Advanced Topics in Liberty

The Bourgeois Virtues in Film and Fiction


Discussion Leader: Michael Valdez Moses

Too often it has been assumed that there are no virtues relevant to the condition of bourgeois society, only greed. However, business people, entrepreneurs, and the commercial middle class exhibit qualities of conduct that are worthy of theoretical articulation as well as social cultivation and esteem. In her book, The Bourgeois Virtue, University of Illinois professor Deirdre McCloskey points out how many intellectuals have steadfastly refused to understand the bourgeois life of commerce and its merits. Professor McCloskey sees that the mercantile or bourgeois ethic is underrepresented in works of imaginative writing and modern media. Instead, most works in literature in film articulate the ethics of the aristocracy (the ethics of honor) or those of the peasantry (the ethics of egalitarianism and solidarity). Thus, according to McCloskey, trade and commerce are represented as base activities with sordid motivation, and those engaged in these activities are represented as lacking in moral fiber. A further consequence is the way in which many works decry industrialism and modernity, which are seen as morally corrupting. The two obvious questions are whether this analysis is correct and, if so, what the significance of this may be. This conference will examine readings, films, and television adaptations that look at the way commerce and enterprise are portrayed, and the discussion will consider McCloskey’s claims in light of these portrayals.

Session 1:     Bourgeois Virtue

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Bourgeois Virtue.” The American Scholar 63, no. 2 (Spring 1994): pages 177–191.

Session 2:     King Rat

King Rat. DVD. Directed by Bryan Forbes. Culver City, California: Coleytown Productions, 1965.

Session 3:     The Way We Live Now

Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2001.
Chapter IX - pages 63–70
Chapter X - pages 70–79
Chapter XXII - pages 167–173
Chapter XXIII - pages 173–181
Chapter XXIV - pages 182–189
Chapter XXVI - pages 195–204
Chapter XXX - pages 225–233
Chapter XXXVII - pages 276–286
Chapter XL - pages 304–309
Chapter LV - pages 418–423
Selection from Chapter LXII - pages 473–475
Selection from Chapter LXXXI - pages 616–622
Selection from Chapter XCII - pages 699–704

The Way We Live Now. DVD. Directed by David Yates. Burbank, CA: BBC Worldwide Americas, 2002.

Session 4:     North and South

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Edited by Easson, Angus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Volume I, Chapter VI - pages 52–57
Volume I, Chapter VII - pages 58–74
Volume I, Chapter X - pages 78–86
Volume I, Chapter XI - pages 86–88
Volume I, Chapter XV - pages 110–124
Volume I, Chapter XVII - pages 131–138
Volume II, Chapter XV - pages 330–342
Volume II, Chapter XXV - pages 418–426

Session 5:     Nice Work

Lodge, David. Nice Work. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. Pages 39–59, 72–83, 120–133, 205–207, 214–220, and 268–270.

Session 6:     Liberty in Literature

Warren, Robert Penn. “Why Do We Read Fiction?” New and Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1989. pages 55-66

Cowen, Tyler. “Is a Novel a Model?” Working Paper, 2005. pages 1-19