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French Nobility And The Origins of Modern Culture

"Nobles explored alternatives to patriarchal ideology not because it was weakening in the seventeenth century but because its hold over them was so very strong."
“Nobles explored alternatives to patriarchal ideology not because it was weakening in the seventeenth century but because its hold over them was so very strong.”

With increasing subordination of the noble individual to the collective, seventeenth-century French nobles moved away from tradition and towards individualism. They began to see themselves more as individuals than as the product of inheritance and tradition. Accompanying this preoccupation with the self was an increasingly critical view of society, monarchy, and religious teachings. The very foundations of the monarchy were questioned and answers focused on tradition to guide behaviour were rejected. With the newfound view that most social relations were artificial, the French nobility turned increasingly toward meaningful relationships with friends and lovers. In so doing, they illustrated the emergence of a modern culture in the wake of a traditional social order.

In his book Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture, Jonathan Dewald, a distinguished professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, explores the history of individuality and the cultural push back by the seventeenth-century French nobility. It addresses how the nobility thought about their world and themselves by looking at the responses to increasing tension on personal worth, ambition, careers, money, civic order and sexuality. While these are different topics, Dewald argues they “can also be understood as aspects of a single larger problem. Each represents one form of connection between the individual and her or his society.” The book then is an elegant essay on “how aristocratic men and woman understood their bonds to the society around them at a decisive moment in the evolution of early modern society.”

While it may seem foreign now, at the time, the concept of the person as an individual flew in the face of tradition. Questioning this perspective sowed the seeds of a new worldview where tradition and social hierarchy were displaced in favor of individual pursuits.

Seventeenth century nobles became preoccupied with the nature of selfhood … and they came at the same time to doubt many of the moral underpinnings of their society. They came, in other words, to see the isolated self as real, important, and complicated, and they correspondingly doubted the value, even the reality, of the social conventions that surrounded it.

Answering cultural questions by focusing on such a small segment of society, perhaps 1 percent, begs an explanation. While limited in size, the French aristocracy at the end of the seventeenth century “exercised an influence on the rest of society out of proportion to its numbers.”

For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century nobles, everything rested on traditional order and familial continuity.

Property and political rights descended from the past, and so too did personal qualities, a dual inheritance from the individual family and the larger aristocratic order. Most nobles simply assumed these values … Yet the French nobles also participated enthusiastically in many of the most innovative currents in early modern culture. They followed and helped to shape cultural movements toward individualism, skepticism about established social arrangements, and belief in the primacy of change in human affairs.

This tension started to show itself, even in public ideological defences of the aristocracy, and was “still more evident when the nobles spoke privately, in memoirs, letters, fiction.” These intimate private thoughts exposed assumptions and fears that differed from the confident and public projections of tradition.


In the shadow of the culture he encountered in the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville ruminated on the cultural implications of aristocratic society in his masterwork Democracy in America:

Take the case of an aristocratic people interested in literature … When a small, unchanging group of men are concerned at the same time with the same subject, they easily get together and agree on certain guiding principles to direct their efforts. If it is literature with which they are concerned, strict canons will soon prescribe rules that may not be broken. If these men occupy a hereditary position in their country they will naturally be inclined not only to invent rules for themselves but to follow those laid down by their ancestors. Their code will be both strict and traditional. … Such men, beginning and ending their lives in comfortable circumstances, naturally conceive a taste for choice pleasures, full of refinement and delicacy. Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of so much wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and even in their enjoyments they will avoid anything too unexpected or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested but not carried away.

The problem with Tocqueville, Dewald argues, is that he “seeks to connect specific cultural expressions both to experience and to the ideology of inheritance that undergirded the aristocracy’s existence during the Old Regime.” But treating aristocratic culture as “essentially ideological” comes with some limitations: “it implies a fundamental unity in culture, and thus shields from our view its points of uncertainty or contradiction; it often implies a functionalist view of how ideas and values form, and this seems inadequate to the complexities of both the ideas themselves and of the processes by which they developed; above all, an ideological approach to aristocratic culture treats culture as only a reflection of deeper realities, a secondary level of reality, a superstructure.”

Dewald spends most of his time in the nooks and crannies of uncertainty and contradiction.


As the nobles struggled to hold on to a slipping aristocracy, they increasingly found their life shaped by new pressures to subdue the individual in deference to the family.

Lineage gained increasing importance in public life, as social status became more clearly a matter of birth and as venal office-holding created castes within the military and the civil service; in consequence, families increasingly organized themselves along dynastic lines, celebrating paternal authority and subordinating individual desires to dynastic needs. Standards of personal behaviour rose, a process encouraged by both a reinvigorated Catholicism and by courtly libertinism; each demanded that men and women more tightly control their impulses and fit their behaviour to elaborate standards.

In the face of this backdrop the state too heightened its demands on citizens with conformity, the “rigid subordination of individual impulse to collective orderings.” The state—through a web of political influences and ambition—also made it clear that nothing was off limits and intervened regularly on issues of property, law, and distinctions of birth. This is where Dewald’s book takes us. To the “individuals’ responses to these pressures.” While some responses were enthusiastic, producing elaborate “defences of their order’s superiority to the rest of society and emphas(ing) the value of noble birth,” others were more contradictory to expectations of aristocratic life and “directly undercut respect for tradition and inheritance.”

Enthusiasm for courtly manners involved a startlingly explicit rejection of the past as a guide; and this rejection recurred in other domains, as nobles stressed the superiority of their own culture to that of the past. Similarly, the conditions of seventeenth-century warfare required sophisticated political and numerical calculations and encouraged familiarity with classical writers, who acquired renewed relevance in an age dominated by carefully organized masses of infantry. Seventeenth-century political careers demanded similar thought and focused attention on individual ambition rather than dynastic continuity as a key to understanding social arrangements. By selling high positions and by intervening so often in matters of property, the state itself disrupted belief in a stable social order and forced nobles to think carefully about money; in such circumstances, nobles came to view their society as in some sense an artificial creation rather than an organic hierarchy. In these and a variety of other specific ways, seventeenth-century conditions undermined patriarchal ideas and forced nobles into more individualistic modes of thought.

The increasing demands placed on the seventeenth-century’s nobility resulted in both “inner rebellions as well as celebrations” creating a paradox: “as family, state, and ethical ideals increasingly demanded renunciation of individual desires, men and women became increasingly absorbed in understanding themselves as individuals, and indeed in understanding personal desire itself.”

They explored their inner lives in autobiographies and novels, and they presented their lives in terms of personal achievement. They became increasingly preoccupied with emotion, which attached them to friends and lovers—in other words, to chosen objects of affection. Such deepening concern with the personal offered one response to the oppressiveness of seventeenth-century expectations.

In something J.K. Rowling could be proud of, many of the French nobility sought out social settings where distinctions of birth were disguised by anonymity.

The rejection was explicit in the case of the Académie Française, which admitted men without reference to rank. It was implicit in such events as the masked ball, the gambling party, and the decision (taken with growing frequency in the seventeenth century) to write or appear in published literary works, works that exposed author and subject to the judgment of any book-buyer. All of these choices presented momentary, experimental departures from aristocratic society itself. Like the exploration of the personal, they expressed nobles’ ambivalence about their social order. Nobles fully accepted the ordering that dynastic ideology proposed and that accorded them such a privileged place. But they also felt acutely the weight of that order.

Ironically, the conflicting demands of seventeenth-century aristocratic culture created an untenable state that fostered the more egalitarian ideologies of the eighteenth century and the weakening of the patriarchal ideology.

Nobles explored alternatives to patriarchal ideology not because it was weakening in the seventeenth century but because its hold over them was so very strong. … Seventeenth-century aristocratic culture … placed contradictory demands on its participants, between, for instance, ideals of inheritance and of individual ambition. By the early eighteenth century, the weight of these contradictions had for many nobles become intolerable. The more egalitarian ideologies of the eighteenth century, it may be suggested, offered resolution of contradictions that had become burdensome beyond endurance. From this vantage point, Louis XIV’s rise to power seems less a turning point than does his death.

Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture offers a beautiful exploration of how French nobles, in the face tightening restrictions on the individual, sowed the seeds of modern culture.

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