The Civilizing Process PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 13 January 2011 16:04

One of the most interesting accounts of the rise of modern culture and politics in the past fifty years was Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process.  His study begins by asking how the “modes of behaviour considered typical of people who are civilized in a Western way” were defined as the standard of civilized conduct. Through a careful survey of etiquette books and other documents dealing with topics like table manners, blowing one’s nose, spitting, the deportment of the body, facial expressions, and the control of bodily functions, Elias argues that Westerners went through a gradual and uneven affective transformation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the end of the process, behaviors considered normal in the Middle Ages had been ruled “barbarous,” and the civilized separation from barbarity signaled major changes in feelings of delicacy, shame, refinement, and repugnance.

Erasmus’s highly popular treatise De civilitate morum perilium (1530) stands at the threshold of this development.  On the one hand, Erasmus deals with bodily functions with a medieval candor that would make later generations blanch.  He states his disagreement with those who recommend repressing a fart “by compressing the belly,” warning that such a practice is unhealthy and criticizing “fools who value civility more than health” by suppressing natural sounds and smells.  If gas can be expelled without sound, Erasmus writes, “that is best.  But it is better that it be emitted with a noise than that it be held back.”  Vomit, further, is not disgusting; what is disgusting is “holding the vomit in your throat.”

Yet, at the same time, Erasmus was seeking to inculcate something of “modern” civilite.  One’s step should be “neither too slow nor too quick,” for either extreme is vulgar. Erasmus’s book was part of a trend that increasingly turned away in disgust at forms of behavior that appear to have been normal among medievals.  Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo (1558), for instance, urges “modest, honourable” men not “to relieve nature in the presence of other people, nor to do up his clothes afterwards in their presence.”  It is also bad form to “hold out the stinking thing for the other to smell, as some are wont, who even urge the other to do so, lifting the foul-smelling thing to his nostrils.”

Etiquette books inculcated a new style of living, deliberately distanced from the earthy rusticity of medieval manners and from the lower, peasant classes:

Modes of behaviour which in the Middle Ages were not felt to be in the least distasteful have increasingly become surrounded by feelings of distaste.  The standard of delicacy finds expression in corresponding social prohibition.  These taboos, so far as can be ascertained, are nothing other than ritualized or institutionalized feelings of displeasure, distaste, disgust, fear or shame, feelings which have been socially nurtured under quite specific conditions and which are constantly reproduced, not solely but mainly because they have become institutionally firmly embedded in a particular ritual, in particular forms of conduct.

Elias argues that these apparently minor changes were crucial in the rise of modern states.  Changes in behavior helped form a courtly class and the extension of central courts’ power throughout various European societies.  Beginning at court, refined behavior spread throughout society through the increasingly complex webs of social connection and interdependence that bound the court to the rest of society.  If one wanted to be acceptable in court society, one needed to move, gesture, and speak with civility, and anyone interested in moving upward in the social hierarchy could not afford to be excluded from court society.  New standards of behavior became badges of inclusion in court society, and were gradually internalized.

Over time hardy warriors were transformed into effete courtiers.  Medieval noblemen were largely independent of other noblemen, and largely independent of peasants and burghers.  They expressed themselves with a swashbuckling freedom: An insulted knight struck out violently in defense of his honor.  As victors emerged from the competition among well-armed medieval nobles, however, royal courts increasingly held a monopoly of force, and nobles were increasingly dependent upon kings, and on other nobles and even bourgeois tradesman and bureaucrats, for their own social standing and power.  To get near the centers of power, one had to adopt a particular regimen of behavior, a regimen that held violent passions in check and maintained an air of politeness.  Competitive politeness replaced the old military competition.

This situation required a complex response: On the one hand, nobles could maintain their status only by distinguishing themselves in dress and deportment from the rising bourgeois, while at the same time it was in the interests of nobles to convince everyone (not just nobles) that noble standards were the obvious standards of civilized conduct.  These social pressures required courtiers to act and speak in stereotyped ways, suppressing not only their instincts for revenge but also lower bodily functions.  The same regimen foregrounded refined bodily movements and conversation that did not include discussion of hemorrhoids, the smell of feces, constipation, or gas.  Men who farted and laughed were no longer going to have a place at the king’s table.  The transformation of manners is, for Elias, part of the story of the political centralization of Western states, and their monopolization of force, during the early modern period.

“Cultivation” came to be identical to the adoption of certain rituals of conduct, internalized in feelings of shame and revulsion, and this process is connected to the formation of a refined upper class that exercises power within a society as the constraint on body and emotions becomes a mark of membership in elite society.



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