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Theory of the Leisure Class, The

In the later and farther development of the pecuniary culture, the requirement of withdrawal from the industrial process in order to avoid social odium is carried so far as to comprise abstention from the emulative employments. At this advanced stage the pecuniary culture negatively favors the assertion of the non-invidious propensities by relaxing the stress laid on the merit of emulative, predatory, or pecuniary occupations, as compared with those of an industrial or productive kind. As was noticed above, the requirement of such withdrawal from all employment that is of human use applies more rigorously to the upper-class women than to any other class, unless the priesthood of certain cults might be cited as an exception, perhaps more apparent than real, to this rule. The reason for the more extreme insistence on a futile life for this class of women than for the men of the same pecuniary and social grade lies in their being not only an upper-grade leisure class but also at the same time a vicarious leisure class. There is in their case a double ground for a consistent withdrawal from useful effort.

It has been well and repeatedly said by popular writers and speakers who reflect the common sense of intelligent people on questions of social structure and function that the position of woman in any community is the most striking index of the level of culture attained by the community, and it might be added, by any given class in the community. This remark is perhaps truer as regards the stage of economic development than as regards development in any other respect. At the same time the position assigned to the woman in the accepted scheme of life, in any community or under any culture, is in a very great degree an expression of traditions which have been shaped by the circumstances of an earlier phase of development, and which have been but partially adapted to the existing economic circumstances, or to the existing exigencies of temperament and habits of mind by which the women living under this modern economic situation are actuated.

The fact has already been remarked upon incidentally in the course of the discussion of the growth of economic institutions generally, and in particular in speaking of vicarious leisure and of dress, that the position of women in the modern economic scheme is more widely and more consistently at variance with the promptings of the instinct of workmanship than is the position of the men of the same classes. It is also apparently true that the woman's temperament includes a larger share of this instinct that approves peace and disapproves futility. It is therefore not a fortuitous circumstance that the women of modern industrial communities show a livelier sense of the discrepancy between the accepted scheme of life and the exigencies of the economic situation.

The several phases of the "woman question" have brought out in intelligible form the extent to which the life of women in modern society, and in the polite circles especially, is regulated by a body of common sense formulated under the economic circumstances of an earlier phase of development. It is still felt that woman's life, in its civil, economic, and social bearing, is essentially and normally a vicarious life, the merit or demerit of which is, in the nature of things, to be imputed to some other individual who stands in some relation of ownership or tutelage to the woman. So, for instance, any action on the part of a woman which traverses an injunction of the accepted schedule of proprieties is felt to reflect immediately upon the honor of the man whose woman she is. There may of course be some sense of incongruity in the mind of any one passing an opinion of this kind on the woman's frailty or perversity; but the common-sense judgment of the community in such matters is, after all, delivered without much hesitation, and few men would question the legitimacy of their sense of an outraged tutelage in any case that might arise. On the other hand, relatively little discredit attaches to a woman through the evil deeds of the man with whom her life is associated.

The good and beautiful scheme of life, then—that is to say the scheme to which we are habituated—assigns to the woman a "sphere" ancillary to the activity of the man; and it is felt that any departure from the traditions of her assigned round of duties is unwomanly. If the question is as to civil rights or the suffrage, our common sense in the matter—that is to say the logical deliverance of our general scheme of life upon the point in question—says that the woman should be represented in the body politic and before the law, not immediately in her own person, but through the mediation of the head of the household to which she belongs. It is unfeminine in her to aspire to a self-directing, self-centered life; and our common sense tells us that her direct participation in the affairs of the community, civil or industrial, is a menace to that social order which expresses our habits of thought as they have been formed under the guidance of the traditions of the pecuniary culture. "All this fume and froth of 'emancipating woman from the slavery of man' and so on, is, to use the chaste and expressive language of Elizabeth Cady Stanton inversely, 'utter rot.' The social relations of the sexes are fixed by nature. Our entire civilization—that is whatever is good in it—is based on the home." The "home" is the household with a male head. This view, but commonly expressed even more chastely, is the prevailing view of the woman's status, not only among the common run of the men of civilized communities, but among the women as well. Women have a very alert sense of what the scheme of proprieties requires, and while it is true that many of them are ill at ease under the details which the code imposes, there are few who do not recognize that the existing moral order, of necessity and by the divine right of prescription, places the woman in a position ancillary to the man. In the last analysis, according to her own sense of what is good and beautiful, the woman's life is, and in theory must be, an expression of the man's life at the second remove.

But in spite of this pervading sense of what is the good and natural place for the woman, there is also perceptible an incipient development of sentiment to the effect that this whole arrangement of tutelage and vicarious life and imputation of merit and demerit is somehow a mistake. Or, at least, that even if it may be a natural growth and a good arrangement in its time and place, and in spite of its patent aesthetic value, still it does not adequately serve the more everyday ends of life in a modern industrial community. Even that large and substantial body of well-bred, upper and middle-class women to whose dispassionate, matronly sense of the traditional proprieties this relation of status commends itself as fundamentally and eternally right-even these, whose attitude is conservative, commonly find some slight discrepancy in detail between things as they are and things as they should be in this respect. But that less manageable body of modern women who, by force of youth, education, or temperament, are in some degree out of touch with the traditions of status received from the barbarian culture, and in whom there is, perhaps, an undue reversion to the impulse of self-expression and workmanship—these are touched with a sense of grievance too vivid to leave them at rest.

In this "New-Woman" movement—as these blind and incoherent efforts to rehabilitate the woman's pre-glacial standing have been named—there are at least two elements discernible, both of which are of an economic character. These two elements or motives are expressed by the double watchword, "Emancipation" and "Work." Each of these words is recognized to stand for something in the way of a wide-spread sense of grievance. The prevalence of the sentiment is recognized even by people who do not see that there is any real ground for a grievance in the situation as it stands today. It is among the women of the well-to-do classes, in the communities which are farthest advanced in industrial development, that this sense of a grievance to be redressed is most alive and finds most frequent expression. That is to say, in other words, there is a demand, more or less serious, for emancipation from all relation of status, tutelage, or vicarious life; and the revulsion asserts itself especially among the class of women upon whom the scheme of life handed down from the regime of status imposes with least litigation a vicarious life, and in those communities whose economic development has departed farthest from the circumstances to which this traditional scheme is adapted. The demand comes from that portion of womankind which is excluded by the canons of good repute from all effectual work, and which is closely reserved for a life of leisure and conspicuous consumption.

More than one critic of this new-woman movement has misapprehended its motive. The case of the American "new woman" has lately been summed up with some warmth by a popular observer of social phenomena: "She is petted by her husband, the most devoted and hard-working of husbands in the world.... She is the superior of her husband in education, and in almost every respect. She is surrounded by the most numerous and delicate attentions. Yet she is not satisfied.... The Anglo-Saxon 'new woman' is the most ridiculous production of modern times, and destined to be the most ghastly failure of the century." Apart from the deprecation—perhaps well placed—which is contained in this presentment, it adds nothing but obscurity to the woman question. The grievance of the new woman is made up of those things which this typical characterization of the movement urges as reasons why she should be content. She is petted, and is permitted, or even required, to consume largely and conspicuously—vicariously for her husband or other natural guardian. She is exempted, or debarred, from vulgarly useful employment—in order to perform leisure vicariously for the good repute of her natural (pecuniary) guardian. These offices are the conventional marks of the un-free, at the same time that they are incompatible with the human impulse to purposeful activity. But the woman is endowed with her share-which there is reason to believe is more than an even share—of the instinct of workmanship, to which futility of life or of expenditure is obnoxious. She must unfold her life activity in response to the direct, unmediated stimuli of the economic environment with which she is in contact. The impulse is perhaps stronger upon the woman than upon the man to live her own life in her own way and to enter the industrial process of the community at something nearer than the second remove.

So long as the woman's place is consistently that of a drudge, she is, in the average of cases, fairly contented with her lot. She not only has something tangible and purposeful to do, but she has also no time or thought to spare for a rebellious assertion of such human propensity to self-direction as she has inherited. And after the stage of universal female drudgery is passed, and a vicarious leisure without strenuous application becomes the accredited employment of the women of the well-to-do classes, the prescriptive force of the canon of pecuniary decency, which requires the observance of ceremonial futility on their part, will long preserve high-minded women from any sentimental leaning to self-direction and a "sphere of usefulness." This is especially true during the earlier phases of the pecuniary culture, while the leisure of the leisure class is still in great measure a predatory activity, an active assertion of mastery in which there is enough of tangible purpose of an invidious kind to admit of its being taken seriously as an employment to which one may without shame put one's hand. This condition of things has obviously lasted well down into the present in some communities. It continues to hold to a different extent for different individuals, varying with the vividness of the sense of status and with the feebleness of the impulse to workmanship with which the individual is endowed. But where the economic structure of the community has so far outgrown the scheme of life based on status that the relation of personal subservience is no longer felt to be the sole "natural" human relation; there the ancient habit of purposeful activity will begin to assert itself in the less conformable individuals against the more recent, relatively superficial, relatively ephemeral habits and views which the predatory and the pecuniary culture have contributed to our scheme of life. These habits and views begin to lose their coercive force for the community or the class in question so soon as the habit of mind and the views of life due to the predatory and the quasi-peaceable discipline cease to be in fairly close accord with the later-developed economic situation. This is evident in the case of the industrious classes of modern communities; for them the leisure-class scheme of life has lost much of its binding force, especially as regards the element of status. But it is also visibly being verified in the case of the upper classes, though not in the same manner.

The habits derived from the predatory and quasi-peaceable culture are relatively ephemeral variants of certain underlying propensities and mental characteristics of the race; which it owes to the protracted discipline of the earlier, proto-anthropoid cultural stage of peaceable, relatively undifferentiated economic life carried on in contact with a relatively simple and invariable material environment. When the habits superinduced by the emulative method of life have ceased to enjoy the section of existing economic exigencies, a process of disintegration sets in whereby the habits of thought of more recent growth and of a less generic character to some extent yield the ground before the more ancient and more pervading spiritual characteristics of the race.

In a sense, then, the new-woman movement marks a reversion to a more generic type of human character, or to a less differentiated expression of human nature. It is a type of human nature which is to be characterized as proto-anthropoid, and, as regards the substance if not the form of its dominant traits, it belongs to a cultural stage that may be classed as possibly sub-human. The particular movement or evolutional feature in question of course shares this characterization with the rest of the later social development, in so far as this social development shows evidence of a reversion to the spiritual attitude that characterizes the earlier, undifferentiated stage of economic revolution. Such evidence of a general tendency to reversion from the dominance of the invidious interest is not entirely wanting, although it is neither plentiful nor unquestionably convincing. The general decay of the sense of status in modern industrial communities goes some way as evidence in this direction; and the perceptible return to a disapproval of futility in human life, and a disapproval of such activities as serve only the individual gain at the cost of the collectivity or at the cost of other social groups, is evidence to a like effect. There is a perceptible tendency to deprecate the infliction of pain, as well as to discredit all marauding enterprises, even where these expressions of the invidious interest do not tangibly work to the material detriment of the community or of the individual who passes an opinion on them. It may even be said that in the modern industrial communities the average, dispassionate sense of men says that the ideal character is a character which makes for peace, good-will, and economic efficiency, rather than for a life of self-seeking, force, fraud, and mastery.

The influence of the leisure class is not consistently for or against the rehabilitation of this proto-anthropoid human nature. So far as concerns the chance of survival of individuals endowed with an exceptionally large share of the primitive traits, the sheltered position of the class favors its members directly by withdrawing them from the pecuniary struggle; but indirectly, through the leisure-class canons of conspicuous waste of goods and effort, the institution of a leisure class lessens the chance of survival of such individuals in the entire body of the population. The decent requirements of waste absorb the surplus energy of the population in an invidious struggle and leave no margin for the non-invidious expression of life. The remoter, less tangible, spiritual effects of the discipline of decency go in the same direction and work perhaps more effectually to the same end. The canons of decent life are an elaboration of the principle of invidious comparison, and they accordingly act consistently to inhibit all non-invidious effort and to inculcate the self-regarding attitude.


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