The great Samuel Johnson said that the study of politics, instead of enlarging the mind, actually only served to narrow it. This is probably why so many of conservatism’s greatest thinkers were not politicians, but men of letters. It is through their vast knowledge of the liberal arts that such men were able to employ what Burke called the “Moral Imagination.” T.S. Eliot, through his poetry, was able to speak truth to power and become one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Eliot was born in Missouri, but he later in life became a naturalized British subject. His admiration of England is evident throughout his work, and he is undoubtedly an heir of many of the greatest English thinkers. “I am,” he famously stated, “an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.” According to his obituary in the New York Times, many of his classmates recalled, “that he dressed with the studied carelessness of a British gentleman, smoked a pipe, and liked to be left alone.”
Eliot’s distinctly English views may seem too distant to be of any use to American Conservatives, whose Whiggish tendencies often put them at odds with Eliot’s Royalist sensibilities. However, as we shall see, his wisdom is exactly what American conservatism so often lacks.
Of Eliot’s non-fiction work his most famous are The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Both belong in every Conservative’s library, and I have penned some thoughts on the latter elsewhere. For the purposes of his thought’s application to the particular problems faced by modern conservatism, however, we turn to his much shorter Letter to the Editor of the Times on the subject of aristocracy:
The traditional use of the word [aristocracy] implies, I believe, an emphasis upon inheritance: not merely the inheritance of property, however important that may seem to some, but the inheritance, partly through biological trans-mission and partly through environment, of, other less tangible values. In other words, the unit of aristocracy, in the sense in which the word has been used in the past, is not the individual but the family. In the new sense of the word (and the phrase “the new aristocracy” is acquiring currency) inheritance is ignored, and the family implicitly depreciated. We are to have an aristocracy, not of families, but of individuals; and those individuals will have been turned into aristocrats, not by their parents, but by their schoolmasters, employing some system of selection to be elaborated. I suggest that this may be a more violent mutation of meaning than any word ought to be required to undergo. It will not do to appeal, behind the back of tradition, to the etymological sense of the word: for govern¬ment by the best men is surely the aspiration of every society, whatever its social organization.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant.
In America we have no established aristocracy, and most are of the opinion that we are the better for it. However, it is a curious fact of human nature that you can never be completely free. If you will not serve one thing, you will serve another. In the New Testament this is exhibited by the repeated assertion that, if you wish to have freedom, you must cease serving yourself and instead serve Christ and your fellow man. C.S. Lewis was on to this phenomenon when he warned us that “Monarchy can easily be debunked, but watch the faces, mark well the debunkers. . . Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour 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.”
The accuracy of Lewis’ statement is unfortunately all too evident in American culture. Even though we have no established aristocracy there are still many, often unworthy things, to which we pay homage. Here we will only consider two.
First, in America we have an aristocracy worse than one brought about by education. We have an aristocracy created by popular culture. This “new aristocracy” is again, one not created by families or inheritance, but by individuals and mass culture. In the latter sense it is at least a democratic creation, and so long as you believe democracy to hold the answer to all the world’s problems we need not explore the issue further. For those of us who are concerned with government by the best of men, however, deeper exploration is required.
The old aristocracy, especially in the English sense, required a certain sense of stoicism. The old Tories didn’t draw attention to themselves. They saw their duty and place in society and held strong sense of noblesse oblige, or “nobility obliges” and they thus lived accordingly. They knew, like Eliot, that culture is transmitted through the family, and that social stability required them to maintain the stability of their own families.
In our “new aristocracy,” however, the culture is transmitted through individuals who ride the tides of popular culture. Because their place in the aristocracy is dependent on their uniqueness in the public eye, they abandon the stoicism of the old aristocracy for an attention-craving epicureanism and they in turn abandon the family in favor of the individuality that their new philosophy demands. In the “new aristocracy,” then, we should not be surprised to find spectacles like Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance and children named North West. The demands of their position in society push them towards ever increasing extremes.
The second form of the “new aristocracy” is a form that Alexis De’ Tocqueville warned about in his Democracy in America. According to De’ Tocqueville, America was in danger of becoming a plutocratic society that served an “aristocracy of manufacturers.” It may not be a popular position to criticize the titans of industry and corporations, but the potential danger at least bears consideration.
In Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., a shareholder in the Ford Motor Company claimed that Henry Ford was not acting in the best interest of the company’s shareholders. Ford directed large of sums of money to community projects such as the construction of libraries and justified the expense by claiming it was his duty to help spread the benefits of industrial society. Unfortunately, the Court disagreed with him. That court, and every court since, has held that the primary purpose of the modern corporation is to make a profit for its shareholders. This significance of this cannot be underestimated. In short, we have a financial aristocracy, but we have outlawed noblesse oblige.
T.S. Eliot noted in other writings the fact that aristocracy and democracy are not antithetical, and thinking of them as such will only hinder development of the good society. An aristocracy is a particular organ of society. Even further, it is a necessary organ of society. It is always present whether it is officially established or not. Our American culture should prove as much.
Eliot’s argument is a call to simply to recognize this fact about human nature. Once we do, we can then recognize that if aristocracy exists, then it should have a particular function and purpose. If its purpose is the transmission of culture and societal values, it will be a noble institution. If its purpose is entertainment or mere profit, it will be a depraved one. The choice for our society, and for every society, is a simple one: If you will not give piety to your elders, you will pay homage to your betters.