Kleurenschema: blauw - grijs

Why intellectuals do not like the bourgeoisie

This is an edited transcript of the talk given at 2008-12-15 to the attendees of the course "Twelve Lectures on Intellectuals and Politics" given by Prof. dr. mr. Frits Bolkestein.
-- Evert Mouw < evert@animamundi.eu >, Leiden, 2009-01-04

About intellectual morals

How many of you are attending this course with the objective of earning more money or advancing your career? [ nobody raised his/her hand ]
It is observed that intellectuals often show a dislike for the bourgeoisie. But what is the bourgeoisie like? Wikipedia provides some answers. Some scholars have a dislike for Wikipedia, but I have found it invaluable to obtain introductory texts.

Wikipedia about the bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie are members of the upper or merchant class, whose status or power comes from employment, education, and wealth. They are distinguished from those whose power comes from being born into an aristocratic family.

The rise of the bourgeoisie: In the late Middle Ages, as cities were emerging, artisans and tradesmen began to emerge as both a physical and economic force. They formed guilds, associations and companies to conduct business and promote their own interests. After the Middle Ages and going into the renaissance they were gradually becoming the ruling class in industrialised nation-states.

The bourgeoisie was never without its critics; it was first accused of narrow-mindedness, materialism, hypocrisy, and lack of culture, among other things, by persons such as the playwright Truldière and the novelist Flaubert, who denounced its supposed banality and mercenary aspirations. The earliest recorded pejorative uses of the term "bourgeois" are associated with aristocratic contempt for the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. Successful embourgeoisement typically meant being able to retire and live on invested income.

With the expansion of commerce, trade, and the market economy, the bourgeoisie grew in size, influence, and power. In all industrialized countries, the aristocracy either faded away slowly or found itself overthrown by a bourgeois revolution. Thus, the bourgeoisie rose to the top of the social hierarchy.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourgeoisie (selected parts)

The need to serve

Traders and shop keepers need to server the wishes of the customer. In this, they differ from the aristocracy and the intellectuals. The aristocracy does not serve but likes to rule. The intellectual does not obey to a "thought police" but likes to think for himself. But the bourgeois is eager to betray his own convictions as long as he can make his customer happy and earn money. This attitude is not compatible with the honor of the aristocrat or the intellectual. One of the first and most important philosophers has something to say about a lifestyle dominated by the search for profit. I will quote Plato.

Plato's Republic (Translated by Benjamin Jowett)

We are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than many pieces of gold.

Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children.

About the guardians: Their provisions should be only such as are required by trained warriors, who are men of temperance and courage. Gold and silver we will tell them that they have from God; the diviner metal is within them, and they have therefore no need of the dross which is current among men, and ought not to pollute the divine by any such earthly admixture; for that commoner metal has been the source of many unholy deeds, but their own is undefiled. And they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold, or be under the same roof with them, or wear them, or drink from them. And this will be their salvation, and they will be the saviours of the State.

Aristocratic values

To summarize, Plato supported aristocratic values and disliked gold. His influence on intellectuals is hard to measure, but most likely he cannot be ignored.

Aristocratic values include courage, honor, facing the enemy when necessary, and personal excellence. This conflicts with the bourgeois values of production and service. I suspect that intellectuals are influenced by aristocratic values. That is because aristocrats often have supported intellectuals, because some intellectuals were born in aristocratic families, and because many aristocratic values and stories lend themselves to intellectual romanticism. The romantic ideas may have borrowed some aristocratic values like courage and being ready to battle for one's ideas. The romanticists would not subdue their values for money. Nietzsche, maybe the greatest romantic although that may be disputed, also liked heroism.


The "other side" of the intellectual soul also had a dislike for the bourgeois. Marx did not like the lifestyle based on ownership and private capital. He criticized it for its moral hypocrisy. His works have influenced many other intellectuals.

Final thoughts

Now, why do intellectuals dislike the bourgeoisie?


The bourgeoisie was the ruling social class for some time, and intellectuals like Marx who sought change naturally disliked the ruling class. When the bourgeois was not the ruling class, aristocratic values prevailed. Aristocratic values match intellectual values much better; an example is Plato.

When I asked who of you followed this course to gain economic profits, nobody raised his hand. Even if you do want to earn status or money by pursuing academic grades, you would not dare to admit it because it is a taboo in intellectual circles. You ought to dislike bourgeois values, you ought to dislike herd culture, and even if you do like the bourgeois, your herd instinct will tell you not to show such sympathies amidst academia.

(Quotes are indicated by the use of italics.)