Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Georg Simmel: The Secret Society

Secrecy is part of every personal and group relationship, but in some relationships the secret "may characterize a group in its totality". We are talking here about "secret societies." In normal circumstances a secret promotes "isolation, contrast, and egoistic individualization." This applies also to the secret society, but in addition the "secret determines the reciprocal relations" among the members that share the secret.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

In a secret society, writes George Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff, the secret inspires "confidence" in its members, and this is important because the whole point of a secret society is the "protection" of invisibility. An individual can hide a secret, but not himself; a secret society -- a "conspiracy, a gang of swindlers" or even a group for "sexual orgies" -- can remain itself a secret; the group not the members is concealed.

We are not talking here about groups like the Freemasons, which merely have secret rules.

Secret societies are typically new movements just aborning, that need the protection of secrecy, and sometimes old movements about to expire or be trampled out of existence. For instance, when Christianity was new it often resorted to secrecy; when Christianity triumphed then it was pagan groups that crept into the shadows.

But the confidence factor is just as important. The difficulty of keeping a secret means that he that keeps it for my sake is trustworthy, and implies a great moral strength. Thus secret societies "offer a very impressive schooling in the moral solidarity among men."

Since the keeping of the secret is paramount for a secret society, it typically instructs "the novice in the art of silence." Simmel tells us how the Moluccans, the Pythagoreans, and the Druids did it.

Now we come to an idea about the difference between a small intimate culture and the large impersonal culture. Simmel observes that face-to-face relations promote a complete integration of the individual "with his surrounding, living group."
But once the labor of the species capitalizes its results in the form of writing, in visible works, in enduring examples, this immediate, organic flow between the actual group and its individual member is interrupted.
The connection between the individual and the group is no longer subjective, it is objective. In this notion Simmel parallels the Marxian scandal about "reification" and "commodification" but without the implication of a Fall from primitive innocence.

Simmel expands on the notion of objectivity. Writing, he writes, "is opposed to all secrecy." That is why, we may say, that we talk of "publishing" a book, for all the world to see. Once you write something down it is objective and timeless.

Given the unprotected nature of written communication, the private letter is a particularly interesting form of communication, starting with the idea that indiscretion concerning letters is considered "particularly ignoble." A letter is, on the one hand, an "objectification of its content" and on the other, because addressed from one person to another, "personal and subjective".

The secret may be merely a means to keep an association protected while it seeks material ends, or the secret may be a secret knowledge that the society protects to keep it from the masses. Either way, sociation is needed to protect the secret. But the development of a society may change the attitude towards secrecy, as in the Freemasons, which preserve the idea of secrecy while becoming indifferent towards it. Secrecy is a two way street. Some may seek it for protection; others seek isolation for protection.

Like all other forms of sociation, secret societies have hierarchy. Indeed, writes Simmel, they do it with "great finesse and thoroughness." The need to preserve secrecy demands this, and since the society has a purpose, the hierarchy, and its will to power, must be carefully designed to project power and preserve secrecy. In the degenerate forms of secret hierarchy, such as in the Freemasons, it reaches for the fantastical.

Secret societies are also famous for their devotion to ritual. In this they are probably no different than other institutions, such as "the military organization and the religious community" which aim to "claim the individual wholly" and use ritual to bind members into a total form of life within the community. Another need for the rigor of ritual is that the secret society is autonomous, a community separate from society; it must replace the stability and lawfulness of normal society with its own laws and stability.

The fact of secrecy makes the secret society interesting. For a start, it must always be a society self-consciously within another society and self-consciously apart from that society. It does not form and grow spontaneously, it is necessarily "conscious and intentional." Then, it must have secret signs so that members can make themselves know to each other -- even in another town -- without betraying the society. They need to hide their society from the general run of people, but also be able to recognize each other.

The forming of a special group, separate from society, also feeds the urge towards aristocracy. As well as satisfying the feeling of superior specialness, secrecy hides the "numerical insignificance of the ruling class" and uses it to appear "fearsome, mighty, threatening." The aristocratic individual, separate from a group, "despises all concealment", for if he were to hide himself behind a "mask" he would concede the "importance of the multitude."

It is notable that the gradual initiation of group members "by degrees" into secret societies helps preserve the secret, it provides a "buffer region against non-initiates". The separation of the secret society allows it to be completely self-motivated and egoistic, whereas non-secret associations always have to pretend to work for the good of all. The secret society also stands at one end of the inclusiveness/exclusiveness axis. Some associations include almost everyone; other exclude almost everyone, and the secret society tends towards the exclusive. The separation from the outside assists in internal cohesion because not only are loyalties focused on the inside but are not divided by other associations. Overall then, the secret society sets up a separate social entity with strong centralization, even to the extent of a secret hidden leader unknown to the members, and a de-individualization and equalization of the members. And there is the invitation to irresponsibility. A man may easily do things he would hesitate to do when a member of a secret cabal.

Needless to say, central governments hate secret societies, indeed, special associations of any kind, and it is easy for the general society to image that secrecy hides dangers. Indeed it is natural for governments to view secret societies as competitors of the state. So "every group that is politically rejected, is called a secret society."

Next: Faithfulness and Gratitude.

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