Breeding and Virtue
Austin Bramwell looks back wistfully at Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, which he suggests has been buried too soon. And perhaps it has.
As someone who played at least a modest role in the burial, though, I have to say I think it was mostly justified. I simply don’t agree with Clark’s thesis, and more importantly, I don’t think that the people he’s writing about would have agreed with it either.
Clark’s A Farewell to Alms argues that the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain circa 1800 because at that time and place, the middling to lower classes had attained sufficient breeding to make it happen. The Industrial Revolution was the product not of institutions, but of sufficiently widespread personal habits and values.
Breeding is a fraught word, but I struggle to find any other. Does breeding here mean good manners and habits, or does it mean good genetics? Clark is cagey about this question throughout throughout his book, and I really wish I knew the answer. It would appear to be an elementary distinction to draw when crafting a thesis for a project like his, but it’s a distinction Clark doesn’t attempt to make. At any rate, this breeding had to come from the upper classes, and Clark offers a novel means of transmission.
He presents evidence for an important, little-discussed demographic trend, and I think he’s likely right about it, at least in the broad outlines: During the era of largely subsistence agriculture, only the upper classes produced a population surplus. The lower classes tended not quite to replace themselves — so the children of upper-class parents could expect to slide down the social scale, while the children of lower-class parents could expect either to hold steady (in good times) or to die (in bad ones). As time went on, more and more people would have upper-class ancestry, and with it, upper-class breeding. In time there came the Industrial Revolution, in which upper-class habits and values, or possibly upper-class genes, did the heavy lifting.
Yet we can easily agree with the demographics while doubting the causality at every link of the chain.
First, Britain industrialized circa 1800. Let’s say it’s because of breeding. But China industrialized in the mid- to late twentieth century. Was China’s selective breeding process just exactly that far behind? One might have expected China to produce a better breed, or to arrive at good breeding sooner, because not only did it reward those of established social class, it also had an intensive, centuries-long civil service examination process that would identify people of good discipline, work habits, and intellect, and give them the social status they needed to reproduce their own good traits. Why didn’t China advance first?
Or take France. Nobility meant far greater privileges in France than in Britain for most of the post-Roman era. It also came with perhaps a larger set of obligations, and certainly a more exacting code of honor for the nobleman. And the class of nobles was larger, meaning that presumably more people were being inculcated with the ennobling values that would make industrialism possible (if, that is, we’re talking about education, and not eugenics). Why didn’t France develop first?
Or Italy. Not only did Italy possess an upper class, but competition within it was fierce. Inside city-states, rivalries between factions meant that anyone aspiring to power had to be really, really competent, ferociously wise, impeccably mannered, and able to obey when needed. Competition among the states took all of these to another level. Why didn’t Italy outbreed the rest of Europe?
One could go on — the harshness of the Malthusian dynamic in Poland and the Scandinavian countries, the even greater harshness of North America, the way in which the Jews showered resources — and wives — on the literate and the conscientious… the list almost leaves you wondering why the Britons industrialized at all. This is a frequent source of wonder to early modernists, and we didn’t even mention Japan. Or Korea, where any possible demographic effect is just very, very obviously trumped by institutional ones — effects which play no role in Clark’s story.
I think the deeper problem, though, is that Clark’s thesis rests on an underlying identity between the virtues needed for industrialism and the virtues possessed by the traditional aristocracy. I disagree emphatically that there is any such identity.
On the contrary, I find that nobles and trader-industrialists generally have two very opposed sets of virtues. In the excellent Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs suggests that in western thought there are at least two divergent discourses of secular moral reasoning. She terms these “commercial syndrome” and the “guardian syndrome.” (Syndrome here has only its Greek meaning, and not its medical one: These are things that are found together, nothing more.)
Here’s the Guardian Syndrome:
* Shun trading
* Exert prowess
* Be obedient and disciplined
* Adhere to tradition
* Respect hierarchy
* Be loyal
* Take vengeance
* Deceive for the sake of the task
* Make rich use of leisure
* Be ostentatious
* Dispense largesse
* Be exclusive
* Show fortitude
* Be fatalistic
* Treasure honor
And here’s the Commercial Syndrome:
* Shun force
* Be efficient
* Be open to inventiveness and novelty
* Use initiative and enterprise
* Come to voluntary agreements
* Respect contracts
* Dissent for the sake of the task
* Be industrious
* Be thrifty
* Invest for productive purposes
* Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
* Promote comfort and convenience
* Be optimistic
* Be honest
Nobles, of course, possess and exalt the first, while they generally look down on the second. Hybrids between them, Jacobs argues, are a species of moral corruption. Someone who treasures honor, but who sells it for a thrifty price, is at best a cad, as all sides will agree.
Still, Jacobs’ point is that when we say “morals” we very frequently mean one or the other of these syndromes, but not both. If Clark’s progressive transmission of breeding were to have had had any effect at all, it would have been to pass along Guardian Syndrome, which has almost nothing to do with the dispositions needed for industrialization. We should be thankful, perhaps, that this breeding amounted to nothing, and that the children of nobility increasingly adopted the Commercial Syndrome instead.
It just so happens, too, that writers of the Enlightenment recognized something very like this distinction. Voltaire praised commercial society’s comfort and convenience; he extolled the London Stock Exchange, where people of all nationalities and faiths could invest and make contracts together. David Hume praised trade and industry in similar terms while arguing that the power of the old nobility be restrained.
The Enlightenment gave us the image, now forgotten, of the petit-maître, or the little master — the affected young man who tried too hard to be a gentleman, and who stood so firmly on his honor that it collapsed beneath him. There was a great deal of awareness at the time that the virtues of the dawning era would have to be different from those of the former upper class, and that simply learning from the past wasn’t going to work anymore.
In short, Clark’s model is right on the demographics, but wrong on the attitudes and values, which themselves underwent a revolution during the Enlightenment, such that the bourgeois virtues of 1800 were in almost no sense the noble virtues of, say, 1600.