The Return of Sprezzatura: a 16th-Century Perspective on the Brahmin Left

by Miranda Peery

Recall this Book’s recent summer series on the Brahmin Left began with Jacobin’s Matt Karp arguing that “class dealignments” have arisen due to the failure of Left politics to address or understand the needs of the working class. This and subsequent discussions with Jan-Werner Müller (What is Populism?) and Arlie Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land) were inspired by Thomas Piketty’s account of the “Brahmin Left,” a highly educated cultural elite now aligned with liberal politics. This group dominates education, media, technology, and most of the cultural landscape, thus leading to what Piketty refers to as “class cleavages” that run the risk of producing a politics of resentment and alienation among what might be called the anti-Brahmin Right.

All three guests undertook ideological investigations into how the modern left has lost its way by catering to the interests of this privileged class. Thus, the argument goes, privileged voters of the Left have created the opposition that they now face. This pattern certainly resonates with an ongoing project for the American left, who, prompted by the election of Trump in 2016, have struggled to understand their own complicity (or lack thereof). This has led to an important revisiting of some economic, racial, gender and class divides, but has failed (at least so far) to ask some crucial questions: What is it about the Brahmin Left that provokes such a strong sense of resentment? Why does this feeling of alienation lead to such specific forms of performative opposition? I wonder if an answer can be found in a concept from 16th century Europe known as sprezzatura.

The notion of sprezzatura first appeared in Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 work Il Cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier. The text takes the form of a long philosophical dialogue on the topic of what makes someone an ideal courtier, a person who is worthy to be close to and advise a Prince or political leader. In early modern England, the book became enormously popular after its translation by Thomas Hoby in 1561. In the text itself, sprezzatura is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” (Castiglione, 32). It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” Sprezzatura is, in essence, the ability to embody all of the aspects that society has deemed appropriate for a member of an elite class, while simultaneously appearing to exert no effort at doing so.

This marker of the early modern aristocratic class may not be as relegated to history as it appears.

In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Shamus Rahman Khan (a onetime attendee and later teacher at the elite prep school St. Paul’s whose work was discussed in an earlier episode), describes the way that the school in the 21st century focuses on teaching “ease,” or, “feeling comfortable in just about any social situation.” (Khan, 20) This “embodied interactional resource” becomes naturalized through long exposure and immersion within the kinds of cliques and institutions that practice it, allowing the privileged to obscure structural inequality behind ideas like talent or skill. As Khan puts it, “What seems natural is made, but access to that making is strictly limited.” (16). For Kahn, this invisible argument for perceived meritocracy pretends not to advantage anyone while actually solidifying larger and larger class divides. Without mentioning it, both Khan and Piketty can be seen as making the point that the Brahmin Left, while culturally dominating the landscape, have created a new kind of sprezzatura.

“File:Mostaert Portrait of a courtier.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 5 Feb 2021, 08:34 UTC. 22 Sep 2021, 19:06 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mostaert_Portrait_of_a_courtier.jpg&oldid=530593838>.

In place of the conduct literature and Beau Brummel-esque nonchalance of renaissance courts, posh private schools and Brahmin Left social circles imbue the privileged (or those who can join them in a society where social mobility is diminishing) with all of the qualities that make them most likely to succeed in an American “meritocracy” that is no such thing. For anyone outside of these cultural reproduction centers, these codes are as inaccessible as any that the 16th century aristocracy ever dreamed up.

Hence the pushback that all three episodes discussed. In many ways, the desire to “Make America Great Again” can be read as a wish to make America simple again – that is, to render it understandable to those who feel that they have been left behind by the modern world. This world—with its tech-speak, internet language, social justice-focused discourse and endlessly renewing but hard to understand forms of communication—makes them feel obsolete, stupid, excluded and completely at odds with the social norms that have formed around them and that others seem to navigate with ease. Yet, as Khan illustrates, it comes no more naturally to people now than it did in the age of conduct books. Privilege is learned and reproduced—and pretends that it’s what comes naturally.

Burnett, Erin. “Bernie Sanders’ ‘Grumpy Chic’ STYLE Steals the Show at the Inauguration – CNN Video.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Jan. 2021, http://www.cnn.com/videos/style/2021/01/22/bernie-mittens-senator-sanders-inauguration-viral-fashion-moos-pkg-ebof-vpx.cnn.

In response, an anti-sprezzatura position seems, if not reasonable, at least predictable.

In episode #63, Hochschild points out that the power of Donald Trump is centrally the stealing of “legitimacy”, his “lightning in a jar,” offering a counter-narrative to the Brahmin Left’s apparent cultural dominance. One unexpected result of this mystification of norms has been the development of, not only a counter-narrative, but a kind of counter-sprezzatura.

Referring to his essay on the comparison between the current political moment and the Gilded Age (another period, much like the early modern in Europe, which relied heavily on sprezzatura-like class embodiment), in RtB episode #61 Matt Karp touches on the identarian logic of these kinds of cultural codes: “I still do think class does matter…my read is that even though it matters less and less electorally, I’m not convinced that it doesn’t matter politically or even if it doesn’t really matter to sort of social identities and social relationships. I think it’s really significant.”

In fact, that form of resentment may exist even among voters who form the core of the old Left. In that same episode, Karp points out that, “Cori Bush wins St. Louis over a machine candidate, but totally loses in North St. Louis in the kind of poor and working-class black communities and wins decisively among non-black gentrifiers in the central and southern parts of the city.” What are we to make of the fact that a candidate like Bush, who advocates for progressive policies aimed at helping the working class, can lose in neighborhoods that did turn out to vote in numbers for Joe Biden? Political or economic concerns alone can’t account for the divide. Instead, Karp’s point about these kind of de-couplings shows some of the ways that, even within the left, those who don’t have access to the kind of Brahmin Left “ease”, can become alienated by the invisible codes and markers which make up modern-day sprezzatura.

Weiss, Joanna. “The MAGA MASKS Bringing AMERICANS TOGETHER.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 29 May 2020, http://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/29/the-maga-masks-bringing-americans-together-289926.

Harry Berger describes sprezzatura as a form of defensive irony. In Donald Trump’s brash mocking of people who are different, in the ever-present laugh emoji of the internet troll on the posts of earnest liberals, and in the derisive term, “social justice warrior”, every effort to “own the libs” can be seen as the urge to tear down or render visible—and therefore inert—the very “ease” for which the Brahmin Left is known. At the same time, the rise of an intentional obfuscation-style of discourse and the smug “if you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t” meme on the Right hint at a competition between two versions of sprezzatura, rather than a single, dominant strain. Much like the one embraced by the Brahmin Left, this counter-sprezzatura is created and reinforced by the social circles and institutions which surround its participants. It can be passed on generationally. It also mystifies its rules and codes – you must be enmeshed in it to understand how to perform it properly. Finally, and most importantly, you must not appear to be trying too hard. If the Brahmin Left has reinvigorated sprezzatura in their cultural dominance, the new Right, it seems, has decided that the best way to overcome it is to create their own.

Mentioned in the blog

Jan Werner-Mueller, What is Populism?

Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology

Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School

Matt Karp, “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age”

Harry Berger, The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books

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