The enchanting history of charisma

Elizabeth I used hers to cure the sick, while Garibaldi harnessed his to forge a nation. But what is that magnetic quality we call charisma, and how has it changed over the past 2,000 years? Thomas Dixon investigates...

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Elizabeth I shown in a c1585-90 portrait. (© Getty)

Elizabeth I shown in a c1585-90 portrait. So potent was the queen’s charisma that she could, it was said, cure her diseased subjects with the merest touch. (Getty)

 

That special something known as ‘charisma’ is often cited as an essential quality for leaders and celebrities – a magnetic mixture of personal charm and natural authority. It has been seen as the possession of a select band of A-list movie stars, politicians and US presidents, from JF Kennedy to Barack Obama, via Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But what exactly is ‘charisma’, and where did our modern ideas about it come from?

For me, the biggest surprise when I started researching charisma was how recently the term came into wide use in modern English. Although the word was coined by St Paul in his letters to the early Christians in Rome and Corinth 2,000 years ago, it is only since the 1960s that we have been considering whether public figures are imbued with charisma. Even in 1965, the word was unfamiliar to British readers: that year, an article in The Times by the paper’s Washington correspondent observed that Lyndon B Johnson lacked JFK’s “charisma”, adding apologetically that this was a “favourite American word”.

It is almost entirely thanks to the German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber that we use the word charisma as we now do. His fullest discussion of the quality was in his major work Economy and Society, published posthumously in German in 1922. For Weber, charisma was alluring, but potentially dangerous, as a source of political authority. It was an enigmatic, romantic, heroic quality, through which a magnetic leader could break free from the iron cage of rationalism and bureaucracy, which were the hallmarks of the modern industrialised state.

However, there is much more to the history of charisma than the relatively recent adoption of Weber’s concept by social scientists. Exploring this word over the last two millennia takes us deep into the histories of Christianity, science, medicine and celebrity culture as well as the world of high politics. And although we may all use the same word – ‘charisma’ – it has had importantly different meanings.

Originally the name for a spiritual gift, it has also referred to the divine healing power of monarchs and, most recently, to the ‘X factor’ – the je ne sais quoi of modern celebrity.

Looking back to some of those who have possessed and written about charisma in the past offers a flavour of this fascinating history...

 

St Paul (AD 5–67): Charisma’s first disciple

It is in the letters of the great leader of early Christianity that we find the earliest writings about charisma. The term, derived from the Greek charis, literally meant a ‘thing of grace’ and is often translated as ‘spiritual gift’.

In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that each member of the church had a particular ‘charisma’, whether that might be speaking in tongues, prophesying or performing miracles.

This idea that different charismata, or gifts, were manifested in different members of the church was central to Paul’s theology, preserving both diversity and unity. His message was that there were many gifts but one spirit, many members but one body.

It is interesting to note that one of Paul’s main motivations in writing to the Corinthians about their spiritual gifts was to resist an emerging culture of elitism among those who thought their charismata set them above the rest. Paul was at pains to recognise the value not only of speaking in tongues and wonder-working but also less spectacular gifts such as teaching, uttering wisdom, giving generously and performing acts of mercy. For St Paul, everyone has a gift; each of us has our own charisma.

There are two key tensions in Paul’s writings about charisma, however, which have remained in evidence through the intervening centuries. The first relates to the true source of religious authority. Some have said that this is to be found in tradition and ecclesiastical hierarchy, but others privilege direct access to the holy spirit. This comes down to the question of whether it is in the institution or the individual that the special charisma resides, and whether the holy spirit, in a post-apostolic age, can be discerned in spectacular forms of ‘charismatic’ worship, involving extreme bodily experiences, signs and wonders, or only in a more staid devotion to the old forms and teachings.

The second tension we inherit from St Paul is between elitist and democratic ideas of charisma. Although Paul’s ethos was communitarian – he thought that all gifts should be used for the common good – he was not exactly an egalitarian. He thought that there was a hierarchy of charismata, with prophecy ranking higher than speaking in tongues, for instance.

A hierarchy of gifts exists in our own culture too. Certain talents – for acting, singing, playing sport, looking good – receive hugely higher rewards than others. And perhaps we – the voters, the fans, the consumers – use the idea that some individuals possess a special, even supernatural, charisma in order to justify the influence and wealth we collectively bestow upon them.

 

Elizabeth I (1533–1603): The queen with divine power at her fingertips

We generally think of charisma today as a psychological quality – a powerful personality trait. But throughout history charisma has made itself dramatically visible through the body as much as the mind.

Physical demonstrations of special talents are essential to establishing the existence of charisma. From the crowds who tried to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment as he walked among them, via the millions of pilgrims who have journeyed to touch the relics of long-dead saints, to those desperate to have a first-hand encounter with an adored celebrity today, there is a long tradition of believing in the physical potency of charismatic individuals. A mere look or a passing touch from the special one can bring happiness and healing.

My favourite example of this phenomenon relates to the divine powers of monarchs, as demonstrated in the life of Queen Elizabeth I, and discussed by Anna Whitelock in her book Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court. From the medieval period right up to the 18th century, it was widely believed that skin diseases such as scrofula – the ‘king’s evil’ – could be healed by a royal touch.

One of Elizabeth’s royal chaplains, William Tooker, wrote a book in 1597 in Latin, whose title translates as Charisma, or the Healing Gift. In a remarkably vivid passage, Tooker conjures up the contrast between the pure, charismatic queen and her unfortunate, diseased subjects. Tooker wrote that he had seen Elizabeth with her “very beautiful hands, radiant as whitewashed snow, courageously free from all squeamishness, touching their abscesses not with fingertips, but pressing hard and repeatedly with wholesome results”. Tooker, Elizabeth and others set great store by these healing acts, not only as evidence of a special divine gift, but also of the validity of her succession. This charisma was simultaneously spiritual and political.

Another word in our language – to ‘mesmerise’ – has its origins in this same connection between mental gifts and bodily healing. It is a relic of the debates about animal magnetism led by the 19th-century German physician Franz Mesmer, who pioneered an approach to healing that was a precursor of modern hypnosis.

 

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–82): A cult hero for the media age

One could not want a better candidate for Max Weber’s archetype of the charismatic political leader than the dashing, red-shirted, steely-eyed military hero and Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. During his lifetime, Garibaldi came to represent the hopes of the emerging Italian nation. Through his incredible military triumphs – especially in Sicily in 1860 – his demeanour, his flamboyant clothing, and his legendary piercing gaze, Garibaldi became known as an individual with special gifts.

One reason for considering Garibaldi the first modern example of the leader-as-celebrity is that he lived at the start of a new media age – when the reproduction and manipulation of image through the national and international press had become possible on a new scale.

In her study Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero, Lucy Riall shows how the great man’s fame in his lifetime was followed by the creation, after his death in 1882, of a romantic, quasi-religious cult around his memory. For some he had seemed a political saviour; to others he was a personal hero. He inspired generations of political leaders in the 20th century too, including Benito Mussolini, whose paramilitary bands of Blackshirts were modelled on Garibaldi’s Redshirts.


A steely-eyed Garibaldi fixes  his gaze on the camera, c1861. (Getty)
 

Indeed, it is hard to look back at the idea of charisma in the late 19th and early 20th centuries without perceiving the shadow of fascism projecting itself over it. Max Weber died in 1920 and was a liberal and democratic thinker. Yet in his yearning for a charismatic leader we now cannot help seeing a suggestion of the disastrous turn that German politics would take after his death. Weber wrote of the appeal of the irrational, the emotional, the prophetic and the revolutionary, by contrast with the disenchanted utilitarian bureaucracy that he saw all around him. We may all understand this romantic desire, but the examples of Mussolini and Hitler serve as a constant warning against the dangers of emotionalism and demagoguery that come with charismatic politics.

 

Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923): The wacky world of the original ‘It girl’

Although she became known as ‘the divine Sarah’, there was little either spiritual or political about the charisma of the most famous actress of the 19th century. If Garibaldi represented a prophecy of the 20th-century politics of personality, in Sarah Bernhardt we glimpse a premonition of the cult of celebrity and, with it, the emergence of new kind of charisma.

The daughter of a high-class prostitute, who rose to international fame through her intensely emotional, mesmerising performances, the narrative of Bernhardt’s life followed a now-familiar celebrity story. Her romantic liaisons with several of her leading men were reported in the world’s press, as were her taste for expensive luxuries and her diva-like fits of rage. She also shared with more recent celebrities the cultivation of eccentric habits, diet and lifestyle as part of the creation of a personal mystique. In Bernhardt’s case this included tales of her sleeping in a coffin, as well as the keeping of unusual pets including monkeys and a cheetah (something echoed most notably by Michael Jackson in more recent decades).


Sarah Bernhardt plays Theodora, empress of Byzantium, in the 1880s. Her eye-wateringly expensive tastes and bizarre behaviour set the template for 20th-century celebrities. (Getty)
 

Bernhardt reinvented herself repeatedly, performing on the music hall stage as well as making experimental silent movies and audio recordings. By the time of her death in 1923 it was becoming common for film-goers and journalists to ponder whether or not a particular star exuded that all-important ‘sex magnetism’, ‘star quality’, ‘It factor’ or, later, ‘X factor’. This is the most recent incarnation of modern charisma, and the creation of confected ‘reality’ stars has led to frequent debates about whether such individuals can ever have true charisma. However, it has also encouraged the idea, harking back to St Paul, perhaps, that each individual can have their own special charisma, and it is for the rest of the community to discover and celebrate it.

The bodily responses of fans to modern celebrities, of which one early archetype was ‘Beatlemania’, have often mirrored the behaviour of participants in charismatic religion – including weeping, shouting out and falling down. What moves modern fans, however, is not any gift of the holy spirit, but their own yearning somehow to participate in what they take to be the extraordinary abilities of the object of their devotion.

The movie mogul Sam Goldwyn once said: “God makes the stars. It’s up to the producers to find them.” But perhaps it’s not charisma that leads to fame but fame that produces charisma. Is it the fact of fame itself that fuels the charismatic cult of celebrity a century after Sarah Bernhardt helped to inaugurate it? 

Thomas Dixon is the author of Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears, published by OUP. He was the historical consultant on the BBC Radio 4 series Charisma: Pinning Down the Butterfly.

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