Clockwork History

Power and Civility: Volume II of “The Civilizing Process”

by Norbert Elias, translated by Edmund Jephcott
Pantheon, 376 pp., $22.50

Norbert Elias is one of those shadowy figures, not uncommon in our ambivalent society, hovering indecisively on the nebulous frontier between obscurity and fame. In this respect his position is not unlike that of Eric Voegelin, another octogenarian German scholar, who also was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, though in more fundamental ways, as we shall see, Elias and Voegelin stand at opposite ends of the contemporary intellectual spectrum. Both have suffered long periods of neglect; both have subsequently been extravagantly praised.

Richard Sennett of New York University described the first volume of Elias’s major work, Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation, as “the most important piece of historical sociology to be written since the time of Max Weber.” Voegelin has been called “the most influential historian of our century, and certainly the most provocative.” These are big claims, and if true certainly worth examining. Meanwhile it has to be said, as a statement of sober fact, that neither has made a noticeable impact on current thinking outside a narrow circle of devoted admirers. The contrast, for example, with Toynbee needs no emphasis, though Toynbee’s star also is under a cloud today.

It is not altogether surprising that Elias’s Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation fell flat when it first appeared in 1939. People then were far more concerned with the process of decivilization going on before their unbelieving eyes than with the process of civilization, and it was only thirty years later, when an intrepid publisher issued a second edition of Elias’s work, that it won a tardy and far from universal recognition. Voegelin was virtually unknown until the publication of The New Science of Politics in 1952, by which time he was already over fifty years old. Subsequently both have been recipients of Festschrifts in their honor, Elias in 1977

Any attempt at an assessment of Voegelin’s achievement is better postponed until the publication (due in all probability in 1983) of the fifth and final volume of his elaborate and ambitious work, Order and History. The position regarding Elias is different. Voegelin’s mind is always on the move, grappling with new ideas and ready to abandon positions in which he no longer believes, so much so that even today no one knows quite where he stands. Elias, on the other hand, takes his stand unequivocally on the work he published in 1939, the first half of which appeared in an English translation in 1978 with the title The History of Manners. Now, after an interval of four years, the second half has appeared under the title Power and Civility, and we are in a position to assess its place and significance. For the octogenarian scholar this act of piety must obviously be gratifying …

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Letters

Elias Defended June 16, 1983