Thoughts on Aristocracy

Aristocracy and hierarchy is fast becoming one of my favorite topics to write about. For some reason I am repelled by the levelling ethos of the age, and I prefer to look to the element that is often missing, or that is seldom spoken of in our society, the element of hierarchy. Since I’ve been writing and thinking about this lately, I’m posting some of my writings. Enjoy.

The Word ‘aristocrat’ is hardly a word of compliment for our times. Iit has become a term of reprobation and attack. Aristocratic is an insult to our age which aspires to be egalitarian and level with all, treating none as better, and seing none as better, than anyone else. While this common attitude may be mocked and proven to be an unwarranted arrogation, this is not my purpose. Instead, I will discuss the aristocratic idea nad its place in a humane and philosophical vision of life.

What is aristocracy? The common definition is one that usualy refers to an unjustified rule of some by others. A feudal aristocracy as in medieval Europe, a theocracy as in a Muslim Caliphate or a Hindu Brahmin caste might all be seen as different forms of aristocracy, if by aristocracy we mean the rule of some by others who are seen as being better than those they rule. Usually this idea that some are better than others is deeply ingrained human society, since we are given to creating hierarchies and ranks of men and women. This definition too, must fail us; however, since the idea that a Brahmin is better than a lower caste or that a French Duke is superior to his serfs is a cultural one and is bounded by that culture.

The PSanish philosopher Ortega provides me with my starting point. In his Revolt of the Masses, he says

Society is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses. The minorities are individuals or groups which are specially qualified. The mass is the assembalage of persons not specially qualified. Pg. 13

By ‘qualified’ Ortega does not mean the technical qualifications for a specific task such as engineering, medicine or science. Instead, he means an innate quality, which is trained up to frutition, for some role of other in society. This quality of innateness provides us with a beginning for a view of human nature that is decidedly unpopular today. While not all would agree with Hobbes that all men are absolutely equal in a state of nature, and that any differences are due to the circumstances of birth and upbrining, many would say that innate qualities don’t exist, or that they cannot be held so highly, given that genius is supposedly 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, as Edison would have it.

A minority of which Ortega speaks, those who have ‘nobly disciplined minds’ are now neither spoken of nor seen. While Progressives in America have spoken of the need of experts to run government and shape society, this is a different sort of discipline and minority than what Ortega or I have in mind. For an expert in our society fills a sociological role by exemplifying what we think this best in our technocratic society: the individual who is highly trained in a specific role and a specific mode of knowledge which grants him a sort of authority over the rest who lack that training and knowledge. Governments have long turned to expert economists, game theorists and planners to decide how a society and its economy should be run, often with disastrous results for all concerned. As it has been commonly noted by conservative critics, the expert suffers little from having his knowledge nad predicitive ability brought into sever question and even refutation. This has to do with our societies love of expertise and technical knowledge.

Technical knowledge, and the technician who uses it, exists for what is usually a strictly defined and understood utilitarian end. The labor expert exists to help maintain relations between labor and management. Biologists and sciencist in general exist to advance our understanding of the natural world, including man as a natural creature. The techinican and his knowledge do not exist for any higher or superior purpose or end beyond what can be concretely seen and understood. Forgetting that human actions aim at the end of happiness, as Aristotle teaches us, our techinician and his admirers imbibes the view that his knowledge, like human life, exists for no higher purpose than a material end of material happiness and benefit. To attempt to consider anything higher than the material, say the religious or the moral, is to reach be accused of attempting to ‘impose’ one’s values and beliefs on another. Far better, we think, to simply allow all fields of knowledge and expertise to continue toward the end they already aim at than to try to consider anything higher. While the reasons for this refusal to look above a narrow track are fascinating, we must pass over them for another time.

An aristocrat, as I understand him, is one who lives not for himself, but to exemplify an ideal, usually spiritual, social or moral. Aristocrat, or one who is superior, is superior not because he is born to a station, gifted with intelligence or possessed of wealth, these are all things he has no power over when he is born. The aristocrat has chosen to be what he is, at some point in his life he chose to live out something greater than himself, allowing that to guide his life. This is not due to his creating his own values or morals, but to the exact opposite, a recoginition that nothing he invented could serve as a sufficient guidepost. Instead, he has chosen to live for something else, perhaps for Somone else.

Ortega again proves a succinct guide to the nature of the aristocrat. Contrary to the mass-man of modern democracy and mass society who ‘is satisfied with himself exactly as he is,’ the aristocrat lives a life of servitude. According o our guide, ‘the select man, the excellent man is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.” Pg. 63. This is not to say that aristocracy is a product pure choice and will power. As with all things human, a degree of Providence plays a role in the lives of men and their stations.

A man from the backwoods became President, during a strife-riven period in American history. This man was born into poverty, taught himself such things as law, logic and the ideal of liberty. After a lifetime of political failure, he found himself nominated what was perhaps the hardest presidence in American history. This man was Abraham Lincoln, a man who lived the paradox of the man from common background who by choice, learning and the hand of Providence, was to become one of the greatest men of his age, and one of the greatest in the history of our Republic.

There are, in Western history, examples of other men who became, through one way or another, aristcrats who exemplified an ideal in their lives, often without knowling it. The Greek thinker Socrates, a common Athenian, was to die for his idea of philosophy as a means to true knowledge, which was not to be impeded by the desires of Sophisters and the powerful to mask their ignorance in fine words and grand speeches. Another, the Roman Cincinatus, was a name well-known to the American Founders. Cinicinatus lived as common Roman in the old Republic, before the decadence of Empire destroyed the old Roman virtue. At a time of crisis, Rome was threatened by invasion, Cincinatus was chosen to be dicator, the absolute master of Rome and her armies. Taking up his duty, Cincinatus defeated the invader and then returned to his farm. This example was no doubt in the mind of Washington when he did the same after the Revlutionary War was one. King George III asked, “What will Washington do, now that he has won the war?” “He will return to his farm” was the reply, the King responded “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” The willing surrender of power is a virtue of humility and a choice to walk away from a great temptation that has felled too many men to count. These examples of virtue and moral choice are seldom thought of or pointed to as something to emulate. Whatever their personal qualities these men, Cinicnatus and George Washington, stand as the aristocratic examples of a certain kind of virtue uncommon to rulers,  one of which we are in need.  “These are the select men, the nobles, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is perpetual striving, an incessant course of training. Training = askesis. These are the ascetics.” Pg. 65-66

I hope this proves somewhat interesting.


Your Humble Servant, C. McDonald

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