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 19771 and Voegelin in 1981.2 Nevertheless both men remain outsiders, cut off almost by deliberate choice from the mainstream of contemporary political science, solitary thinkers (as Gregor Sebba said of Voegelin) working “in a kind of intellectual isolation.”3

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. But the question we have to ask, piety apart, is whether a book written in or around 1936 and published in 1939 has lasting qualities which make, it worth translating more than forty years later. I can think of a few books by German scholars of that generation of which this is true; but they are very few.4

In the case of Elias, my answer is that the two halves of The Civilizing Process must be considered separately. The History of Manners5 is a substantial, often fascinating, contribution to knowledge; Power and Civility, unless I am badly mistaken, can best be described as an exercise in top-heavy sociological theorizing, with the added disadvantage that it relies on secondary sources many of which today have been overtaken by more recent research. In Elias’s mind, of course, the two parts of his book are logically connected; but it is pretty obvious that it is the second half, where he develops his sociological theories, and not the first half, where he shows us in concrete ways the evolution of civilized manners in Western Europe, that he regards as his lasting contribution. If so, I cannot but feel that the reverse is a good deal nearer the truth.

The purpose of Power and Civility (or at least of its first two hundred pages) is to explain, or account for, the transformation of European manners (and to a smaller degree morals) described in Elias’s first volume, or, in his own rather inflated phraseology, to analyze “the sociogenesis of civilizing change.” In sum, as he repeatedly observes, this is a “very simple” process, and the title of Elias’s second volume, with its emphasis on power, makes the essential point as he sees it. To put it crudely, we are forced to be good, forced to be polite, forced into some sort of mold of civility or civilization. Of course, no one actually sets out to do this. “The psychological change involved by civilization” is “not planned by individual people or produced by ‘reasonable,’ purposive measures.” It is “set in motion blindly, and kept in motion by the autonomous dynamics of a web of relationships.”


The first two hundred pages of Power and Civility set out to show how this happened, largely by way of an encapsulated history of France from the time of good King Dagobert to the time of less good King Dagobert to the time of less good King Louis XIV. Whether it was necessary for the purposes of the argument to include a blow-by-blow, reign-by-reign, account of the formation of French unity, still less of the history of French taxation, is a question I will not discuss. Elias’s story is often repetitive, but in essentials it is the story of how a dislocated feudal society of petty barons was gradually welded together into larger units, duchies, and principalities, and eventually into “absolutist” states. But the point—as Elias sees it—is that it is this political evolution that accounts for “the ‘civilizing’ of behavior.” At a certain level of development, for example, warfare has to be curbed; the monarchy asserts a “monopoly” of military control; rude warriors have to be tamed into docile “civilized” courtiers; the mind displaces the sword, rational argument is substituted for force. “The sociogenesis of absolutism,” Elias argues, “occupies a key position in the overall process of civilization. The civilizing of conduct and the corresponding transformation of human consciousness and libidinal make-up cannot be understood without tracing the process of state-formation, and within it the advancing centralization of society which first finds particularly visible expression in the absolutist form of rule.”

No one would dispute the element of truth in this analysis. The question is how much truth. Most historians today would say that Elias exaggerates the formative influence of absolutism, just as, at the other end, he exaggerates the extent of feudal anarchy. Even before Elias wrote, Louis Halphen had demonstrated that monarchy was not a cipher in feudal society.6 Nor were “war, rapine, armed attack and plunder” the ordinary way of life of feudal knights and barons, still less “the only one open to them.” On the contrary, they had a clear sense of right, and when they fought or rebelled it was not out of sheer self-interest, but because they believed their rights were imperiled.7 And this sense of right persisted, a potent check on absolutism, even after Lousi XIV’s defeat of the Fronde.

Elias certainly exaggerates the ability of absolute rulers to impose their will. On the contrary, government depended, even after 1660, on a shifting balance between aristocracy, autocracy, and bureaucracy,8 and other German historians of Elias’s generation have shown that the tone of society under the ancien régime was set much less by the royal courts than by the aristocracy.9 Compared with the solid virtues of provincial life, the manners of the court were “a welter of delicacy and frivolity,”10 and it would be hard to show that their impact on society was more than superficial. Certainly (most historians would say) not by comparison with other influences which Elias underestimates, if he does not ignore—above all the influence of religion. We have only to think, for example, of the initiative of the medieval Church in reforming sexual morality and combating violence, both amply documented, or the pervasive influence of Protestantism and Puritanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Propriety, self-control, cleanliness, good manners—and certainly the sense of shame and modesty upon which Elias places so much emphasis—owe a great deal more to Christian teaching and example than to “the impregnation of broader strata by behavioral forms and drive-controls originating in courtly society.”

If this were all, it would be easy to stop at this point with the banal conclusion that Elias’s account of the “civilizing process,” though it illuminates certain aspects, is too narrow and one-sided to carry conviction. But that is not all. Elias has also convinced himself that the “regularities” and “mechanisms” he claims to have uncovered in tracing the rise of absolutism reveal a “compelling dynamic” which can be seen at work in the whole history of Western civilization down to, and including, our own time. To this claim we must now turn, for it is evident that it is the discovery of this overarching pattern, rather than his contribution to the history of manners, that Elias regards as his lasting achievement. If he is right, it places him among the Systematizers, or System-Builders, great and small, from Hegel and Comte to Toynbee and Sorokin. It also puts him at a distance, as we shall see, from Voegelin, the enemy of all Systematizers.


The key to Elias’s vision of the historical process is what he calls “the monopoly mechanism.” First visible in Europe in the transition from feudalism to absolutism, it represents in his view an ongoing dynamism, reproduced in the nineteenth century in the “economic struggles” between “free competition” and “a monopolistic order,” but equally operative in the political sphere. Just as feudal baronies were swept up into feudal principalities, and feudal principalities into absolutist states, so today “competing states drive each other further and further up the competitive spiral.” International relationships are “not yet regulated by an encompassing monopoly of force,” but they are “driven towards such monopolies and thus to the formation of dominions of a new order of magnitude”—empires, one assumes, or “supremacy over continents.” In these struggles, Elias tells us, we can perceive “the precondition for a worldwide monopoly of physical force,” the culmination of which can only be “a single central political institution” and—with it—“the pacification of the earth.”

A grandiose vision of the future, when peace shall reign among men—or is it, perhaps, a mirage like those which assail thirsty travelers in the desert? What, one cannot help asking, was the “single, central political institution” Elias had in mind when he was writing in 1939? Can it have been Hitler’s “new order,” stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals? In fact, he was—and is—careful not to make specific predictions. Just as it was impossible in the fifteenth century to know whether England, France, or Burgundy would emerge as the preponderant power, so today we do not know when “the pacification of the earth” will happen, or how it will happen, or who will be the beneficiary. These are questions “impossible to resolve.” But “one thing,” Elias tells us, “is certain: the direction in which the integration of the modern world is veering.” “Once set in motion,” the monopoly mechanism “proceeds like clock-work.” This short sentence encapsulates Elias’s thought. It is also his key for unlocking the mysteries of the historical process.

It is, I am afraid, a rusty key—not altogether surprisingly considering that it is now more than forty-three years old—and one of the more disconcerting things about Power and Civility is Elias’s stubborn insistence on retaining the exact words and formulations he used in the original German edition. Has nothing happened in between to make him revise or modify his views? Whatever may have been the position in 1939, nothing today suggests the emergence of “a single central political institution,” destined somehow to bring about a “pacification of the world.” On the contrary, if we look at things as they are, and not according to Elias’s preconceived scheme, what we see is not the rise of a single monopoly power but the crumbling of the Soviet and American empires and a growing international anarchy. The difference here between Elias and Voegelin is too significant to ignore. Unlike Elias, Voegelin is aware—perhaps because his field of vision is so much wider—of the fragility of “overextended, ‘multicivilizational’ empires.”11 Elias still operates with the imperialist assumptions prevalent in 1939.

In other ways also Power and Civility bears the marks of its place and time. Most visibly, perhaps, the crudely mechanistic view of history which underlies the whole argument—a view nearer in spirit to Herbert Spencer and his nineteenth-century contemporaries than to modern social and political thinking. With it goes, secondly, a crude Darwinian exegesis of the sort in vogue at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whether we are talking about knightly families, economic enterprises, territories, or states, Elias tells us, they are “always confronted by the same choice”—to conquer or to be conquered. “Whoever does not rise, falls back…. The gain of one is necessarily the other’s loss.” And since it was the West which rose and conquered, it is not surprising that this mechanistic view is accompanied by a pronounced ethnocentricity. “The developmental curve of Western society,” beginning in feudalism and expanding until it embraces the whole world, is the central thread of modern history as Elias sees it. The other characteristic feature of his book is its ingrained elitism. The emphasis throughout is on the “upper strata,” the landed and then the monied classes; the “lower social strata” figure—at least until very recent times—largely as passive recipients of the boon of civilization passed down from above.

These were commonplace attitudes in bourgeois historiography at the time Elias was writing, not least of all in Germany. They are not the assumptions we make today. Recent investigation of the history of popular unrest, popular religion, and popular culture, to take but one example, has thoroughly discredited the view that the “lower strata” are simply passive recipients of a superimposed culture.12 The idea of a steady expansion of Western civilization may have been plausible in 1939; it does not make much sense today in a world thrown into ferment by the revolt against the West. In all these ways Elias’s assumptions and preconceptions reflect pretty accurately the state of German historical writing at the end of the Weimar period; but they are preconceptions—or so one hopes—we have outgrown in the meantime.

Considered from the standpoint of historiography—and this is perhaps the fairest and most useful approach—Elias’s book is not difficult to place. It belongs in the long tradition of German historiography established by Ranke a century earlier, a fairly typical product of the last, “neo-Rankean” stage prevalent in William II’s Germany and lingering beyond 1918 right down to Hitler.13 Its affiliation is most clearly visible in Elias’s unquestioning endorsement of the primacy of the state, not merely as a political force (which may or may not be true) but also as the engine of “the civilizing process.” Even in the 1930s there were political scientists outside Germany—Harold Laski, for example—who challenged this myth. Since 1945 their numbers have multiplied;14 but Elias remains anchored in the Rankean tradition. Like Ranke, he places all emphasis on courts and cabinets; like Ranke’s (but with less excuse) his view of history is explicitly “Eurocentric”; like Ranke, he sees the state as the pivot of human activity.

This was the tradition Friedrich Meinecke, the leading German historian of the Weimar period, grappled with all his life, trying to reconcile power and morality, and state and society, only to confess, after the collapse of Hitler’s Germany, that he had been struggling desperately and unsuccessfully to achieve the impossible.15 What is disconcerting is that, whereas Meinecke recanted, Elias still seems to subscribe to the assumptions common among German national liberal historians on the eve of the Nazi takeover. It dates his work, and puts it in a context that has little relevance for historians today.

Since the death of Friedrich Meinecke in 1954, history has moved on, shifted its sights and changed its priorities. Even in Germany the old attitudes and assumptions have been discarded, and one of the casualties has been the sort of overall mechanistic pattern of historical development Elias seeks to establish in Power and Civility.16 It is not easy today to think of history as (in Voegelin’s formulation) “an intramundane process that will lead inevitably to a global ecumene,” when we are only too painfully aware that it is just as likely to lead to a nuclear holocaust.

That, in the end, is what stands between Elias’s generation and ours. It is also what stands between Elias and Voegelin, and why it is instructive to confront them. They represent, in their conflicting attitudes, one of the great dichotomies confronting us today—on the one side, those who believe they have discovered the direction of history and seek only to control and manipulate it, on the other, those, like Voegelin, for whom it is a “mystery that has no end in time.” Nor is this merely an intellectual issue. A false view of history can have disastrous political consequences; it did in 1914 and in 1939,17 and it can easily do so again. As Voegelin puts it, “the games by which the power-self makes itself the fictitious master of history are still played today.”18 Left to themselves, they can tear apart the fragile structure of civilized living. Elias has illuminated its genesis and early history; one can only hope that he has not foretold its end.

This Issue

October 21, 1982