91 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2006
I find reviews very irksome when the reviewer states that the author of the book under review has failed miserably because he or she has not said what the reviewer would say had the reviewer written the book. Such reviews are as self-serving as they are silly and if I lapse into such here please dismiss my comments.
The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce is at 508 pages a hefty work but it is in fact just the first of four books Professor McCloskey has planned to write on our attitudes toward how we earn a living. I am not among those McCloskey sees as her primary audience--the romantic, anti-capitalist clerisy--for I admire the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Indeed, my heroes are foremost among McCloskey's heroes--Montesquieu, David Hume, and especially Adam Smith. Yet I believe that McCloskey fails to achieve her aims of defending capitalism and bourgeois character. She does so in a way that may actually escape attention as one reads this sometimes engaging but often tedious and very long book. The book seeks to defend "virtue ethics" against Kantian, utilitarian and contractarian ethical theories and it provides a catalogue of seven "bourgeois" virtues--love, faith, hope, courage, temperance, prudence and justice. The first three virtues McCloskey associates more with women than men and she acknowledges the obvious fact that they are essentially the Christian, "sacred" virtues. The other four virtues she associates more with men than women but they are even older than the sacred virtues because they were identified and described by the ancient, pagan Greeks and Romans. So, descriptions of the "bourgeois" virtues predate the bourgeois era by some 1800 years or more. There would be no problem with such an assertion if these rather timeless virtues are grounded in the most vigorous passions of human nature but are more likely to be achieved in the capitalist bourgeois order than in other orders or eras. Nonetheless, with a few passages in the quite excellent prologue/apology and in the final chapter aside, no such case is made. It is possible that despite the impression created by the title of this book, the case for the flourishing of the sacred and pagan virtues in capitalism will finally be made in the other three books but it is not contained within the book titled The Bourgeois Virtues.
Now, I believe I can safely avoid the irksome sort of review described above because the book I believe Professor McCloskey should have written is a book she is better prepared to write than anyone else alive. What Professor McCloskey should have written is an updated and empirical case for the argument contained in one of the greatest books ever written and certainly the best book ever written on commerce and ethics--Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. As things stand, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a vastly superior work to McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues. I say this because, like McCloskey, Smith identifies a catalogue of timeless virtues--benevolence (love), justice, prudence and self-command (temperance)--but Smith accounts for the timeless nature of the these virtues by describing the natural, universal, human sentiments or passions in which they are grounded, and yet he also accounts for changes in these virtues over time especially under the influence of commerce. Smith recommends the commercial order precisely because the "universal opulence" created by such an order facilitates the development of the virtues by the inferior and middle classes. In commercial societies common folk can be benevolent to their loved ones because they have scratch in their pockets to display liberality and the leisure that allows selfless devotion; they can develop an exact sense of justice because they have property; with money in their pockets they have decisions to make those without money and property can never make and, indeed, with the options afforded to those living comfortably beyond subsistence, certain persons can go beyond the "mere prudence" needed for day-to-day security and seek great learning and "superior prudence"; and in a commercial society, self-command shifts from a focus upon fear and anger, leading to courage and magnanimity, so important in ancient warring societies, to control of temptations such as ease, selfish gratification and pleasure. Our ancestors did not have to exert self-command over their desire for a second or third piece of cheesecake the way we do, although they may have needed self-command while standing at a rampart.
I believe the Smithian catalogue of bourgeois virtues is simply more defensible than McCloskey's catalogue. Pagan or aristocratic courage is not a virtue from a bourgeois or commercial perspective. Rather, commerce is an alternative to ancient courage and magnanimity because these are virtues needed for acquisition through war, not trade. Indeed, as Smith says in the Wealth of Nations, commerce destroyed feudalism by convincing aristocrats to trade their birthright for diamond buckles. Similarly, although Christian faith and hope may be admirable, as McCloskey herself argued in an article in 1998 "they merged in a secular form of Christianity by the name of socialism" in the nineteenth century. In my view this is reason enough to not list faith and hope among the bourgeois virtues. Still, although I believe the evidence suggests strongly that Smith's catalogue of virtues is superior to McCloskey's, it is always easy quibbling over such matters. The more important point is that Smith's work on the bourgeois virtues is superior to McCloskey's, not because of the virtues identified, but because evidence for the commercial order actually promoting the bourgeois virtues is provided in abundance.
Brad Lowell Stone
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2012
McCloskey says re why the West suddenly in the past 200 years become rich:
"I claim that the modern world was made by a new, faithful dignity accorded to the bourgeois - in assuming its proper place -and by a new, hopeful liberty - in venturing forth. To assume one's place and to venture: dignity and liberty. "
Dignity and liberty work. By now we should have ceased being shocked by their efficacy. The special development zone of Shenzen, a suburb of Hong Kong went from being a small fishing village to an 8 million soul metropolis in two decades. True, it didn't happen without some nasty rent-seeking by party officials and their friends. But out of such creative destruction are average incomes dramatically raised. Such a feat required a shift in rhetoric: stop jailing millionaires and start admiring them; stop resisting creative destruction and start speaking well of innovation; stop over-regulating markets and start letting people make deals, corrupt or not.
THE OLD VIEW OF THE BOURGEOISIE
Until the view of the bourgeoisie suddenly changed in academic circles in Spain, then in commercial and (some) political circles in Holland and then in Britain and the United States, dignity and liberty for the bougeoisie was viewed as an outrageous absurdity. Of course, the bourgeoisie was contemptible!! In Confucianism the 4th and lowest of the social classes is the merchant, only just on a par with the carriers of night-soil; or in Christianity, the camel having a better chance of passing through the eye of the needle than a rich man entering heaven.
Around 1700, for the first time ever, deals to buy spices (or steam engines) low and sell them high were admired. The admiration overturned various anti-bourgeois stereotypes which had so long prevailed ....that deals are dirty and unholy, that the dealers are dangerous and disreputable, and that men of honor - such as the gentry or the priests or the mandarins or the SEC or the FDA - should of course keep them in their place.
Before Britain and Holland, the world had never seen whole-country examples of success from leaving the bourgeoisie free and respected. People looked to apparently successful Venice and took the lesson that the way to wealth was colonies and mercantilist trade. Those who can see order only when there is a conscious ordering mind - socialists, totalitarians...and the like - feared the consequences of giving dignity and freedom to greedy merchants looking only self-interest.
The change in attitude was slow in changing the popular image; in fact, it never did, completely. Nothing different today.
ECONOMICS IS SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS BETWEEN PEOPLE'S EARS
It was a long and complicated cultural task to change perceptions of the merchant, to create what Schumpeter called a "business-respecting civilization. Before 1600, the transcendent (great) man had been limited to the brave hero or saint, or the courtly, imperious nobleman. Shakespeare, writing around 1600 populated his plays with: honorable aristocrats, comical peasants or sweet peasants. The only bourgeois character is the unsavory Shylock in the "Merchant of Venice." The elite in Britain took a century or more after Shakespeare to just begin thinking of commercial activity as OK.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2007
McCloskey has written a fascinating and potentially great book, but she doesn't quite pull it off. It is a book that covers a remarkable lot of ground, and which has an important argument at its heart: namely, that the so-called bourgeois virtues are generally both treated unfairly and their value underestimated, in terms of contributing to our material well-being. She ranges far and wide, discussing Greek tragedy, character theory and films, moral agency and novels, as well as philosophers, writers, and economists (she is herself an economist, but a very learned and obviously interesting one). The problem, however, is that this book reads like the cobbled-together journal musing and responses of a remarkably talented and well-read diarist, but one that hasn't edited her work carefully enough. To say it is unsystematic is an understatement. Still, it is very much worth reading, not least because it's spontaneity is infectious. It's an exciting book. Many works on virtue theory are dry and detailed, as if the authors want to match the dryness of (most) deontological or utilitarian accounts of ethics. McCloskey's work is the opposite of dry. Think of it as (loosely) applied virtue theory. But as another reviewer says, you will want to read or re-read Adam Smith after this, just to see how an excellent and successful defence of the bourgeois virtues and the market economy is conducted. (Is it unfair to demand of McCloskey that she provide us with another, perhaps updated version of The Theory of the Moral Sentiments? Probably. But her book is good enough that it provokes this demand.)
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2010
I purchased "The Bourgeois Virtues - Ethics for an Age of Commerce" three years ago when it first came out after I had read a NY times book review about this wonderful treasure. It proceeded to sit on my shelf as other parts of my life took over. However, I have finally started to read it and I will purchase a second copy. This book is wonderful! Deirdre McCloskey has a clear original voice and is page by page addressing all the concerns I have about being an intellectual in a world of commerce.
One might not think that this book was needed - but it is. I have always been at odds with the Marxist bent of many liberal arts programs and ideas. I took an MBA from Boston University with an engineering undergrad. Business offers many creative outlets for doing good in the world, but the prevailing underlying spiritual opinions I would seem to run into were at odds with the rest of my life. This book is actually a wonderful framework of ideas that inform the west with a nice bent of doing good by doing well - which was the heart-beat of the MBA program I was in. It is just nice to see the ideas codified.
I am a lay person - not an academic - but I question and I am looking for answers, and I am finding a lot of answers in this wonderful book. I would highly recommend it. Give it time as it is a slow build The reading starts slowly at first but as the arguments, discussions, citations from other books build upon themselves all of a sudden the clarity of the prose and argument comes into focus in a wonderful way. I highly recommend this for business people such as myself, or anyone else who has an interest in the world, the economy, in ideas, and who does not want to be held hostage to ideology of folks who have never really worked.
MBA SMG Boston University
BSME High Honors University of Tennesee Knoxville
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2011
I wanted to make it through the whole book, and there is some good material there, but I couldn't do it. I was prepared for some digressions but it simply became too much -- Christian apologetics, endless etymology, and random thoughts on literature, just to name a few. I think some of that is relevant to her thesis, but I lost track. She did apologize for the length and unfocused argument, but that is just more evidence that it needs some serious editing. She should have put most of it in a separate project on literature and popular culture. If she or someone else prepares an abridged version of the four volumes, I'd be happy to read it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2013
This is a tough book to get through. A hefty tome of 500+ pages, there IS a good hypothesis laid out somewhere. Bourgeois virtues define how most of us can carve out a successful living in the modern world, as opposed to the aristocratic/peasant virtues of the past. McCloskey is clearly well read, and wears her learning heavily. This book is packed full of historical cultural and economic flotsam from all over the past 500 years - the Dutch golden age, Rotterdam tram drivers, Andrew Carnegie giving a socialist $16 cents (his share of his wealth if it were divided fairly). Much of it is interesting and thought provoking. But when you encounter a clunker like, say, the misspelling of 'Wodehouse' (as in P.G - McCloskey spells it 'Woodhouse'), one can't help wondering if she is overstretching herself here. How much does she really know in terms of a depth, considered study of the canon (and much besides), and how much is she straining for effect?
Then there is the peculiar writing style. A sort of casual/highbrow mix, throwing ideas down, gathering complex conceits in folksy contrived phrases. Not much thought to whether a sentence is complete or not. Syntax is pretty casual. It's beginning to affect my own writing of this review, so I'd better stop.
52 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2006
I was very eager to read this book. Deirdre Mccloskey has a great reputation as talented and iconoclastic economist, as well as a gifted writer. One would not know this, however, from reading only her latest book, "The Bourgeois Virtues," which is the first of a planned four-book series.
This book is, simply put, a mess. Ostensibly an apologia for capitalism, organized around various traditional (and not so traditional) moral "virtues," in the tradition of Adam Smith's "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments," McCloskey's book is, in fact, a rambling, confused (or, at least, confusing), idiosyncratic, grandiose and self-serving diary of personal experiences and beliefs, complete with lengthy disquisitions on books, articles, films, poetry and music she either adores or detests. Her erudition is as impressive as it is obvious; she rather hits the reader over the head with it. She can cite more works from different disciplines -- both low-brow and high-brow -- on a single page, than most authors can manage in an entire chapter. At first, the reader is awe-struck by the vastness of her knowledge. Soon, however, the reader's head starts spinning from all the sharp turns and digressions, and fatigue sets in. For a while, one presses on, fighting the fatigue in the vain hope of a pay-off that never comes. Perhaps it will come in book 4 of the series. Now, I don't have a particular short time horizon (or high discount rate), but I'm not waiting until book 4 to find out where all of McCloskey's ruminations lead us.
Surprisingly, the author pays scant attention to economics throughout the book; and when she does mention the subject of her real expertise, the analysis is somewhere between skimpy and non-existent. She identifies herself as a Chicago-school economist, and to prove her bona fides she suggests in the book's executive summary that there is no such thing as a public good (citing as support only Coase's justly famous article about lighthouses in England, despite subsequent work by van Zandt showing that Coase's lighthouses were all heavily subsidized from public coffers). And in strong contrast to Adam Smith, who believed in publicly owned (or crown-owned) parks for purposes of public recreation (as opposed to lands privately-owned for economic production), McCloskey identifies herself as a "free-market environmentalist," who promotes priviatization of our national parks. Admittedly, these concerns reflect my interests as a scholar who works in the area of environmental law and economics. Nevertheless, McCloskey has a great deal of work left to do to explain to the readers why, in her ethical framework, all environmental goods should be private owned (as if they could be) and left exclusively to the work of market forces.
I may be missing something here. Perhaps this really is the most important book since "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments," and I just don't get it. Or, maybe I do get it and this is simply a bad book.
on July 31, 2014
When I was a freshman undergraduate I had a philosophy professor who seemed to restate his points regularly. I was frustrated until I realized that he was in fact not repeating points but instead delving into slight variations; into the subtle points which made the idea fully flower out. Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues is a work of such nature. Memes which bypass the limits of normal linguistic syntax regularly surprise the reader with their incite. The work meticulously draws from multiple disciplines, kaleidoscoping centuries of thought into a cohesive whole which is both metaphysical and deeply personal simultaneously. For the reader who wants to understand our current culture's true values, and your ability to live fully and virtuously within it, this work is for you.
on March 21, 2013
Considering you live in a capitalist state, and you are likely a member of the middle class, this is a book that you must read to get a better understanding of how the class you live came to be, and came to have the rules it has. Let alone, how to understand which rules the middle class does indeed have.
on March 5, 2014
Very, very good series(can't wait for #3!) Fills in some missing pieces in our current back and forth political/econ discussions in an intelligent way. Has the potential to change the language/discussion for the better. Paul Heyne recommended this author posthumously. (final lecture on the net)