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Viscount James Bryce on the Marketplace and the American Intellect August 25, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The British social theorist James Bryce is chiefly known as a writer on the American party system (The American Commonwealth, 1888)  and may perhaps be one of the most tolerable early sociologists of modern democracy (Modern Democracies, 1921).  This will be the subject of a later post.

Bryce was quite indebted to European thinkers, even those from whom he tried to distance himself.   Perhaps nowhere is the influence of Tocqueville more apparent than in Bryce’s discussion of the effect of commerce and the marketplace upon the American intellect.  Here Bryce elaborates upon the conclusion of Tocqueville, that the materialism of American culture explained its lack of genius and refinement.

James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce (1838 1922)

In the nineteenth century, capitalism and art never mixed well in the minds of social theorists.  Consider for a moment the distaste of business and money expressed by John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold.  If not commerce, then the natural sciences or industry were the source of the ills of the present.

The market was another sign of modernity and its triumph over history. This caused many theorists — French, German, and English, from Rousseau and Gibbon and back again — to bemoan the discontents of progress and capitalist modernity.  Whether progress was worth the costs and what progress consisted of were the chief concerns of sociology at this time.  It was this sentiment which welded to together the works of Weber, Simmel, Marx, and Durkheim.  Bryce was no different.

While Bryce was considering the American exemplar,  his inquiry over the costs of progress focused on the general conditions which gave rise to genius and great works of art and literature.

For Bryce, the laws governing the promotion of genius were breathtakingly complex.  He noted in The Social Institutions of the United States (1891) that there was no average of men possessing genius relative to the general population.  It was therefore not surprising that men of Plato or of Goethe’s, or Tennyson or Darwin’s ability, should not have arisen from a population of sixty million Americans.  Partially to blame, Bryce thought, was the presence of “negroes” who were “below the stratum from which production can be expected.”  America was also home to about two million immigrants who did not know the English language.

Dismissing the conceit that conflict and unsettled times gave rise to genius, Bryce noted that what was truly needed was “tranquility.” If the nineteenth century had been a period of unrest in Europe, in America, it was doubly so.  In America, Bryce declared, exactly like Tocqueville, everyone was “busy.”  In America it was “unusually hard for anyone to withdraw his mind from the endless variety of external impressions which daily life presents.”  Bryce colorfully added that life in America was akin to “squirrel in his revolving cage.”  Due to the rapidity of change in America, life was more eventful than that of an average European.

If life was more eventful in American, it was less interesting.  Bryce observed that Americas were not in the midst of stimulating ideas, as in Florence before the Renaissance or Athens in the time of Pericles.  Rather, Americans were simply hurried and busied “with a multitude of duties and occupations and transient impressions.”

The American environment was consequently unsuited to the “natural germination and slow ripening of large and luminous ideas.”   Authors like James Fenimore Cooper and Hugh Henry Brackenridge were able to produce their works by virtue of being “from the older regions of the country where the pulsations of life are slower.”

Life in America was, as Tocqueville had complained,  most importantly, “overfull with all that pertains to material progress.” Americans were so overly concerned with material gain, with the “operations of commerce and finance” with pushing the commercial and industrial development of the frontier, that there were few intelligent men left for the statesmen’s role.   Americans’ chief dilemma regarding the development of art and the cultivation of genius was that was that all those who had the intellect went into the business of making money, into banking, finance, and the development of railroads.  In America, there was no time for the fine arts or literature.  Bryce concluded,

The atmosphere is not charged with ideas as in Germany, nor with critical finesse as in France. Stimulative it is, but the stimulus drives eager youth away from the groves of the Muses into the struggling throng of the market-place.

Bryce went further however, for the “struggling throng of the marketplace” made the American mind think differently than that of his European counterpart.  The American intellect, frenzied by activity, did not know how to read properly.  The American mind sacrificed depth for breadth.

For Bryce, as for many other European intellectuals, including Tocqueville, the shallowness of the American intellect was epitomized by the wretched newspaper,  the great symbol of cheapness, money-grubbing, commercialism, and the decline of art from the Baroque or the Gothic (Brooks Adams).  Newspapers pandered to the common man, the laboring classes.  For Bryce, specifically, the intellectual work of reading a newspaper differed from one reading a work of literature, say Burke or Bacon.

Bryce declared,

His attention is loose, his mind unbraced, so that he does not stop to scrutinize an argument, and forgets even valuable facts as quickly as he has learnt them. If he read Burke as he reads the newspaper, Burke would do him little good. And therefore the habit of mind produced by a diet largely composed of newspapers is adverse to solid thinking, and dulling to the sense of beauty. Scorched and stony is the soil which newspaper reading has prepared to receive the seeds of genius.

Bryce, like many nineteenth century social theorists, was concerned with how the  evils of commercialization and mass production would impact the conservation, dissemination, and transmission of the Western heritage.  On the other side of the Atlantic, John Ruskin was busying giving lectures on how to read, and more specifically, how to read Greek.  If a major concern among nineteenth century intellectuals was how to assess progress, another was the increasing unease among social theorists that barring the collapse of civilization, Roman style, what would occur with the Americanization of civilization.  If the future was America, economically and intellectually, if the future was there, rather than in Europe, would the West, instead of going out with a bang, end with the shouts of the stock-jobbers?

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