Social Problems & Role Theory

Social structures are invisible because they are, after all, nothing more than names for coordinated activities between people, and so are not available to the five senses even though they are made up of events and so are empirical. And yet people have an apperception of these structures even if they cannot give names to them because different structures do, in fact, have different “feels” to them, the job of giving specific names to distinct social structures left to professionals, the ordinary layperson knowing well enough about how the social world works so that he or she can live in it and manipulate it. Here is an example of one of those social structures, social problems, that people sense and therefore know about without needing to know about it with any precision except when a social crisis arises as happens, for instance, when there is a President of the United States who is clearly unsuited to the job and the American people have to decide how unsuited he has to be to be turned out of office.

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Here is a simple guide to human motivation.

People play amusing games with Sari, the voice of Google. They ask to marry her. They ask her trick and obscure questions about history. They remark on how she never gets tired of giving you new directions when you have gone a block beyond where you were supposed to turn. What is funny about her is that she never loses her patience, even though she seems to be a human voice, and we know why that is true. She is, after all, a machine. People, on the other hand, get annoyed if you repeat a question more than a few times; they take offense at lewd remarks; they are displeased when they display themselves as ignorant. That is because they are reflective about where they fall short of their images of themselves, of their self-conscious selves. They know how they anticipate how they will act or have their actions looked at and so can measure where they fall short. This solipsism is the beginning of wisdom because it can be stretched to include all the many ways in which people anticipate the consequences of their actions and of collective action. Machines, on the other hand, are infinitely patient, never jumping to the future, because, after all, they are not exercising patience at all but merely being what they are, which is procedures whereby things get done through physical and electronic arrangements, whether that is a lever, always there to serve, or an automobile, whether or not it is driverless, and computers, that do get unplugged, but do not go mad, except in a metaphorical sense, as happens with any old fashioned IBM calculator when you tried to divide by zero: it just started jumping around the table. This distinction between people and machines, people having intentions and machines not, provides a lever into understanding motivation.

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The Right to Secession

The Founding Fathers put into the United States Constitution at least two remedies should it happen that the splendid mechanism they had devised should show imperfections either in systems or in practice. First off, they provided for a process of amendment whereby, with great difficulty, Congress or the states could alter the Constitution, the process not being hasty lest it be engaged in for mischievous reasons. Second of all, they provided for impeachment, whereby even the President could be removed from office, his powers so great that he might be suspected of wanting to overstep them, and there had to be a way of doing that without resorting to his execution, an expedient which the British had used in their own past and whose lesson was not lost on the Founding Fathers: find a way to peacefully get rid of the one who presides over the nation. The Founding Fathers did not expect this power to be used lightly, for then it would have turned the new nation into something of a parliamentary democracy, the President subject to the political inclinations of his legislature. To the contrary, the spirit of the Founding Fathers was to make as many things as possible about their system objective rather than political, and so the term of service of the President was set as a fixed number of years, just as the allocation of seats in the Congress to the various states was on the basis of a census of the people of the United States so as to prevent the existence of “rotten boroughs”, which are districts without many persons living there, which happened in the British system because it was by act of Parliament that an area had a seat in Parliament or had one withdrawn.

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Old Age is a Disease

People are more interesting when they are seventeen or twenty seven than when they are seventy seven, which is the age I have just achieved. At seventeen, they wonder about what kind of person they will be and what kind of occupation they will hold when they grow up; at twenty seven they think about whether they are good husbands and wives and whether they are any good at what they do for a living. People are concerned at twenty seven with whatever project they have taken on in life, whether that is a career goal or simply a way to provide support for the family they now hold up as the dearest thing in the world to them. But at seventy seven, as I just found out at my high school’s sixtieth reunion, people want to talk about their grandchildren, as do I, and what diseases are knocking off the people you and your interlocutor may know. It is not that the younger person is still not there, deep inside, but the self has become sufficiently polished so that only externals show.

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The Fundamentals of Social Roles

Let us get through the tough and abstract part of saying why social roles are the fundamental unit of social life before getting on to some clear cut examples of social roles. A social role is any human activity that can be named, which is the same thing as to say that it is any human activity that can be typified, which means that it can serve as a model for such behavior, people comparing how they carry out an activity with the idea of the activity. Men and women are two different social roles, even if there are some cases that make this other than a binary choice, and even though it is a presumption to guess at some fundamental psychological makeup for these two (or more) roles rather than to settle for a definition of the two in terms of their overt biological characteristics.

A social role can be defined by its function or its circumstances or some combination of the two. Occupational roles usually center on functions. The job of a janitor is to clean up the floors so that other employees can use the offices, though it is also the case that janitors work at night when the rest of the employees are not there, and so share much in common with other night shift workers, like bakers, a lack of supervision and a family life that doesn’t follow the usual nine to five routine. Customary roles focus on circumstances. A priest may be someone who officiates at a liturgy, that being the essential function of a priesthood, even if it also provides other services to congregants, such as advice or consolation, but the main thing about a Catholic priest is a circumstance, his celibacy, which has for a thousand years been used as a sign of his elevation from his parishioners. Marriage is also mainly a set of circumstances: a shared bed and legal obligations one to another, whatever the state of affection between the two parties.  

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Women Are An Attractive Nuisance

We may well be entering upon the crest of the next wave of feminism, as happened when women gained the right to an abortion, or we may, instead, be in the midst of a dustup without consequences. The premise for change is that women will no longer put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, which means that they will not allow anyone to make them feel small or uncomfortable when it comes to sexual matters. They will come forward and speak up about gropes and rapes and untoward advances by male superiors, and males who have been subject to similar violations will also be able to come forward. But there are problems in the formulation of the changes in behavior that are to be undertaken as well as rhetorical and logical problems that did not befuddle the suffragettes, who were very straightforward in wanting something simple, which was the right to vote. That may be because what women have wanted over the past fifty years are changes in customary behavior even though that would result in major changes in the job market and workplace conditions, which do have to do with formal organizations. The definition of what is acceptable customary behavior is so much harder to formulate than are the rules about hiring practices or about the vote, which are matters of stipulated laws and regulations.

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The Two Party System

Political sages declare on cable television these days that what we need now is a spirit of compromise to resolve the gridlock in which our political system finds itself. That means one or another bargain in which the Liberals and Conservatives get together by trading off some of what each side wants so that some progressive legislation gets passed. They are proposing on a smaller scale the Grand Bargain which Obama for a number of years tried to construct with the Republican opposition. Although the talking heads don’t usually spell out what that means today, I suppose an example of such a compromise would be Liberals willing to accept lower tax rates for corporations and for the rich in return for, let us say, the forgiveness of student loans or a higher minimum wage. On the face of it, such a compromise won’t fly. It would offend both sides, Liberals and Conservatives each devoted as they are to their own agendas, these two essentially in conflict. Liberals don’t want to give more money to rich people and Republicans don’t want to give money to people who are middle class or even poorer than that. More important, however, is the fact that the compromise of interests is not the way American politics works. Rather, historically, it has been the case that sometimes one party and sometimes the other, for long periods of time, has a progressive agenda while the other party is made up of time-servers and blowhards who are obstructionists. It isn’t that there are two agendas that are contending with one another and so one can adopt something good from each side. Rather, one side makes sense and the other side is indefensible except to those who do not want to see any change at all. Let’s dwell on that and see where we stand now in that light.

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Grant's Presidency

The character of Presidents is often judged by the adversities they have overcome-- or, conversely, not have had to overcome. Lincoln overcame depression, TR overcame the loss of his first wife, FDR overcame polio (though he didn’t, even if he managed to live with it until his early death from a heart condition caused in part by how much stress he put on his heart because his legs were useless). JFK overcame Addison’s Disease and Lyndon Johnson never overcame his awe and dependence on the leftover JFK Harvard crowd that filled his Cabinet. Ron Chernow’s new biography, “Grant”, gives us a chance to reevaluate the way we judge Presidents. He thinks about the career trajectory of U. S. Grant as more important than the drinking which did indeed lead to his early departure from a military career but which otherwise did not interfere with his talents.  Let us use this alternative approach for a comparison of some American Presidents.

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Life Before Death

Nature does not get what it wants because it doesn’t want anything. Nature has no intention and so cannot be seen as an antagonist. Things just happen.

Jonathan Swift, in the Seventeenth Century, got it wrong when he described people who got their lives extended as doddering wrecks. William Hazlitt, writing at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, also got it wrong when he said most people are ready to die, look all played out, by the time they die. Modern medicine means that, to the contrary, you can live a comfortable life until you die, barring certain debilitating illnesses like cancer and ALS. Modern people want to go on as long as they can, doing the things they like to do, like reading or gardening, or taking walks and conversing with grandchildren, even though at any moment that comfortable if restricted way of life can be turned into a terminal illness by a fall, a cough that turns to pneumonia, the diagnosis of a deadly disease, and even then people want to continue as long as they can, so long as they have drugs to numb the pain and that do not render them incapable of appreciating their environment. People don’t want to give up even if they know that the burden of medical care and medical expenses takes place during the last two years of life. Their insurance companies and the government should spare no expense. After all, what do people have to look forward to once they are dead? It is an afterlife that has no substance and is therefore so far from what the present life is that it is the same thing as being dead is for a non-believer. If there is no walking on clouds or talking with angels, no sensation, then there is nothing at all. And those who cling to some substantive notion of an afterlife are merely being superstitious, having faith in eternal life because they have no reason to think there is any such thing.

I have joined the corps of people who are at age where health reverses are common rather than rare. My friends have withstood prostate surgery, multiple bypass surgery, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and some have died of cancer. And yet what is true of all the survivors is that they have not given up on living, have not had to combat despair because the amount of time left to them is limited, but think rather in terms of the practical things they can do to extend their comfortable lives. They go to their checkups regularly, increasing those to include podiatrists and dermatologists along with the cardiologists and neurologists they also consult. They take their medicines. They are not passive in confronting the inevitable; it is just that they are not in a war to survive. That talk is all metaphorical. The person who dies of cancer has not lost his battle; he has succumbed because nature does what it does. Nature does not get what it wants because it doesn’t want anything. Nature has no intention and so cannot be seen as an antagonist. Things just happen.

The remarkable thing is, I can report, how cheerful people can be while the sword of death hangs over them. Yes, they have their savings and pensions to live off; they have their past career successes to contemplate; they have the love of their spouses, friends and children and grandchildren to warm them. They can appreciate a sunny spring day or a chilly autumn afternoon, or the pretty, well dressed young woman who walks by. But this does not make sense to much of the literary imagination because a nemesis, such as is death, is supposed to engender fear and loathing. King Lear rails against his diminished condition of power and cognition even as he rages against the storm and his relatives, reconciled to nature only by the death of his daughter, which is heartbreaking and yet self condemning because why would it take that to pay him back for his grievances against the world and himself? Shakespeare may present Lear in this way because Shakespeare is always likely to show his tragic heroes in extreme and contrarian emotions. But, on the other hand, it may be that this view of old age is as old as the Christian tradition, which preaches that the wages of sin are death, and so suffering in old age is befitting as it harkens forward to the suffering that awaits most of us in Hell and Purgatory, given that we who all suffer from original sin deserve no better.  What I am always amazed by in Dante is that humans who have already suffered for many years the unrelenting tortures of Hell retain their most human attributes. They can conduct civil conversations during which they contemplate their lives on Earth. It makes me think that Dante did not really understand the suffering to which his characters were condemned and so his whole scheme is therefore false.

The ancients, for their part, might be thought to have seen the time before death differently. Cicero sees people as only fighting what nature has bestowed when they decry old age, when what is the case is that they can continue to exercise their powers to be wise or take political action even if they can no longer climb the riggings of ships. Old people can go on doing the important things they always did if they have the good character to do those things. The trouble with this argument, of course, is even that comes to an end, and so one can deplore the end of invention and of most pleasures, whenever that should come. It may be that we are so taken up with the Christian vision that we read life backwards, from its end to its beginning, and so insist that the final twist is the important thing, not the straightforward course of a life where one just is the kind of person one is.

But go even farther back, to “Oedipus at Colonus”. Oedipus has been beaten down and suffered from a crime which he insists was just an accident or coincidence. He is blind and weak, but he retains his verbal abilities, as those are supplemented by his daughter, and he continues to live in that he still wants and expects there to be dramatic events in his life which means that there will be reversals in the plot that are revelatory. In his case, that means that some religious and political authority will provide him with sanctuary so that he can consider himself redeemed. And Cicero was also assuming that people would go on exercising their powers to make a difference, to have change take place in their lives. And so it is with moderns, with actual oldsters, who cultivate new friendships, new loves, or a new found appreciation by others, or even just do that vicariously in that they deal with the ever unraveling and revealing world of politics that never stops having dramatic revelations take place in the lives of its leading characters and in the unfolding history of the nation. We moderns may not read life backwards, from ending to beginning, but we do read it as a never ending process of change, of new beginnings even at the end.

The difference between ancients and moderns, on the one hand, and Christians, on the other, may be this: ancients and moderns are engaged, amazingly, in a great game of denial whereby they put out of their minds that they will die. They go through this difficult process so that they do not have to experience the dread that would come from focusing on the fact of death and the simple reason for engaging in this difficult process is that to do otherwise would lead to all sorts of bad feelings: fear, paralysis, bad thoughts, Christians as a matter of fact may engage in the same sort of denial for the reason that they too don’t want to dwell on death even though they accept as true an ideology that treats death as a reward or the beginning of a punishment, rather than as an ending. Every person, Christian or secularist, just wants to get on with living as long as they can.

Sociologists were wrong to think that old people are disengaging from their lives, as if in anticipation of the fact that they will undergo the ultimate disengagement, which is from life itself. Rather, what old people do, and this is more and more true as we progress further in the age of enlightenment, is to alienate themselves from their disabilities. Those are just matters to be managed. A heart is just a pump, not the symbolic much less actual seat of emotions, and a breast is a mammary gland rather than the symbol of a woman’s femininity. People can be rid of the naturally occurring versions of these things and be fully human. To be human, what you need is the desire to manage those parts of life which are manageable, and take some cheer in that.

Impeachment, the Law & Language

There are sociological and linguistic insights into the nature of law. Sociologists tend to find the meaning of the law in its functions. Max Weber offers a sociological understanding of law when he says that laws cannot vary too much from the customs of a society. If they do, the people will rebel against it while revolutionary regimes, on the other hand, impose legal codes that are out to do away with extant customs and replace them with a reign of reason. For his part, Georg Simmel says that law is a technique for conflict resolution. It gives a third party power to make a decision between contending parties and these decisions and the legal code behind them are designed to do away or mitigate the antagonism between the parties. That is why there are fines and ways for negligent companies to correct their behavior. On the other hand, for the most part, lawyers look to the linguistic characteristics of law. That means they look to the ways in which the nature of language makes the fact of law possible and justifies what lawyers do when they interpret the law. Consider some of these linguistic characteristics of law and how they apply to the question of impeachment.

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General Kelly's Cast of Mind

My prediction in the Spring that nothing much would happen in this country politically until Robert Mueller makes his report seems to be holding up. Trump’s bluster about North Korea seems to have become toned down, perhaps because some private accommodation between the two sides has been arranged, or perhaps because a President with a limited attention span shifted his fulminations to other topics. Trump has kicked the Iran Deal over to Congress, which is unlikely to reimpose sanctions, which is just what Trump has also done with Obamacare, where some version of the Murray-Alexander deal is likely to emerge to keep Obamacare in place through the end of Trump’s term. And the prospects for tax reform, properly understood as tax relief for the rich, are not very good, the Congressional year about to come to an end. And, anyway, tax changes in one direction can be reversed in the next Administration in the other direction. That is what always happens, and that goes as well for the way federal agencies cut back or expand their power over everything from emission controls to abortion. So, instead, we are treated to a whole set of side issues that allow both Trump supporters and the Liberal media to exercise outrage at how broken is our political system because the other side is engaged in divisive political rhetoric. That seems fine to me because it means Trump is preoccupied with nonsense, seems incapable of responding to anything but nonsense, and that keeps him out of doing real mischief.

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Updike & the English Novel

The English novel is often thought to be realistic because it is about class: how Clarissa and Elizabeth Bennet find their ways to marriages beyond their station; how Pip, within the infinitely complicated world of High Victorian occupations and family lives, as those are so meticulously observed by Charles Dickens, will become a middle level bureaucrat even though he also had the Romantic ambition of regaining his first love. But that is to forget that the father of the English novel is Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe is a figure on a desert island and so there is no class conflict at work there, only his interaction with someone who acts as his servant. It is therefore perhaps better to think of the English novel as being not about social class but about the virtues of the middle class: these people are ambitious and they are good at taking advantage of opportunities to improve themselves, even if those plans do not always work out. The middle class novel is engaging because it is filled with hope, people being capable of at least sometimes overcoming their adversities and making their lives what they want them to be. The protagonists act to improve their lives and so are neither pathetic, in that they are incapable of not being overwhelmed, nor tragic, in the sense that the gods or fate have doomed them to failure. The English novel therefore makes for a good read because in keeping track of the ups and downs of the fortunes of its protagonists. In the drama of whether or not they will succeed, the reader learns a lot about the social circumstances, the social reality, the protagonists must confront if they are to succeed. Success is itself a reality, not a feigned state, just as failure is a reality and not just the lack of appreciation for the inner workings of the protagonist, which are the two stories told by Camus (the first in “Caligula”, the second in “The Stranger”) and also by other Age of Anxiety novelists.

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"Big Little Lies"

Beware. There are spoilers in this article. Watch the series before reading.

I have binge watched all of HBO’s miniseries, "Big Little Lies", and I was very impressed by it. It is a very well observed and nuanced presentation of feminist themes. Here we have rich women living in beautiful Monterey, California. (The view from that wonderful bridge near Big Sur and other shots of dizzying cliffs in the area serve very well as both metaphor and plot device.) The three main families are quite different: a single mother, a remarried divorcee living in the same community with her remarried ex and so having to negotiate about children and mutual jealousies; a seemingly perfect couple where the husband won't allow his wife to work. The last two live in fabulous houses while the first is just getting by. What happens in their lives is very gripping.

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The End of Social Movements?

European social movements over the past hundred years have been largely out to change the values of one or more societies. These movements include Communism, Socialism, and Fascism and, more recently the drive to unite Europe into a federation and the counter-movement to reassert various European nationalisms. There are exceptions to this European pattern, such as the suffragette movement and the environmental movement, but the generalization holds. The United States, on the other hand, has over the course of the century from the 1880’s to the 1980’s had its history filled with movements that are interested in the issues that concern one or another particular section of the population, and that may account for the fact that American history is not regarded as a history of ideas while European history is so regarded. American movements for that period included the labor movement, which was out to protect workers; the reaction in the South against Reconstruction, which was out to re-entrench white minority rule; the temperance movement, where women wanted to save their husbands from drink; our own suffragette movement; and more recent movements, like the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and our own environmental movement. But all that has ended. There has been no significant social movement in this country in nearly forty years, and the question is why that is the case.

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Desperate People

A desperate person is someone who does not have the resources to sustain either his or her own life or what might generally be considered an adequate way of life. Desperate people can be homeless, or suffering a terminal illness, or victims of a war. They do not know where to turn to help them out or else, like the people of Puerto Rico, they don't know why they have not been helped out. They are different from people who are caught up in a way of life that seems normal to them, rather than desperate, but which may have many of the same sequelae. Someone living in a gang infested neighborhood may think that is just the way things are, some people getting shot at random, however unfair that may be. Others living in the same neighborhood are truly desperate because they don’t think this is normal, not the conditions under which anyone should live, a definite privation rather than a culture. People who emphasize the idea of the culture of poverty portray gang violence in the first way, as the way life is, dysfunctional for the community as a whole, but not for the gang members who get money and excitement in exchange for their shortened lives, while people who emphasize the structure of poverty portray gang violence in the second way, as the way life doesn’t have to be except for the fact that gangs provide work (in the drug trade and other illegal ventures) as well as a sense of security to people who do not have other resources. We can begin to understand the nature of desperation better by focussing on the general phenomenon of a disaster rather than looking at the ongoing disaster that characterizes some American communities and which is confused with a normal way of life.



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Three Levels of Culture: The Relationship Between Culture & Social Class

What follows is a primer on the relationship between culture and social class.

Culture is a set of objects and events that are fashioned or crafted so as to serve as objects of contemplation and so yield to their viewers or readers or auditors a variety of emotions, images and ideas. This is true of television, novels, operas, art installations, portraits and anything else elevated to a place where it can stand out as engendering aesthetic as well as other responses. This is the view of culture favored by the philosophical pragmatists of the last century, most notably John Dewey and Arthur Danto. It is very different from the view of culture that we might call anthropological because that view considers the culture of a people to be their entire way of life, including courtship behavior, religious rituals, the way they go about planting crops. The anthropological view does not distinguish very strongly between customs and choices. People do what they are expected to do, even if some warriors are braver than others. The pragmatic view of culture, as do other Western views of culture, thinks of culture as a way for people to lift themselves out of their immediate surroundings so as to have a sense of what is universal, of what is familiar or spot on, and of how an alternative to one’s current life might be.

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Ken Burns' Vietnam II: Student Unrest

Ken Burns, in the episode of his series on the Vietnam War that is about the Tet Offensive, briefly refers to the student demonstrations at Columbia University and around the world. I was there at Columbia at the time, as a graduate student and a young instructor, and so I can fill in some of what happened so long ago.

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Ken Burns' Vietnam

I have reluctantly sat through, so far, more than half of the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War. “Reluctantly”, I say, because that war is not something I very much wanted to relive, having been aware of that war from start to finish as a student and graduate student and then a young professor of sociology who had participated in demonstrations, signed petitions, and gave lectures saying how purposeless was the war and all the suffering it imposed, trying as best I could to give aid and comfort to those who left the United States to go to Canada so as to avoid the draft. When some years later, during the Reagan Era, I mentioned to a class that I had been opposed to the war and demonstrated against it, something I thought of as very conventional behavior, many of my students were flabbergasted that this amiable and still young professor could have turned against his country. For them, the war was over, just unsatisfactory in the way it was settled. But It seemed to us anti-war people who had stood on the sidelines, having ourselves somehow legally avoided the draft, I through a series of student deferments and then because of age, that, while it was going on, the war was never going to end, and so there was a great sense of despair about the war, nothing like what I took to be the satisfaction felt by those who had made it through World War II, and this is the sense of despair that Ken Burns captures very well, that on top of the fact that he got the facts right, at least as I remember them. So let’s probe the wound.



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Peter Brown's Christianity

A sociologist looks at a great historian.


That extraordinary scholar Peter Brown’s latest book “Through the Eye of a Needle” is a magisterial account of the social, economic and theological structure of the late Roman Empire. His guiding thesis as he states it in his introduction is that as a result of that great outpouring of theological genius in the later part of the Fourth Century the Church came from regarding wealth as a sin, which it was in the Gospels, to regarding contributions to the Church as justifying great wealth. Wealth was good when it went to the Church, and that explains the prevalence of the Church in the Middle Ages. I think this thesis basically wrong, first of all, because, as Brown himself shows in an early chapter, contributions of mosaics and other church naming occasions were already part of Church life right after Constantine converted to Christianity and, indeed, I might add, are part of every religion known to mankind, whether that means putting up a cathedral or getting a seat in a synagogue named after a deceased family member.


More important, the thesis is wrong because Brown imposes his thesis upon a description of social life where economic motivation is taken for granted as the reason for doing things, while the idea that people can earn favor with God by making contributions provides a motivation of the sort envisioned by Max Weber when he spoke of the decisive importance of the Protestant Ethic in liberating Europe to become capitalist, while Brown imagines that religious motivation for the accumulation of wealth results in the economic stagnation of medieval times, when it ought, by his logic, have led to capitalism in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries.


Most of all, why is it necessary to reconcile the remark about the camel and the needle with the practices of rich members of the Church? People join and support churches for a variety of reasons. They like the liturgy or they like feeling part of the community of respectable people. They can take theology or leave it. The New Testament has a great many passages that are in spirit contradictory. You are supposed to welcome the prodigal son, which is supposedly a tribute to the idea and feelings of family as well as an allegory for dealing with believers who stray, and yet Jesus also came to separate sisters from brothers. Which is it? A believer can live with the admonition about rich people because what he likes about Christianity is that it offers salvation to everyone, even including rich people, and maybe in a particular believer’s case, a depth of conviction must surely make up for the fact that the person is rich. Moreover, maybe the remark about rich people came from the looney or radical fringe of the movement-- though that is an insight that would come to a modern mind, one less trusting to texts than the great Fathers of the Church. At any rate, there is no need to pose this as a crucial matter, as Brown does, unless there is reason to think a doctrinal point is not only central but fraught with consequences, which is what Weber did when he said that a belief in good works was key to Protestant Christianity even if predestination ruled out those good works being the cause of salvation. Practice rather than meaning has consequences.


A Seventh Century capitalism did not happen. What did happen, according to Brown’s brilliant interpretation, The Church had accumulated wealth and that made it powerful with a soft power that could counter the power of the state, which was the power of the various kingdoms that had arisen after the fall of Rome. It invoked this power in the name of the poor, which is to be taken to mean not only those in poverty but all those well into the middle class who were not part of the aristocracy or the wealthy. So the Church had a constituency to be looked after and its wealth made that possible, and that is what made it the dominant institution of the Middle Ages. That is very different from saying that the Church was the progenitor of a kind of capitalism, though this claim could indeed be made in that monasticism, which depended on generous contributions from the wealthy, did see the origins of a countryside based capitalism that did not survive for more than a few centuries before efficient economic activity was eventually moved from the countryside to the city in part due to the efforts of Pope Innocent III in the early Thirteenth Century.


There are structural consequences when the clergy become the repositories of wealth. They have to become part of what Brown calls “the otherness” of the clergy, as was symbolized by their adoption of the tonsure and of celibacy, something Brown thinks was something desired by the laity and only then enforced by the clergy. Celibacy was necessary because the priests were the people who handled the Holy Eucharist, and so had to remain pure. (Brown does not deal with the prior question of why sexual chastity is more pure than an occasional romp in the hay.) In these and in other ways, Christianity was transformed less by its organizational skills and its growing monopoly of learning than by the responsibilities imposed on it by its wealth. Other religions also create liturgy and a heightened sense of the holiness of their clergy, but the Catholic Church did all of this so well that it dominated the Europe until the Reformation.  To Brown offers up a panorama of late Antiquity, something about which he seems to know everything. The reader is rewarded with a rich feel for the Late Roman Church. Brown explains how St. Augustine went down to meet the crowds that attended his sermons; he explains how barbarian armies were merely mercenaries recruited to deal with civil wars breaking out within the empire and these armies set up courts which local aristocrats found they could deal with as well as when Rome was in charge.


The original thesis about religious ideology changing the Church so that it is in favor of wealth is, therefore, not Brown’s true thesis. The true thesis is one that he never overtly identifies, perhaps because he thinks that it is too obvious. That thesis, which makes much more sense and is far more significant, is that structural considerations are enough to explain the evolution of spiritual experience of the Church, an experience which would stretch to the end of the Middle Ages. This is a profound insight into the way Christianity and all other religions operate: that they are subject to the give and take of economic and political forces and it takes no ghost come from the grave, whether that be religious ideology or religious emotion, to call it into being. Religion operates as do all other institutions.


As a sociologist, I have certain quibbles with Brown about his use of historical evidence. Early on, in his presentation of the economic and social situation in the early Fourth Century Roman Empire, he uses a farmer who eventually earned himself a position on the city council as illustrating the fact that power explained wealth rather than the other way around, though that is not what the instance he cites would support. You can’t be that loose. Moreover, as with most historians, Brown engages in anecdotal proof, however wide ranging and how many histories of particular communities he may draw upon. What is the basis for his generalizations other than that there are some places, even a great many, where what he says holds true? Now that may be the best evidence available, but it is not conclusive. But be that as it may, there is no gainsaying Brown’s mastery of and his deep insight into his material. This book stands as a worthy rejoinder to those, like me, who take the role of ideas as very important in expressing, creating and propagating new versions of old or eternal religious emotions, and who also think that the Protestant Ethic had always been there, latent in Christianity, and waiting upon events to bring it forward.


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