about the talk of sophisters, economists, and calculators. The change was completed among elite intellectuals like Smith or Hume or Kant by 1776. The Sentimental Revolution of the 1780s and after was an aspect of its spread. The Separation of Spheres between men and women of the bourgeoisie was another.30 Dror Wahrman has argued that the reaction against the French Revolution was crucial to the formation of the idea of the middle class in Britain.31 It was middle class people, such as William Wilberforce descended from a long line of merchants of Hull, not aristocrats, who led radical and evangelical agitations—though actual cabinet posts in Britain, understand, were for a long time reserved mainly for dukes and their cousins. By 1848 the idealism of ordinary life was the ideology of the times in which we still live, the Bourgeois Era.
The rhetorical change, I am claiming, was a necessity, a not-to-be-done-without, of the first Industrial Revolution, and especially of its astounding continuation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tuttle’s patent of 1742 modifying Newcomen’s steam engine was the first patent to be granted that says boldly in the application that it will put people out of work, saving labor.