In The Wealth of Nations
, Adam Smith described the "two different schemes or systems of morality" that prevail in all civilized societies.
In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion.
The liberal or loose system is prone to the "vices of levity" -- "luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, etc." Among the "people of fashion," these vices are treated indulgently. The "common people," on the other hand, committed to the strict or austere system, regard such vices, for themselves at any rate, with "the utmost abhorrence and detestation," because they -- or at least "the wiser and better sort" of them -- know that these vices are almost always ruinous to them. Whereas the rich can sustain years of disorder and extravagance -- indeed, regard the liberty to do so without incurring any censure or reproach as one of the privileges of their rank -- the people know that a single week's dissipation can undo a poor workman forever. This is why, Smith explained, religious sects generally arise and flourish among the common people, for these sects preach that system of morality upon which their welfare depends.
Much of the social history of modern times can be written in terms of the rise and fall, the permutations and combinations, of these two systems. Smith knew, of course, that these "systems" are just that -- prescriptive or normative standards against which people are judged but which they often violate in practice. He had no illusions about the actual behavior of either class; he did not think that all "people of fashion" indulged in these "vices of levity," nor that all the "common people," even the "wiser and better" of them, were paragons of virtue. But he did assume that different social conditions found their reflection in different moral principles and religious institutions. Thus the upper classes were well served by a lenient established church, while the lower classes were drawn to the austere dissenting sects.
Smith was writing in the wake of the Wesleyan revival earlier in the century, which had brought both religion and an austere system of morality to a considerable part of the lower classes. What he did not anticipate was that Wesleyanism would shortly spread to the middle classes in the form of Evangelicalism and would inspire a "Moral Reformation" movement that before long would pervade all classes. In 1787 (eleven years after the publication of The Wealth of Nations
and three years before Smith's death), that movement received the imprimatur of George III in a royal proclamation for the "Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness, and Immorality." The proclamation was followed by the formation of a society for this purpose, which took its place among the many other societies devoted to such worthy causes as the "Preservation of Public Morals," the "Suppression of Public Lewdness," and the "External Observance of the Lord's Day" -- all of which were directed at least as much to the middle and even upper classes as to the lower classes. When Hannah More, a convert to Evangelicalism and an enthusiastic proponent of moral reformation, called upon the rich to give up their vices (the theater was her particular bête noire), she urged them to do so not only for their own salvation but to set an example to the poor, inspiring them to give up their habitual vices (drink, most notably).
By the middle of the nineteenth century, that austere ethos, which we now know as "Victorianism," had become the official credo, as it were, of the whole country. Work, thrift, temperance, fidelity, self-reliance, self-discipline, cleanliness, godliness -- these were the preeminent Victorian virtues, almost universally accepted as such even when they were violated in practice. The "liberal or loose system of morality" continued to exist, to be sure, on the fringes of society, among the rakish elements of the aristocracy and the "unrespectable" poor. But even among them, it became less prominent in the course of time, as more of the "idle" aristocracy were absorbed into the industrial and commercial world, and as more of the "indolent" poor were assimilated into the working classes.
At the end of the nineteenth century the loose system was rehabilitated by a small group of bohemians who deliberately and ostentatiously cultivated the "vices of levity" -- vices far more "decadent" (a term they themselves used) than anything Smith had envisaged. Most of the members of this fin de siècle cult survived these vices, as the rich had survived them in Smith's time. If Oscar Wilde was ruined by them, it was not because, like the unfortunate laborer a century earlier, his dissipation meant starvation, but because he recklessly provoked a legal suit that led to public exposure and punishment. A later generation of bohemians, the Bloomsbury set, was more discreet in public, although not at all in private. Like their fin de siècle predecessors, this small, self-contained group of artists and writers assumed for themselves a moral license they did not extend to society as a whole. ("Immoralists," John Maynard Keynes, who was one of them, candidly called them.) Repudiating Victorian morality, many of them were as contemptuous of the working classes who adhered to that morality as of the bourgeoisie who celebrated it. But they had no desire to liberate either of these classes from a morality that served them, the intellectual elite, so well, providing the goods and services they needed for their own "higher" callings. In this respect the English bohemians of the early twentieth century resembled the "people of fashion" of Smith's day, who enjoyed a privileged morality (or amorality) not shared by the common people and who indulged their vices with impunity and without reproach -- certainly without self-reproach.
When Smith said that those two systems of morality prevail in "every civilized society," he was careful to specify that this meant "every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established." There was one civilized society, however, where that distinction was not established and where those two systems of morality did not prevail -- not then, at any rate. In this respect, America, even then, was an "exceptional country." It had not abandoned the Puritanism that was its heritage; it had not undergone a cultural, still less a political, Restoration, like that of England. If the rich indulged in "vices of levity," they were regarded as vices, not as privileges of rank. Perhaps this is why the Founders did not think it necessary to introduce the idea of virtue into the Constitution, or to give the government any positive role in promoting the morals of the citizenry. They simply assumed that there was, as the Federalist Papers put it, "sufficient virtue" in the people to sustain self-government. Colonial and early republican America was "Victorian" avant la lettre.
What is extraordinary is that "Victorianism," in principle at least, survived throughout the following century, in spite of a host of circumstances that might have militated against it: a civil war that very nearly destroyed the unity and morale of the nation, successive waves of immigration bringing in people from very different cultures and societies, the opening up of the frontier and the expansion into territories that were remote from the culture of the founding colonies, the social tensions of the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age -- all of this accompanied by momentous changes in industry, commerce, transportation, and urbanization. English visitors to the United States -- Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, Frances Trollope, Matthew Arnold -- were disturbed by the curious combination of individualism and egalitarianism which seemed so typically American and encouraged such disagreeable habits as spitting and bragging. But they were also impressed by the moral quality of the domestic lives of Americans and by the responsible nature of their public discourse and activities. Even Arnold, for whom the United States had always represented the height of vulgarity and philistinism -- he quoted another traveler who said that "there is no country that called itself civilised where one would not rather live than in America, except Russia" -- was impressed by the social equality of the country, the lack of class distinctions in spite of great inequalities of wealth. (It was the example of America that induced him, upon his return to England, to advocate the abolition of all titles.)
It is also remarkable that in spite of the tumultuous conditions of nineteenth-century America, the Victorian ethos of the new country had so much in common with that of the old. In the United States as in England, that ethos was shared by the working as well as middle classes. As in England, too, it gradually became secularized in the course of the century, without, however, losing its vigor or authority. Even the cultural rebels -- abolitionists, feminists, radicals -- professed a commitment to Victorian values, often invoking the authority of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold. One historian speaks of the relationship between these eminent Victorians and the American representatives of the "Genteel Tradition" as the "Victorian Connection." Another explains that Victorianism was "experienced more intensely in the United States than in Victoria's homeland," because there was no aristocratic tradition against which the middle classes had to contend. Yet another attributes the dominance of this culture to the "plethora of bylaws, ordinances, statutes, and common law restrictions regulating nearly every aspect of early American economy and society" -- laws that reflected and reinforced the manners and morals, habits and social sanctions, that defined the Victorian ethos.
It was against this Victorianism that a generation of American bohemians (again, like the Bloomsbury set in England) rebelled after the turn of the century. "Everybody knows," a distinguished historian has written, "that at some point in the twentieth century America went through a cultural revolution." Writing in 1959, on the very eve of what we now know as "the cultural revolution," Henry May was referring not to the revolution of the 1960s but to that which started shortly before the First World War and came to fruition in the 1920s. Echoing Virginia Woolf's description of the spirit animating Bloomsbury in its inception -- "everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different; everything was on trial" -- May describes its American counterpart: "The twenties were the period of beginnings, the time when social scientists and psychologists announced a brave new world, when technological accomplishment fixed a new image of America in the eyes of jealous Europe, when Henry L. Mencken created a new language to castigate the bourgeoisie, and the Young Intellectuals found new reasons for rejecting the whole of American culture."
America's "Young Intellectuals," however, were only superficially similar to England's Bloomsbury. If they were hostile to what Mencken called the "booboisie," they were not at all indifferent to, let alone contemptuous of, the working classes. On the contrary, most of them (with the notable exception of Mencken) were staunchly progressive, reform-minded, even socialistic in their political views. Nor was their sexual revolution at all like that of their English cousins. Unlike Bloomsbury, which was flagrantly promiscuous (one needs a diagram to follow the complicated affairs -- simultaneous and successive, homosexual and heterosexual -- of its members), their counterparts in Greenwich Village were relatively reserved in their bohemianism. Walt Whitman, their hero, is celebrated today as a homosexual; then, he was known and admired as a romantic and a democrat. Nor was the "Flapper Set," as Mencken baptized it -- "lovely and expensive and about nineteen," F. Scott Fitzgerald described one of them -- as outrageous as an older generation thought. Their indulgences consisted of kissing, smoking, drinking, partying, and petting in automobiles ("necking," as it was called). In This Side of Paradise
, published in 1920, Fitzgerald observed: "None of the Victorian mothers -- and most of the mothers were Victorian -- had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed." Kissed! -- Bloomsbury would have been amused by so quaint a notion of liberation. (The word was not a euphemism, as we might now suppose.)
Compared with the Victorian period that preceded it, the early twentieth century may well seem to have inaugurated, as one historian put it, "the first sexual revolution." The First World War had a dissolvent effect upon conventional belief and behavior. But even before that, the increasing secularization and urbanization of society, the employment of women in large numbers and diverse occupations, the suffragette movement (culminating in the acquisition of the vote after the war), the widespread practice and, no less important, the candid discussion of contraception, the advent of automobiles providing an unprecedented degree of mobility and freedom -- all of these led to a relaxation of traditional social and sexual mores. Even the "social hygiene" movement, which was intended to improve morals by obliging men to adhere to the same standard as women and exposing the dangers of venereal disease, had the unintended result of liberating both men and women from their customary roles and attitudes. A widely quoted article by Agnes Repplier in the Atlantic Monthly
in 1914, "The Repeal of Reticence," deplored the loss of parental authority and the moral laxity that came from this loosening of standards and conventions.
The "first sexual revolution," however, was less subversive than the label suggests. In their case study of "Middletown" in the mid-twenties, Robert and Helen Lynd noted that the higher rate of divorce and greater use of contraception were not accompanied by significantly more permissive sexual attitudes or behavior. Among the young, there may have been some "tentative relaxing" of the heavy taboo against sexual relations between unmarried persons, but in general that taboo "is as strong today as in the county-seat of forty years ago." Middletown (and, one may presume, similar towns throughout the country) adapted itself more tentatively and moderately to changing material and social conditions than some contemporaries at the time, or later historians, have supposed.
Whatever cultural revolution America experienced in the 1920s or before, it was a faint foreshadow of what was to follow. In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter located the source of the revolution in capitalism itself. In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, he described the "species" or "class" of intellectuals who flaunted their contempt for the capitalist society in which they flourished, indulged their sense of moral superiority over the materialistic culture that nurtured them, and exploited the freedom granted to them by the laws and institutions of the bourgeois society they reviled. The "sociology of the intellectual," however, was only a digression in Schumpeter's thesis. The heart of it was the inherent vulnerability, the fatal flaw, of capitalism itself. The rationalistic, entrepreneurial spirit that ensured capitalism's economic success, Schumpeter argued, had the unwitting effect of undermining both the bourgeois ethos and the traditional institutions that sustained it. Thus capitalism was constantly being subverted by the very process of "creative destruction" that provided its economic dynamic. Eventually, Schumpeter predicted, capitalism itself would be destroyed, aided and abetted by its own intellectuals.
In breaking down the pre-capitalist framework of society, capitalism thus broke down not only barriers that impeded its progress but also flying buttresses that prevented its collapse. . . . Capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the bourgeois finds to his amazement that the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values.
This prediction has not been entirely borne out. Capitalism continues to flourish, and over a greater expanse of the world than ever before. But the process of "creative destruction" has taken its toll on the moral life of society. Indeed, it has proved to be both more creative and more destructive than Schumpeter could have anticipated. Capitalism has survived, it would seem, but at the expense of the bourgeois ethos that originally inspired it and that long sustained it.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Western world, and the United States most dramatically, began to experience the benefits of an open society and a thriving economy: a release from the pressures of depression and war, an affluence that permitted an unprecedented expansion and dispersion of material goods, an extension of higher education to classes that had been deprived of it, and a host of scientific and technological innovations that prolonged, improved, enriched, and energized life for most people.
Today, it is common to hear the fifties described as a period of sexual repression and patriarchal oppression, bleak conformism and quiet desperation. Yet it was in this period (as Theodore Roszak, who coined the term "counterculture," pointed out) that the revolutionaries of the sixties were nurtured. So far from being repressed or oppressed, they had been brought up by doting parents following the permissive prescriptions of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose books on child care were the bible of the generation. (The first of these perennial best-sellers was published in 1946; others followed in the fifties.) As young adults they enjoyed the privilege of attending the colleges that flourished in that decade, thanks in part to the G.I. Bill of Rights and the massive infusion of government funds. (The college population more than doubled between 1950 and 1964.) It was there that they found the intellectual stimulus to challenge the dominant culture, as well as a supportive peer culture. Some identified themselves with the "Beatniks," the followers of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were the vanguard of the rebellion. Others learned their tactics of dissent in the anti-McCarthy movement that continued to thrive even after the senator himself was censured in 1954, and in the antinuclear campaign that developed shortly afterward. (SANE was founded in 1957, the year of Joseph McCarthy's death.) Still others were inspired by the artistic vanguard that made a hero of Jackson Pollock and a figure of fun of Norman Rockwell.
Moreover, they, and their parents, were prepared for the sexual revolution by the Freudianism that was so pervasive and influential in the postwar generation, inspiring prolonged periods of therapy for those who could afford it and a vast literature for those who could not. The Kinsey Report on male sexuality was published in 1948 and that on female sexuality in 1953, Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization
appeared in 1955, and a host of how-to manuals made the best-seller lists by revealing the techniques for sexual liberation and fulfillment. In 1956, the Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin published The American Sex Revolution
, deploring, with all the passion of a latter-day evangelical preacher, the "sexualization of American culture" and "sham-Nietzschean amorality" that were engulfing the country. "What used to be considered morally reprehensible is now recommended as a positive value; what was once called demoralization is now styled moral progress and a new freedom."
Even the civil rights movement had its dramatic beginnings in the fifties with Rosa Parks's refusal, in December 1955, to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It was then that Martin Luther King emerged to national prominence by leading, and winning, the boycott against the segregated bus system in that city. In 1957 he created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which carried his message of nonviolent resistance together with the desegregation campaign throughout the South and, finally, the nation. When enthusiasts for the sixties pride themselves on doing away with the bad old days of the fifties -- the benighted age of Leave It to Beaver
-- it is well to remember that there was much going on outside of the Cleaver household. If the sixties were a reaction to the fifties, the fifties were also a prelude to the sixties.
Only, however, a prelude, for all of these developments, and others as well, were so intensified and accelerated in the sixties and the following decades that they appeared at the time (and in retrospect) as a genuine moral and cultural revolution -- a revolution that confirmed Schumpeter's predictions about the ambiguous effects of material progress. As society became more open and the economy more affluent, morality and culture were liberalized and democratized. The "loose system of morality," bursting out of the class binds that had constrained it, was made available to everyone. To be sure, most people, most of the time, chose not to avail themselves of it. But it was there potentially, a siren call to "levity" and liberation. For the common people, it brought with it many virtues, including the great one of no longer being identified as the "common people." But it was also fraught with temptations and vices that were all the more difficult to resist because they came with the imprimatur of their social and intellectual betters.
The 1960s brought to a head the "cultural contradictions of capitalism," in Daniel Bell's memorable phrase: the contradictions inherent in an economy that requires, for its effective functioning, such moral restraints as self-discipline and deferred gratification, but at the same time stimulates a hedonism and self-indulgence impatient of all restraints. One of these "contradictions" was the manipulation and exploitation of capitalism by those who professed to despise it. Like Schumpeter's "intellectuals," many "hippies" proved to be skillful at commercializing their own talents and converting their countercultural activities into profitable enterprises. Thus, entire industries arose devoted to pseudo-folk art and attire, "head shops" specializing in drug paraphernalia and herb shops in "nature remedies," and avant-garde galleries and theaters that were patronized and often subsidized by the bourgeois capitalists who were being satirized.
In 1965, Lionel Trilling took the measure of the "adversary culture," as he called it. Propagated initially by modernist writers and artists, it had a deliberately "adversary intention," an "actually subversive intention," towards the traditional bourgeois culture. In the 1960s, however, it took a form that was quantitatively as well as qualitatively unique, for it now characterized not a small group but an entire class, a class that was most conspicuous in the universities but that spilled over into society at large -- indeed, into the very middle class that was its ostensible enemy. Although it did not dominate the middle class, Trilling observed, it "detached a considerable force from the main body of the enemy and . . . captivated its allegiance."
Within only a few years of that prescient comment, Trilling's "adversary culture" developed into the "counterculture," embracing far more people than he anticipated at the time. It even surpassed the expectations of Theodore Roszak, who, in 1968, in an article "Youth and the Great Refusal" in The Nation, introduced and defined this new phenomenon: "The counter culture is the embryonic cultural base of New Left politics, the effort to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new aesthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the Protestant work ethic." The term gained wide circulation when the essay was reprinted two years later in Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture. But even then he underestimated the appeal of the counterculture, for he confined it to "a strict minority of the young and a handful of their adult mentors"; in a few generations, he speculated, their heirs might "transform this disoriented civilization of ours into something a human being can identify as home."
In fact, the counterculture progressed far more rapidly and widely than even its most enthusiastic supporters predicted, for it proved to be nothing less than a cultural revolution. And this revolution was magnified by other concurrent ones: a racial revolution (inspired by the civil rights movement); a sexual revolution (abetted by the birth-control pill and feminism); a technological revolution (of which television was a notable by-product); a demographic revolution (producing a generation of baby-boomers and a powerful peer culture); a political revolution (precipitated by the Vietnam War); an economic revolution (ushering in the Great Society and the expansion of the welfare state); and what might be called a psychological revolution (the "culture of narcissism," as Christopher Lasch dubbed it). Each was momentous in itself and together they fed upon each other, fostering a growing disaffection with established institutions and authorities and a rejection of conventional modes of thought and behavior.
Blacks and women celebrate this period as the beginning of their liberation, their admission into a world of rights, liberties, and opportunities from which they had been so unjustly excluded. The celebration is warranted and the liberation much appreciated. But it was not long before anomalies emerged -- the "cultural contradictions of liberation," one might say. Some women found that they were liberated from the home in more than one sense. The rise in the employment rate for women paralleled a rise in the divorce and single-parenthood rates. Many women, having gained entry into the workplace, lost their secure place in the marital home. And having become "gainfully employed" (as economists understand that term), they were often reduced to the condition of poverty that accompanies divorce and single-parenthood.
For blacks the situation turned out to be equally anomalous. Freed from the degrading conditions of segregation and discrimination, most blacks, including working-class blacks, came to enjoy a higher standard of living, more varied and desirable jobs, and better education and housing. But others, in this "post-civil rights era," as the black economist Glenn Loury calls it, found themselves in a "moral quandary," dependent upon a government-subsidized welfare system that provided for their basic needs but put them in the unfortunate condition of victimhood and dependency -- a condition that might be rectified, Loury suggests, by utilizing those resources within their own community that promote a sense of self-confidence and "self-help."
Thus the counterculture, intended to liberate everyone from the stultifying influence of "bourgeois values," also liberated a good many people from those values -- virtues, as they were once called -- that had a stabilizing, socializing, and moralizing effect on society. It is no accident, as Marxists used to say, that the rapid acceleration of crime, out-of-wedlock births, and welfare dependency started at just the time that the counterculture got under way.
It is a much-debated question whether we could have enjoyed the good without the bad, the desirable effects of the cultural revolution without the undesirable. Revolutions, it is well known, develop a momentum of their own, often escalating beyond their original aims and ending up by consuming both their parents and their children. And the conjunction of revolutions, such as occurred in the 1960s, made it probable that the unintended consequences would eventually overwhelm the intended ones. Thus the beneficial results of the civil rights movement were partially -- fortunately only partially -- negated by two other developments that coincided with it: the cultural revolution that denigrated precisely those virtues (work, thrift, temperance, self-discipline) that are conducive to economic improvement and social mobility; and the Great Society, which was meant to facilitate the entry of minorities into the open society of opportunity and self-fulfillment, but all too often drew them into a closed society of chronic dependency.
The Vietnam War gave the sixties a special salience in the United States. But the cultural revolution was not confined to this country; on the contrary, it emerged at the same time in Western nations that did not go through the traumatizing experience of that war. If some of the effects of this revolution -- single-parenthood or out-of-wedlock births, for example -- do not occupy Europeans as much as they do Americans (with the exception of the English, who are much troubled by them), this may reflect the ethos of those countries more than the objective conditions. And if Americans are acutely aware of these conditions, if we perceive them as serious problems, it is because we have traditionally prided ourselves on being not only the most democratic nation but also the most moral one -- moral because democratic.
Long before the founding of the American republic, Montesquieu explained that "virtue" is the distinctive characteristic of a republic, as "honor" is of a monarchy and "moderation" of an aristocracy. If Europeans do not share our "obsession," as they say, with morality, dismissing it disparagingly as "moralistic," it is perhaps because their ethos still has lingering traces of their monarchic and aristocratic heritage -- those vestiges of class, birth, and privilege that are congenial to a "loose" system of morality. Americans, having been spared that legacy and having relied from the beginning upon character as the test of merit and self-discipline as the precondition of self-government, still pay homage to the idea of "republican virtue."
Two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers addressed what was then the most serious issue confronting the new nation. A famous passage in the Federalist Papers looks to the Constitution for "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government." The diseases the Founding Fathers had in mind were "the mischiefs of faction": the pursuit of special interests to the detriment of the general interest. To counteract those diseases, they proposed the system of federalism and the separation of powers.
Later generations have been less concerned with the diseases incident to republican government than with those incident to democratic society -- poverty, racism, unemployment, inequality. More recently we have confronted yet other species of diseases, moral and cultural: the collapse of ethical principles and habits, the loss of respect for authorities and institutions, the breakdown of the family, the decline of civility, the vulgarization of high culture, and the degradation of popular culture. In poll after poll, even at the height of economic prosperity, a great majority of the American people (as many as two-thirds to three-quarters) identify "moral decay" or "moral decline" as one of the major problems, often the major problem, confronting the country. . . .From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from One Nation, Two Cultures by Gertrude Himmelfarb. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.