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I.   The Rise of the Bourgeois Work Ethic

The Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the first World Fair where Britain showed its industrial might and astute culture.

The Victorian Era was a strange time of mystic sexual morality, distinct fashion, industrialization, and — above all — imperial conquest. It was Britain’s century, their colonialist high-point, and they likewise influenced lands far beyond their water-locked country. The “Victorian morality” was a strange development in the emergence of bourgeois society. It was hypocritical as much as it was limiting; the mantra was to better the human condition, while, at the same time, turning a blind eye to the plight of the child worker and the general laborer (There were exceptions, of course. A spare few were in fact unsettled by the plight of these poor folk, one of them being Karl Marx).

With the rise of industrialization in the British mainland came a downplaying of hedonism. Pleasure was seen as seemingly antithetical to the ideal Victorian, where hard-work was cherished as a means to religious salvation [1]. Max Weber spoke of this in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that the rise of Protestantism gave headway to new laborious expectations and allowed for further divisions of labor. In the Calvinist view, Martin Luther’s, and others of the Reformation, it was not enough to be devoted to supernatural salvation; one had to also be devoted to earthly labor and his craft. Because of the inability of individuals to influence God’s grace, given the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, they struggled to find signs of their destiny — which was either eternal damnation or salvation. A rigorous work ethic was preached as being a sign of “God’s grace,” and it became the epitome of the Calvinist tradition. Although only Scotland of Great Britain was largely Calvinist, due to the teachings of John Knox, the rest of the industrializing island also exemplified a similar outlook on labor. Religious individualism was crucial in any Protestant tradition that broke from the Catholic Church, even in the Anglican Church of England. In contrast, places such as Ireland (predominately Catholic), according to Weber, lacked this attitude due to the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church and its overreaching doctrine, which limited individualism [2]. Coupled with the fact that “sloth” was considered a deadly sin in Christian doctrine, the development of bourgeois society fall hand-in-hand with the development of this new robust industrial individualism and the facilitation of Protestantism.

II.    Demonizing Lust 

Because of the development of a new work ethic, sexuality became an impediment to such ends. Such relations were relegated to private rooms, away from public sight. The majority of children, even among the poor, were sent to Sunday school where they were inculcated in a belief that one must abstain from sexual perversion. It was seen as an obstacle to God’s grace (let us not forget, “lust” is yet another deadly sin) [3]. Pleasure, as told by religious dogma, was merely a test of faith and should not be responded in kind. In part by this, sexuality become externalized — it became part of the object, rather than the self — and became regarded, seemingly, as a necessary evil.

Sexuality become a construct of public attention and scrutiny even in common language. It became impolite to bring up such topics in company and euphemisms emerged to describe them, need it be brought up [4]. Nearly every part of the body had a corresponding euphemism, with even the term “leg” being impolite and being replaced with “limb.’ The entire concept of procreation was made into fables that were nicely-worded to be avoided with children; such as the famous story of the “white stork” being the harbinger of small children that became popularized with the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Storks [5].  Equally absurd, genitalia were seen as too explicit to be shown in any context, even in artistry, during Victorian times. Expurgation, the censorship of the “offensive,” become common. Perhaps the best known example is one of the “fig-leaf,” where Queen Victoria, as the story goes, was repulsed to see the genitalia of Michelangelo’s statue David. A proportional fig leaf was then made to cover the obscenity, so the figure could be tolerated [6]. Even classical literature was found guilty of obscenity — Dr. Thomas Bowdler omitted and rewrote Shakespearean plays to make it more “accessible to children and wives.” Called The Family Shakespeare,  minor expletives were omitted and death was made gentler, among other things. With the gentry holding morality of society by the handles, these such moral impositions pervaded all facets of British life, from the top down. Consequently, these norms were brought to all dominions of British rule and, given its vast empire, its sexually-repressive influence was vast and lasting.

III.   The Patriarchal Family

The standard Victorian family had many children.

Perhaps most striking, in contrast with late developments of the family, is the role of women in society. The structure was overtly patriarchal. In Victorian society, the woman was servile and sexually docile. She was bound to her domestic life, despite having some political and civil autonomy, and was given the unspoken task of functioning as the moral instruction for servants and children. Women were expected to give birth to many children and the standard was set by the Queen Victoria and her husband — i.e. the “Royal Family” — who, in total, had nine children. Standards of femininity were established in the higher rungs of Victorian society and were expressed actively in the arts. The great Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson espoused such repressive virtues in his poem The Princess: 

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion [6].

One of the reasons for this gender polarity and rigidity is the development of the bourgeois middle-class during the Victorian era. The average Victorian male worked, unlike the gentry, and was able to afford at least three servants [7]. The household became a symbol of the male’s moral character and was regarded as a reflection of social class.. Thereby, it did not matter if the working man had to face obscene conditions and do monotonous labor to earn his living; as long as he had a respectable house to come back to, his social class was maintained. The paradox of experiencing a inferiority in the workplace induced a need to establish a superiority in the household, ultimately giving rise to patriarchal sentiments and female submission. This dynamic would establish two separate spheres of control in Victorian society — the private and the public, the workplace and the home, and the domestic and the business.

IV.   Sexuality as an Object

The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction by Michel Foucault

In 1976, philosopher Michael Foucault published one of the first volumes to a three-volume series that would come to be known as one of his seminal works. His book, The History of Sexuality, analyzed the role of human sexuality in the Western world and its development. It aimed at questioning the presupposed “repression hypothesis” — that the current repressive elements of sexuality are a symptom of the Victorian era, which is when rigid restrictive norms were put in place. Although Foucault does not outright reject repressive Victorian morality as a major factor in the rise of modern Western sexuality, he turns the mainstream thesis on its head in arguing that sexuality was more discussed than ever before during the Victorian era.

The long rule of Queen Victoria has been characterized by sexual repression, censorship of the obscene, and domestication of the female; however, is there more to Victorian culture than merely superficial restrictions on discourse? Although there was relative silence on the topic between child and parent, teacher and pupil, or even master and house servant — was there not also, perhaps, a growing fascination with sexuality as a human condition? In 1841, the British state, for the first time, became instituting a full census of their population. This expansionary measure would include statistics on marriage, birth rates, and death rates [8]. The family was promoted as the building block of British life and marriage was superimposed as a guiding force in establishing such social harmony. Prostitution became an epidemic  as poor female laborers struggled to find an income and were economically coerced to sell their bodies to usually wealthy upper-class gentry [9].  Priests became more interested in “confessions on the flesh” during the Christian practice of Penance, where individuals would confess to the priest their supposed “impurities.” Foucault writes:

But while language may have been refined, the scope of the confession — the confession of the flesh — continually increased. This was partly because the Counter Reformation busied itself with stepping up the rhythm of the yearly confession in the Catholic countries, and because it tried to impose meticulous rules of self-examination; but above all, because it attributed more and more importance in penance — and perhaps at the expense of other since — to all insinuations of flesh: thoughts, desire, voluptuous imaginings, delectations, combined movements of the body and soul; henceforth, all this had to enter, in detail, into the process of confession and guidance [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

He goes on to argue how the establishment of Penance in Protestant (and Catholic) nations began deviating from actual confession of sins and became obsessed with the smallest of pleasures.

According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but all its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told [The History of Sexuality Vol I, 19].

Likewise, the Victorian era and the few decades prior to its development set a standard: Now, not only did one need to confess to acts that were against the law, they also had to tell all their pleasures and desires in church discourse, under the watchful eyes of the priest or minister. This set a new tone to sexuality in the Western world previously unheard of — it gave rise to innumerable euphemisms to describe acts or body parts previously taken as merely “being,” in an effort to describe this new sexual fascination. Sexuality was now externalized, treated as undesirable pleasure, and was to be repressed in public. And henceforth, the repression in Western culture took on a two-faced form; on the one hand, sexuality was to be beaten down from the public eye, but, on the other hand, was to be properly dissected under the guise of an authority that demands it.

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of

Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing, author of “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1886).

In academia, sexuality began to be added to the scientific lexicon. The Oxford English Dictionary began to add specific terms to their newly-printed releases;  “sexual intercourse” (1799), “sexual function” (1803), “sexual organs” (1828), “sexual desire” (1836), “sexual instinct” (1861), “sexual impulse” (1863), “sexual act” (1888), and “sexual immorality” (1911). Moreover, sexual behavior became robustly studied as a field worthy of attention [10]. Sexuality was seen, in scientific circles, as a proper way to assess one’s personality and behavior. Who you slept with became, peculiarly, also an identity in the Western mindset. This became especially prevalent in psychiatry, before the Freudian revolution of thought, where sexual deviancy was seen as particularly problematic. And this phenomenon was present far beyond the bounds of Victorian England, since talks on sexuality were rising in the confession booths all across Christian Europe. Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebing published his work Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 in which he outlined four sexual categories of, what he considered to be, symptoms of neurosis. They were titled: paradoxia (sexual desire at the wrong time), anesthesia (not enough sexual desire), hyperesthesia (too much sexual desire), and paraesthesia (sexual deviancy, i.e. queer and fetishism). He goes on to discuss the sexual “impassivity” of the female compared to the male, describing the male as having a “stronger sexual appetite” — only reaffirming the hypocritical sexual expectations of the male and female which is pervasive in Western culture to this very day.

V. Modern Victorian Sexuality 

The ramifications of such repression, and private sexual objectification, has reared its ugly face even in contemporary society. The hysteria over discussion on sexuality is still pervasive and shied away in any public discourse. Archaic conceptions of sexual “immorality” are still being tossed around in the public arena and are commonly told to children. Rigid notions of femininity and masculinity are institutionally enforced and kept in check by popular disapproval once one steps outside the preconceived bounds. Perhaps, what is seen more vividly, is the persistent caricature that one’s sexuality is an indicator of one’s personality. The marginalization of sexuality continues to plague the Western mindset, always thrown to the back-burner of our minds, too frightening to be discussed. Such are the chains that have to be properly broken if we wish to actually articulate real “sexual liberation’ or any humanization of what, should be considered, natural human urges. To put it most bluntly, perhaps it is time to bring, first and foremost, such topics of sexuality to light. And all the while, let us give those that decry its discussion the proper response — ignore and pressure them to change their repressive ideas of sexuality, which have been shamefully penning individuals in a sexually-normative box ever since its adoption as a Western moral imperative. It is about time the discussion has been opened, rather than have sexuality continue to be an object of scrutiny.

***

The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality 

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

The beliefs of Western liberal society are at a fundamental crossroads. In one direction, lies secular humanism — at the other, lies ancient Judeo-Christian heritage and its supposed claim of relevance. Most individuals walk a very fine line between the two; holding onto the cultural implications of religion, while also not minding its declining involvement in government. Belief acts as a mediator which holds this delicate balance together.

Belief, in and of itself, is a obligatory view. It is a tenet you live your life by, and it has profound implications on your social psychology and the general organization of a civilization. It would be foolish to discredit the influence of religiosity in the West, in spirit and in practice. However, belief can function as a sort of ideological trapSimply put, acting on a belief is not equivalent to actually believing it. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek provides us with a story to illustrate this point, in which he tells us the tale of physicist Niels Bohr.

“A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!” [1] 

In an excellent passage, Zizek essentially explains the function of belief in modern society. Although individuals may personally not believe an ideology, they act as if they do because they take it others believe. In fear of reprisals, they then live as if the belief is theirs. But there is a twist: what if the other individuals do not believe it either? With this, an entire belief system is build upon the existence of non-belief among individuals. I take religion to be in this same stride, functioning as a belief in a sea of disillusioned disciples.

Such a statement is hardly revealing to the standard American Christian household. The father takes his son to Church, to educate his child on Christian values. The father, himself, was pressured to do so by his own parents. They would be disappointed if he raised his children without such a pretense. The father, himself, does not believe, but acts as if he believes to give a proper impression on his parents. The child lacks the belief also, but to not disappoint his father, he refuses to tell him. Instead, he acts as if he believes. Here, we have a situation of two non-believers, paradoxically imposing a belief on one another. Would it not be another twist of irony to say the father’s parents do not believe, just as the father and the son do not? This belief is likewise solidified, passed through familial relationships, and built upon a structure of non-belief — giving those trapped within this dilemma the illusion of a belief that is absent from the individual’s own choosing, being imposed on them by the technicalities of human relationships.

This is the death of God. The death of God is not external invasion unto the Christian church hierarchy. It is not an attack from outside the prayer circles — it is within them. It is when God as an entity becomes irrelevant to the actual substance of belief, being replaced by a complex foundation of non-belief. In Europe, trends of non-belief are stronger than in the United States. According to surveys by the Financial Times/Harris Poll, only 27% of individuals living in France truthfully believe in a Christian God or Supreme deity. This is contrasted with 73% of those in the United States [2]. Bearing in mind the different histories of European and American ancestry, I take it that such a large disparity between religiosity is largely due to the culture of the United States. Religious disbelief is looked down upon, even persecuted, in American media and society — denigrated in excessively negative terms. The question is, how many of the religious belief structures in the United States are founded on fear of consequences? Potentially, very many, I would say.

However, the implications extend further than Zizek’s story on ideology. Equally important are those that believe (for cultural reasons generally), but live their lives as if they do not. Done through ritualistic ends, their religious ideology becomes a routine rather than a philosophy of action. For many Western Christians, this is the reality. They find themselves lofting to church on some Sundays, and then vehemently arguing over whether we should say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays, and fighting to preserve prayer before football games [3]. The extent of Christian ideology in American culture has largely become a gimmick of cultural preservation more than anything else, serving as the last backlash of a decaying social phenomenon.

Christian ideology makes many universal claims. It promotes objective truth and meaning, a belief system that is dogmatic and said to be true by its disciples. They have this bastion of knowledge, the key to God’s judgement and mercy, that is said to be the absolute truth. And yet they live their lives as if this is hidden, only resurrecting (excuse the pun) it when socially beneficial. If an individual held such truth of the universe, would they not devote their entire lives if they believed so strongly it was true, rather than bickering over trivialities on cable television? The charade of these religious charlatans defending “Judeo-Christian America” is a testament to the hypocrisy of the ideology in the hearts of those that follow it. True belief would not frequent itself in discussions on media sensationalism, in an attempt to keep what always has been in American society; it would prepare, and act, in the interests of God and rely on his judgements. Perhaps if they took God’s objective truth to its fullest conclusion, they would sit and pray rather than rely on themselves. If they are so convinced of their beliefs, they would be equally be convinced God would give them a hand.

The death of God does not involve the elimination of religion, nor does it involve the tearing down of religious institutions. It involves the hollowing out of religion by its believers. It makes God into a centerpiece of disbelief, propped by complex interlocked relationships and cultural enforcement. A belief propped by non-belief, it finds itself as the comfort to those that fear the destruction of their religious and cultural identity. It finds itself as the poster-child of reactionary backlash, the broken center of the exaggerated dichotomy of secularism and religiosity, and the illusionary opponent of civil institutions by religious disciples that lack the belief themselves. During the height of Catholic ascendancy, the belief was not so fractured. Prayer was seen as a powerful tool; the Devil was a real distinguishable threat. We have long abandoned such views, despite what is heard in Evangelical circles (I can assure you there would be little hesitation for them to take human action over prayer if their own lives were in peril). Let’s be frank, God is dead –The emperor has no clothes on, we are looking straight at him, but we are too naive to admit it.

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