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“Be not conformed to this world,” St. Paul beseeched Christians, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”[68] In order to make one’s way in early modern England, it was necessary to achieve just such a transformation. Complexities abounded everywhere, and only a self-disciplined soul could provide a true center of stability. In a sense, each individual had to carry his own ordered world within him as he journeyed through the uncertainties. Community could begin only with the understanding that each of us possesses our own identity, our own world, and that to achieve social solidarity required an exchange among independent human beings. But this meant that every person must act according to his own will and judgment and bear his own risks. Insofar as capitalism is the rational pursuit of gain, this kind of ethical individualism is its necessary cultural and intellectual prerequisite. It depends on each person’s recognition that his inner life affects his world; it does not divide him from it. By his actions he can transform it, but he also remains forever open to its shaping influences.

The capitalism born in coping with the new demands of the Atlantic economy and the new conditions of politics in the Restoration was not only a set of beliefs but a system of organization for carrying them out, a way of doing as well as seeing—a distinct form of life. Forms of life have origins just as species do. They connect with past forms. Even though they live in environments different from those of their forebears, they use many of the characteristic features of their ancestors, if for quite unexpected ends. Moreover, just as with the origin of species, the rise of forms of life is unpredictable, contingent both on the nature of their surroundings and on the kind of adaptations they have been able to make. This means that they are not universal. The truths that apply to one form of life will be meaningless or false in others. It also means that they are not eternal. After they come into existence, they can experience catastrophic change or suffer extinction. The form of life whose emergence we have described here, based as it was on an uncertain system of credit, undependable trading conditions, and an unstable structure of politics, did not—could not—long remain as it was. As Britain underwent its financial and industrial revolutions in the eighteenth century and moved toward representative democracy in the nineteenth, the features of this form of capitalism were altered or passed out of use; and Bristol—England’s gate to the Atlantic—lost its central place in the still-widening economy to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other industrial cities of the Midlands and the North. Nevertheless, Bristol’s contribution was a lasting one, for as it helped to open England to the world, it also helped to teach the world what it meant to live by the disciplines of the market, “ship shape and Bristol fashion.”


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