Friday, 17 May 2013

Part XL - Duels and the Leisure Class


This is a series about Theory of the Leisure Class, a book written by American economist Thorstein Veblen, the man who gave us the phrase 'conspicuous consumption'.  Chapter Ten is titled Modern Survivals of Prowess.



“Apart from warlike activity proper, the institution of the duel is also an expression of the same superior readiness for combat; and the duel is a leisure-class institution. The duel is in substance a more or less deliberate resort to a fight as a final settlement of a difference of opinion.”

Veblen asserts that duelling is a leisure class custom.  It occurs only where there is an hereditary leisure class and is practised exclusively among members of the leisure class, except for military officers (who are normally from the leisure class anyhow) and among lower-class delinquents who are either by nature or by training of a similar predatory disposition. 

Ordinary men generally hold their tempers, unless alcohol has lowered their inhibitions.  However, well-bred gentleman and low class louts have this habit in common, of settling disputes with fighting.  The latter is asserting his manhood.  The former is acting out some chivalric code and defending his honour, which in this context is about social standing or respectability.  

In reading about the history of duelling, I found the section on ‘culture of law’ vs ‘culture of honour’ interesting, in that it refers to nomadic peoples.  These people had two reasons for not having a culture of law:  a) their wealth is carried around with them and so vulnerable to theft; and b) wandering in the wilds, they have no recourse to lawmen, courts, etc. and so have to undertake matters for themselves. 

The article also refers to nomadic types in ‘the borders’.  This is the area around the border between England and Scotland which was wild and unsettled long after the south of England was more peaceful.  The noble families in the North like the Percy’s tended to be Catholic and thus have little allegiance to the Protestant government of England.  Nomadic people include sheep herders of the North of England and Scotland.  These are the people who supposedly populated the Southern U.S. where the culture of honour is said to still exist.  I found this discussion very interesting.  I’ve always said that Newcastle-upon-Tyne had a lot in common with Oklahoma, but I didn’t know about this!

The history of duelling is interesting as well.  I think of foppish men in tights duelling with swords, but of course all those showdowns in Gunsmoke were enacting the duelling tradition.  Did you know that James Arness was married to a woman named Janet Surtees and that Surtees is a name definitely associated with the Newcastle area?... Me neither, but where were we?  

Every area seems to have its own traditions but a common feature is the agreement on the weapon of choice.  Careful choice of this weapon, eg offering up trichinella-infested sausages, could aid in avoiding a duel.  More likely weapons were swords, sticks (more about which, later) or pistols.  Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln each narrowly avoided being drawn into a duel.  Old West aside, possibly the most famous duel in the US is the one in which Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton in 1804; Burr was indicted but not tried for murder. 

William Pitt became the youngest ever Prime Minister of Britain at age 24.  Between his first and second terms as PM, he fought a duel with Whig politician George Tierney in 1798; luckily neither was injured.  Duels were less and less popular after the 18th Century but there is mention that a young Queen Victoria hoped that Lord Cardigan ‘got off easily’.  Being a Lord and tried by a jury of his 'peers', he was unanimously acquitted in spite of being thought to have been ‘unsporting’ in his use of a pistol with concealed rifling and a hair trigger (whatever that means). 

Veblen clearly thinks duels are a childish act, probably the prevalent opinion of his time.  He goes on at length about the period in a boy's life called the 'predaceous interval' and claims that 
"The boy usually knows to nicety, from day to day, how he and his associates grade in respect of relative fighting capacity; and in the community of boys there is ordinarily no secure basis of reputability for any one who, by exception, will not or cannot fight on invitation."

Of course, the average boy outgrows this phase, but 
"...the leisure-class and the delinquent-class character shows a persistence into adult life of traits that are normal to childhood and youth, and that are likewise normal or habitual to the earlier stages of culture."

So Veblen seems to see the aggressive, predatory nature he attributes to the leisure class as being childish.  In the case of duels, I'd have to say he has a good point.  

4 comments:

Terri said...

Shelley--I've retired! And so glad to see that you are still doing this series, though it is a stretch to picture Lincoln or Twain dueling.

Shelley said...

Terri, Terri, Terri!!! I'm so pleased to hear from you. I was just at your blog yesterday, wondering how you were doing. Congratulations on your retirement! It is a whole new way of life and I always wondered why I didn't do it sooner. Had I realised, I'd have saved that much harder and taken the dive much sooner. Hope you can enjoy yours as well! Will you take up blogging again or have your interest changed?

Gam Kau said...

"These are the people who supposedly populated the Southern U.S. where the culture of honour is said to still exist. " - this is so interesting!
How can it be, even if the original settlers arrived with their code of honour, it still survives so long after? Culture is a very fluid thing and surely it would have been watered down? I suppose it has, no more duels at least!

Shelley said...

I take your point about culture being fluid and I've not lived in the US for nearly 20 years now. However, I'm thinking that there is still a strong 'southern' culture in the Deep South that has values slightly different to other parts of the US, including values about manners and social niceties. The success of Gone with the Wind was that it so beautifully captured the spirit of the south and romanticized the faded grandeur.