Ascetic Harmony

I talked with a friend of mine recently who works in upper management of a major company. Officially, companies have a dedication to bottom line. But appearances can leave out part of the story. My friend talked of how different aspects of the company need to cooperate to achieve the goal of expanding customer base, increasing profit, and so on. It became obvious that certain programs advanced certain departments failed to work in achieving these goals. But in high-level meetings, this could never be said outright. He mentioned that he spent the better part of an hour on one slide for a presentation, and particularly one sentence on that slide where he had to say that ‘X’ hadn’t worked without actually saying it directly.

In the end he attempted a solution by bypassing direct criticism and instead left out mention of the program in what his team had accomplished. Not good enough–he had several rounds of post-meeting meetings to ‘clarify’ the situation.

We may think such behavior odd for a business in competition with others. Reading Philip Mansel’s new biography of Louis XIV, entitled King of the World, provided an interesting insight into this behavior. Essentially, the upper level of management at this particular company–and no doubt many others–functioned like a court, where etiquette and harmony trump the achievement of certain objectives. Or, rather, we might say that harmony, order, and gentility were the objective.

Though I have read some other things about Louis XIV before, Mansel provided an important insight I had not considered. For Mansel, Versailles existed primarily because Louis loved Versailles. It served as a grand passion for him. I and others often focus on the particular political ends Louis achieved partially as a result of Versailles, such as his centralization of government, control over the nobles, and so on. But I can’t stand medieval historians who say that the French built Chartes to increase trade in the area–an utterly absurd statement. But the same holds true for Louis. One might build a road to aid trade, but not a cathedral, which is essentially how Versailles functioned. Only acts of “love” can truly take root. Just as the Gothic cathedrals gave impetus to the shape of culture for 250 years, so too Versailles launched France into a place of prominence for perhaps 150 years, give or take.

The lens of “emotional attachment” through which Mansel viewed Louis makes a lot of sense. We see Louis elevating his illegitimate children in rank above certain other nobility, in defiance of custom. Was this a mere political ploy? One can also see him as acutely interested in the harmony of his family, though perhaps not necessarily as a devoted father. Louis also elevated the status of many women at court to never before seen heights. Again–a political, cultural move, or one rooted in his definite fondness for at least certain women? Mansel looks at the wars of Louis XIV, and again sees his actions rooted in a somewhat irrational longing, rather than clear-headed policy.

Though Louis had his significant failures we have to see him as overall a very successful monarch, at least in the sense of creating political stability and vaulting France into prominence in Europe.

But as we all know, coupled with the “romantic” side of Louis came strict and unusual etiquette. One could commit a grave offense for trivial matters such as knocking at the door in the wrong manner, or sitting in the wrong chair, or failing to open both doors for a Countess instead of just one, and so on. We see this passion for harmony and order throughout the grounds of Versailles, both inside

and out.

We should not see this as pure self-indulgence–the rigorous etiquette shows that. Many other anecdotes exist about the behavior of the nobles in Versailles, especially as it relates to money. One of the few activities at Versailles that all could engage in more or less equally was gambling. Before reading Mansel, I saw this primarily as a means of control, with the ebb and flow of fortunes exchanging hands serving to weaken the nobility. Now, I see it more so as a gift from Louis which allowed everyone present to engage in aristocratic disdain for money. The gambling tables created a sense of harmony in that winning or losing mattered little in comparison to display of aristocratic virtues and conviviality.

Indeed, perhaps we can see court behavior at Versailles as a kind of rigorous self-abandonment–one leaves their estates, some of their family, their customs, and their fortunes to join together as one happy family.

Not long after Louis’ death in 1715 a new kind of ethic arose, one ably elucidated by Max Weber in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was certainly a genius, and a German one at that, which makes his prose quite dense. But, despite the significant criticisms leveled at this seminal work over the last century, I’m convinced his core points remain standing.

Early in the work, Weber cites a letter of Ben Franklin to his son to show the new Protestant ethic, at its face a radical departure from the nobles at Versailles just 30-40 years earlier. Franklin writes,

Remember that time is money. He that can earn 10 shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, though he spends only 6 pence on diversions, ought not to reckon that as his only expense.  He must think of what he could have made through labor, rather than what he lost through diversion.  

Remember that credit is money.  If a man lets his money in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time.  This amounts to a considerable sum, if a man can make use of it.  Remember that money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more.  The more there is, the more is produced.  He that kills a breeding sow destroys not just the cow but her offspring unto the generations.  

Remember this saying, “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse.”  He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, raise all the money his friends can spare.  This is sometimes of great use.  After industry and frugality, nothing raises a man more in the world than punctuality in all of his dealings. 

The most trifling actions that can affect a man’s credit are to be regarded.  The sound of your hammer on the anvil at 5 in the morning and 8 at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy 6 months longer; but if he hears your voice in a tavern when you should be at work, he will demand payment in full without fail and without delay.

Keep an exact account of all you owe and all payments coming to you.  You will then notice well how even trifling expenses add up against you, and you will discern what might have been.  You will grow wise with little effort.

One might see here a self-indulgent of luxury, of riches for the sake of riches. But we see here a similar sense of self-abandonment as at Versailles, with different tools directed at different ends. We must live frugally, arrive punctually, etc. so that . . . ? Weber sees the connections between Protestantism–especially the Calvinistic stripes–and Capitalism, in the following ways:

  • The grace of God, and hence, salvation, can never be earned. Forms, ceremonies, etc. are not aids but distractions to proper devotion. We should ascetically remove all such distractions, lest we indulge ourselves and think that any ceremony has any efficacious quality.
  • But how to know that we are truly elect? We can do the works God has commanded us to do. These works, of course, cannot save us but can witness to others of our convictions.
  • Since God orders all things providentially, and is no respecter of persons, all activities can serve as a means of displaying Christian virtues.
  • In the old Catholic world, different seasons of the year called for different levels of piety and devotion, and different practices. But–aside from unnecessary ceremony–this is a crutch, allowing one to “get off easy.” Just as God is no respecter of persons, He is no respecter of time or space. Everything at all time deserves our full attention and best effort.

This “worldly asceticism,” as Weber calls it, creates capitalist economies. Of course, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but Franklin’s pursuits have money only as a byproduct. The real goal is virtue and “election.”* The aristocrat and the capitalist both disdain and embrace the world, but in different ways for different reasons.**

One can see how harmony might come about as a result of Louis XIV. Instead of having aristocrats fight each other and the king, he brought them together and unified them through their enchanted surroundings and ritualized behavior. We know this world could not withstand the mulititude of changes that arose almost right after Louis’ death, but it has an internal consistency. One problem–Louis’, while outwardly pious, made the highest end his own Disneyland.^ Unlike the medieval construction, Louis’ France could not “scale up” high enough to include enough particularity throughout his realm. We are now in the midst of wondering whether or not our world can create enough harmony to sustain our civilization. The capitalist ethic, like our political system in general, is built on the idea of mutual opposition and competition (between companies or branches of government) creating enough unity through this clash of mutual self-interest (i.e., Madison’s “Federalist #10). We shall see.

Many conservatives were surprised, even blindsided, by the fact that so many corporations adopted woke policies. Weber would see this as a natural byproduct of “worldly asceticism,” a form of self-denial to create harmony. Like Louis’ Versailles, even slight, trivial missteps assume grand proportions. But like Louis’ construct, it cannot scale to include enough particularity. Their god is too small.

Dave

*Some critics of Weber point out that capitalism existed long before Protestantism. True–in the sense that people have sought profit and traded with others since time immemorial. However, I think it no coincidence that modern Democratic capitalism was created by both Dutch Calvinists (New York, Amsterdam, the Vanderbilts) and Scotch/English Low Country Calvinists (Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie, London, and Boston).

**Seen this way, it makes total sense to me why many Americans wanted to keep Catholics out of America up until the late 19th century. The issue goes beyond religious difference and into two very different ideas of cultural formation. As it turned out, they need not have worried, as the American system soon captured Catholics and most other immigrants.

^Versailles and Disneyland have much in common. They both have immaculate landscaping, and seek to create a kind of alternate universe. Some years ago I knew someone who had worked at Disneyland as a landscape supervisor. The pay was good, but he grew weary of the job due largely to the severe etiquette involved, such as

  • Tools always had to be lined up parallel to each other on the ground
  • Golf cart drivers always had to have two hands on the wheel
  • Regular band-aids could not worn for cuts. Disneyland supplied their own flesh-colored ‘invisible’ band-aids.
  • Workers could not really talk to each other while working in public view–they needed to be as invisible as possible (much like household servants in all of those British dramas).

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