Was the nineteenth-century bourgeois citizen a staid, buttoned-up, law-abiding creature? Not according to Peter Gay. One emotion above all others, he claims, governed the behavior of the middle classes in America, Britain, France, and Germany: aggression. Whether it was politics, trade, competition in industry, snobbery, boasting, self-advertisement, or gossip, the object was to score off one’s adversary and put him down. The thwarted felt frustrated and worked it off in further aggression. Even those who did not express aggression in their actions felt it in their hearts; and it spilled over into their diaries.

To the bourgeois it was axiomatic that the white race was superior to all others. The French felt superior to Germans, the Germans to Russians, and the British to everyone. They asserted their superiority by aggression. What could be more aggressive than the way men emphasized their superiority to women? They multiplied instances of feminine inferiority to justify the violence of their opposition to women obtaining elementary civil rights, let alone the vote. Superior to men as spiritual creatures, yes; but in every other respect women were weak, so they ought to be obedient. Even when a few women found a new occupation—writing novels—they were mocked. Such aggression bred counter-aggression within the feminist movement. In Britain one wing of the suffragette movement took to violence.

The bourgeoisie, Gay continues, were quick to invent alibis. Scientific theories were spun to justify racism. Zola found an alibi for the characters in his novels by arguing they inhabited a world determined by social forces. Another alibi, the cult of manliness, was the bourgeois parallel to the aristocratic cult of Don Juan. Donations and foundations provided Carnegie and Rockefeller with alibis for their robberies. The vengeance demanded upon criminals, the hanging of children for stealing, flogging in the army, in prisons, and in schools, were all examples of aggression masked as justice. Theodore Roosevelt fought tycoons, radicals, pacifists, and jingoists with the very aggression he found poisonous in them. Aggression incubates hatred for those who resist, and Gay asserts in both the title of his book and its argument that the dominant social value in Victorian times was the cultivation of hatred.

Gay cites contemporary philosophers as his witnesses. The sociologist George Simmel analyzed men’s “inborn need to hate and fight,” and the Social Darwinists erected aggression into a cosmic law of nature in which the weakest go to the wall. Yet among the writers and artists Gay mentions who cultivated hatred there is one astonishing omission. He never cites Marx. Marx hated bourgeois hypocrisy but he also hated and despised anyone in the socialist movement who held views that diverged from his own. He sneered at working-class revolutionaries such as the Chartist Harney, and called him “Citizen Hip-hip-hura” or “the impressionable plebian”; he attacked in turn Bauer, Ruge, Proudhon, Willich, Weitling, Herwegh, Kinkel, Vogt, Freiligarth, Bakunin, and Lasalle (for whom Marx’s least anti-Semitic nickname was “weasel-beast”). The violence of Marx’s language left a permanent mark on Communist propaganda for the next century.

True to his calling as a Freudian, Gay devotes a chapter to humor and wit. The simple-minded may imagine that laughter is a blessed release from striving and hatred, but “humor offers splendid openings for the exercise—and the control—of aggression,…its aggressive dimensions must claim preeminence.” Gay admits that “humor is perhaps the only human activity that scientific attention leaves limp and lifeless”; but humor is too serious to be a laughing matter. He examines what Bergson, Jean Paul, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Virchow, Lipps, Meredith, Kraepelin, and many others have to say. How violent Edward Lear’s fooling becomes; how brutal are Gilbert’s Bab Ballads; how Heine knifed Platen as he mocked him; how Daumier seems to be screaming as he draws his cartoons satirizing Louis Phillipe and his regime. Dickens treats Pecksniff, Podsnap, and the aristocrats in the Circumlocution Office with such contempt that they can hardly be called funny.

And then there is Wilhelm Busch. A number of scholars have written exegeses of his wit and Gay is far too intelligent not to realize that such ponderous analyses are themselves comical. His own analysis of Busch is excellent. It was a wit that exposed our will to humiliate, maim, and murder, desires that, Busch knew, lie buried in our subconscious. He created “a world of almost unmitigated aggression and counter-aggression.” Busch was not alone in thinking the spectacle of men getting their deserts comical. Even Mark Twain admitted that revenge was “powerful sweet” and sweeter when it was funny.

At this point one feels like Wilde in the dock when the jury found him guilty. “And I? May I say nothing, my lord?” Wilde is never mentioned. Are we to accept that his masterpiece The Importance of Being Ernest is an essay in aggression? Are fooling, puns, absurdity the hidden language of aggression? What of Morgenstern? And what of that great French invention la blague, not simply a joke but an amusing hoax? Are human beings quite so single-minded, so uninteresting, as to be in the grip of a single all-powerful emotion? To this Gay has an answer. Throughout the first 400 pages he drops hints, and in the long penultimate chapter he carries out a masterly maneuver to defend his thesis by deploying the adversitive style.


The classic illustration of the adversitive style is to be found on a tombstone in Northumberland, on which a family, scorning the equivocations of lapidary inscriptions, engraved this epitaph:

She was temperate, chaste and


She was proud, peevish and
She was an affectionate wife and
   tender mother

Her husband and child, whom she
Seldom saw her countenance
   without a disgusting frown,
Whilst she received visitors whom
   she despised with an endearing
She was an admirable economist
And dispensed plenty to every
   person in her family

Would sacrifice their eyes to a far-
   thing candle.

A dozen other elegant antitheses follow and conclude by recording that the lady died in 1768 of vexation and “her worn-out husband” survived her by only four months.

There could, Gay says, be no clearer evidence of bourgeois brutality than the Mensur, or German students’ duel, but its strict rules limited aggression. So it was with the rules that the English invented for boxing or football, but football fans might invade the pitch if their teams lost and attempt to lynch the referee. (Indeed today English football fans terrorize Continental cities after a match, smashing windows, looting, and picking fights with the local inhabitants.) Mr. Justice Holmes, delivering his famous dissent in the Lochner case, twitted his brethren on the Supreme Court for accepting Herbert Spencer’s vision of life; but Spencer, like Adam Smith before him, set moral limits to the gospel of competition. The Social Darwinists preached the survival of the fittest, but T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” urged that it was our duty to “combat the cosmic process.” For every authoritarian like Treitschke or de Maistre there was a Mill, a Bagehot, a Hartmann, or a William James to set his face against racism and repression. Theodore Roosevelt may have seemed to embody the aggressive spirit, but he really “fought on a single front—the struggle against appetite let loose.” Even that arch-aggressor Bismarck at times restrained the nationalist passion he had done so much to arouse. “The horror at one’s murderous desires may, in reaction, generate a consuming love for all living beings. Freud once drily noted that when pacifists were youngsters, they probably enjoyed torturing animals.”

Toward the end the adversitive style is working so hard that the ground on which Gay’s thesis rests seems uncommonly slippery. “Aggression has its constructive qualities as well,” but it often takes the form of counter-aggression, of striking back at bullies, but psychoanalysts tell us that it is imperative to teach children to do so. Sometimes Gay’s qualifications are pedantic. Attack, he says, is not a word only to be used by armies; we speak approvingly of attack in the technique of a violinist or dancer.

Why did aggression take different forms in different countries? Gay shows himself aware of this question in a chapter entitled “Demagogues and Democrats”; but, however gracefully it is done, what he offers us is a potted history of France under Louis Napoleon, of Prussia under Bismarck, and of the slow movement toward universal suffrage (of men) in Britain. Gay compares the growth of games and sport in Europe and notes paradoxically that it was a Frenchman who invented the Olympic games. But why, for instance, did cycling become the national sport in France while the British worked off their aggression in team games—though Lupin Pooter in that Victorian classic The Diary of a Nobody was a member of a cycling club? Perhaps the sociologist or the social historian is better able to conjure up an answer than the psychohistorian.

Gay admits that both colonialism and industrialism had their good sides. Bourgeois culture “trampled on time-honored ways of living, exacerbating tensions between the powerful and the powerless,” and colonialists often brutalized natives by destroying their culture, but numbers of colonial district officers resembled their colleague in Borneo who suppressed head-hunting among the tribes by substituting races between war canoes. The pioneers of the industrial revolution were driven on by a wholly admirable ideal; to master economic forces, apply science to daily life, and control the forces of Nature. The division of labor forced men to specialize, and specialization at last induced universities to study branches of learning other than Greek and Latin. The scientific method, which had scored such victories in physics, chemistry, and medicine, now began to be applied to social problems. Naked aggression by assertion or deductive theory retreated before the sober analytical and statistical methods of Durkheim or Charles Booth as they studied suicide or poverty.

The bourgeoisie were, therefore, able to harness their aggressive impulses to produce more goods, improve the standard of living, and circulate for the lower orders and themselves a vast literature of advice on how to be a good consumer. They created a cultural superego, advocating the strenuous life, the building of “character,” and distrust of pleasure that “reached epidemic proportions.” This took its toll. For if the nineteenth century could be called the Age of Advice it could also be called the Age of Neurosis. The strenuous efforts to repress evil impulses created the sexual repression that Freud unmasked. Yet Freud did not appreciate that the Victorians’ own aggressiveness enabled them to sublimate successfully their aggression and build cities, enhance comfort, and lengthen life. Until August 4, 1914.


Anyone who knows Peter Gay’s work will know that he writes in a limpid, readable style, free from campus-speak. The range of his reading, particularly in German sources, is prodigious. The notes to each chapter bubble with the overflow of references and analogies, and the bibliographical essay is a gold mine for graduate students, a masterly exercise in source gathering. Yet what does his book in fact tell us about Victorian times? Knowing that Gay would have consulted the literature of psychoanalysis on aggression I turned first to the appendix where the findings of Freud and his successors are summarized. Freud, Gay says, reluctantly came to see aggression as a threat to humanity; and in 1920 he concluded that the combat of Eros and Thanatos dominated human existence. Aggression was the public expression of the death drive. But most Freudian analysts, Melanie Klein excepted, have discarded the death drive as a necessary insight. In 1957 David Rapaport admitted that the origin of aggressive drives was “still unsolved.” In 1971 Leo Stone considered aggression as “integrated with basic and unequivocal instincts such as hunger and the various phases of sexuality.” Indeed there was a wealth of motives for aggressive acts. Ives Hendrick added that the aim to master others is distinct from sadism: it enables us to “perform work efficiently.” Fenichel and Sandler both lead Gay to conclude that “one person’s work for mastery, after all, is another person’s work for demolition.”

Do we need to summon up such a host of authorities to tell us this? It has long been a truism that even saints in the Western world need to cultivate a tough little nut of egoism if they are to impose their will on their fellow men to lead better lives. Has it not long been obvious that artists, writers, sagacious and honorable administrators as well as entrepreneurs could not succeed without expressing their aggressive impulses? Gay’s final sentence tells us that respectable culture in the nineteenth century “made more determined efforts than ever to cultivate hatred—and needed to.” But this trope is fanciful. Outbursts directed against injustice or a tyrannical and wicked ruler may be justifiable: but nearly always hatred—as distinct from the patient work of enlightening public opinion that Gay ends by praising—brings disaster with it.

Although Gay takes no account of human development from prehistoric times, human beings share more with other animals than they like to admit. In prehistory they had to learn how to protect themselves from attack by other predators. They had to gather or cultivate food and therefore needed to stake out their own territory and defend it against marauders. They needed to breed, and if their tribe multiplied and exhausted the supply of food, they had to invade someone else’s territory. Climatic changes drove them from one parched or frozen stamping ground to more fertile camp ground. Over tens of thousands of years the strategies of self-preservation developed. On the other hand, just like other primates, hominids needed to develop their instincts for cooperation. Without cooperation, “herd instinct,” no society or species can exist. There never was a time when existence was solely “nasty, brutish and short.” We are aware of the conventions that establish who defers to whom, who gets what and how much, and how those who step out of line are clobbered. The forces of social control, which compel human beings to cooperate—law, religion, and education—need to be studied as well as the psyche; and demography and anthropology are more suggestive than psychoanalysis if we are studying an entire social class.

The British sociologist, W. G. Runciman, was recently musing on the inevitability of competition in society.* Not all members of society compete with each other, but those who cooperate, he suggested, do so for their own advantage against other cooperating groups. Unlike chimpanzees who learn the rules of their group by imitation, human beings are taught by their parents and peers to be consciously aware of the rules of their society that determine who gets how much of whatever resources are available; to whom they owe deference; and what measures will be taken against deviants. There will always be competition for control of the means of production, persuasion, and coercion, whether among individuals or among groups. There is, he argues, an unending competition for power and this creates various relationships of domination and cooperation. If it takes your fancy to interpret this competition in Spencerian or Marxist or liberal terms, so be it; but these are futile attempts to predict a future that is governed by chance. If it makes you happier to take a moral stance and deplore such competitions as aggression, so be it; but it is no more illuminating than other ideological interpretations. Gay seems to suggest that men and women are free animals who could eliminate the evil effects of aggression, perhaps by submitting to large scale psychoanalysis. Civilized as his new book is, one asks: In what sense is it history?

Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe certainly presents history as we have known it during the last fifty years. It consists of contributions by a group of scholars who met at Bielefeld University in Germany. Hardly any of the historical characters, telling events, or illustrations from novels with which Gay enlivened his pages are permitted to disturb the grave analysis of what was Bürgertum in all its European manifestations. The concepts of class structure, kinship, law, profession and business, custom and culture are brought to bear so that the character of the middle classes can be disentangled from the fortunes of the aristocracy, the peasantry, and the new industrial proletariat. To develop its own culture, the editor, the historian Jürgen Kocka, reminds us, the bourgeois were town dwellers who needed space—separate rooms for servants—and time for transmitting their culture to the next generation, a culture that was dominated in the family by the husband and father. But was Bürgertum a single class? In Europe a distinction was drawn between the educated professional middle class who went to the same schools or colleges and inherited a common culture and the new groups of entrepreneurs, industrialists, and businessmen, some of whom, as in Russia, had been serfs or artisans.

Pinning down the middle classes resembles the hunting of the Snark. The class structure in different countries is so dissimilar. The Italian aristocracy north of Rome was urban, harbored republican sentiments, intermarried with the propertied borghesia, and had little experience of public office which they left to the educated middle class. It was the borghesia who controlled political and administrative relations, unlike the German administrators, who, however authoritarian, were the servants of a monarchical state. In Hungary the emerging middle class made their money in agricultural products not in industry. The Jews were protected by the landowning nobility, and by 1918 out of 346 Jewish families 220 had been ennobled. The officials were often antagonistic to the middle class and defended the interests of the great landowners. In Norway, Finland, and Bohemia an intelligentsia emerged critical of the bourgeoisie. In Italy and Germany middle-class liberals were nationalists wanting to create a national state, in France a bourgeois might or might not be republican, but he was likely to be opposed to state intervention and controls—with the result that, whereas in Germany smallpox was abolished by compulsory vaccination, in France 100,000 died of the disease. In England the middle classes were isolationist and until the end of the century unimpressed by sabrerattling and jingoism.

In his contribution to the Bielefeld collection Werner Mosse tells us that the fortunes of the middle classes depended on the nobility. Where aristocrats encouraged religious persecution, as in Russia, commercial development suffered, especially as the mark of the successful bureaucrat there was never to take a risk. In France the nobility was marginalized and by 1830 France had become a plutocracy. (But what about les deux cent familles? Or is Mosse providing a reason why French intellectuals for the past century and a half have satirized bourgeois culture with unparalleled venom and attributed all the ills of their country to a single class?) England was always an exception. English aristocrats were the first agricultural capitalists. Since younger sons inherited only courtesy titles, and the sons of the knights of the shires inherited none, they did not become a caste. The lines between nobility, gentry, merchants, bankers, clergy, and judges were therefore blurred. On the other hand, in Germany all sons inherited titles and monopolized posts in the civil service as well as controlling the army. Mosse admits that the Korps at the universities, flaunting the character-building code of the Mensur, was a bridge between nobility and the upper-middle class. But in England that bridge was built earlier in the public schools.

In his essay in the collection Eric Hobsbawm reminds us how socially mobile English society was. Between 1760 and 1832 the size of the peerage doubled. Pitt, Canning, Peel, Gladstone, and the astonishing Disraeli had anything but aristocratic forebears. When in 1911 the civil service categorized social classes, the aristocracy and upper-middle class were lumped together. The only change today in that categorization is that the third class is divided into lower-middle class and a skilled working class. By 1880 landed wealth took second place to commercial wealth. But the bourgeoisie did not want to eliminate aristocratic modes: they benefited from deference to rank. If as a class they were more fractured than elsewhere and large numbers joined the Conservatives at the time of Home Rule for Ireland while the provincial manufacturers remained true to the Liberal Party, the middle classes still showed “no lack of class consciousness.”

Bourgeois morality makes only fitful appearance in the Bielefeld collection, but Richard Tilly argues that honesty became the best policy only when the volume of business became so great that a business deal was seen as one of a series of transactions, a building block in the process of capital accumulation instead of a one-time bargain to be exploited ruthlessly. By the eighteenth century, English merchants were thought more honest than Dutch, and German dishonesty was legendary. Ute Frevert has a chapter on the decline of the duel. The middle classes were excused because their lowly status made it impossible for them to give satisfaction. When a judge challenged by a major-general agreed to fight, his excuse that he would have lost face if he did not was accepted and the court sentenced him only to three months’ imprisonment: but he was roasted by a liberal newspaper for not declining to fight on the grounds that the Bürgertum “happily has escaped the barbarism of the law of the strongest.” Frevert is right to discount those who argue that boxing in England took the place of the duel: boxing was a plebeian sport (though patronized by aristocrats in Regency days) and had nothing to do with honor. (But has Frevert forgotten in Tom Brown’s Schooldays the fight between Tom and Slogger Williams? In the English public schools boys were encouraged to think that a staged fight was a way to settle irreconcilable differences.)

Women, Ursula Vogel reminds us, were the victims of laws of great antiquity. The husband owned and protected his wife as if she were a villein in a medieval manor. Even John Stuart Mill allowed that women as biological child-bearers could never have an equal place in society. Vogel also adds that Christian marriage and the surrender of the wife to the patriarch were held up as the civilized defense to Oriental polygamy. This observation provokes a criticism of this excellent and suggestive book. Religion is hardly mentioned. And yet middle-class culture was permeated with it. The Roman Catholic church regarded Liberalism as the enemy. The Protestant ethic reached further and deeper than Weber suggested. The disaster of 1914 was not caused, as Gay implies, by a final outburst of aggression. It was fanned by a pervasive boredom with virtue, by the feeling that life was asphyxiated by the religious and moral taboos that the law-abiding, moralizing middle classes had imposed.

This Issue

January 13, 1994