Even if you’re not exactly sure what bourgeois means, you’ve almost certainly noticed that it refers to something bad or embarrassing. In a moment I’ll explain its actual meaning, but first I want to turn the tables on it: I will maintain that bourgeois is good. For most of us, the bourgeois way of life is something to be sought, and hopefully to be attained.
Now, let’s get back to the proper meaning of the term.
Who Is Bourgeois?
The real meaning of bourgeois is “middle class;” it refers, especially, to people like shopkeepers. It began as a reference to people who were neither peasants (tenant farmers) and nobles (a legally privileged class). There are plenty of variations, but this is the core meaning of the word.
Bear in mind, however, that through 19th and 20th centuries, the term was seized by socialists, who turned it into a sort of insult. And the variants (petite bourgeois and so on), can be debated by socialist types at length.
Now, to support my characterization of intellectuals using the word as an insult, here’s a comment from a famous French writer named Gustave Flaubert:
Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of wisdom.
What really irked intellectuals about the bourgeois was that they were stealing their thunder. Over the 19th and early 20th centuries, intellectuals – people who wanted to sell their ideas – were rushing into socialism, because it would give them the same position the nobility used to hold: that of a legally privileged class.
This, however, was also the moment when the industrial revolution was hitting, and people chose commercial goods above socialist theories. In other words, the “masses” the socialists expected to lead lost their interest. Look at it this way:
Why would someone spend long hours with difficult authors promising a golden age, when all the components of that golden age were for sale, cheap, at the corner store?
And so people walked away from literary promises, and toward shopkeepers offering the goods of a golden era at reduced prices. Socialists have resented the bourgeois ever since.
There’s a concept in psychology called projection; it refers to people seeing their own problems in others, rather than themselves… of projecting their problems onto others.
In this case, however, I’m expanding that meaning: Socialists have not just projected their own problems onto the bourgeois, they’ve projected the problems of humanity onto them.
Consider this passage from Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt):
It is not what [the bourgeois man] feels and aspires that moves him primarily; it is what the folks about him will think of him.
What Lewis is complaining about is simply the stupidity of social standing, aka, status. That, however, is something which afflicts more of less all of the human race. And if you take a close look at the hotbeds of socialism (academia, particularly in the social sciences), you’ll find more fighting over status that you will among shopkeepers.
In the same book, Lewis complains that the “standardized minds” of the bourgeois “are the enemy.” This is astonishingly contradictory, seeing that socialists demand the standardization of millions of minds via compulsory schooling.
Just one more, this time from an Italian writer named Roberto Paravese:
The bourgeois is the average man who does not accept to remain such, and who, lacking the strength sufficient for the conquest of essential values—those of the spirit—opts for material ones, for appearances.
And so Paravese first condemns the bourgeois for not staying in their place. Then he blames them for caring too much about appearances, something that, again, afflicts nearly all of humanity.
With that, I’ll stop. I think my point is made that the castigation of the bourgeois has been unfair at the least.
The Freedom of The Bourgeois
As I noted at the beginning of this post, the bourgeois way of life is something to be sought. And the reason for this is simple: The shopkeeper is a self-directed being, making his or her own choices, living with the consequences of them, and generally functioning as a free agent upon Earth.
Free agents are free to grow, to raise their children with more independent minds and to make their own choices. In short, they choose their own paths.
In contrast, the poor are held within a narrow mode of life. The modern poor live on money obtained from the state; they are necessarily and fundamentally dependent upon the choices of others.
The aristocracy or nobility – those with enforced privileges – are likewise slaves to the system, regardless of the fact that they control a great deal of it. Their money and their standing are tied directly to the system. Without it, their position would vanish and they’d have to find actual jobs.
And so, only the bourgeois and those like them enjoy much actual freedom. Only the bourgeois hold their own fate in their own hands to any appreciable degree.
More than that, the bourgeois are, more or less, the people who make, repair and deliver everything. We know, in a direct way the others can’t, that we matter.
We are producers, and without production, everyone dies.
We, the producers, as it happens, are quite good at organizing ourselves. And when we do that even half-well, we enjoy independent success. Guilt isn’t baked into our pie.
Finally, it needs to be said that long-term commerce – the commerce of shopkeepers – supports humane civilization. This passage from a legal historian named John Maxcy Zane makes the point well:
Trade… makes for honesty, fair dealing, mutual comprehension, sanity and soundness, toleration of others, peace among men, aggregations of capital, division of labor, the ease and comfort and grace of life, the leisure for study, and the amelioration of customs and manners that produces so large a part of civilization.
Bourgeois people, of course, act stupidly from time to time. But again, that’s a human problem, not a “class” problem. And despite those errors, bourgeois remains a more rewarding form of life than the others.
Now, I hope, we can stop apologizing for it.
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