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Bourgeois Spirit undermines Christian Renewal (Virgil Michel)

The supreme guiding motive of the bourgeois mind is precisely the personal gain or profit that the medieval idealist rejected as a final goal. The principle of gain for its own sake, of an endlessly increasing profit, is now set up as the one sensible goal of all human life and endeavor. All the aspects of human life are with logical thoroughness rationalized unto this one end. Where the gospel had told Christians not to be too solicitous about the morrow, the new ideal held forth a constant solicitude for the future, not merely in regard to the necessaries of life, for it was not satisfied with such a moderate goal, but in regard to the ever greater accumulation of material goods. It is the standard of production for profit accepted so uncompromisingly that production is even curtailed below the minimum standard of human needs if greater profit at less expense can be procured in that way. It is the spirit according to which all factors concerned in production, except the receivers of the profit, are treated as merely so many material instruments for the accumulation of this profit, even human labor being nothing but a market commodity to be sold or rejected at will.

Wealth alone counts. The highest criterion of rank or position among one’s fellowmen has in our day been decided almost entirely the amount of money a person was able to accumulate. “He made his pile,” has been one of the highest commendations for the man of today, without an enquiry as to how the “pile” was made. That is his own affair and no one else’s. Is not one of our most ready retorts “Mind your own business?” Thus was glorified the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and not an as instrument for the good life of the Christian idea. There is no reason to wonder that while our evident material advances have been so great our civilization has shown only retrogression when judged by the standards of Christian civiliation and tradition or even by the Hellenistic ideals on which Christianity was built, and that the material progress has been accompanied by the loss of effective religion, art, literature, true social intercourse, ethical norms, etc.

The bourgeois spirit knows nothing of denying oneself the comforts and goods of this world for the sake of growth in spiritual things or for the sake of another world. All his ideals and his life are directed in terms of his existence here on earth. His position and his rank are gauged by his possession of material wealth; he has apotheosized physical well-being, and esteems it above all to be well thought of by his fellowmen, i.e., by such as profess his own bourgeois ideals. Since every element of life must be bent to a maximum degree to this one goal, he has developed the acquisitive genius in man and the organizing genius to their maximum. Efficiency is almost a religion with him, but it is always efficiency in the attainment of his own earthly goal, it is the efficiency of exploiting all his environment, both the human and the non-human, for his own aggrandizement.

“The bourgeois, even when he is a ‘good Catholic,'” writes Berdyaev, “believes only in this world, in the expedient and the useful; he is incapable of living by faith in another world and refuses to base his life on the mystery of Golgotha.” The gospel counsels of perfection find no response or understanding with the typical modern man. He will have nothing of sufferings or hardships; he flees them like poison, and is tireless in seeking after, and devising further means of, his own personal comfort and ease. To quote Berdyaev again: “The paradox of his life consists in his repudiation of tragedy; he is weighed down and darkened by his non-acceptance of the internal tragedy of life, of Golgotha; there is a relief and freedom in the acceptance of the Cross and the pain and suffering this entails. Because the bourgeois’ consciousness of guilt and sin has become so weak, he is the slave of “the world,” and his ideal is that of worldly power and wealth: the mystery of Golgotha is unaccpetable to him. The bourgeois spirit is nothing but the rejection of Christ; even those whose lips confess Him may be the first to crucify him anew.”

The bourgeois spirit and the new ideals of life it engendered necessarily had their effect in molding the structure of social life and social institutions. In general, the living together of men in peace and harmony depends on definite institutions and machinery of human itnercourse, and these must in turn be instinct with proper ideals in regard to the meaning and purpose of life among men. Only when there is an inner spirit held in common by a group of men can their social life be successful. There must be not only a set of commonly accepted guiding ideas, but also some recognition of the dignity of human personality, all grounded in ethical principles. Without these, organized social life among men seems to be doomed to failure from the start. There can be no cooperative and peaceful existence among men under principles of pure individualism.

Nothing can profit man but a return to the true Christian spirit which alone is a proper return to God as the source of all life. Such a return must be in a spirit of love as a reflection of the divine love itself that gave life to man. The bourgeois soul is by temperament narrow and self-contained, it is willing to take everything to itself, but it knows nothing of the joy of giving, least of all of the joy of giving unto God. Yet we must all love God for the simple reason that God loved us first, as St. John tells us. Man must agin learn to render to God what is God’s and to give to the fellowship of mankind what is theirs. Only these two in right relation can again rehabilitate the isolated man of this world, that is, can set him into right relation with God and with his fellows. Only when he loves unto the giving of himself with the open generosity of Christ, can he again be as another Christ and help to transform the world he lives in into a new creature of God.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 3, April 1995. Excerpted from Orate Fratres, Vol. XIV, pp. 253-260, 302-308 (l940).