Class Consciousness

While reading Evelyn Waugh’s biography of his friend Ronald Knox (1888-1957), the Catholic priest and author, I came across an interesting letter that Msgr. Knox wrote as part of a religious debate:

I am not going to decide  whether the average Catholic Mexican is what you call ‘a better man’ than the average Protestant Englishman. I do not know which I would rather go for a walking tour with, but that is not the same thing. I prefer Englishmen to the natives of any other country in the world, but that is not going to do them much good, poor dears, at the Day of Judgment.

He sums up the question of cultural identity with nuance and honesty. Our philosophical beliefs and emotional affinities do not always coincide. That does not mean that they are completely disconnected or that our beliefs cannot have an intentional impact on our choice of friends, etc. Our social relations are often paradoxical. To deny this is unrealistic or even dishonest.

Only a very few souls can be said to truly transcend their “class consciousness.” With that in mind Knox poked fun at a rich socialist friend in a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan:

…A rescue-the-poor young man,
A waiter-look-sharp young man,
A ride-in-a-motory
Keep-to-your-coterie
Friend-of-the-world young man….

The point was that for all his egalitarian protestations, the friend remained an upper class snob. (See my related post.)

Throughout our lives we seldom escape our social origins and, if we do, it is by embracing the mores of an entirely new group. You will often see class migrations, but not a “classless” society. A good example of this is the widespread social mobility of Americans following the Second World War. Many people advanced from the rural poor and urban labor sectors to become middle class white collar workers, or else their children moved up the scale of education and income to adopt ways of life very different from their parents.

It should also be noted that, contra the socialists and extreme libertarians, class is not identical with one’s paycheck. Some blue-collar workers earn more than their white-collar college educated counterparts. Class identification can also cut across political affiliations. While I generally vote the same way as my blue-collar neighbors, culturally I identify more with the manners, interests and aspirations of my peers, even when they are secular liberals.

We are reminded that human existence is not something that can be tidily cataloged and organized… even on class lines. There will always be exceptions to the rule. Yet even taking those into account, the candid observer will admit that people tend to group with others from like backgrounds.

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