The Three Estates

This post is going to going to be a departure from my normal fare. Today I am going to dip my toe, however tentatively, into that murky pool of forbidden knowledge known as Neo-Reaction, or what some have deemed “The Dark Enlightenment.” Looking back over it, I realize this is a sloppy post, and I apologize for that. Its been difficult to compile and organize my thoughts on this subject and I may not repeat it. But enough of that, on to the actual post.

I. The Medieval System

Christian Europe after the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire and up until the heyday of the Renaissance (and in some nations even later) was organized into a loose caste system which was known as the “Estates of the Realm.” This system was also sometimes referred to as “The Three Estates”, because in many nations the system was made up of three different castes, each of which was referred to as an Estate. France was the archetypical nation that embodied this system. The Estates were as follows:

  • The First Estate was composed of the clergy, ranking from the lowliest monk or parish priest all the way to up to Archbishops. They were also called “oratores”, or “those who pray.”
  • The Second Estate was composed of the feudal nobility, ranging from the lowliest knight all the way up to Dukes and Princes. They were called the “bellatores”, or “those who fight.”
  • The Third Estate was composed of the commoners, ranging from the lowliest serf all the way up to… well, scratch that. Rich merchants and highly skilled craftsmen were essentially the top of this estate. They were called the “laboratores”, or “those who work.”

A few important points:

  • This social order developed organically over time, although philosophy and theology later came to ratify its existence.
  • Something important to note is the absence of two key individuals in the social order in the above estates: the King and (for Catholic nations) the Pope. Technically the King (whomever he was) was above the system, and was in fact in charge of it in whatever nation that he ruled. The Pope, on the other hand,  technically held spiritual authority over all Christians (including the King), and therefore was (according to some philosophers) superior to the King. [More on this later. ]
  • Those elements of society outside the power structure were known as the Fourth Estate.
  • This era was marked by a consolidation of economic and political power together under the nobility. As the economy was primarily agricultural, land equaled wealth. Since the nobility controlled nearly all the land, they largely controlled the economy. Merchants who amassed significant wealth through trade were few and far between, and in many instances the nobility took steps to restrict this development.

The clergy were held to be the first estate because they received their authority from God. The nobility, which received their authority from the clergy, were the Second Estate. And finally came the final, Third Estate, the commoners, who received whatever rights and authority they had from the nobility.

Each of the Estates played an important role in the social order, one that their simple descriptions doesn’t do justice. The First Estate, the clergy, did more than just pray. In fact, a better descriptor of them would be “those who preach.” For it is preaching, not praying, that gave them the power they wielded in European society at the time. They provided the moral authority and framework for the entire feudal system; in essence they set the rules of the game. The nobility did fight, a lot, although the petty nature of much of it has long made me think that they should have been called “those who squabble”. However, they also ruled too, and that was the greater part of their role in medieval society. It was the nobility’s governance over the commoners which marked their primary role in the system. Only the description of the commoners is accurate; they really were “those who work.” The commoners were the backbone of the system, driving the primarily agricultural economy and supporting the existence of the other two Estates.

The key thing to understand about the Estates of the Realm is the way the Estates interacted. The clergy used their influence to provide moral authority for the nobility to rule over the commoners. In essence, they instructed the commoners to follow the nobles. In return the clergy received special rights and exemptions from most of the noble’s governance. They clergy had their own lands, their own court system, and were in many respects independent of the nobility. The nobility used the moral authority they were granted to rule over the commoners. And the commoners provided material support to the other estates.

Here is a graphical representation of how this worked:

The Three EstatesAt its core, the Estates of the Realm was a simple caste system where each caste had a particular role.  Even in those nations which technically had more than four estates, it is relatively easy to fold some of the estates in the one of the “Three”. Distilled to its essence, this is what you have:

  1. The first caste defined the moral order
  2. The second exercised political and economic control, through its monopoly on force
  3. The third kept the system running

I should point out that the symbiotic relationship between the First and Second Estates was not entirely peaceful. In fact, there was a constant struggle between them over the centuries. This is because their interests were close, but didn’t line up perfectly. At the heart of this conflict, at least in Western Europe, was the question of who was supreme: the King or the Pope? Over time, this struggle escalated, and was encouraged by divisions within the First Estate. The Reformation was as much a fight between the First and Second Estates as it was a fight within the First Estate.

Of course, this system eventually fell apart, with some nations holding onto it longer than others. But the model it provides us with- three divisions of society, each with a defined “role”, will be important in the next section. [For those interested in more info, here is the wikipedia article on the subject. I drew most of this info from memory, but the wiki helped fill in the gaps.]

II. The “New” System

This brings us to the present day. What I believe we are witnessing now in the United States and in most of Western Civilization is the development of a social order that bears a striking similarity to the Estates of the Realm. Remember, the core architecture of the “Three Estates” is that you have one Estate/caste which defines the moral order and is largely independent, you have one Estate/caste which rules the commoners and exercises political, economic and military control, and then you have one Estate/caste which is basically everyone else.

The cultural elites of the West, located in the Media, Academia and the overall “Education Establishment”, have begun to take on the role of the First Estate. Like the clergy in Medieval times, they are largely in a position to define the moral order for overall society. The amount of influence they now wield dwarfs anything that their opponents can muster. For some time the media, although it was just the “press” back then, was referred to as the Fourth Estate. This is because they were outside of the overall power structure as it existed back then, but still wielded influence  (and through it power). No longer. Now the media is very much integrated in the social order. They are joined in this by a powerful Educational Establishment, which molds the minds of citizens starting in kindergarten (or even sooner) all the way through post-graduate education. It is this conglomeration of influence wielders who determine what is, and isn’t, acceptable in society. For an idea of what that means, see here. Under the present system Transgress those boundaries and at best you find yourself a social pariah, with fines and imprisonment possibilities for greater infractions of the social order.

  • Already this new First Estate is being exempted from laws that affect the Third Estate. They receive other protections as well, including greater “free speech” rights and special tax rules.

Meanwhile, the Second Estate that is developing is composed  of political elites and high level government bureaucrats at the upper echelons, while law enforcement and lower level bureaucrats fill up the lower ranks.  These are the segments of society who are assuming the same kind of power and authority that the nobility once had. Also, it is more than simply the State, as it includes party leaders and activists.

  • You can see this in the US through the greater amount of control over the economy that the Federal Government is assuming every day. “Obamacare”, which constituted a massive government intervention and involvement in large sector of the economy, is one example of this. The purpose of these laws, the true purpose, is to assume for government greater power over the economy. This is because the centralization of political and economic power is an essential component of the Second Estate asserting itself and ruling over the general populace.
  • While the US military might be weakening, law enforcement in the country is increasingly militarizing. This process is not accidental- while there are some justifications for these measures, they also pave the wave for law enforcement to more easily squash domestic opposition, something which is not lost on those who form the new Second Estate.

The Third Estate hasn’t changed much since then. It is composed of ordinary individuals who are trying to get by in life. It exists now mostly as a tax base to support the other two Estates.

If you look back up to the graphic above depicting how the system worked, you can see that it hasn’t changed a bit. Each segment of society has its role to play. Now, this social order is still emerging, and hasn’t yet fixed itself in place. But the process is well advanced now. Those who dislike the present US administration likely appreciate this, although I suspect few realize just how much the present US President is a creature of the current First Estate. They built him up and launched him into place in order to carry out their goals. And thus far, they have largely succeeded.

The Church, in a very broad sense encompassing all Christian faith traditions, has lost so much influence and authority in the West that it is effectively no longer in the game. The old First Estate is largely broken. In fact many faith traditions have essentially been wholly taken over by the present First Estate, and now serve its interests.

As for the Second Estate, different political factions all operate within the system and accept its rules- their conflict is akin to the nobles of the past fighting over land and title. There is no fundamental disagreement over the propriety of the system, only a squabble over who controls the system and thus gets to divvy up the spoils.

This all brings us to the Fourth Estate. The press is no longer in this position, instead it has displaced the Church and assumed moral authority over society. If there is any part of society which can be considered to compose a present Fourth Estate, I would have to think it would be the few remaining intact Christian faith traditions coupled with the philosophers and polemicists in the Neo-Reactionary movement. Only there do you find any real opposition to the present order, and even there it is stronger in the latter than the former. Only Traditional Catholics, the Orthodox Church and certain isolated Protestant churches can be considered to be in opposition to the present order. The others have either compromised with it, accepted it or embraced it.

III. Conclusion

I think that understanding how the different segments of the present system work will help those in the Third and Fourth Estates to realize the complexity and insidiousness of the current social order. There really isn’t a unified social order, instead “the powers that be” belong to different components within society, each with their own set of goals. Oftentimes those of the first two Estates will overlap, but not always.  If you consider yourself a foe of the first two Estates, it is vital to understand this- as this division is both a strength and weakness. It is a strength because you need to attack and destroy both in order to overthrow the system, and a weakness because their sometimes competing goals can be used to get them to fight one another. As for how to go about that, well, that’s a subject for another day…

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13 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Neo-Reaction, The Church

13 responses to “The Three Estates

  1. Augustina

    Excellent post. You hit the nail squarely on the head.
    For a while the old order was in place, at least in vestigial form. This old social order was only finally displaced in the last generation or so.

    My mother recounted a tale from her high school days back in the ’40’s. She went to a Catholic high school, and they had movies every Friday. During one movie, an actress (Greer Garson) showed some cleavage and blink, the movie was off and all the girls were herded out and back to class. My mother finds it hilarious. I found it rather sad. These days the kids would be watching porn posing as ‘sex ed.’

    We are often taught that the nuns and church were reactionaries, or naïve, or foolish, or mean and controlling or whatever, for their response to the creeping degradation of morals and manners. But think about it, when those nuns in the ’40’s were growing up they never had to deal with immodesty. It wasn’t pushed in peoples faces. They really had no idea how to deal with it.

    It was not a cultural norm for women to dress immodestly. Oh sure, you had immodest women, but you had to go and seek them out. They weren’t in movies, pictures, billboards or walking down the street. Were there ever nuns, 200 years ago, having to quickly react to an unexpected show of immodesty? No, the culture overall agreed with the church (Catholic or Protestant), and such problems rarely, if ever, arose.

    I’m sure some now are thinking what a prude I am. I am sure we would find that 1940’s movie rather tame by today’s standards. This is just an observation that I have that the church somehow found itself on the other side of the culture, and has only been able to feebly react ever since.

    Mock me if you will, you libertines. But you are responsible for the decaying social order, the fatherless children, and the inner cities that look like bombed out war zones. This is the future that our cultural elites worked so hard for, and they got what they wanted. We can now see the results of a generations long social experiment. I count it a failure.

  2. Interesting, Donal. I like these kinds of essays.

    Already this new First Estate is being exempted from laws that affect the Third Estate. They receive other protections as well, including greater “free speech” rights and special tax rules.

    This is interesting. I agree that they get special protection for their behavior, just as they often don’t have to live in the dangerous communities that their policies create. In terms of greater free speech – yes, they probably have a little bit more, but they don’t give one another much leeway on that either; I’ve seen them eat their own for one misplaced word before.

  3. @ Augustina

    It isn’t so much that the old order was still in place as that there were different factions competing for the first estate. Its “final” displacement began in earnest decades ago, probably well before most people think it happened. But the fact that it occurred was only apparent to most folks in the last few generations (basically, since the “sexual revolution”, although truth be told that actually started decades before.

    Your mother’s tale is rather sad. And you shouldn’t care if others call you a prude. You aren’t alone in it either, I almost certainly meet that standard to some degree.

    This is the future that our cultural elites worked so hard for, and they got what they wanted.

    Yes they certainly did. I’m pretty sure that they are happy with it, too.

  4. @ SSM

    Oh, keeping orthodoxy is essential for the First Estate. That is why they crack down on heretics (which is want those who disagree are to them). Differing viewpoints undermines their efforts to create a unified social order. The protections provided by status in the First Estate are contingent on working within the system; break away and you get treated more harshly than any outsider ever would.

  5. Interesting analysis of the medieval feudalism. In its application to modern times, I believe you’re 100 years too late.

    The rise of transcendentalism and the UU church allowed northern intellectuals to introduce mandatory secular education in the 1840s and 1850s. In Yankeedom, this is when the churches ceded their moral authority.

    The Civil War (so-called) crushed the remnants of Christianity-based moral authority within these United States. As the (atheist) Kennedy brothers pointed out in The South was Right, the Union armies were tasked to destroy every Baptist and Methodist church they found.

    By the early twentieth century mandatory government education had spread to all of the states. At this point we see the situation that you have outlined above – the government caste, the intellectual/media caste, and the rest of us. Many universities, newspapers, and magazines of the time were still independent.

    Perhaps this situation could have remained stable for a long time. But secular morality has no fixed base. Progressives were driven to continue to “improve” things.

    Today, most media income comes from broadcast services – which are licensed by the government. Universities depend on federal student aid to support their budgets. Even churches must toe the line – follow the rules or lose your tax-exempt status. The independent preaching class is no more.

    And there’s an enormous class of people that didn’t exist under the feudal system – those dependent on government for their food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Welfare, Social Security, subsidized rents, food stamps, etc.

    From the looks of things, it ain’t gonna end well. We need to spend much time in fervent prayer.

  6. femininebutnotfeminist

    Like SSM said, this is a very interesting post, and I like these kinds too. Very thought provoking.

    “Only Traditional Catholics, the Orthodox Church and certain isolated Protestant churches can be considered to be in opposition to the present order. The others have either compromised with it, accepted it or embraced it.”

    Having moved to a new town last Summer and visiting a number of Protestant churches in the last several months, I can tell you this is exactly true of far too many Protestant churches these days. It’s getting very frustrating to say the least. I wonder, what is it about Traditional Catholic and Orthodox churches that keeps them from following the same path?

    @ Augustina

    Oh, if your Mother could see what goes on in schools these days she would no doubt be mortified. It will only continue to get worse, no doubt. IMO, it’s better to be thought of as a prude than to compromise where you should not. I’ve been called one too, so I know what you mean.

  7. @ FBNF

    The Orthodox Church has fared better for several reasons. For one, it had a much smaller presence in the West until very recently, and so was never “targeted.” Second, its member also tend to have better ties to the old country, and so resisted the overall culture here better. Plus, their cultures tended to be less affected by feminism in general, and so are more resistant.

    Traditional Catholic’s are simply those that have resisted what has gone on in the general church. They are often drawn to Latin Mass churches, if any are nearby. Their clustering together has helped them resist. There is more to it, of course. I will have more to say in another post next week on the subject, so I will leave it at that for now.

  8. Great post Donal.

    This isn’t actually relative to you post, but for some reason reminded me of some thoughts I’d be having – admittedly, I most spend my “blog time” on cooking blogs and a couple of Catholic sites; but since spending some time in this neck of the internet woods, I’m surprised at how most of the Catholics who post/participate are what I think of as “hyphen-Catholics” – Traditional Catholics, Orthodox, Byzantine….. I, myself, am a plain run-of-the-mill unexceptional Catholic. And the thing is, I find it somewhat disconcerting that the Catholic Church isn’t so very “catholic”.

  9. @ Maeve

    I don’t mean this to be a personal attack or anything, but I don’t think you (in a generic sense) can be a “run-of-the-mill” Catholic anymore. I don’t think anyone can. There really is no such thing. The Church is under so much pressure now people are being squeezed and forced towards different “camps.” Everyone will have to take a side at some point- neutrality simply means siding with whoever “wins.”

  10. @Donal – I take no offense at all. What you are describing can only lead to another schism, which would be horrendous for us all, but in the end, I must follow our Holy Father. I guess when I typed my comment I was thinking of the Creed – how I truly do believe in one holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; and then in re-reading your post, for some reason I just felt sad at the idea of us fracturing into “camps” (you’re correct that that’s the only term for it).

  11. @ Maeve

    Schism is indeed an ugly word, but I do see it as a possibility. It isn’t guaranteed, of course. But there are some disturbing trends in the Church right now. Some parts of the Church are advocating that we conform to the world, and others are emphatically emphasizing that we not conform. The thing is, being Universal doesn’t mean holding tons of different views, it being accepting of everyone. There really is just one true and proper faith, whatever it is. I believe in the Creed as well, which is why I’m not a schismatic like some. But if it goes the wrong way, it will be very tough for those who refuse to conform.

  12. Pingback: The Struggle Of Our Time | Donal Graeme

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