Important to a majority of the aristocracy and to many of the leading squires, Court and office can have been of little consequence to more than a tiny minority of middling and lesser gentry. At these levels its significance must have been mainly that of a will-o'-the-wisp luring the ambitious into the treacherous bogs of the life of a London man-about-town, more often than not with disastrous financial consequences. Again and again the sons of minor gentry set out hopefully from the rustic seclusion of the family manor house to seek their fortune at Court, with the example of a Hatton or a Buckingham to give substance to their dreams. Again and again they ran through their money, their youth, and their health, and in the end returned home in embittered middle age to compose unconvincing elegies upon the virtues of country life and the superior pleasures of a contented mind. Though written in the early eighteenth century, the words of Peregrine Bertie ring as true for the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as they did for his own age: 'if the gentry of England were to balance the accounts for the last fifty years, I am mistaken if they would not find these apples of Sodom [offices] have left their families little else but dust and emptiness.'Impressed by its heft, I could only bring myself to open Stone's book by resorting to the old trick of slowly gnawing at it with determination and without pleasure. Gradually, to my surprise, I realized that it wasn't boring. Certainly the lurid details of courtly life helped; for instance, Stone reports that King James had a habit of interrogating his aristocratic protegés about the consummation of their marriages by climbing into bed with them after the wedding night. Plus, the whole narrative often coalesces into an engaging factual counterpart to Buddenbrooks, contributing the thrill of a good story to the zest of its historical anecdotes. And it's hard not to feel some Schadenfreude at the misfortunes of such a singularly snooty group of people.
- Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641
More compelling than any of that, however, is Stone's peculiar (though tacit) concept of agency. Schopenhauer writes in section 23 of The World as Will and Representation:
The fact is ... overlooked that the individual, the person, is not will as a thing-in-itself , but is a phenomenon of will, is already determined as such, and has come under the form of the phenomenal, the principle of sufficient reason. Hence arises the strange fact that every one believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life, which just means that he can become another person. But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity; that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns, and as it were play the part he has undertaken to the end.Something like this happens to Stone's aristocrats. They never stop preaching--recommending abstinence from gambling and luxury, attacking the sins of the Court, wringing their hands over the fragmentation and disappearance of their ancient patrimonies. Nothing works. Well-meaning fathers fail to transmit their own bitter experiences to their children; rigid Catholicism and Puritanism are only insubstantial checks. The only thing that can put a stop to the persistent rise of the aristocracy's expenses and excesses is, quite simply, ruin--and new victims are always ready to replace the old.
In Stone's view, the inability of the aristocracy to reform itself was due above all to the fact that it needed to "play the part." Lords and ladies didn't waste thousands gambling or feasting simply because they were selfish, hedonistic brats--they were constantly surrounded by a network of social expectations that needed to be satisfied if they were to remain, properly speaking, aristocrats. (Stone describes occasions when aristocrats agreed that they would play for high stakes in public but settle their debts for pennies in private.) Measuring up to these expectations led directly to material rewards (offices or advantageous marriages), but fundamentally it was a question of identity. As Schopenhauer would put it--if the aristocracy had succeeded in reforming itself, it would no longer be the aristocracy.
So where do we place those innumerable pastoral elegies, monuments to attempted reform? Do they belong outside the essence of the aristocracy or within it? Their predictability and homogeneity seems to point towards the latter, while their moralistic and anti-courtly tone suggests the former. In fact, the answer to this question is one of tremendous significance for the relationship between literature and historical agency. After all, if the first option is true, then art can provide an escape from the narrow confines of class-bound behavior--but if it is the second, then even the negation is already coopted. Like many things, this is a matter of perspective. Any individual elegy represents a true negation of the aristocratic way of life, yet in their aggregate, these elegies are integral to it.
In one sense, I think the question is irresolvable, because it involves an equivocation on "aristocracy": if the word is supposed to represent a personal identity, as Stone seems to believe, then the inevitable option is the second--but if it a certain type of behavior, the opposite must be true. Mutatis mutandis, the same problem holds for more burning contemporary issues (bourgeois radicalism). On the other hand, if all this is true, Schopenhauer and Stone will always win. A society in which the transition between different types of behavior is governed by a predictable process is not one in which change can ever come from outside. The existence of these elegies is intimately linked with their irrelevance--which is perhaps why the form could survive fundamentally unchanged since the days of classical Rome.