Third Order Thinking:
The Three Orders
15 MayApril 2019

Classification is an ancient passion. Whatever good it does anyone else, it suffuses the classifier with a sense of control over the world. As with tidying possessions, nothing is added, nothing taken away — and yet the sensation of new knowledge is strong. Jorge Luis Borges’s famous “Chinese” taxonomy of animals (“Those that are included in this classification”) gives a taste of how ridiculous, and totally devoid of knowledge, classifications can become with time.

Classifications of human society are generally not very fanciful, but perhaps for that very reason they can be all the more painfully wrongheaded. Wishful thinking is like the forger’s hand, doomed to betray the social classification as something other than actual information. Tripartite schemes have always been very popular, but dichotomous ones have a robust appeal, while divisions into four classes are not unknown; ultimately, there is the Great Chain of Being, in which every individual being occupies his or her own place in a link that binds all of creation. The decision to order society in so many ways, and not more or less, is never stable, and it is not uncommon for people to entertain two or more inconsistent groupings at the same time, as for example the triadic model of an upper, a middle, and a lower class, along with, on the other, a dualistic view dividing the few on top from the many underneath.

Georges Duby has written an exhaustive book about the development of the concept of the Three Orders, from the second quarter of the Eleventh Century to the third quarter of the Twelfth. Duby’s examination of such written records as we have throws a great deal of light on the interesting relationship between the stream of current events and the stock of rational, “eternal” truisms. Suffice it to say that several principle ways of dividing society under two, three or four headings were explored during the period. Changes in the relative status of the secular and the monastic clergy caused shifts in the place of laymen in the configuration. The important thing to bear in mind, after the final setting of the Three Orders model itself, is the role of this evolution in the foundation of European self-consciousness, which also had its origins in this period. The annihilation of the concept of Three Orders in 1789 signaled the inauguration of a new, post-European epoch. At the very least, the strictly European world, formerly known as “Christendom,” gave way to an expanded reach of civilization that now included the Americas; although settled long before 1789, of course, the New World came into being at about the same time that the Three Orders model broke down into little more than a reactionary brake on social development. The idea of the Three Orders was never accepted in what would become the United States. Indeed, there the model was precluded by a far more powerful commitment to social divisions according to skin color (ie race).

I finished a recent re-reading of Duby’s book without its being altogether clear to me which of the first two of the Three Orders represented which social group — was the First Order composed of clergymen or of noblemen? It seems to have been determined by any given analyst. The kings of France may have found it useful to assign the clergy to the First Order, thus differentiating themselves from a contentious nobility by the promotion of a class to which they had vestigial claims of membership. That, at any rate, seems to have been the general understanding of the matter when the representatives of France’s three Estates (as the Three Orders were by now called) were summoned to Versailles at the end of the ancien régime. The question is ultimately without importance, as the Order of the clergy was never envisioned as including secular priests and monks of non-noble background. From our perspective, the first two Orders can be distinguished only by marriage and career; men from the same families (and ergo social groups) fully constituted both Orders. Furthermore, these Orders, as based on birth, were swept away when the concept was annihilated. The elimination of official recognition of inherited social position is, as everyone knows, the main event of 1789.

The Third Order, which as Duby makes clear was of almost no intrinsic interest to various eleventh- and twelfth-century theoreticians of the Three Orders models, underwent a dual metamorphosis in 1789. On the one hand, it was liberated from servitude to members of the First and Second Orders. On the other, it absorbed its former masters. One could say with equal cogency that the Third Order had been eliminated along with the other two, and that everyone now belonged to the Third Order. It is my position that the difference between these two statements is not idle.

The Three Orders of the Twelfth Century comprised Those Who Pray, Those Who Fight, and Those Who Work. The purpose of the work envisioned by the model was the nutritive sustenance, by the Third Order, of the members of the First and Second, who were too occupied by their respective responsibilities to produce their own food. That this was an extremely simplistic way of analyzing the society of the time, rudimentary with respect to modern society as it was, quickly becomes clear to anyone who studies the cities of the period. Although very small by today’s standards, eleventh- and twelfth-century European cities were nevertheless bustling hubs of commerce. Often surrounded by orchards and market gardens, these settlements could nevertheless not be said to produce their own food. Their non-noble inhabitants, moreover, provided goods other than food to the top classes. Already the inhabitants of the town of Cluny, which existed to serve the once-magnificent monastery there, were already called bourgeois. Interestingly, Cluniac social models did not include laymen at all.

What all of the models that Duby discusses share is a great discomfort among the aristocrats (lay or clergy) with the complexity of the much larger non-aristocratic world. All the models, and certainly the one that finally took hold, betray wishful thinking about ordinary Europeans. Having instituted the formal exploitation of these people, noblemen now seemed possessed by the desire to think them out of existence. We need not distract ourselves with the multiplying but ineffective barriers to social advancement by members of the Third Order into the First and Second. What we need to focus on is the confusion which thickened beneath the simplicity of the Three-Order model. Duby makes it clear that the merchant class, Those Who Trade, was deliberately excluded from the Model. It is my view that a second important group was also painted out: Those Who Rule, and I want to say a word about this group now.

Any medieval priest or nobleman familiar with the Three-Order model would have laughingly insisted that the members of the ruling class were drawn from Those Who Fight, and while this remained true on a local level well after 1789, it was the first aspect of the model to cease to describe social reality on the important level that did not quite exist when Gerard of Cambrai and Adalbero of Laon inaugurated thinking about the model in the 1020s. It was as yet anachronistic to speak of the national level, on which Those Who Rule would begin to flourish before the century was out. The European state very quickly outgrew the capacity of any one man to rule it, at least as Charlemagne had ruled his transitory empire.

The flocks of ministerial assistants, some great, most small, who made it possible to govern the newly-forming states of Europe, perched uneasily alongside the great men among Those Who Fought who regarded their ruler as primus inter pares and themselves as inherently privileged to participate in official councils. While the ministers were chosen by the monarch, the magnates chose themselves. This increasingly conflicted coexistence, and not the inexorable emergence of a self-standing bourgeoisie, would spell the end of the ancien régime in its European heartland; only in Britain was the problem solved (and upheaval prevented) by the introduction and constitutionalization of liberal political practices — which I beg the reader not to conflate with “liberal policies.” In France, Louis XIV perfected a dangerous acrobatic act by assiduously balancing the forces of both groups. (By now, the ministers had become quasi-aristocrats in their own right, maddeningly making use of the same legal nomenclature that Those Who Fight regarded as exclusive to themselves.) Norbert Elias’s brilliant study of the Sun King’s dubious achievement shows just how personal this solution was, and how unlikely any successor was to master it.

In 1788, Louis XVI slipped. His refusal to open the government’s accounts to the Notables’ perusal and to allow the Notables to participate in policy-making invoked an autocracy for which he quite lacked authority. Unable to compel loans, He Who Ruled was shown not to rule at all, and Those Who Would Rule soon took over. It has always been tempting to regard this upstart gang as a bunch of unruly bourgeois, but while there were unruly bourgeois among them there were also staid international bankers, who for the soundest of reasons were developing the power to make or break kings. It is becoming almost fashionable to conclude that the French Revolution occurred because France lacked a Bank (as in the Bank of England). It was insolvency that undid the ancien régime, not the bourgeoisie.

In the wake of 1789, Those Who Trade and Those Who Rule appeared to detach themselves from Those Who Work almost at once. In fact, these two classes, default members of the Third Order, had long ago developed their own distinctive identities, and regarded themselves as unrelated to the peasants who made up the bulk of the Order. The denial of political recognition, however, left both groups without any established standing vis-à-vis the rump of their history, not to mention the sense of responsibility that comes from experience alone. The Reign of Terror brought it home to everyone that the new rulers could not be trusted with the theoretically absolute powers of the old ones; the greenhorns had no idea of where the theory stopped and the practicable began. As for Those Who Trade, they would be hated more virulently than the most arrogant and unfeeling noblemen. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, both Those Who Rule and Those Who Trade would master innumerable small lessons in the dual undertaking of realizing their own projects (extending and stabilizing government and commerce respectively). By the early years, around 1950, of what we are all learning to call Les Trente Glorieuses — the thirty years of sustained peace and increased prosperity that came to an end in the late Seventies — it seemed that ministers and businessmen alike not only knew their jobs but commanded fairly universal respect. They had come a long way, and for all the flash of scientific and industrial progress, the truly interesting history of the century and a half after 1800 is their transformation from inept novices to men (and women) of far greater self-possession than the most illustrious princes of the ancien régime church and state.

As I say, rulers and businessmen had not waited for the official end of the old regime to embark on careers that had nothing of the Third Order about them; indeed, Those Who Trade had already developed a mercantile ethos when the very idea of the Three Orders was first conceived. Those Who Ruled had been going to law school for centuries. These people certainly looked more like members of the first two Orders than like the others of their own — they dressed, lived, and talked more or less like Top People. That slipping into positions of genuine authority proved to be rockier and more problematic for men of education and fortune than might have been expected shows how profoundly the old political outlook constrained the emerging classes; it was not easily thrown off at all. (And if it was thrown off too precipitously, chaos ensued.)

Two problems remained. First, the annihilation of the old power structure did not inaugurate a new one. The legitimacy of post-Revolutionary arrangements remained uncertain, at least in France, with its blizzard of republics, kingdoms, and empires, until the advent of Charles DeGaulle in 1958. As for commerce, the proper relationship between the state and the market is if anything more uncertain now than it was in 1850. What holds things together is the universal determination not to regress to the condition of the ancien régime.

Second — and this is my true subject — the peasants of the Third Order did not conceive of a new program for themselves. This is not at all surprising; peasants lacked the education required to weigh and consider the abstractions of civil order. It is even less surprising because the mushrooming expansion of educational resources that has marked the post-Revolutionary era provided ample opportunity for those children of the Third Order with enough inborn curiosity and intelligence to lift themselves above — and to remove themselves from — the very narrow horizons of the Third Order outlook, or, as I shall call it, Third Order Thinking. The gifted recipients of scholarships to leading universities found their elders to be impervious or indifferent to their ideas for social reform and for a better life. This is least surprising of all: centuries of brutal exploitation had taught peasants to put little or no weight on new and different insights. Imagination is not a boon to the mind preoccupied by subsistence.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution transformed the peasantry into the proletariat. Life got even worse for many members of the old Third Order, and the prospect of old-timey uprisings haunted the leaders of the new regime. Those who had left the Third Order behind were of two minds about how to ameliorate the lot of those who remained. The first, as I have suggested, was along the lines of Improvement. Amazingly, after decades of failure, this is still being recommended. The other approach has combined benign neglect with material distraction. The physical poverty of proletarian life has been greatly eliminated; everyone seems to have access to food and a big-screen TV. No one imagined that, without pitchforks, torches, and violent anger, the remnant of the Third Order could alter the world fashioned by the new Top Two.