Only where Democracy and Aristocracy are harmonized and unified culturally can a nation really be healthy and advanced; its history becomes the awe of the world…
“Be it known to you that a son is born to me; but I thank the gods not much that they have given me him as that they have allowed him to be born in your in your time. For I hope that your care and insight will make him worthy of me and of his future kingdom...” —Phillip II Macedon in a letter to Aristotle, upon the birth of Alexander.
A Grail legend recounts the story of the empty seat of stone at the Round Table. King Arthur told the young Perceval, who had left the forests of Germania and was new to the castle at Monsalvat, that the seat was reserved for the best knight in the world; yet Perceval, being proud, nonetheless sat upon it. As soon as he was seated, the stone split beneath him and cried with such anguish that it seemed to all who were there that the world would fall into the abyss. From the cry which the earth uttered there issued, the myth goes on to recount, a great darkness…
A more poignant allegory of the overwhelming power of the sacred in men’s lives as expressed in secular mythology there is not. At the same time, this King Arthur/Parsifal legend is also a poignant statement of the profane in human affairs as relates to man’s earthly social and political organization. For, at the time of the composition of the legends—vaguely the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—there was taking place a transformation of belief systems of Western civilization, beautifully expounded on by Thomas Aquinas, in which the democratization of royalty and knighthood were at the center of this change. Concomitant to the development of chivalry was the belief in the value and dignity of the Individual regardless of whether he held land or weapons. The symbolism of the Round Table signified this estimation of the individual’s value as it did a shift of power from its concentration in the person of the King, who normally sat at the head of any assembly and whose authority commanded the strict attention of his knights. Now, the physical transformation of the seating represented a psychological change and all those seated had equal weight and equal participation in matters concerning the realm. The Round Table was, in effect, a democratic system—though a democracy of a supreme King and elite knights; it was an advancement of the belief system that everyone was important and equally worthy—yet a democracy of superiors who never gave up their belief in the unspeakable profundity of the sacred.
Here, like the goddess invoked by Parmenides who led men first through a journey into great myth such that they might in the end attain Reason, to understand the story of this most romantic chapter of bewitching Medieval history is to grasp the key rationale of what makes a democratic state genuinely viable. The corruption of democracy, in which the lowest common denominator is given the highest amount of cultural and political power, has been fundamentally the result of the eradication of aristocracy—this latter defined not in a superficial social sense but as that which embodies the standard-setting conduct of the greatest institutions of civilization and the individuals who nobly personify them. It is a view that may be summed by another great figure of the Middle Ages, Richard Coeur de Lion, in a letter he wrote to his son, Konrad, “People do not distinguish Kings and Caesars above other men because they are highly placed, but because they see farther and act better.” He continued: “As men stand equal to other men by their humanity, they are associated with them in life and have nothing to pride themselves on unless by virtue.”
Certainly, this is not a statement in favor of so-called “class structure,” but one in favor of the hierarchy of the human spirit as made manifest in accomplishment. It is why the genius of chivalric myth is that, while portraying characters who essentially make up otherworldly “elites,” these stories attract the popular mass because of the universality of the psychology portrayed; an identification with the myths’ truths about life to which all men may relate. This sense of the democratic-aristocratic is a timeless element in all great Western myth: It is said that even Heracles won his crown of heroism not by birth, not by having Zeus for a father, but by his human compassion and well-doing. But when a civilization eradicates this nature of spiritual hierarchy, there can be no real equality—no fraternal respect for the human person. Nihilism, not “realism,” is the price we have paid for abolishing our myths.
Of modern “myth,” I am haunted by a passage in The New Class—I think it is—a seminal work by the late Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas and wartime resistance leader, who recounts a visit for the first time to Moscow as a freshly minted young communist and Partisan. Eager to meet representatives of his ideological homeland, Djilas is introduced to a Kremlin commissar, a former general, who is bemused at his guest’s eagerness. When he inquires of the commissar whether the latter thinks that the spread of Communism will finally bring peace, community and brotherhood to the human condition, the Russian laughs off the idea and Djilas is taken aback. Rather, the host explains, it will exacerbate hatred and violence among them. Perplexed, comrade Djilas asks why. The Russian explains: Now that there is no God, no King, no Lord upon whom the common man can blame for problems and men must look at themselves for the sources of their life’s ills as well as to their neighbors—who are, according to doctrine, their very own selves, hence equally responsible for those ills—the contempt and detestation of one another will only worsen.
The anecdote is, in many ways, a modern echo of the philosophy of Vico, the great eighteenth-century Italian philosopher, who said that the stages of world history had three categories: first the Gods, then the Heroes, then the Humans. Once a civilization dumps the gods, then rejects the heroes, one is left with the humans. Vico explains this transition, from the first to last stages, as the steady ascendancy of Reason over the Imagination, meaning that the history of human society has been that of a constant search to assert control over the unknown. So, at first, man looks to the gods for answers but then religion fails him. He looks then to his heroes—the great minds, the great actions—only to see that philosophy—our attempt to make sense of those minds and actions—confounds him and the heroes come crashing down. Then, in his desperation, man tries to rely on common man, in the process inventing Ideology and thereby setting man against man—the heroes and gods having already been killed off long ago. This state of contemporary chaos brings us, once more, back to the foresight of the Middle Ages—specifically, De Monarchia, in which Dante wrote: “All concord depends on unity existing in the wills; mankind at its best is a kind of concord. Therefore, for mankind to be at its best depends upon unity of wills, but this unity cannot exist unless there be on will, the mistress and regulator of all others unto unity. Nor can that one will exist unless there be one Prince over all. “
Of course, Nature is highly just in her injustices, ruthlessly but by necessity weeding out weak from strong, and posing to human society the unanswerable question: Should men govern or should men be ruled? The pulse and circulation of ideas driving the course of human history fundamentally has been the summary search for the king who is a philosopher and the philosopher suited to be king; the tragedies of this history stem from the perversion of these ideals and the errant attempts to secure them in religious and ideological form. In the conception of the High Middle Ages, the search for the perfect prince was something of an obsession; into the Renaissance, this abstract notion became highly concretized in the rise of Individualism during that time—this being the thematic study of Jacob Burckhardt’s classic The Civilization of Italy During the Renaissance (1860). The “Quattrocento,” by concentrating attention on the ethical problems of “Princeship” and thus on the personal characteristics of the top aristocrat, started a tendency which reached its culmination in Machiavelli’s proposition that the vital, determining factor in politics is the prince’s personality. The writings of the Quattrocento all spelled out the essential constituents of the princely life and belonged to the magnificentia, one of the most characteristic virtues of the prince. Introduced as well was the idea of majestas: the princely deportment, his outer bearing, the sound of his voice, his gestures, his way of speaking, his dress and table manners—the whole of his life. The humanist scholar Leon Battisa Albert, the first Renaissance thinker to deal with a democratic conception of monarchy, wrote, “Every historical event is purely and simply the consequence of the prince’s personality.” Ferrante of Naples, Louis IX of France (St. Louis), Frederick II Hohenstaufen were all considered to be this embodiment of the perfect prince—a man self-willed, self-made, self-realized as a personality; in essence, a democratic conception of character and leadership. Indeed, this democratic conception of the role of the self-made, individual personality embodied in a King has classic origins. As Hegel wrote in an 1871 essay, “The Philosophy of Aristotle”: “Aristotle found in Alexander another and a worthier pupil than Plato had found in Dionysius. Plato was occupied with a Republic, with the ideal of the State. With this subject before his mind he sought to find means for its realization; the individual was for him only the means and hence indifferent in other respects. With Aristotle, on the other hand, no such purpose was in view; he confined himself strictly to the individual before him and his aim was to develop and expand the individuality.” Hegel goes on to say that Aristotle’s philosophical instruction is the elevation of “the natural, peculiar greatness of his inborn talents to internal freedom and to perfect self-conscious independence as we see in his plans and deeds.” Hegel adds: “Alexander attained that perfect self-possession that alone gives infinite keenness of thought.” It all makes for a nuanced definition of leadership as well. Just as Livy wrote, authority and power are two different things—a subtle distinction, but an important one, for real leadership contains within it an elusive quality of stature that cannot be taught or learned but is rather a style of soul. Government, in turn, is the soul of a city, and, as British parliamentarians and American founders would state centuries later: “Those who found a Commonwealth must themselves be noble.”
Only where Democracy and Aristocracy are harmonized and unified culturally can a nation really be healthy and advanced; its history becomes the awe of the world, and one “class” is not essentially superior to the other: Keep in mind, Aristotle wrote and Alexander only admired him. Machiavelli wrote and de Medici looked on patiently. Livy argued and sermonized and mythologized; Augustus Cesar did not censor him. Aristocracy needs Democracy and the many great thinkers it can produce, the common bond between the two sides being a common national Idea, a cause to which both belong. Walter Savage Landor, in his Imaginary Conversations with Great Men (1868), wrote about how both the Royalists and the Republicans in France fought for Greece during that country’s national liberation in the early 1800s, when there was still a concept of great men. “There was never a question, in ancient days or modern, in which every people of Europe was perfectly agreed, until the Greek cause was agitated…“ We want to see if History will ever have again such an influence on the minds of men that they are united by some sense of the idea of a country, this country, like the French Royalists and French Republicans once did about Greece. Aristocrats and democrats united in an idea—an idea of what is important to all men, in any country, at any time. This is the mentality that will save an entire civilization; one in which a country—this country—means something particular to History and that there is a way—Royalist or Republican—to live in cultural and political society that does justice to that meaning.
It is not as if American history does not have some degree of this mix at its founding—to a point, we may say, and, lest we forget, one might take into consideration the fact four European noblemen surround the monument of Andrew Jackson, founder of modern American democracy, in Washington DC. Sympathy, if that is the correct word, with royalty was ingrained in this country’s founding mentality—support for the Revolution was not an across-the-board affair by any stretch. “No taxation without representation” is not an American idea, but an ancient British constitutional maxim and the leading English jurists at the time of the Revolution, including George Grenville, author and champion of the Stamp Act, did not dispute it. “I would never lend my hand toward forging chains for America, lest, in so doing, I should forge them myself,” Grenville is quoted in George Bancroft’s magisterial History of the United States (1834-74) “But the remonstrances of the American fail in great point of the colonies not being represented in Parliament, which is the common council of the whole empire, and as such is as capable of imposing internal taxes as impost duties, or taxes on inter-colonial trade or laws of navigation.” Thus, the Loyalist position was not to deny the truth of the taxation-representation principle, only that most of them did deny that this principle was violated by the acts of Parliament laying taxation upon the colonies. This number of such like-minded individuals was not negligible. That like-mindedness was to be found in the colony of New York, particularly in the neighborhood of its chief city; there were many Tories in New Jersey, Delaware and in Maryland, yet the largest number lived in Pennsylvania—a number so great that a prominent officer in the Revolutionary Army, Timothy Pickering, described it as “enemies’ country.”
Indeed, as John Adams wrote in volume ten of his collected works: “New York and Pennsylvania were so nearly divided…that if New England on the one side and Virginia on the other had not kept them in awe, they would have joined the British.” Of the New England colonies, Connecticut had the greatest number of Tories; next, in proportion to population, was the district afterwards known as the State of Vermont. Proceeding south, in North Carolina, the two parties were about evenly divided and in South Carolina, the Tories were the more numerous party. In Georgia, their majority was so great that, in 1781, they were preparing to detach that colony from the general movement of the rebellion and probably would have done so, had it not been for the defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, in the latter part of the year. “Thus, the Tories themselves always affirmed that could there have been a true and an unterrified vote, they would have had a great majority” and that in their belief, key measures of the Revolution were the work of “a well-constructed and powerful political machine, set up in each colony, in each county, in each town and operated with as much unscrupulousness as go into the operation of such machines in our time.” John Adams, not one who had been inclined to give undue concessions to the enemy, stated in his writings that about one-third of the people of the thirteen States had been opposed to the measures of the Revolution “in all its stages.” This opinion was mentioned by him in a letter to his compatriot, Thomas McKean, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of every American Congress from that of 1765 to the close of the Revolution. “You say,” wrote McKean in reply, “that…about a third of the people of the colonies were against the Revolution. It required much reflection before I could fix my opinion on this subject, but on mature deliberation I conclude you are right and that more than a third of influential characters were against it.” Out of approximately three million people, then, at least one million did not approve of the policy of carrying their political opposition to the point of rebellion and separation; certainly, title-seekers and opportunists existed within that number, but many were often preeminent citizens of good standing from the best colleges such as Harvard and Princeton. According to Adams and McKean, every third American whom one would have encountered in America between 1765 and 1783 was a Loyalist. All this is not to argue, directly or indirectly, that “monarchy” is suitable to this country, then or now, as it is not. Rather, it is to highlight the cast of mind shared by a good portion of the country at the time in valuing the independence of new States’ geographical and national character, while denying that to do so was incompatible with staying rooted in one’s heritage or that one’s heritage was a necessary impediment to that independence.
And this, too, is a genuinely American sentiment. Well into modern times, the truly democratic American would view a Continental noble as one of his own strictly on the basis of individualism—roots, heritage, independence, identity all being what a man himself willed them to be. One is reminded of the great story of concerning a visit of the future King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, to the newly opened Ford motor plant in Detroit in the 1930s. The Infante seemed to be in his right element, and he and Henry Ford tramped along, examining the cars in detail. “The most “American” of all Americans was amazed and bewildered by the technical and practical knowledge which the Spanish prince displayed. If anyone could have told him then that only a few years later he and the Spanish prince would meet again as employer and employee, he would have discarded the idea as impossible. Yet so it happened. The fall of the monarchy in Spain brought Henry Ford in close contact with the exiled Infante, who in the early days of difficulty remembered what he had seen in Detroit and knew that the American motor magnate was “always ready to employ men who will work.”
To be sure, in contemporary times, a man living in a democracy has a harder time abandoning the belief that he lives in a functioning, transparent system than some other man, living under a regime, who accepts the reality that his country and his life have been taken over by a thug. Under the dictatorship, the thug is at least visible, known. In a democracy of today the thugs form a natural, permissible elite because no one can distinguish them from the brutishness of the mass, which is how the “elites” want it and is what we call “representation.” Right and Left, whatever these might still be, come full circle to say basically one thing: that our mass-elite and elite-mass democracy has left us with a country that has ceased to be a nation. No unifying principle, no concord of wills, in Dante’s formulation. We have lurched so far afield from the historical mission of this country that we are on the verge of rendering ourselves ahistorical.
A great part of the problem is that the Debate of Ideas is no longer permitted. Oswald Spengler wrote that in the eighteenth century, “Money conquered Blood” for rule over the fate man and of his history. Great Britain freed currency, and from that point on, the definition of Western man would come to mean something else than what it had been for the seven hundred years preceding this event. The Intellect—the man-made created life—was now to take over Nobility—the nature-ordained life of man. The latter, once comprising the leading actors in history itself, would now be uprooted once and for all to make way for the world of Ideas. Today, however, the world of Ideas has itself been uprooted (and this, beginning with the idea of what it means to be noble), and for this reason fundamental questions are not, and cannot be, asked.
Vico once wrote there are two kinds of wisdom: the poetic and philosophical. Lacking this wisdom, it is why we cannot get to the root of the questions we should be asking. Our culture, if we still may call it that, is no longer capable of either poetry or philosophy and, as such, is not aware that only poetry and philosophy can pose or answer them. Because we lack “History,” we lack modern identity; just as we lack robust democracy because there is no aristocracy to inspire it; no freedom of self-invention that compels one’s vision to look up to the role models it seeks, rather than only side-to-side or, as is usually the case, at the sewer, the things so far beneath it. “The King is dead, Long Live the King,” goes the famous cry and such is the legacy of the brutal egalitarianism of our age, one that promised the common man he, too, could be a knight if only he first managed to kill off all the knights who came before him and all that went into and made them such. The stone seat at the Grail Castle remains empty; the wail of the abyss still wide and still wailing, and the great darkness engulfs once more.
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