Human Beings as Functions of the Power Structure
of Their Society” from The Court Society (1969)
The twentieth-century reception of Norbert Elias's historical sociology was greatly delayed by Nationalist Socialism in Germany. Born in 1897 in Breslau, Elias received a doctorate in philosophy in 1924 and continued his studies under the Heidelberg sociologists Alfred Weber and Karl Mannheim. The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 prevented Elias from completing his major work, The Court Society. It was finally published in 1969, the same year that the second edition of his other major work, The Process of Civilization, appeared. He lived in exile first in Paris and then in England, where he lectured at the University of Leicester. In the 1970s he moved to Amsterdam, where his reputation was established. Not until 1974, with a new edition of his work, did he receive widespread recognition in his native land. Elias died in Amsterdam in 1990.
Elias's sociology is known for its attention to the formal niceties of civilized life. This selection includes his remarkable analysis of the rituals surrounding Louis XlV's dressing in the morning. He carefully draws out the political significance of the Sun King's body and the clothes that covered it. While dwelling on strange details that inevitably surprise the modern reader, Elias develops a theory of clothes and social power that allows us to recognize the continuity between the baroque and our own era. The impracticality of Louis's clothes might seem intolerable to twenty-first century readers, and the painstaking staging of his dressing makes France seem like an alien culture, yet Elias shows how the rituals of dress can be explained as mechanisms of social control and authoritarian symbolism. He also reveals what the bourgeois fashion culture rebelled against: Louis XIV embodied the greatest extreme of aristocratic ostentation. By reading Elias's account, we learn why Rousseau preferred the nakedness of the Spartan athlete and why subsequent modernists derided ornamentation.