Monday, August 20, 2012

Aristocratic Imaginings

Back in 1988, a good friend of mine explained how he was voting for George H.W. Bush for President because of his family background. His point was that, in the absence of other more especially compelling considerations, a candidate's character mattered most, and that the candidate's cultural and class background might provide the best insight into how we might expect him to act in office. My friend did not succeed in getting me to vote for his preferred candidate, but his argument was familiar enough - the ancient argument for aristocracy - which has had a long and honorable history and still has resonanaces even today.
Aristotle (Politics, III, vii) famously identified three forms of good constitutions (monarchy, aristocracy, and "polity") and their three corresponding perversions (tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy). The difference among the three in each category is the number of those entrusted with ruling (one, the few, the many), while the difference between the categories of good and perverted constitutions lies in whose interest the governing is done. Thus, the three good constitutions all exemplify government in the common interest, whereas tyranny is one individual governing in his own interest, oligarchy is government in the interest of the rich, democracy in the interest of the mob of the poor.
The aristocratic ideal of government by the well born, well bred, and well qualified has persisted into the present, even as traditional aristocracies were in decline. Its persistence was reflected, for example, in such modernized alternatives as Hegel's idealization of the royal Prussian bureaucracy as a "universal class." Marx turned that idea upside down and invested the proletariat with the aura of a new "universal class." In actual fact, however, the proletariat's leadership role gave way to such alternative variaitons of aristocratic elites as for communism the Communist Party and for socialism elite cadres of intellectuals, professionals, and government bureaucrats. 
Its persistence was also reflected in our American constitutional arrangements, which originally envisaged popular participation in voting for federal officials to be restricted to electing members of the House of Representatives.  In Federalist, 35, Alexander Hamilton observed that "the learned professions," as he called them, "truly form no distinct interest in society, and according to their situation and talents, will be indiscriminately the objects of the confidence and choice of each other, and of other parts of the community."
Since 1913 Senators are now popularly elected, and long before that the Electoral College had become popularly elected (albeit in a "winner-take-all" system in most states, which distorts the popular character of presidential elections in significant ways). Still the Federal Judiciary, whose members are all appointed and enjoy tenure for life, remains a a strong check on popular government in our constitutional system. (In the 19th century, the Supreme Court made it unconstitutional to do anything aobut the evil of slavery. In the 20th, it made it unconstitutional to protect unborn human life. In the 21st century, it has made it unconstitutional to restrict the political power of corporate money).
Meanwhile, the ideology of "professionalism" infects society at all levels. To that, one might add the persistence of political leading families - Rockefelleers, Kennedys, Clintons, and, of course, our contemporary imitation of the Adams dynasty, the Bushes.
In the Roman and medieval societies, a variant of the aristocratic principle was found in the Catholic Church. In fact, many prelates actually arose from the secular aristocracy and exemplified some of the best of secular aristocratic values, but the law of clerical celibacy guaranteed a non-hereditary ecclesiastical aristocracy and thus necessitated a broader openness to new members from other social classes. While the hereditary principle has not completley disappeared (as again our own politcs amply illustrates), most modern elites followed the Church in recruting members more meritocratically - e.g., the financial, professional, and academic elites that now set the tone in Western capitalist societies or the revolutionary parties that have replaced traditonal aristocratic elites in non-Western societies.
Like Aristotle, the American founders recognized the moral limitations of most forms of governance and opted for the mixed constitution model. There is, however, only so much institutional arrangements can guarantee.The perennial appeal of aristocracy derives, I suspect, from our recognition that, while while no governing class can ever be completely trusted to govern solely in the common interest, the personal and collective public spiritedness which is central to the ideology of aristocracy (and which is easily over romanticized) remains a value, the loss of which continues to impoverish our social and public life at a deep cultural and moral level. And that may be why it is gettign harder and harder even to conceptualize a common interest.

1 comment:

  1. City Father,
    Your concise summaries of philosophy and history alone make this weblog worth following. Many thanks.
    Your considered comments about the loss of, "personal and collective public spiritedness" is one I'll have to give some more thought. I don't know if the problem is politicians' negligent lack of appeal to a common interest, or their competitive over-appeal to an illusive, or at least fickle, majority. And I'm not sure just how well landed, learned or bureaucratic "aristocracies", even if only as components of free societies, have served common interests in the past, unless by 'common' we mean interests only of members of their class.
    To be slightly humorous but mostly serious, I always found the politics of "Yes, Minister" comforting, because two men, one entrenched and the other ambitious, had to agree on a matter before it could move forward, and they both knew this and so found ways to make it work. While they each represented their own constituencies, the focus of their "politics" was not them but their relationship with each other, which they sought to smooth in private rather than to distort in public.
    In the US, perhaps if the senators were appointed by governors (or some similar arrangement),and the members of the Electoral College were chosen by juries, then perhaps the political climate would turn from being focused primarily on libelous campaigning and towards cooperative conversations, yielding a sort of common interest.