About a month ago, I read Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues. What a book! In a year where I have read so much great nonfiction, this stands out for voice, ambition, scale, and provocativeness; and I feel that this is one of those books that influences you for life.
There is so much happening in The Bourgeois Virtues and I am so badly out of touch with writing long and focused articles that I can’t do justice to the whole book here. I will say that there’s lots to agree with, lots to disagree with, and even more to go back and reread before committing myself to agreement or disagreement. But for now, here is a quick reflection on the bit of the book that affected me most personally.
McCloskey speaks of seven virtues, and divides them into the four classical or masculine ones:
And the three Christian and feminine ones:
At present I can’t say if the reasons she gives for calling them feminine or masculine are faff or not. So let’s not get into that. Let’s not also get into whether her definitions, or expositions, of the virtues are valid or not, and simply take them at face value. What I found interesting was how she chose to talk about the three Christian virtues.
Faith, says McCloskey, need not necessarily be religious faith. Instead, she gives it (among other definitions), a definition that sounds very close to sanskaar. She says that it is a sense of connection with the past, or where you come from, or where you are rooted. So it need not be faith in God, or your church, or your religion. Even a sense of nationalism, or connection with something you were born with, or into, will qualify as faith.
Hope, she says, is the forward looking twin of faith. It isn’t concerned with where you came from, but where you think you’re going. It’s a positive feeling about the future.
And love need not be romantic love. Family relationships, kindness, charity, and any feeling of wishing well for another whether or not you get anything out of it counts as love, according to The Bourgeois Virtues. That’s possibly the widest (and some would say vaguest) scope of the three virtues, and accordingly, the most interesting.
Now, most of the book left me feeling excited but also skeptical and thinking I should read it once (or many more times) again. But the description of these three feminine virtues left me feeling a bit shaken.
Why so? Because looking at my surroundings and circumstances, I find it hard to have faith, even in the expansive way McCloskey describes it. India and Delhi in particular are short on empathy, and heavy on filth and pollution. The religion I was born to, even if it started with magnificent philosophical underpinnings, is now characterised by superstition and pettiness, and the horrific taint of the caste system. Even if I take refuge in having been born into Arya Samaj, a relatively progressive corner of Hinduism, the past few years have left me with the gloomy conviction that Arya Samaj has moved from reforming Hinduism to being coopted as an apology for its excesses to those who want further reform. (That probably needs a blogpost in itself). At best, my faith can be tied to my family’s success and values, but even that requires careful cherry picking and ignoring all the shit my relatives have pulled (fraud, passive aggression, wastefulness, financial insecurity, getting themselves conned, and more). But perhaps those tiny patches of success could form a foundation for faith.
What about hope? Well, it’s there in the short term. But, again, as I look at the world, and see temperature rise hurtling past two degrees Celsius, my hope for the long term is also dwindling.
Which means that the only (feminine) virtue left to me is love. Oh no. Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that wishing my fellow humans well was the only path to a virtuous existence. Even today, I feel I would be happier if half the human race didn’t exist (and with the exception of about two hundred people, I wouldn’t really care which half disappeared). And with such an absence of a proclivity for love, I still have to take it up as the only way to lead a useful life.
Well, I had better get to it then.