Fritz Ringer
The Decline Of The German Mandarins

Sombart thought it possible to show that English philosophy and learning were dominated by the 'trader's spirit.' Bacon held useful inventions to be the principal goal of science. Spencer was more interested in the increase of technical comforts than in the deepening of man's understanding. English ethical theories have been focused 'not on life per se, on supraindividual life as such, but on "this or that [individual] life".' The happiness of the greatest number of individuals is the highest goal of human endeavor, according to the 'animalistic' (hundsgemein) ideal of the utilitarians; and what is this happiness but 'comfort with respectability: apple pie and Sunday service, peaceableness and football, money-making and leisure for some hobby.' The English virtues are those that enable traders to live at peace with each other, purely negative, consisting of things not done and natural drives not satisfied: 'moderation, frugality, industry, honesty, justice, restraint in all kinds of things, modesty, patience, and so on.'

Sombart had nothing but scorn for English conceptions of freedom and the state. Both, he said, were based strictly upon the trader's desire to be left at peace with his transactions. Hence the persistence of contractual notions in English political theory; hence that characteristic 'fear of the state.' According to Sombart, even war is a purely commercial enterprise in the eyes of English statesmen. Like More's Utopians, they save their own men and try to bribe others to fight tor them. They calculate; they weigh their gains against their losses. They never fight a hopeless battle, and money is their favorite weapon. They understand so little of the real meaning of heroism that they confuse battles with sports events. Take them prisoner after a bloody engagement, and they will offer to shake hands on the match; because sport, the companion of comfort, is the only form of cultural endeavor that their petty souls can comprehend.

Sombart's tale of the traders was something of a masterpiece in its own category. Its fulminant tone and the undisciplined breadth of its associations was seldom if ever matched by its competitors in the field of polemics. Its theory about British sports was almost certainly original, too. Many of its stereotypes, however, appear to have been common property in academic circles. One finds them again and again in the literature of the 'cultural war,' although generally in a less inclusive and flamboyant form and sometimes more subtly stated. The psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt, for example, brought out a little treatise on 'the nations and their philosophies' almost simultaneously with Sombart's tract. Once again, the emphasis was upon the shallowness of British ethical theories and the simplicity of common-sense realism in English epistemology since Locke. Such terms as 'egotistic utilitarianism,' 'materialism,' 'positivism,' and 'pragmatism' played a disconcertingly large role in Wundt's characterization of the Anglo-Saxon mind; 'materialism' and 'positivism' performed analogous services in his description of the French.

It is interesting that the mandarins were apparently more anxious to discredit the social and political achievements of England than those of France. Toward the French, they often displayed a certain amused condescension, while their heaviest polemical weapons were directed against the English. In part, this may have been a reflection of the military situation. England was the bigger threat. She had been the great maritime and colonial rival since the turn of the century, and the emotions of that conflict were not forgotten. But the roots of the antagonism lay deeper still. Above all, England was the prime example of a highly industrialized and politically advanced nation. English society was what German society would soon be, unless the mandarins could prevent it. That is why Sombart and Wundt reacted with such fury against Spencer's cheerful proclamations about the natural relationship between individual liberty and industrial development.

The German academics meant to show that English conceptions of freedom had little to do with the personal and cultural individualism of the German tradition. English liberty, they felt, involved a lack of restraint upon the acquisitive instincts, a sense of opposition to the state, and the purely theoretical right to participate in political negotiations. Beyond that, neither English nor French society really tolerated any kind of diversity. The force of public opinion stifled all genuine individuality, especially in the cultural field, so that a shallow common ground alone remained. Worst of all, the economic interest groups who had de facto control over the political system were also the chief agents of public opinion. Amid the dreary homogeneity of a leveled society, their commercial mentality ruled over the nation's intellectual and spiritual life.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.