POWER AND CIVILITY: The Civilizing Process, Vol. II by Norbert Elias

POWER AND CIVILITY: The Civilizing Process, Vol. II

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In the second volume of this unusual enterprise, social philosopher Elias turns his attention from the origin of table manners (The History of Manners, 1977) to the formation of states--as another aspect of the development of civilized life. To Elias, civilization means the subjugation of physical and psychological drives to the claims of reason and the creation of individuality. Freud saw this process as inherent and unchanging, in each individual and in society as a whole; Elias conceives of it as a historical development. So he retraces the process whereby states became consolidated as centers of power, largely through monopolization of military might and (via taxation for military expenses) of economic strength. The monopolization of power by European monarchs--the French Capetians, the English Plantagenets--meant that the direct exercise of power by individual nobles had to be sublimated into the more complicated and nuanced relationships of life in the monarch's court. At court, the upper classes learned to succeed by interpreting the monarch's personality--that is, by psychologizing. To make his point, Elias juxtaposes two key figures. Representing the militaristic knight is the Duke of Montmorency who, angered by Richelieu's power, led a flamboyant cavalry charge against the king's forces--disregarding strategy or tactics, or muskets. The muskets put an end to the cavalry charge, and Richelieu put an end to Montmorency. The courtier is represented by Saint-Simon who, also a duke and in opposition, engaged in the politics of faction rather than take to his horse. His strategy was to win over the Dauphin, by persuasion and conversation. The difference between those two figures, in time, is a generation; but in meaning it is much more. The courtly manner was transformed, in turn, by the conflict between the aristocracy and the rising middle classes. Thus, the changes that have occurred in manners and politics are based on conflict rather than consensus--but a conflict that is submerged and sublimated. Elias focuses squarely on Europe, from feudalism to the 19th century, and the argument is fleshed out with historical examples and narrative; but the question arises of earlier periods. Why not, say, focus on the difference between Homer's heroes and Pericles? The same distinction between mindless action and calculated discourse seems to apply. Elias' aim, however, is to remind his contemporaries that their fears and conventions are manmade; and that struggle and conflict can end only when there is an end to discrete groups--social classes and states. Along with some pseudo-profundity: a coherent historical sketch of the social psyche.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon