Town and Gown

Transgender historian of economics Deirdre McCloskey has a word for intellectuals who constantly bash classical liberal (think Adam Smith) ideas about where wealth and human flourishing come from. She calls them the “clerisy.”

In her words, the clerisy are
the opinion makers and opinion takers, all the reading town, the readers of the New York Times or Le Monde, listeners to Charlie Rose [whoever that is], book readers, or at any rate book-review readers. My people. Like me.
I would say, “My people. Like me,” too, except that I don’t read the New York Times or Le Monde, I have no idea who Charlie Rose might be, and I am pretty sure thanks to my support for Milo none of the opinion makers or takers would be interested in talking with me.

But these are my people. They are like me. Academics. Book readers. Book writers. The intellectuals.  If you prefer (say it with the proper accent), the intelligentsia.

Those of us who have bet bigly on our cultural capital, as Pierre Bourdieu might put it.

Those of us who have fled Middle America for the promise of the coasts, as Charles Murray might put it.

Here are some of the things that the clerisy tend to believe, according to Deirdre.
The clerisy thinks that capitalist spending is just awful.... The clerisy doesn’t like the spending patterns of hoi polloi.
The clerisy by which the children [of the bourgeoisie] are taught accuses the middle class of inauthenticity, and plays on pseudoaristocratic contempt for “middle” construed as “mediocre.”
Laura [a high-school teacher of English in Russell Roberts’ novel The Invisible Heart (2001)] is proud to be living off a business civilization and yet to remain ignorant of how it actually works. Thus the clerisy of Europe since 1848.
In other words, the clerisy are snobs. They look down on the world of business and making things as beneath them and sneer at the desire of hoi polloi for nice things. They think of globalization as a good thing only insofar as it does not involve things, and they consider only the work that they do – writing books, making art, music, and movies – as creative. And then they blame the bourgeoisie for not making everyone rich.

Here’s one of them, explaining why intellectuals are better than those awful rich men:
The poor scholar is overcome by study, not deprived of virtue; moreover, the rich man, who does not study and who lives in his high houses, give poor scholars the heehaws and even blows. I eat sparingly in my little room, not high up in a castle; I have no silver money, nor do the Fates give me estates. Beets, beans, and peas are here looked upon as fine dishes, and we joke about meat which is not on our menu for a very good reason. The size of the bottle of wine on the table depends on the burse which is never large, and which is the weekly statement of expenditure made on oath. Intellectual virtue becomes potent only when it is followed by active or customary virtue which deserves reward because it leads to good works. This scholastic life is the highest form of life; it gives boys such a cleansing of mind and of body that these erstwhile dummies can explain the causes of eclipses of sun and moon, what keeps the sea within bounds, by what force the earth is rent asunder in earthquakes, whence come hail, snow, rain, and lightning, and what makes the days long in summer and short in winter.
You’d almost think he was talking about climate change! Okay, yes, this was written eight hundred years ago, during the Medieval Warm Period. Just saying.

Which is also to say: Deirdre is off by some six or seven hundred years. The clerisy of Europe have been bashing the bourgeoisie since there were clerisy, that is, since there were universities (a.k.a. guilds) living parasitically off the towns. And yet, weirdly enough, the towns wanted them. Or, perhaps more accurately, the lords of the towns wanted them and imposed them on the towns.

For example, Paris (pictured). Here is King Philip Augustus making nice to the clerisy in A.D. 1200, after a brawl between a group of students and the townspeople left five students dead:
In the name of the sacred and indivisible Trinity, amen. Philip, by the grace of God, king of the French. Let all men know, now and in the future, that for the terrible crime owing to which five of the clergy and laity of Paris were killed by certain malefactors, Thomas, then provost [of the city], about whom the students have complained more than all others, because he denied the deed, we consign to perpetual imprisonment....
And neither our provost nor our judges should lay hands on a student for any offence whatever, nor should they place him in our prison, unless such a crime has been committed by the student that he ought to be arrested. And in that case, our judge should arrest him on the spot, without striking him at all, unless he resists, and should hand him over to the ecclesiastical judge, who should guard him in order to satisfy us and the one suffering the injury....
Also our judges should not lay hands on the chattels [possessions] of the students at Paris for any crime whatever.... 
And you wonder that the clerisy seem to think themselves above the law. More or less from the beginning, the students and faculty of the universities saw themselves as set off from the concerns of the towns. King Philip was only the first to grant them the privilege of being outside his own law.

Here, in the words of the same scholar whose description of the student life we read above, was an advertisement put out by the count of Toulouse, inviting fourteen masters of theology, canon law, liberal arts, and grammar to come live in his town:
Here is peace, elsewhere Mars rages in all the world. But this place received Mars and death formerly.
Further, that ye may not bring hoes to sterile and uncultivated fields, the professors at Toulouse have cleared away for you the weeds of the rude populace and thorns of sharp sterility and other obstacles. For here theologians inform their disciples in pulpits and the people at the crossroads, logicians train the tyros in the arts of Aristotle, grammarians fashion the tongues of the stammering on analogy, organists smooth the popular ears with the sweet-throated organ, decretists extol Justinian, and physicians treat Galen. Those who wish to scrutinize the bosom of nature to the inmost can hear here the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris.
What then will you lack? Scholastic liberty? By no means, since tied to no one’s apron strings you will enjoy your own liberty. Or do you fear the malice of the raging mob or the tyranny of an injurious prince? Fear not, since the liberality of the count of Toulouse affords us sufficient security both as to our salary and our servants coming to Toulouse and returning home.
And you thought tenure was a good deal! Repeat after me: scholastic liberty was a bribe. Just like, ironically enough, the bribe of burghal tenure that these same lords – bless their hearts! – were offering at the very same time to the bourgeoisie.

On the one hand, there they were, promising the clerisy that they would be outside the town provost’s law, while on the other, they were promising the merchants and other worthy townsmen rights and liberties that set them off from the original inhabitants of the towns (the Normans specialized in this kind of grant) and from those not in possession of burghal status. (The Laws of Breteuil which the Normans used in England, Wales, and Ireland, specified a relatively low annual rent of 12d for a burghal tenure, while exempting burghers from a variety of obligations and tolls.)

It is almost as if the lords were up to something. Like, I don’t know, trying to establish functioning towns. From which, to be fair, they hoped to turn a profit.

Can you say, sibling rivalry? Surely it is a curious thing that those of us who spend our lives making things with words and images should be so perpetually at odds with those who spend their lives making things with other things.

McCloskey talks about a course she used to teach when she was Donald at the University of Chicago, and how he attempted to instill a sense of virtue and purpose into the study of making things:
When I initiated a course in business history at the business school at the University of Chicago in 1979, I started it with Mesopotamia, having the kids read business letters from 2000 BC collected at the Oriental Institute, because I wanted them to know that they were embarking on an ancient and honorable profession, not, as the clerisy believes, a dirty modern aberration. As [Michael] Novak says, to think of business as a calling – he and I have God in mind here – “would help tie [the young businesspeople] more profoundly to traditions going far back into the past.”
And then she chides her fellow clerisy:
Making and selling steel or hamburgers is not the most prestigious field among intellectuals. Writing long books is. [She is being self-deprecating. McCloskey’s book from which I quote is 616 pages including the index.] Or among artists, installing artworks or making movies is. But running a fruit stall with energy and intelligence shares in the exhilaration of creativity. Don’t laugh. By doing so you exhibit a nasty snobbishness, you misled member of the Western clerisy. And you exhibit an undemocratic ignorance of the world’s work to boot. Shame on you. Maimonides [the medieval Jewish philosopher] left no doubt that the clerisy’s pretension is a mistake. “One who makes his mind up to study Torah and not to work but to live on charity profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of the life hereafter.”
As I am sure you have guessed, I am getting a little weary of my fellow members of the clerisy with their time-worn complaints about how impoverished we (the clerisy) are in comparison to the lords in their castles and the grasping businessmen of the towns.

We live lives of enormous privilege – privilege in the technical medieval sense, “private law” – simply as members of the academy. We sit atop an extraordinarily complex civilization that has been centuries in the making, and we scoff at the labor that has gone into it, both intellectual and material. We enjoy the functioning of great systems of energy, sanitation, water supplies, while we sit snug in our classrooms talking about logic, theology, and grammar (or, at least, we should – it is what we were granted these privileges for). And then we look down on the people who make it possible for us to live this way.

Yes, the bourgeoisie have also benefitted from these privileges, but we, the clerisy, are just as much to blame (if blame must be assigned) as they are at accepting the lords’ invitations to come and live in cities, leaving our hometowns behind. (And if you think we haven’t been enticed, go read Charles Murray again.) If nothing else, a little gratitude is in order, not to mention humility. We might even want to listen to the bourgeoisie about what they would like us to teach the children that they send to us, often at great personal expense. (Pro tip: Many of them voted for Donald Trump.)

We are, after all, ourselves children of the towns. Transbourgeois, you might say.


Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

John of Garland, Morale Scolarium, ed. and trans. Louis John Paetow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1927).

Maryanne Kowaleski, ed., Medieval Towns: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008): Privilege granted to university of Paris; John of Garland’s rendition of Count Raymond’s invitation to the scholars of Toulouse.

Image: Paris, from Hartman Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicle (Nuremberg: Koberger, 1493).

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