Aha! Elias’s theory, then, attributes the decline in European violence to a larger psychological change (the subtitle of his book is Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations). He proposed that over a span of several centuries, beginning in the 11th or 12th and maturing in the 17th and 18th, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor— the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions. These ideals originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains and boors. But they were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and younger children until they became second nature. The standards also trickled down from the upper classes to the bourgeoisie that strove to emulate them, and from them to the lower classes, eventually becoming a part of the culture as a whole.

Elias helped himself to Freud’s structural model of the psyche, in which children acquire a conscience (the superego) by internalizing the injunctions of their parents when they are too young to understand them. At that point the child’s ego can apply these injunctions to keep their biological impulses (the id) in check. Elias stayed away from Freud’s more exotic claims (such as the primeval parricide, the death instinct, and the oedipal complex), and his psychology is thoroughly modern. ..

Critics of Elias have pointed out that all societies have standards of propriety about sexuality and excretion which presumably grow out of innate emotions surrounding purity, disgust, and shame As we will see, the degree to which societies moralize these emotions is a major dimension of variation across cultures. Though medieval Europe certainly did not lack norms of propriety altogether, it seems to have lain at the far end of the envelope of cultural possibilities. To his credit, Elias leapfrogged academic fashion in not claiming that early modern Europeans “invented” or “constructed” self-control. He claimed only that they toned up a mental faculty that had always been a part of human nature but which the medievals had underused. He repeatedly drove the point home with the pronouncement “There is no zero point.”… One possibility is that self-control is like a muscle, so that if you exercise it with table manners it will be stronger across the board and more effective when you have to stop yourself from killing the person who just insulted you. Another possibility is that a particular setting of the self-control dial is a social norm, like how close you can stand to another person or how much of your body has to be covered in public.