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Rhetorical Style and Bourgeois Virtue

Capitalism and Civil Society in the British Enlightenment

Mark Garrett Longaker


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ISBN: 978-0-271-07086-5

184 pages
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RSA Series in Transdisciplinary Rhetoric

Rhetorical Style and Bourgeois Virtue

Capitalism and Civil Society in the British Enlightenment

Mark Garrett Longaker

“The substantive chapters of this book repay close reading owing to the careful way that Longaker highlights and synthesizes important intellectual and historical currents that shaped a diverse group of English and Scottish thinkers across three centuries.”


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During the British Enlightenment, the correlation between effective communication and moral excellence was undisputed—so much so that rhetoric was taught as a means of instilling desirable values in students. In Rhetorical Style and Bourgeois Virtue, Mark Garrett Longaker explores the connections between rhetoric and ethics in the context of the history of capitalism.

Longaker’s study lingers on four British intellectuals from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century: philosopher John Locke, political economist Adam Smith, rhetorical theorist Hugh Blair, and sociologist Herbert Spencer. Across one hundred and fifty years, these influential men sought to mold British students into good bourgeois citizens by teaching them the discursive habits of clarity, sincerity, moderation, and economy, all with one incontrovertible truth in mind: the free market requires virtuous participants in order to thrive.

Through these four case studies—written as biographically focused yet socially attentive intellectual histories—Longaker portrays the British rhetorical tradition as beholden to the dual masters of ethics and economics, and he sheds new light on the deliberate intellectual engineering implicit in Enlightenment pedagogy.

“The substantive chapters of this book repay close reading owing to the careful way that Longaker highlights and synthesizes important intellectual and historical currents that shaped a diverse group of English and Scottish thinkers across three centuries.”

Mark Garrett Longaker is the Associate Chair and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.



List of Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Works

Definitions and Introductions

1 John Locke on Clarity

2 Adam Smith on Probity

3 Hugh Blair on Moderation

4 Herbert Spencer on Economy

Conclusions and Provocations




Definitions and Introductions

The association between ethics and economics is commonplace. As a result, when supply and demand falter, we appeal to right and wrong. During the last credit crisis, we worried about “moral hazards” and “predatory lending” because we suspected that functional twenty-first-century capitalism depends on people who pursue profit and uphold ethics, people who are greedy but good. The connection between rhetoric and ethics is likewise routine. Therefore, criticism of a person’s writing might use words that otherwise describe his character. We might call a phrase “felicitous” or a paragraph “sloppy.”

Much less common nowadays is an association between rhetorical style and economics. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that “capitalism” requires “certain premodern cultural habits” in order to “work properly.” Even as he concedes that market societies require ethical behaviors to engender trust, Fukuyama never imagines that linguistic syntax instills a sense of “moral obligation [or] duty toward community.” The economist Deirdre McCloskey celebrates the bourgeois virtues because capitalism makes people good and good people make capitalism work: “Virtues support the market . . . [and] the market supports the virtues.” But McCloskey makes no mention of metaphors or similes.

Teachers and scholars in the humanities more readily associate rhetorical style with virtue, largely because humanists (especially rhetoric teachers) have long believed that becoming a better writer makes you a better person. This supposition goes back to ancient times. Aelius Theon, probably writing in the first century, described an early exercise that captures the millennia-old association between ethics and rhetoric. Students writing chreia read useful sayings (maxims or representative anecdotes) and then briefly embellished, contradicted, or restated them. Through performative repetition they cultivated good habits of speaking (style). Additionally, they reconfigured bits of received wisdom to curate virtue. Roughly a century later, Hermogenes noted that specific stylistic qualities relate to the orator’s moral makeup. For example, he said that qualities of the sincere style “are aspects of Simplicity that reveal Character.” Aelius Theon’s first-century Roman contemporary, Marcus Quintilian, described good rhetorical style using terms that suggest the ideal Roman character: “bold, manly and chaste.”

During the English Renaissance, due in large part to Hermogenes’s popularity, this ancient association between style and virtue continued. In The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), one of the era’s most popular manuals, Thomas Wilson associated an appropriate style with an admirable virtue. Lois Agnew paraphrases Wilson: “To develop skill in the appropriate use of language is inherently good because language is the natural and external embodiment of human reason.” When the speaker employs an appropriate style, she asks the audience to admire her character. Therefore, according to Wilson, “the way in which an individual uses language has a direct bearing on the life of the community.” Despite this long-standing connection between rhetoric and ethics, few today would suggest that good habits of speech sustain a capitalist economy.

Economics is commonly connected to ethics. Ethics is typically associated with rhetoric. Economics and rhetoric seem indirectly linked by their shared affiliation with ethics. This has not always been the case. In the chapters to follow, I argue that the British Enlightenment wove all three disciplines into a cohesive vision of free-market capitalism, rhetorical style, and bourgeois virtue. By returning to and exploring specific writers’ connections among these three subjects, I offer rewards to audiences in several disciplines. For those who care about the history of ideas, I demonstrate that during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries (and arguably still today) people theorized the virtues of personal liberty and free trade by focusing on the habits of language. To those interested in analyzing and teaching persuasive writing/speech, I explain that the rhetorical tradition has promulgated ethical dispositions that sustain the free market. For those studying the history of economics, I explain that early political economists discussed and disseminated capitalism’s excellences by exploring and exhibiting stylistic habits such as clear and honest speech.

To summarize my principal argument, in the late seventeenth, mid-eighteenth, and mid-nineteenth centuries a British philosopher, a political economist, a rhetorical theorist, and a sociologist all tried to cultivate bourgeois virtue by teaching rhetorical style, each building on others’ ideas and each addressing a unique stage of capitalist development. Each chapter supports this thesis by exploring the connections among ethics, economics, and rhetoric in the scholarly corpus of one individual while accounting for his intellectual debts and his economic circumstances. Since the argument about rhetorical style and bourgeois virtue is this book’s main contribution, the work is arranged into separate essays that make the same point recursively, each time with new evidence and in different circumstances. Four case studies of four people connecting rhetorical style to bourgeois virtue prove that three subjects (ethics, economics, and rhetoric) were interrelated from the late seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries.

The individual chapters are written so that each can be read independently of the rest, but their cohesion into a single argument will not be apparent unless the reader keeps in mind: (1) three key terms (capitalism, bourgeois, and civil society); (2) a methodological commitment to intellectual history; and (3) a recurring distinction between civil society and civic virtue. The bulk of this introductory chapter is therefore dedicated to defining these terms, to explaining this commitment, and to drawing this distinction.

Capitalism and Intellectual History

In the paragraphs and pages to follow the word capitalism refers to the private ownership of wealth and the market distribution of resources. The classical Marxist might say capitalism is characterized by class struggle and the industrial exploitation of labor. The leftist vanguard might say capitalism is a form of (inter)state political organization that enables domination by one governmental institution or one economic class. But since this study focuses on bourgeois thinkers, ideas anathema to their preferred definition are inappropriate. For the bourgeoisie, capitalism features neither exploitation nor the state; rather, capitalism favors freedom from exploitation and absence of the state.

This definition and the above description of this book’s principal argument both suppose the value and possibility of an intellectual history that mixes biography, conversational context, and economic circumstance. Each essay aims to fairly present one writer’s ideas as they fit in a broader conversation and a wider social situation. The presumptions required to sustain such corpus analysis are themselves questionable. First, I must assume a unified subject (an integral person or author) who writes. Second, I must believe that this presumed author achieved some consistency in his writings. Third, I must accept that some ideas (such as those about rhetorical style and bourgeois virtue) determine others (such as those about political economy or sociology). Finally, I must privilege ideas over institutions, beliefs over actions, individual lives over historical eras, philosophical systems over political movements. Needless to say, though all these presumptions are troubled, they can be defended nonetheless.

The unified subject—the now “dead” author—may be a fiction, but it is an Enlightenment fiction, so we should not be surprised to find people in the British Enlightenment writing as if they were psychically whole. Michel Foucault points out the Enlightenment beliefs in “the public and free use of autonomous reason.” Evidence of the era’s belief in public reason can be found in the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and Herbert Spencer, for each discussed liberal civil society, that free space where individuals can rationally pursue their interests and reasonably work out their differences. Evidence of the “author” who possesses autonomous reason can be found in the remarkable philosophical consistency exhibited in each man’s intellectual corpus. Most (with only Blair as the exception) revised their earlier works, striving to make them comport with their later beliefs. Some (such as Smith and Spencer) destroyed papers that they could not completely integrate into their philosophical systems. All tried to maintain and apply certain core tenets throughout their lives. Spencer’s dedication to a notion of voluntaristic yet biological evolution parodies the Enlightenment “author” struggling for consistency by allowing early principles to determine later ideas. While it is ontologically questionable to assume an autonomous and rational author composing a consistent intellectual corpus, it is historically accurate to say that this questionable notion guided Locke, Smith, Blair, and Spencer.

The final supposition underlying intellectual history—the privileging of ideas over institutions—is difficult to defend, for it touches on a question of value. Feminist histories oppose patriarchy. Microhistories celebrate local actors. Materialist histories endorse economic systems (or their overthrow). Intellectual histories value beliefs, typically an era’s “ruling ideas.” I cannot say—because I do not believe—that a dominant philosophy deserves more attention than a political program committed to gender equality, a narrative technique dedicated to neglected actors, or a critical inquiry concerned with economic justice. But I nonetheless maintain that historians, economists, rhetoricians, and philosophers can benefit from intellectual history by learning what the dominant class thought, even if we choose to disagree, prefer to value the local actor, or strive to overturn the prevailing mode of production.

While I champion intellectual history, I acknowledge that focusing exclusively on ideas would ignore British capitalism’s influential institutions. Locke, Smith, Blair, and Spencer each lived during some stage of capitalism’s development. In the late seventeenth century, most of England, arguably all of Scotland, and certainly every square mile of Ireland belonged to what Peter Laslett called a bucolic, feudal, and alien “world we have lost.” When John Locke was writing about credit and clear style, he did not imagine himself as bourgeois, nor did he live in a market-oriented society. Nevertheless, he participated in trade and commerce, just as England’s turn-of-the-century economy depended on its financial sector. By 1760 when Adam Smith conceived his now-famous free-market apology (Wealth of Nations, 1776), urban areas of England, such as Middlesex, did not “belong in the world we have lost.” But much of Scotland still did. Christopher Whatley has chronicled dramatic advances in post-Union (1707) Scotland: agricultural improvements, a flourishing financial industry, increased manufacturing. However, Whatley also notes that these developments stumbled due to local recalcitrance. People fought enclosure and commercialization. Demand for luxury items (such as tea, ale, and wigs) increased among the urban middle class but nowhere else. Workers stayed in the fields rather than migrate to the factories. Nonetheless, Adam Smith and Hugh Blair witnessed important developments in marketing and trade. Only Herbert Spencer witnessed the full glory of the English industrial revolution. Capitalism was a frail newborn during England’s financial revolution, an unpredictable child during Britain’s commercial revolution, and a troubled adolescent during the industrial revolution. The social history of this development explains many British Enlightenment ideas about rhetoric, ethics, and economics.

In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, there was an “apparent [economic] scene” involving factories, governments, capitalists, and workers. Nonetheless, mine is a book about imagination, what Étienne Balibar has called political economy’s “other scene.” John Locke, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and Herbert Spencer all imagined their “material process of history.” Accounting for the interaction between their imaginations and their economic circumstances should counter any effort to assert that ideas drive history or that economics determines ideas. As Balibar explained, there is no “absolute ‘last instance’” accounting for human history, so we should adopt “a broad (hence heterogeneous) concept of materiality.” Such a concept must include imaginations and industries, beliefs and institutions, values and policies.

Bourgeois and Civil Society

The word bourgeois carries two complementary meanings. A dictionary might present them so:

1. Pertaining or belonging to a modern nonaristocratic subject who freely and rationally debates matters of public importance. Example of bourgeois (1): “We conceive bourgeois public sphere as a category that is typical of an epoch. It cannot be abstracted from the unique developmental history of that ‘civil society.’” Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962).

2. Pertaining or belonging to a modern subject who participates in and benefits from free-market capitalism. Example of bourgeois (2): “The economists express the relation of bourgeois production, the division of labor, credit, money, &c., as categories fixed, immutable, eternal.” Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).

As the above examples suggest, different values adhere to the word depending on its use. Habermas celebrated the public sphere in bourgeois civil society. Marx condemned the exploitative profit justified by bourgeois political economy. Furthermore, the word carries both meanings in every use. The bourgeois subject is both a citizen and a capitalist, speaking freely in the public sphere while trading profitably in the marketplace. In both arenas, the bourgeois subject exhibits the same rhetorical virtues to sustain civil society. She speaks clearly and honestly; she sympathizes with those who do likewise; she embellishes but never obscures meaning; she speaks concisely.

In an older (and distinctly English) usage, the term civil society refers to government or the state. When John Locke discussed the transition from the state of nature to “civil society,” he meant the formation of government. In the eighteenth century, a new use of the term appeared and found its fullest explication in the political writings of the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. Hegel argued that civil society is a free and open arena “between the family and the state.” The “creation of civil society,” said Hegel, “belongs to the modern world.” Civil society is the domain of the bourgeoisie, the place where free people exchange goods and ideas to achieve reasoned cooperation and to pursue personal profit. Their rationally self-interested behavior results in an unintended social good, for “the particular end takes on the form of universality, and gains satisfaction by simultaneously satisfying the welfare of others.” Hegel was heavily influenced by English political economy (especially the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo), so his notion of civil society repeats a basic presumption that Hegel inherited from the British Enlightenment: in bourgeois civil society, social welfare arises from the unintended consequences of rationally selfish behavior. While Hegel imagined it as a place for free trade, Habermas has demonstrated that civil society also featured the free exchange of ideas. Locke, Smith, Blair, and Spencer all believed bourgeois civil society suffers whenever people’s speech gets restricted or their wallets constrained. Since states and churches often threaten the public sphere and the marketplace with harmful restrains, civil society depends on a virtuous bourgeoisie to establish its order and to guarantee its stability.

Civil Society Distinguished from Civic Virtue

Ever since J. G. A. Pocock discussed the tension between an ancient belief in “civic virtue” and the bourgeois institution of “civil society,” every scholarly use of one term tacitly invokes the other. According to Pocock, “The dominant paradigm for the [eighteenth-century] individual inhabiting the world of value was that of civic man; but the dominant paradigm for the individual as engaged in historic actuality was that of economic and intersubjective man, and it was peculiarly hard to bring the two together.” From fourth-century BCE Greece to fifteenth-century CE England, Pocock’s “civic man” was imbued with “civic virtue,” dedicating his public life to the state. Since the ancient Greek agora and the Renaissance English court were parts of the state, those who deliberated in these arenas studied rhetoric to prepare for civil service. People learned to be good citizens by speaking properly in public situations.

Many late-Renaissance and early-Enlightenment developments led people to interrogate the classical sense of civic virtue. Gerard Hauser has explored two in particular: (1) The Protestant Reformation led to “dissenting” factions. When French Huguenots refused Louis XIV’s Catholicism and when English Quakers refused Charles II’s Anglicanism, everyone saw that public discourse could defy the state. (2) Town burghers resisted national control of local trade. When English shopkeepers and merchants resisted the Stuarts’ mercantilism, people realized that they could publicly associate beyond the state’s power. As a result, according to Hauser, the classical belief in civic virtue withered. In its place grew a dedication to civil society, a bourgeois institution whose guiding concept is “a network of associations independent of the state whose members, through social interactions that balance conflict and consensus, seek to regulate themselves in ways consistent with a valuation of difference.”

This distinction between civic virtue and civil society separates the modern from the ancient. Furthermore, the difference between the modern and the ancient accounts for two important developments in British Enlightenment rhetoric: belletrism and the plain style. Since the Enlightenment affection for belletrism and the plain style was built on a synthesis of civic virtue and civil society, I will spend a few more paragraphs discussing these terms. The distinction between public virtue and private conscience is a good place to begin exploring the ancient connections among plain writing, stylistic ornamentation, and virtue. Ancient public virtue is a performed quality that infuses any space where people deliberate matters of shared concern. Ancient Greeks did not distinguish a knowing subject from the object known, anymore than they believed in a psyche independent of a society. The classicist Eric Havelock succinctly explained, “Here is a man to whom it has not occurred, and to whom it cannot occur, that he has a personality apart from the pattern of his acts.” If performance is not independent of person, if outward demonstration cannot separate from inward virtue, then training a person to speak in a certain fashion will also train her to be a particular(ly good) citizen.

Ancient Greek sophistical education emphasized rhetorical style because the sophists saw the mind as a collection of performed habits patterned after dominant mores. Formal and encyclopedic methods of education focus on the isolated mind receiving information. Sophistical rhetorical education, in contrast, does not separate the individual from the community, nor does it separate knowledge from habit. As a result, ancient sophistical rhetorical education aimed at instilling virtue by teaching values, traditions, and behaviors. Students memorized maxims that encapsulate received wisdom. Proof of their learning—the final exam, so to speak—is a convincing and stylistically appropriate oration.

Modern private virtue is a cloistered quality that suffuses the conscience and guides the individual toward good behavior. The reasons behind the transition from public virtue to private conscience remain disputed. Perhaps the shift from oral to literate culture instigated a simultaneous move from public to private, since orality happens in crowded assemblies whereas literacy happens in lonely libraries. Perhaps the Protestant separation of individual conscience from the congregation triggered the modern separation of psyche from community. Perhaps squabbles over (city-) state sovereignty led to a belief in political freedom and personal confession. If the state is free, then so must be the citizen; and if the citizen is free, then so must be her conscience. Regardless of the supposed origin, modernity is marked by atrophied publicity and hypertrophied privacy. The sociologist Richard Sennett explained that, in modern times, “the psyche is treated as though it has an inner life of its own.”

Belletrism and the plain style are the British Enlightenment’s chief rhetorical preoccupations because the bourgeoisie wanted language to reflect private conscience. Bourgeois civil society rests on the supposition that each speaker can freely express her thoughts and sentiments in the public sphere. Richard Lanham once parodied these Enlightenment suppositions about psychology, rhetorical clarity, and the plain style: “I have an idea. I want to present this as a gift to my fellow human beings. I fix this thought clearly in my mind. I follow the rules. Out comes a prose that gift-wraps thought in transparent paper.” Lanham’s glib summary overlooks the Enlightenment hope that the plain style might allow rational and sincere (nonviolent) communication among diverse people with independent minds. The chapter on Locke explores the psychological assumptions and the political hopes lurking in the British Enlightenment’s affection for clear discourse in the public sphere.

The British Enlightenment fascination with aesthetic effect in prose style also recalls the bourgeois hope for civil society. Teaching people to appreciate beautiful discourse makes them into genteel citizens who cooperate through polite habits—kind words, artful sentences, elegant phrases. Contemporary philosopher Mark Kingwell’s defense of civility echoes belletrism’s promise to improve civil society through gentility: “Civility . . . is a civil goal; it has to do with getting along with one another in society. . . . Civility contributes to smooth social interaction, makes for tolerance of diversity, and conditions a regard for the claims and interests of others.” Of course, gentility cannot be rule-bound. If it were, then we would have a series of manners enforced rigidly without awareness of social context or political relevance. The essays on Smith and Blair argue that early British belletrism taught the bourgeoisie’s ethical dispositions, not the schoolmarm’s stylistic injunctions.

While the separation of civic virtue from civil society helps to explain British Enlightenment rhetoric, this distinction suggests two wholly separate traditions and a clean transition from the ancient to the modern world, from Renaissance civic virtue to bourgeois civil society. Pocock has cautioned against supposing such stark separations. For centuries, even as civil society was emerging, beliefs about civic virtue persisted and sometimes reinforced people’s hopes for the bourgeois public sphere. According to Pocock, Scottish intellectuals (such as Smith and Blair) defined “a morality in which virtue might be shown arising from sources in society, culture, and commerce, and existing independently of the practice of autonomous politics.” For the Scottish Enlightenment’s leading writers (for Smith and Blair) civic virtue arises in civil society. As I argue in the chapters to follow, Smith and Blair also believed that civil society depends on practicing these rhetorical virtues in commerce and conversation. Addressing contemporary criticisms of Enlightenment belletrism allows me to elaborate on this point.

Present-day writers raise two chief arguments when critiquing the British Enlightenment’s approach to rhetorical style: (1) Belletrism privileges aesthetic criticism, not civic engagement. (2) Belletrism promotes static and abstract rules rather than flexible principles for good communication. One late nineteenth-century example in the belletristic tradition confirms these claims: Adams Sherman Hill’s Principles of Rhetoric and Their Application (1878). At the time Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard and inventor of the U.S. required first-year writing course, Hill discussed three abstract virtues: clearness, force, and elegance. His textbook is peppered with firm rules and literary examples that propose to improve the student’s “taste” by exposing her to “the best authors . . . [who] naturally use good language.” He told his students, for instance, that “force” can be achieved through personification. He did not explain how the literary trope leads to the aesthetic effect. He illustrated with examples of personification from the writings of Richard Steele, George Eliot, William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But we should not expect eighteenth-century belletrism to exhibit Hill’s nineteenth-century indifference to civic concerns. The chapters on Blair and Spencer explain how their Enlightenment civic stylistics morphed into Victorian aesthetic preoccupations. Examining textbook abridgments of Blair’s rhetorical theory demonstrates that nineteenth-century editors stripped his work of political concerns while inserting literary judgments. Examining Spencer’s preoccupation with the social sciences demonstrates that an emphasis on psychology led to dry stylistic rules rather than rich ethical principles. Prior to these developments, however, belletristic and plain-style rhetorics examined rhetorical style in the public sphere.

Before defining capitalism, bourgeois, and civil society in such detail, I stated this book’s principal argument: in the late seventeenth, mid-eighteenth, and mid-nineteenth centuries a British philosopher, a political economist, a rhetorical theorist, and a sociologist all tried to cultivate bourgeois virtue by teaching rhetorical style, each building on others’ ideas and each addressing a unique stage of capitalist development. The above discussion of civic virtue suggests a second contribution to intellectual history, a narrative about the introduction of civic virtue into civil society. Each chapter in this book explains how one British Enlightenment intellectual wove civic (bourgeois) virtue into civil society by promoting clarity and gentility in rhetorical style.

So far, I have introduced my principal argument, its key terms, my methodology, and the argument’s relevance to a range of scholarly conversations. In what’s left of this introduction, I gesture toward a broader claim that each chapter pursues and to which the conclusion returns.

Nowadays, it is common to hear descriptions of our newly stylish and exceptionally rhetorical postindustrial economy. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, as the NASDAQ reached its zenith, new economy acolytes rhapsodized: “Markets are conversations.” Glory in the “aesthetic” economy. At the nadir of the new economy’s collapse, its detractors bemoaned an information age that “takes the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value” and that applies the “standards of a finance- and consumption-driven entertainment culture” to “democratic governance.” Altogether, celebrants and critics sing a common fugue about the information economy, the rhetorical worker, and the age of style. My study of capitalism and civil society in the British Enlightenment reveals that our age is not exceptional. From its seventeenth-century financial beginning through its nineteenth-century industrial episode to its twenty-first-century digital projection, capitalism has been thoroughly rhetorical. John Locke obsessed over discursive clarity and its role in commercial contracts. Adam Smith agonized about sincerity and its necessity in free-market commerce. Hugh Blair believed that the bourgeois consumer’s affection for fashion and the bourgeois speaker’s attention to figuration could improve commerce. Finally, Herbert Spencer insisted that a free industrial nation needs poetry to foster bourgeois sympathy. It may tickle our present-day fancy to imagine capitalism’s past as a series of cinematic vignettes from the age of mechanical reproduction: colorless and silent. But a glance back at the British Enlightenment reminds us that the earliest bourgeois citizens adorned themselves and their language because they believed that capitalism (postindustrial or otherwise) requires rhetorical style and bourgeois virtue.

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