17 July 2009

reward and punishment

To say that in Protestant countries the Reformation led to a progressive secularisation of Charity is something of a commonplace. But through this process of taking responsibility for the poor and the unable, cities and states prepared the way to a new form of sensibility to poverty. A new form of pathos came into being, which no longer spoke of a glorification of pain, nor of salvation proper both to Charity and to Poverty, but concerned rather the idea of civic duty, and showed the poor and destitute to be both a consequence of disorder and an obstacle to order. The aim therefore was no longer to glorify poverty in the act of relieving it, but quite simply to dispose of it altogether. Bound to poverty as such, Charity too suddenly seemed to be a kind of disorder. But if private enterprise, as a 1575 act demanded in England, helped the state to repress poverty, it became part of the social order and acquired meaning. Shorty before the 1662 Settlement Act, the most important text of the seventeenth century regarding the English poor, Sir Matthew Hale had written a Discourse touching Provision for the Poor, which was a clear indication of the new manner in which the meaning of poverty was perceived. To Hale, helping to make poverty disappear was "necessary, and becomes us both as men and as Christians." He recommended that the mission should be entrusted to officers of the peace, who should subdivide counties, group parishes together and set up compulsory workhouses. No one should then beg: "No man will be so vain, an indeed hurtful to the Publique as to give to such as beg, and thereby encourage them."
  Poverty is no longer part of a dialectic of humiliation and glorification but rather of the relationship of disorder to order and is now locked in guilt. After Calvin and Luther, poverty bore the marks of an immemorial punishment, and became, in the world of state-assisted charity, self-complacency and crime against the good order of the state. From being the object of a religious experience and sanctified, poverty became the object of a moral conception that condemned it. The great houses of confinement were a clear result of that evolution. They were indeed the secularisation of charity, but in obscure fashion they were also the moral punishment of poverty.
  ... But Catholic thought was reluctant to change, as were the traditions of the Church. These collective forms of assistance met with initial resistance, as they appeared to downgrade the merit of an act of individual assistance, and removed the eminent dignity that was inherent to poverty. The Christian duty of charity was being turned into little more than a civic obligation, and poverty had simply become a crime against public order. These difficulties slowly disappeared, and appeals were made to the universities to address the problem. The University of Paris approved the public forms of organization that were submitted for its assessment. ... Before long, the Catholic world had adopted the mode of perception of poverty that had come to prevail in the world of Protestant thought ... within the space of a few years, the Catholic Church in France had given its backing to the Great Confinement ordered by Louis XIV. This meant that the poor were no longer recognised as a pretext sent by God to elicit charity, an opportunity for Catholics to work towards their salvation. Catholics, following the example of the Archbishop of Tours, began to see the poor as "the very dregs of the Republic, not on account of their physical poverty, which properly arouses compassion, but for their spiritual indigence, which is a cause of revulsion."
  The Church had chosen its camp, and in so doing had split the Christian world of poverty, which had previously been sanctified in its totality by the medieval world. On the one side was the realm of Good, where poverty submitted and conformed to the order that was imposed on it, and on the other the realm of Evil, where poverty rebelled and tried to escape that order. The former accepted internment, and found its repose there; the latter resisted it, and thereby merited its condition.
  This reasoning was expounded quite bluntly in a text inspired by the Papal court in 1693, which was translated into French at the close of the century under the title La Mendicité abolie (Begging Vanquished). The author made a distinction therein between the good and the bad poor, those of Christ and those of the Devil. Both bear witness to the usefulness of houses of confinement, the former because they gratefully accepted all that the authorities bestowed upon them, "patient, humble, modest, content with their station and the assistance that the Bureau brings them, and thanking God for his providence." The Devil's poor by contrast complained about the General Hospital, and the constraints that it imposed upon them. "Enemies of good order, lazy, deceitful, lascivious and given over to drink, they speak no language other than that of the devil their father, and curse the Bureau's teachers and directors." Therein lay the justification for depriving them of their freedom, a freedom for which they had no use other than the glorification of Satan. Confinement was thus doubly justified, in a movement of undecidable equivocation, both as reward and punishment, according to the moral standing of the person on whom it was inflicted. Up until the close of the classical age, this ambiguity of the practice of confinement remained, its strange reversibility implying that its meaning could alter in response to the merits or faults of its victims. The good poor, the deserving, saw it as a gesture of assistance, and a good work from which they drew comfort, while the bad poor—precisely inasmuch as they were bad—turned the gesture into an act of repression. This opposition between good and bad poor is essential for an understanding of the structure and meaning of confinement. The Hôpital Général classified them as such, and madness too was divided up in similar fashion, so that it too, according to the moral standing it manifested, could fall under the categories of assistance or repression. All internees fell within the scope of this ethical valorisation, and before being objects of knowledge or pity, they were treated as moral subjects.

Michel Foucault, History of Madness (2006:57-60)