democracy needs aristocracySeneca, the Roman philosopher, relates the story of the murder of Callisthenes by Alexander the Great, the “everlasting crime” of the Macedonian leader. Seneca wrote:

“For when someone says, ‘Alexander killed many thousands of Persians’ the countering reply to him will be: ‘And Callisthenes too’. Whenever it is said: ‘Alexander killed Darius, who had the greatest kingdom at that time’, the reply will be: ‘And he killed Callisthenes, too.’ Whenever it is said, ‘He conquered everything all the way to the ocean…and extended his empire from a corner of Thrace all the way to the farthest boundaries of the East” it will be said, ‘But he killed Callisthenes’. Although he went beyond the achievements in antiquity of generals and kings, of the things which he did, nothing will be as great as this crime.”

This anecdote dramatically sums up what was once considered the ideal creation of Western Civilization: the noble individual, celebrated from Roman philosophers to 18th century Englishmen like Gibbon to 19th century Americans like Emerson. From the heights of the Promethean view of man’s potential that made one Callisthenes of more importance than an entire army; to the degenerate view of the human as helplessly weak, whose self-interest is usually malevolent and whose dignity inevitably disgraced, there have been few Western ideas made more subject to unrelenting corrosion in modern times than the notion of “man”. In fact, it has been one of the more peculiar pairings of strange political bedfellows that many Catholics and almost all Communists have agreed upon: that of the Self as inherently sinful, whether against God or State; a repository of living shame, guilt, greed, and anti-social attitudes.

Today, it is this corrupted notion of “the Individual” that has fundamentally rendered the massive problems of the United States no longer merely political but philosophical. This, in turn, has been the result of two vastly different understandings of democracy of which the country has lost sight: aristocratic democracy, which is what the Founders had intended, and egalitarian democracy, which is what we’ve created, much to our peril.

For the Founding Fathers on this point, one is referred to Federalist 9, 10, 47, 49 and 57; to Jefferson’s self-admitted search for the “natural aristoi” he wanted to cultivate for public service and to his argument that education in a Republic must be “democratic and aristocratic”. One is also reminded of Madison’s and Hamilton’s almost obsessive fear of “mobocracy” and their revulsion towards the idea of direct democracy. (“When I mention the public, I mean the rational part of it; the ignorant and vulgar unfit to manage its reins”, wrote Madison).

To be clear: “Egalitarian” does not mean equality; it means the lowest common denominator having the highest possible cultural and political influence, whether elite or mass-driven. “Aristocratic” is used here not in the sense of baronies, barbicans, or bloodlines. The term is meant in its original, philosophical sense, best summarized by no less than Lord Tennyson himself, as “self-reverence, self-sufficiency and self-perpetuation“.

It is this last quality of the long-view—the concept of Time—inherent in the aristocratic outlook that is its most important aspect. It is what integrates the sustainability of the freedom of the individual in a democratic society with that which makes him able to sustain himself in the first place: his means of production, or capitalism. That is to say, a proper democracy in which the “self-reverence and self-perpetuation” required of the citizen is paramount will at the same time be a “properly” capitalistic society in which his long term “self-perpetuation” is made possible. The future of democracy is a contest between these short and long-term views and in coming decades this will determine whether the United States will manage to produce its way out of a state of decline, or not.

In a word, if modern Western capitalistic democracy is to survive, it must incorporate that which it has long regarded as its diametrical opposite—the aristocratic (the long-view). If this democracy is to perish, it will continue to promote that which has been falsely regarded as its best element—the egalitarian (the here and now, the mass appetite). If things stay as they currently are, democracy in general will increasingly take on characteristics of the totalitarian, or what Jefferson warned of as an “elective despotism”, in which in the will of a leader will become totally responsible for the helpless whole.

One remarkable intellectual-social trend that highlights all these factors at once—the corruption of the concept of the individual; the mass preference for the appetites and impulses of the present; modern societal contempt for the future and future planning—may be seen in the relatively recent intellectual trend to “turn” capitalism into something it is not and should not become. The subversion is taking place where subversions tend to at first: in language; subtly distinct changes of terminology that have been gaining currency since the onset of the economic crises and intensifying since then. One sees economic commentary calls for “communitarian capitalism”, “the social market”, “social entrepreneurship”, appeals for the end of something called “Gucci capitalism”, and so on. On the surface, all of this seems harmless, even positive. In fact, to many, including business leaders, these new categories represent an intelligently progressive step in the right direction, ostensibly respecting the productive ends of capitalism while mixing some social oversight into those ends. As a side benefit, say supporters, the word is purged of its recently tainted connotations.

But therein lies the danger. For, the philosophy at the root of such nuanced language is that the traditional center and spirit of capitalist enterprise, the individual—his individual gain, his search for profit, his self-interest, his personal distinction or even “glory”—represents something distasteful at best; inherently, irretrievably criminal and corrupt at worst. Meanwhile, according to such thinking, only the social-communal-group mindset is the legitimate economic goal and, by extension, the morally superior one. This trend uses guilt, the crimes of oligarchic financial-political gangsterism, and a sinking economy to undermine and overtake the concept of capitalism. The premise of capitalism is thus reversed, putting the group ends of distribution as the ethical objective above and beyond the protection of the fundamental means of production—the individual and his individual mind. The egalitarian becomes the goal, while the aristocratic—the main driver of  standards, long-term planning and generational perpetuation—becomes the object of resentment.

Eric Hoffer, in his slender classic, The True Believer, wrote: “The reason inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence towards the present or the future. They see their lives and the present spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both, hence their willingness to chaos and anarchy.”

This is the egalitarian on his path of destruction. He creates for the short-term, because the present is an ordeal to get through, the past is invariably a source of evil and the future is beyond his control or care. The short-term is the convenient, the instantaneous, the whetting of an appetite. Soon, the short-term becomes not only the economic, but the political, cultural and social mentality of choice. This becomes: the short-term in financial practices; the short term in political expediency, the short term in art—all recycled, disposable and forgotten—the short term in education standards, the short-term in durability of a product or a service; the short-term in human relationships, in concentration and commitments…all of it leading to the current crop of human capital we have today. Then, the vox populi and its elite-mass representatives bemoan the “Individual” as a rapacious, quick-scheming wretch.  Well, they should know. They created him.

Dramatic as it sounds, there is a direct end to all of this. If a democratic society does not demand far higher, individual character standards of itself it will become, eventually and by default, fascistic. That is, if more is not asked of the individual, then nothing at all will be asked of the mass—because nothing can be asked of a herd—and one person, one “Will”, will be invested with responsibility for the many, making of him the dictator he will inevitably have to become—Jefferson’s “elected despot”. At present in the West is a population of human capital that is not really fit for democracy as it must be maintained—certainly not economically. But “capitalism” is blamed for the decline and fall, while that that same capitalism is being taken hostage by politically correct terminology that it may still be coaxed into showing up and saving the day.

The aristocratic element of democracy is its long-term quality. It has reverence for the past and it plans for the future. This is the necessary instinct democracy needs anew and that capitalism—the practical support of that democracy—should be free of guilty-conscience modifiers or apologetic labels tacked onto it. Once upon a time in Europe this view meant great forestry or mining fortunes made with the goal of sustaining generations of family name; in the US it became the outlook of Madison, Adams and Jefferson, who refer time and again to the need of a “gallant citizenry” to uphold their vast and incredible experiment. Such is the outlook of the kind of individual whom no great force—emperor, soldier, government—can replace.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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9 replies to this post
  1. The thing we never have to worry about in politics is the presence of an aristocracy. For as C. S. Lewis noted, “Where men are forbidden to honor a king they honor millionaires, athletes or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.” And all aristocracies, like all democracies, tend towards oligarchy, the worst possible form of government. The only way to curb an aristocracy is with the other two elements of a politeia, democracy and monarchy.

  2. A classic book-length study of the implications elaborated here is Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City. It outlines the implications of three classes of people: present-oriented, and future-oriented (to the end of one’s life), and the “aristocratic” future-oriented (looking well past one’s own lifetime). It raised a huge ruckus in the mid-1970s and still holds wonderful insights into current issues.
    Bob Schadler

  3. Would that your plea for unfettered “capitalism” was more accurate. For surely your characterisations include the premise for a capitalism led by persons of virtue seeking the common good. But the evidence points to people infected by Augustine’s Libedo Dominandi. How else explain the Wall Street Bank’s willingness to bundle assets of little value, while hedging their bets and plunging our economy into chaos.
    Where is the pathway to growing the middle class? Where is the support for the working class. Where is the counter balance to the “aristocrats.” politicians and job creators who seem bent on serving themselves at all costs.
    For a better economic theory, see my website
    Where I feature the works of Eric Voegelin, Bernard Lonergas.s.j. and others.
    Lonergan’s macroeconomic theory is the cure for what ails the current non-scientific theory of economics that scews the way capitalism is practiced. Sincerely Mike Albertson

    • Dear Mr. Albertson,

      Thank you for reading my essay.
      I agree that the explanation of “capitalism” as featured here might be better nuanced–I certainly do not mean the gangster (or “bankster”) class running amok and unaccountable. I meant in the sense of *productive* entrepreneurship; the actual creation of wealth, rather than its corruption. Also, the term “aristocracy” is meant in its original sense–rule by the best. “The aristocratic” is what is meant–not aristocracy as “oligarchy” or just any kind of “elite”, though, again, the word has come to mean these latter.

  4. The good part of this post is that there is a refreshing honesty about the kind of “democracy” or republic designed by our founding fathers. It was a partial democracy where there would be voting but that control would remain in the hands of those with wealth–these were the ones who belonged to the “landed interest,” that is the wealthy landowners.

    But the bad part of this post is that it shares the same vulnerabilities as all other partial democracies. That weakness is the rule of one group of people over the other. And when those who rule view themselves as superior and the provider for others, at the most we could graciously call this a paternalistic democracy. Note that, according to what is written in this post, if everybody had an equal voice, then we would be ruled by a pejorative mob. We should note that all representative democracies are ruled by mobs. In fact, we could say that when the representatives in such representative democracies are those with wealth and power, we could describe such democracies not as places where we have mob rule, but as places where the Mob rules.

    In any case, the aristocracy in such a democracy seems to quickly embrace the role of the pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the two men praying. In that story, the pharisee thanked God that he was not like the tax-collector-sinner because he was righteous while the sinner was not. So think about how such a democracy would rule over a country where only the elite were righteous enough to be qualified to rule while everybody had to be protected from the masses. It makes sense that those who picture themselves as either being a part of the elite or dependent on them would favor such a partial and paternalistic democracy.

  5. That aristocracy is not incompatible with democracy is evidenced by the Adams family.
    That it can also be potentially destructive of democracy is evidenced by the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Pauls.

  6. Having grown up in a part of the old South where the old class structure had lingered, I must say I care not a whit for an Aristocracy. Aristocrats like to rub it in, patronize those whom they regard as inferiors, respect only the opinions of those they consider to be in their class. It reminds me of my grandma telling about her grandfather and how he would bow to the rich lady down the lady, to his sisters and open the doors with a flourish for them. But when it came to his own wife, who was considered to be from a lower class, he walked before her into the house, never bowed to her, etc. When it came to schooling, the teachers favored the landowners kids over the sharecroppers kids. It was pleasant to see the shock on my 3rd-5th grade teacher, when I told her that I had earned a bachelor’s degree and was working on a Master’s in Intellectual History. Such experiences, along with others from the frontier side of my family, led me to appreciate and respect the common ordinary everyday person as one who had many hidden talents. I found it to be the case in dealing with African Americans, and my knowledge of a great body of primary sources on them led to an invitation to write a dissertation on the same at an Ivy League University and to deliver a lecture in an Afternoon series in ’71 on the subject, “The Stanley Elkins Thesis: A Critique.” The Blacks easily imbibed a knowledge of how this society worked, what being a member of the local churches meant, and they reflected that knowledge in their conduct.

    When General Lee expressed doubts about whether Blacks could ever fit into American Society due to their inferiority, he did not know that at that very time there were two Blacks in South Carolina who had the equivalent of Oxford degrees. Seems the Master’s sons whom they served thought that whatever they did, their servants could do, and they gave them the opportunity. A back to back campus to the State campus where I taught bore the name of one of those Black men (one was experienced in Hebrew and the other in Greek, if memory serves correctly after 42 years). The school was called Claflin University.

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