Earlier thinkers, commentators, and writers called the middle classes the bourgeoisie, typically concerning its perceived materialistic values and conventional attitudes. Beginning sometime around the fifteenth century with the rise of the merchant class, the expansion and eventual domination of the middle class has left an indelible mark on human consciousness, particularly in the West, where it has essentially contributed to the mass despiritualization of what was once known as European culture and civilization.
Before going any further, it is necessary to stress that my use of middle class and bourgeois refers to something like Berdyaev’s definition of the term as a spiritual state, an orientation of the soul, and a particular mode of consciousness rather than clearly defined yet ultimately superficial set of social or economic conditions.
In my estimation, the rise of the middle class as a spiritual state and orientation of the soul was initially a positive movement in the development of consciousness because it liberated individuals toward greater self-determination, freedom, and the capacity for creation.
Such a movement should have ignited a deeper and more personal spiritual fire and creativeness within individuals. As such, the middle-class orientation of the soul should have been nothing more than a transition, transfiguration, and transformation inspiring man to seek a higher and deeper connection with other Beings, God, and Creation, as exemplified by certain Romantics starting the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The bourgeois spiritual state became poisonous when it ceased being a period of transition and “settled down.” More precisely, when it congealed into an errant state of consciousness and being.
Instead of liberating the spirit, middle-classdom succeeded in ultimately enslaving it via its obsessive focus on the external world, the temporary, the corruptible, and the mundane, all of which eventually extinguished the initial spiritual creativeness that birthed the bourgeois spirit toward the end of the Middle Ages.
Nikolai Berdyaev noted that the ripening of this middle-class mentality and state of consciousness enslaved human society at the very height of civilization. Sacred symbolism, noble traditions, and past beliefs in the spiritual and supernatural could not hem in nor set bounds on bourgeois concupiscence once it “settled in.”
I would add that the rise of this bourgeois concupiscence was the direct result of the missed opportunity or wrong turn that occurred during this period when man failed to turn back toward God and Creation after he had successfully distanced himself from sacred symbolism, noble traditions, and past beliefs in the spiritual and supernatural.
His task at the time should have been the transfiguration of the sacred symbols, noble traditions, and past spiritual beliefs – a transfiguration that should have arisen from man’s newfound capacity for freedom and love, leading to a burning spiritual fire and a new epoch of spiritual creativeness.
This failure of consciousness – this missed opportunity – has allowed middle-classdom to solidify and dominate consciousness as a spiritual state, a state that, ironically enough, lacks any semblance of spiritual fire and creativity. Instead of drawing man closer to his true self and Creation, middle-classism has successfully driven a wedge between man and reality and estranged man from his spiritual nature. Middle-class man essentially denies the eternal and puts his trust in the temporal.
Middle-class spiritual consciousness is not limited to the obvious and least-interesting materialist wedded to the earthly joys and comforts of life; it includes higher types who strive to be “spiritual defenders and guardians,” benefactors of humanity, and organizers of the world. This higher type of middle-class consciousness has been the most harmful to the world and Christianity.
Once again, middle-classness should not be construed as an economic or social situation or position but as a spiritual attitude toward the situation or position. The most characteristic feature of this spiritual attitude is self-satisfaction at being oppressed by everything temporal, tangible, and external and lauding this oppression as a sign of goodness, magnanimity, and, in the case of middle-class Christians, as a sign of perfect alignment with the Will and Authority of God.
Christians within the grips of middle-class consciousness value the will to power, comfort, wealth, business, social position, mediocrity, and well-being over aspiration to holiness and, notably, to genius. Middle-class Christians stress the importance of earthly might, earthly power, and earthly happiness.
Bourgeois consciousness is dominated by everything that enters from the outside and oblivious to everything that attempts to enter from within. Like their non-Christian and anti-Christian counterparts, middle-class Christians cannot exist without some form of outward or external authority. Whenever they succeed in overthrowing or overcoming some external authority, they quickly implement some replacement and readily submit to it.
Deep down, they cannot accept that they will one day die; thus, their answer to death is legacy. They focus on what can be secured and left behind in the world rather than on what they will ultimately take from the world.
Berdyaev went as far as to suggest that the bourgeois spirit is “nothing but the rejection of Christ; even those whose lips confess him may be the first to crucify him anew.”
Thinkers like Nietzsche and Carlyle were cognizant of the triumph of middle-class mediocrity as an orientation of consciousness; however, they sought their solutions by harkening back to Greece, Rome, or Byzantium, or sought to seek values that denied the will to spirit in favor of the will to power.
The German philosopher Scheler was one of the very few to note that the great denouncers of Christianity as a vehicle of slave mentality and slavish values were denouncing the bourgeois spiritual state and orientation that had permeated Christianity rather than Christianity proper. The destructive effects of the middle-class spiritual attitude had penetrated Christianity so deeply by the nineteenth century that even Nietzsche – the great anti-Christ – failed to clearly distinguish one from the other.
Bourgeois consciousness deadens and despiritualizes everything it touches. Being externally orientated, it is oblivious of and has little use for thinking and consciousness that could set it free. Instead of raising man above his external environment, middle-class Christianity seeks to enslave man and entomb him within it via an all-consuming concentration on organizing existence according to temporal aims and motivations.
I’ve come across Christian blogs whose writers are so wedded to this bourgeois orientation that they dedicate nearly all their efforts to conjuring fictional societies and then explaining how they would organize their little throne and altar kingdoms, right down to minute details such as tax laws.
We are experiencing the death throes of middle-class consciousness as a spiritual state of being. This applies to both secular and so-called Christian middle-class consciousness. The civilization that spawned it cannot and will not endure because it is aligned against God and Creation and is destructive of eternity. Material means cannot defeat or survive the bourgeois condition – only spirit can.
What sort of spirit can rise above the middle-class spirit? Berdyaev suggests it will be the spirit of the pilgrim – the re-embracing of the knowledge that we as Christians are but travelers and not settlers in this world. We are called to act in the world and society, but our actions and everything connected to them – our relations, our domination of our environment, our aims and ambitions – can only serve spiritual ends if they transcend the blind obedience to the laws and commands of the society and world in which we act and tap into a deeper, inner spiritual source.
This requires a re-examination of our highest values, aims, motivations, and values; a re-examination of our deepest metaphysical assumptions that will permit us to take that opportunity middle-class consciousness missed and begin orienting our souls to the essence of Christianity – the freeing of man from fear, slavery, and despair so that he may use his immense spiritual powers to finally answer the call of God via creativity.