The idea of hierarchy, like that of aristocracy, capitalism and patriarchy, is much-aligned in this age. We would rather thing of ourselves as a society of equals, in all ways the same as each other, with none being better than another. This does not explain the ambitions of many academics and politicians who think themselves above the common set of men and women, who labor below whilst they rule above. This seeming right to rule over others is seldom explained and never openly admitted, perhaps it is their status as insiders in a culture of the ‘elites’ which the sociologist Lasch foresaw as being ‘in revolt’ against the common loyalties of family, faith and community.
While this goes unexplained, we need not concern ourselves overmuch with it, for it is not the goal of my investigation. Rather, my goal is to take a look at the idea of hierarchy, as opposed to that of equality. This is because in our time when equality is the noble ideal, and any sort of inequality is to denounced with all manner of epithets. However to believe solely in equality and not in any sort of hierarchy among men and women, is to unbalance thought to the point where, like a broken clock, you will be only right twice in a day.
Hierarchy, the subordination of some to others one ground or another, is perhaps the most common fact of human social life. In some cultures it is grown to extreme dimensions. Hawaiians were forbidden, on pain of death, to step into the shadow of a king. In Japan commoners were forbidden to look upon the Emperor. Under such societies as those spoken of above, as well as the cultures of ancient Egypt, Babylon and imperial Rome, powerful monarchs were seen not only as rulers, but as having divine attributes and often as being divine themselves. An odd difference between Western and Oriental monarchies is that the former have never been seen as divine, whereas in the latter the ruler was commonly seen as having divine attributes. This somewhat muddy difference may be attributed to the influence of Christianity, which stands strongly against any man claiming to be divine, save the Carpenter Who hung on the Rood.
For American’s, the idea of social hierarchy is seen as anathema to our national character. The famed words the “all men are created equal” with equally endowed rights supposedly destroyed any kind of hierarchy among Americans. But this is to read the picture wrongly. The Founders did not seek to overthrow all social order and hierarchy, but to replace it with a different one. Jefferson spoke of a ‘natural aristocracy among men’ which he hoped would rise to position and power to rule the nation. The unyielding conservator John Adams held that “there is a natural aristocracy of virtues and talents in every nation and in ever party, in every city and village.”
The common overthrow of all hierarchies is a phenomenon unique to the modern world, in no other society has it been attempted across so vast a scale. Men, in both ancient and medieval societies, were part of a grand order of things, each holding to his own place. This is particularly true of the Middle Ages, where the ‘order of being’ was a prominent idea in political thought and life. Each estate had its place, Papacy, Monarchy, Baronage and others all had a place, and while movement was possible between ranks and estates, it was not so common as it is today.
The American obsession with equality is our strength and an Achilles’ heel which leaves us vulnerable. Tocequeville saw our passion for individulistic equality as being ‘Cartesian,’ that is, each man stood for himself as a social atom disconnected from others, reliant upon himself. While there is some truth and some good to this grand part of our national character, there is also a flaw. In destroying all hierarchies, we have long been opened to the schemes of men who claim to level us, while in truth subjugating us, in accordance with their own designs. The success of Progressive scholar Charles Beard in wrecking the Founders of our Republic as great men opened the door for Beard and his ilk to put themselves in a position to command the destiny of the nation.
The same may be found among Communists and Jacobins who have made loud claims to wanting to make men’s conditions better but who have always ended in making them worse. Since I have reached the end of my thoughts this evening, I shall close with a few words from Burke, who puts in a few lines what I may only hope to do with a page.
Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level, never equalise. In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levellers therefore only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society, by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Your Humble Servant, C. McDonald