The Handsome and Good Greek
Why are the images of the gods of non-Western civilizations monstrous, or unimpressive, or thirsting for blood? Why are they somewhat pedestrian? Look at the gods of the Aztecs, Africans, Hindus, Chinese, Mesopotamians. It is partly because of the subordinate personality of these people, their lack of free individuality, which made men feel small and powerless in face of the mysterious powers of the unknown, and this psychological state instilled fear and terror. The Greek Olympian gods reflect a radically new state of being. The Greek aristocratic culture—in which every noble was equal in dignity and free to exercise his talent and seek glory—instilled respect among its members, a dignified sense of self, an awareness of what is highest among humans; and this state of being led the aristocratic Greeks to envision their gods in humanistic terms, “removed from the mysteries, from the chthonic darkness and ecstasy” of the earth, as Bruno Snell puts it.
The free individuality of the aristocrats, their unwillingness to submit to despotic rulers, allowed the Greeks to conquer the monstrosity and grossness of the underground, to overcome the crude superstitions of the peasants, to leave the dark powers of the earth, and envision instead sky-dwellikng Olympian gods in charge of order, justice, and beauty. The dark forces, the chthonian elements, which retained their power among Greek peasants and within the old psyche of the Greeks, manifested in their bacchanalian festivals and drunken revelries, would sometimes regain their power, but in Greek art and in the Platonic philosophy of seeking perfection, it was the Olympian gods who set the standards. The Olympian gods are noble in their attractiveness and grandeur, combining in their personalities “vitality, beauty, and lucidity”.
This provides a context for understanding Muret’s argument that the ideal or perfect man for the aristocratic elite of ancient Athens was defined by the term “kalokagathia”, by which it was meant the harmonious combination of bodily, moral and spiritual virtues, the “handsome and good Athenian,” beauty with goodness united. This Athenian man was frugal and sober. He was not cruel; if slaves were inflicted with torture, it was for a reason, not for the sake of pleasure, as it was for Eastern tyrants. While the Athenian would open his doors to the shipwrecked person, pity “was a condemnable weakness”. Avoiding all excess, knowing oneself, doing everything in moderation, was a supreme wisdom. Fanaticism was shunned. A handsome and good man had to express himself with “facility and elegance”. The ancient Greek language had a “sonority, a harmony, a suppleness that no language has ever surpassed”. These men envisaged death with serenity, “without excessive anguish”.
The Athenian was a father but also a citizen, an active participant in the politics of his city state, rather than a mere private person. “The young Athenian lived in the public square, the gymnasium, the spas, in the gardens where he met other young people and where he was instructed at the feet of beloved masters”. Their civic dedication to their city was not oppressive; “born subtle and insubordinate, the Greek had a great deal of the critical spirit”. This culture rose in the sixth century BC, and reached full bloom in the fifth century in Athens. Decadence began in the late fifth century, as young men began deserting the gymnasiums for gaming houses, neglecting the exercises “that maintained that sovereign balance between the body and the soul from which was born the nobility and the greatness of the Athenian civilization”. The Macedonian conquests, the turn towards the East, the absorption of the Greek mainland within the Roman empire, would increase the taste for luxury and a private life, diminishing the virtues of the Athenians.
The Roman (and Greek) Citizen-Farmer-Soldier
The senatorial aristocracy had guided the state, not primarily by virtue of natural right, but by virtue of the highest of all rights of representation—the right of the superior, as contrasted with the mere ordinary man.
Whatever could be demanded of an assembly of burgesses like the Roman, which was not the motive power, but the firm foundation of the whole machinery—a sure perception of the common good, a sagacious deference to the right leader, a steadfast spirit in prosperous and evil days, and, above all, the capacity of sacrificing the individual to the general welfare and common comfort of the present for the advantage of the future—all these qualities the Roman community exhibited in so high a degree that, when we look to its conduct as a whole, all censure is lost in reverent admiration. Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, vol. 2
There is a common image about the Roman elite consisting of a “patrician” class with a privileged noble status giving it exclusive access to the main offices of the republic and owning large tracts of land worked by slaves captured in their conquests, while excluding the rest of the general body of free Roman citizens, the plebians, small landowners often in debt. Maurice Muret has it right: “the Roman citizen was originally a man given to working in the fields who took to arms when his territory of Latium or the city of Rome, seat of the royalty, was threatened.” The patricians were originally men who worked the land and constituted the Roman army. These patricians were “aristocratic” but for many centuries they were not men living off the labor of others, though they did have more land, and did hire laborers, and later used slave labor in their extended landholding as Rome defeated one rival after another and thereby accumulated land. The elite Muret is focusing on is that of the Republic, which lasted for about 500 years, starting in the sixth century BC. The “austere crucible” in which the soul of the Roman patrician farmer-soldier was formed was a mixture of rural life and camp life; “commerce and the arts were not worthy of those truly free men; … agricultural work conferred on the one who exercised it an undeniable nobility.” “A Roman citizen, no matter how poor he was, was honoured if he lived on the land, cultivated his estate, raised a numerous family.”
Moreover, while it is true that “originally there was no equality between…the patricians belonging to the…senate and the plebeians, considered as foreigners to the city, deprived like the slaves of all civil and political rights”, eventually “the plebeians raised their head and claimed their rights”.
Muret does not get into this. But it is worth emphasizing that the Roman patrician aristocracy was open to talent. Beginning in the fifth century, the patricians granted the plebeians the right to annually elect their own leaders, the right to appeal to the people and hold plebiscites binding on the whole community, and the right to marry patricians. During the 300s, plebeians were successively allowed to become consults, censors, praetors, pontiffs, and augurs; and, by 300, they had achieved substantial equality with the patricians, with both patricians and the upper plebeians becoming wealthy landowners. The struggle between classes would henceforth be between the “nobiles” consisting of large landowning and commercialized patricians and plebeians, and the poorer plebeians. These nobiles were far removed from their former austere lives of patricians as farmers, though some would retain to the last days of the Republic the values that made Rome great in the first place.
Before I write about these values, as Muret sees them, it should be emphasized that a class of citizen farmers was also a reality in ancient Greece. In fact, only in Western civilization (beyond ancient times) do we find a legacy of family-owned, privately held, small-to-medium homestead farms. In the ancient civilizations of the Near East, and the civilizations of the world thereafter, including India, China, and the Americas, the ruler and his court of blood relatives, administrators and provincial elites, owned most of the land. They had huge estates, from which they extracted taxes and rents from slaves, serfs, indentured servants, or from faceless peasants with tiny plots owned by their clans. It was Greece, roughly between 700 and 300 BC, that saw the emergence of “an autonomous group of independent farmers” for the first time in history, as Victor David Hanson argues in The Other Greeks, The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1999).
Muret tends to identify the elite with citizens living in urban areas attending gymnasiums, engaged in athletic contests and discussions, and as creators of art. But perhaps we should integrate the farmers of Greece as members of the elite. If Muret thinks the Roman patrician farmers constituted the founding elite of Republican Rome, the ones who created the virtues that sustained this civilization for centuries, why ignore completely the citizen farmers of ancient Greece, who did enjoy rights as full citizens and took on the defense of their communities? Independent farming instilled upon Greeks the ideal that the true test of manhood, of having a good character, is the ability to sustain a family farm, postpone pleasures today, have self-control and patience, for the sake of ensuring the fruits of one’s hard work in the future.
Citizen farmers, then, were not unique to Rome but also a key component of the elite culture of ancient Greece, though in Rome agrarian values went deeper into the soul, whereas in Greece there was an urbane aristocratic culture of artists, philosophers, literary writers, and scientists. This point is important because beyond Greece and Rome, homestead family farms were an important proportion, in varying degrees, of northwestern European medieval-modern agriculture, and of the settler states of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Only in Western history do we find farmers, the famous “yeomen” who owned their own land and rose gradually to play a role in the industrialization of the West. The image of yeomen farmers as honest, hardworking, virtuous and independent played a significant role in Western republican thought, which originated in Rome. The founding fathers of the U.S., Jefferson and others, believed yeomen were “the most valuable citizens” trusted to be committed to republican values, as contrasted to financiers, bankers, industrialists with their “cesspools of corruption” in the cites.
Another reason to bring up the citizen farmers of Greece is they represented a new consciousness of moderation and justice between the extremes of wealth and poverty, in opposition to the excessive wealth and unrestrained militaristic behavior of power-hungry aristocrats prone to disrupt the unity of city-states by pursuing the interests of their own clan. Muret recognizes that elites without a sense of justice, duty to their own people, respect for tradition, order and prudence, are bound to become parasitic and effeminate in their decadent affluence, as was the case with non-Western elites. Solon, the great Athenian statesman of the early sixth century, is remembered for passing laws aimed at overcoming the endless, divisive squabbling of clannish aristocratic men in the name of harmony, the interests of the middling segments of the farming population, good order, avoidance of extremes, and the insatiable desire for more honors and wealth on the part of tyrannical rich men. He aimed to promote the general good of the city-state. To this end, debt slavery was abolished and those who had been sold abroad were allowed to return as free men. The intention was to support a free, self-sufficient middling class of farmers against the greed of big landowners.
Connected to these citizen farmers, the reforms by Solon, and subsequent reforms by Cleisthenes and Pericles, is the fact that fifth-century Athens was quite democratic, though not in the sense of universal suffrage and mass popular cultural values, but in the extent to which the state was open to participation by citizens, comprising about one-third of the population, excluding slaves, women, and alien residents. Every decision had to be approved by a popular assembly; every judicial decision was subject to appeal to a popular court of some fifty-one citizens, and every official was subject to public scrutiny before taking office.
By the same token, this should not detract us from the reality that Athens remained a city ruled by a small elite of aristocratic families with the means, knowledge and leisure to regulate the affairs of the state. Moreover, an aristocratic spirit of beauty, honor, and heroism permeated Greek life, as Muret correctly points out.
Finally, emphasizing the citizen farmers is also crucial to understanding the origins and nature of the “republican” form of government of Rome, characterized by a balance between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. An aristocratic class freed from a despotic ruler does not guarantee a republican government. In their primordial tendencies, aristocratic governments are oligarchic rather than republican, although republicanism presupposes the higher (senatorial) authority of a class of aristocrats. Roman aristocrats despised any noble among their ranks who elevated himself above their peers to rule in the interests of the lower classes. Like the Greeks, they viewed aristocrats who attacked the privileges of their noble peers and sought the popular support of plebeians, as tyrants. But, as the plebeians gained substantial equality in citizen rights through the 300s BC, a “democratic” element was added to the Roman government. This democratic element was controlled by the upper plebeians, not the lower landless plebs, which became a mob in the city of Rome. The monarchical element came in the annual election by the Senate of “Consuls” with extensive powers, often holding in wartime the highest military command. The Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution self-consciously assumed the Roman mantle of “res-publica” as their guiding principle of a government organized for the “public good”.
The values of the Roman citizen-farmer-soldier Muret admires were rooted in the austere rural life of its independent farmers. This life gave these men an “undeniable nobility”, a conservative temperament with a “taste for continuity and traditions”, and exhibiting “extreme piety”. We may add to Muret’s observations that not only were people expected to participate in state-sponsored religious rituals and festivals, but each Roman family was expected to perform daily rituals honoring their ancestors and placating various gods. The patrician farmer was seen as a venerable paterfamilias, the high priest of his own household religion. These customs and rites sustained and reinforced Roman identity and greatness for centuries. Romans also developed a very strong sense of civic identity. The patricians saw themselves both as members of their extended families and clannish patron-client groups, and as members of the Roman republic. For a long time they served their city as a matter of public service with patriotic devotion and without seeking to enrich themselves. “In war, the most affluent wished to fight in the front rank”. Muret estimates that “of all the human societies of antiquity,” the most devoted, honest and competent functionaries of the state were the Romans.
The highest virtue of the Romans was virility, strength, energy, self-control, patience in misfortune and sacrifice for the public good. Roman civilization, says Muret, was “more valuable than those it defeated”. In contrast to Carthage, which was maritime and mercantile, a “city of luxury and pleasure”, with an army of mercenaries from multiple places, Rome was a land-based culture with an army of citizen soldiers who identified with Rome and fought for Rome rather than for private gain. “Rome did not make war in the name of a bloody god that it claimed to be the instrument of” but “in the name of the moral superiority of the Roman citizens over peoples that did not yet belong to Rome”. The conquered within Italy who were closely related ethnically to the Romans, it should be added, were gradually granted the same citizenship rights, a precondition for serving in the army.
But as Rome grew rich from its successes and vast amounts of wealth started pouring in, masses of slaves were pushed into working the lands of the rich, while at the same time soldier-farmers were losing their farms from neglect after years of military service and from debt. Moreover, many in the upper classes were involved in commercial undertakings, acting as tax-farmers milking the provinces, the old Roman spirit of discipline, austerity, and virility slowly died away. Muret does not go into this, but it worth noting that the decline of the Roman character is a pervading theme of Roman historiography; already apparent in Cato the Elder (234–149 BC), author of Origins, of which only fragments survive, about the beginnings of Rome up until the victory over Macedonia in 168 BC. Cato eulogized the “Spartan” austerity and simplicity of the early men who built Rome, and lamented the effeminate influence of Greek learning. In the first century BC, Sallust (86–35 BC) saw the old Roman virtues of frugality and piety decline under the influence of luxury and Asiatic indulgences and taste. As Ernst Breisach notes in his Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, “Growing love of money and the lust for power which followed it engendered every kind of evil. Avarice destroyed honour, integrity and every other virtue, and instead taught men to be proud and cruel, to neglect religion and to hold nothing too sacred to sell. … Rome changed: her government, once so just and admirable, became harsh and unendurable”.
The empire certainly lasted a few more centuries until the fifth century AD, demonstrating the remaining greatness of Rome as it declined slowly. Of all the elites Muret examines, the republican Roman elite was indeed the longest lasting, 500 years counting only the Republican era, not the Imperial era that began in the first century AD. This enduring elite should thus be added as another major achievement of Rome, in addition to its famous aqueducts, invention of concrete, creation of the most sophisticated system of roads in the ancient world, its arches, which allowed the weight of buildings to be evenly distributed along various supports in the construction of their bridges, monuments and buildings, the Julian Calendar, its systematic compilation of juristic writings (corpus juris civilis), and its new types of surgical tools.
But it may be that Rome’s greatest legacy was the honor of its citizen-farmer elite, which cannot be taken away from them.
The Liberated Personality of the Renaissance
The next elite Muret celebrates, from Renaissance Italy, a period covering roughly the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, represents “the blossoming of the human species”, resuscitating in some respects the Roman virtues of virility, courage, and energy—with the difference that these were the “first modern men” in their “exaltation of the liberated personality”, “the primacy of the self”. Muret is clearly following Jacob Burckhardt’s well-known thesis that the Renaissance gave birth to modernity because it gave birth to individualism. In the Middle Ages, Burckhardt wrote, “man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation. … In Italy this veil first melted into air … Man became a spirited individual, and recognized himself as such.” Among the humanists, the painters, architects, and condottiere, he observed “an unbridled subjectivity,” men obsessed with fame, status, appearances. This nurtured an intense self-awareness, unlike their medieval forebears, who were trapped within a collective identity.
Muret does say that in Rome “individualism never prevailed. The submission to the civic ideal began there from the top.” It is a common view that “freedom” in ancient Greece also consisted in the right of citizens to participate in political assemblies, choose their leaders and voice their views, without a modern conception of the right of individuals to enjoy “negative liberties” as private citizens to peacefully pursue their own lifestyle and happiness without interference from the state. This is true; freedom in ancient times was primarily civic in character. He is postulating a higher degree of individualism and free personality among the men of the Renaissance. Muret however is careful not to dismiss the achievements of the Middle Ages, briefly mentioning the attenuating effects on barbarism of the new ethos of chivalry along with “the critical spirit” of the scholastic method with its dialogical way of ascertaining the merits and flaws of different answers. He recognizes the major contribution of Christianity to the humanization of European elites with its virtues of compassion, fidelity, humanity piety, and sincerity, although he knows that even if Machiavelli expediently called upon princes to exhibit these qualities, the more powerful traits of the Renaissance condottiere, the Italian captains in command of mercenary companies, were ambition, excessive pride, and pursuit of power without scruples
The history of the gradual emergence of Western individualism is very intricate. Colin Morris in The Discovery of the Individual, 1050–1200 (1972) and Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual (2017) both believe that “the Western view of the value of the individual owes a great deal to Christianity”, for this was a religion that recognized every individual as worthy of dignity and emphasized the inner conscience and obligation of each person to lay himself open to God. Aaron Gurevich in The Origins of European Individualism (1995) goes further back in time for a latent conception of the human personality seen in the representation of the hero in the pagan Germanic, Scandinavian, Icelandic, and Irish epics of the early Middle Ages. In such sagas, the very idea of the hero speaks of accomplishments performed by a particular name, his acts as an individual and whether they bring him glory and reputation.
Nevertheless, the Renaissance does witness, as Muret says, “an excess of the self”, a belief, in the words of Leon Battista Alberti, that “what man wants he can do”. This was the ideal of the courtier, “equally given to the works of the mind and to the exercises of the body”, trained in riding horses and fencing, educated in the Classics and the fine arts, able to use elegant and brave words, with proper bearing and gestures, and a warrior spirit. Pico della Mirandola argued that central to the dignity of man was the exercise of the free will that God gave man: “You can descend to the level of the beast and you can raise yourself to becoming a divine being”. In the non-Western world, one was born with a pre-given role in life, predetermined norms and forms of behavior, without free will. But we should not forget that before recent decades, the free will of man entailed formidable duties and obligations to aristocratic virtues and respect for ancestors. Only thusly could the Renaissance have produced such a magnificent sequence of great men: Petrarch, Masaccio, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Raphael, Titian.
The Gentilshommes of Seventeenth Century-France
The fourth elite Muret chooses may strike some as unusual: it is not the elite of the Spanish “Golden Age”, from about 1580 to 1680, the age of the great conquistadores led by Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, the magnificent painters El Greco and Velázquez, and the celebrated novel Don Quixote by Cervantes. It is neither the elite of Elizabethan England in the 1500s, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare and Francis Drake. It is the French gentilhomme of the 1600s, men who “delighted in cordial and cheerful conversations”, strongly influenced by the bourgeois urbane values of civility, who knew the art of pleasing the ladies with good conversations, men of letters without being pedantic, able to play the lute, the guitar, and games of chance, men of leisure who did not work to eat—benevolent, tolerant and welcoming.
Muret’s choice reflects his belief that the seventeenth century was the greatest cultural age of France, above the commonly known eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This was the age of La Rochefoucauld, famous for his Maximes, a collection of 500 epigrammatic reflections on human behaviour in which he sees self-interest as the source of all actions; Jean Racine, known for his great tragedies, from Bérénice (1670) to Iphigénie (1675); Blaise Pascal, best known for his Pensées; the comic genius Molière; Pierre Corneille, the writer of classical tragedies, Horace (1640), Cinna (1643), and Polyeucte (1643), and René Descartes, one of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers in human history. Muret mentions women, including Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, known for hosting the salon Hôtel de Rambouillet, praised in her day “as a model of respectability, wisdom, gentleness”. Corneille read his tragedies at her salon.
For Muret, this “polite society” was truly aristocratic despite its integration with the bourgeoisie. There was “nothing popular” about this age. Whereas Shakespeare and Schiller in Germany appealed to the hearts of the masses, Racine and Corneille consciously addressed a very exclusive audience. Unlike the men of the next century, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, they were not interested in moralizing and changing society. Muret sees a healthier form of reasoning in this age, not the glorification of reason of the Enlightenment, which sought to recreate society from the ground up out of ideas concocted by intellectuals in complete disregard for tradition, order, and prudence. In Muret’s view, seventeenth-century France achieved the right combination of “innate good taste, acquired refinement, unconscious aestheticism, triumphant reason [of the Cartesian kind which sought to understand nature], and unshakeable good sense”.
For Muret, Mme. de Lafayette and her “masterpiece” novel, La Princesse de Clèves is fully infused with the ideal of the true gentlemen of the age. “The Princess of Clèves is almost a saint by virtue of being a gentlewoman. All her words, her acts betray what one should indeed call that ‘ideal of reason’, the last word in wisdom. … Nothing is more classical than the conception of life in general, and of love in particular, that emerges from The Princesse de Clèves. And in this pure ideal what moral superiority to the sensational and subversive novelties that Romanticism was to set in fashion two centuries later”. The Princesse de Clèves, which I enjoyed reading during the lockdown summer of 2020, is recognized as the “first novel” in French, the prototype of the “modern novel” in its depth of psychological analysis, a quality of which is how feelings are conveyed through internal monologue. Muret could have explored this as a new facet in the exaltation of the individual, this time by way of an “internal dialogue,” that is, the rise of a voice inside one’s head that self-consciously examines one’s thoughts and feelings and subjects them to critical analysis, on the way towards making a decision. In nonwestern societies, this voice barely developed. The voices non-Westerners hear are the voices of pre-established feelings, norms, conventions, not the voices of a self deciding what to do through its own inner reflections. This inner self was to become the source of much creativity in the West, though ultimately it is a very dangerous path, as we are witnessing now, to cut off the self from the surrounding world into a world within that is nevertheless controlled, no longer by traditions and heritage, but by “limbic capitalist” corporations.
The English Victorian Gentleman
The English gentleman of the Victorian era is the fifth and last elite Muret celebrates. Why does Muret define this elite as “aristocratic” even though it was born after the liberal Glorious Revolution of 1688, which established the principles of frequent parliaments and freedom of speech within Parliament, and even though he believes that this elite came to rule Britain only during the mid-nineteenth century when the industrial revolution was spreading and voting rights were being expanded to the middle classes—and even though he believes that this elite was still dominant in the 1930s when he wrote his book.
Muret notes that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there was a British aristocracy “in the sense of noble blood and military customs”. But this class disappeared, and a new “gentry” class that esteemed money and bourgeois comfort over military honor and virtue emerged. This new class with its “rather low ideals” would remain rather uncouth for some time, acquiring refined and courteous manners only slowly during the eighteenth century. By the Victorian age a new aristocratic elite “open to all sorts of talents”—but including big landowners with prestigious family pedigrees—had consolidated itself with new ideals. These were still “practical, down-to-earth” ideals, a fine country house, honest and healthy occupations, but with a strong civic commitment for the laws of the land, piety towards God, and a well-disposed to advance the well-being of the community as a way of showing themselves worthy of their wealth.
Notwithstanding their individualism—their unique “history of liberty”, the British had a strong “group consciousness” in their insular island, a national identity nurtured by their apartness from continental Europe. “On the continent, nobles and bourgeois, workers and peasants detest and fight one another. Not in England; they support one another, but even while maintaining their distance, they are capable of acting in common for the general interest.” The same individualist gentleman who believes in liberty and careers open to talent is “rigorously conformist, respectful of all the rules and all the institutions, the gentleman will bow lower before the most ancient and the most sacred: the monarchy”. This conformism, it should be noted, was not tribal or based on kinship ties; it was conformism to the voluntary or contractually based associations and rules created by the modern Brits.
This group consciousness came along with snobbism, “the superstitious respect for social positions, the caste spirit raised to a system”, which Muret sees as an attribute that has allowed, and will continue to allow, this elite to mould British society for a long time. This snobbism entailed a “high notion of his duties as a man … towards God, towards his neighbour, even towards himself”. “The obligation to comport oneself and maintain one’s respectability … a mask of impassibility … no effusion in public … a hearty handshake and not these resounding kisses that fill the continental railway stations with sounds that seemed vulgar”. This gentleman is “something of a sinner, but he will keep his sin to himself and his partner; he will sin behind doors, secretly”. “To keep one’s mouth shut is indeed an English ideal, just as to speak a lot is a Latin ideal”.
A preference for manly sports at the expense of the intellect was another attribute of this elite. Practical results, accomplishments, were more important than beautiful ideas. Artists and intellectuals can’t be trusted, “they change laws and customs all the time”. Muret notes the seriousness with which English schools took sports, not only to keep young men fit, but to teach them rules, combined with corporal punishment, “they box and they whip, they do fist-fights and wield the cane,” which has nurtured an English temperament that can be “ferocious and indomitable” when there is a need to act. “To act when one must, to refrain when one must, to intervene at the right moment, is a veritable science that is simple only in appearance”.
This English elite made concessions to feminism “with benevolence, from a gentleman to a lady, in a chivalrous spirit, if not a gallant one … but the gentleman has not, for all that, been dashed from his throne. His authority remains the keystone of the edifice”. Yet, a few years after Muret wrote this, the Victorian gentlemen disappeared, England lost its empire, and now it is in a state of self-flagellation about its patriarchal, imperialistic, and racist past. Vilfredo Pareto’s famous observation is quoted in the opening page of The Greatness of Elites: “History is a cemetery of aristocracies”. The difference is that the British elite of the post-World War II years willingly went about condemning and destroying this Victorian heritage for a Britain made up of Africans, Muslims and Asians. Though Britain still produces many White Olympic winners, a culture of genocidal self-denigration, without parallels in history, prevails at the top.
Can We Learn Something Today About the German Elite Between 1750–1914?
So, having read about great elites in history, which one do you prefer? Or, which one has qualities, virtues, that can be realistically adapted to our current times? The answer may seem self-evident enough, the British. They are closest to us in time, existing within a liberal representative society that was undergoing rapid modernization—but then this elite disappeared suddenly, without leaving a legacy. Still, one lesson we can learn from the British case, while it lasted, is that it did showcase for posterity a strong sense of group consciousness and civic conformism in a society that was otherwise liberal in the classical sense of this word.
Many on the right talk about becoming “tribal again” without realizing that tribalism among Whites has been slowly eroded since ancient times, and demolished with the imposition of monogamy and abolition of polygamous clan networks by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, which led to formation of many civic associations, towns based on citizenship, universities and monasteries, contractual business partnerships. We already see the concept of citizen in the ancient Greek city-states, above tribal identities, developing further in Rome’s republican form of government. But it is worth realizing that, as the British case shows, this civic unity prevailed as long as strong monogamous families existed and there was a strong sense of civic identity within a nation state that presupposed in its origins an ethnic core and a Christian religion, with most citizens deeply rooted in their local communities, marrying and having children, attending schools where they were proud of a British identity.
Muret blames the “masses”, “socialism” and the enlargement of the state. But we may want to examine the inbuilt progressive logic of liberalism, how this ideology has continually been pushing for “progressive reforms”, the elimination of all traditional restraints against freedom of choice, the extension of individual rights to “oppressed minorities”, the promotion of equal voting rights to everyone irrespective of standards, the demonization of aristocratic elites as “hierarchical”, the promotion of the notion that everyone is equally capable and that inequalities are a function of illiberal privileges and monopolies, the allocation of special rights to overcome “systemic inequalities,” the idea that everyone in the world has “human rights” including the right to a nationality of their choice—coupled with a capitalist economy that reduces everyone to rootless consumers and producers, and melts all that is solid into thin air.
I believe that Germany, from about the 1750s to 1914, provides an example of an elite that we can learn from. Muret, a French man, clearly has an animosity towards Germany, though he recognizes its immense cultural achievement during this period. The ideal of this elite can be summed up with the word “Bildung”, which means a state that consciously strives to nurture what Goethe called “the higher human being within us”. Muret dislikes the militarism of this Germany, how it was based on “the exaltation of the masses to the detriment of the individual”, citing Nietzsche’s criticism of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s government, which culminated in World War I. We can agree with Muret insofar as Germany did take a turn in the 1930s and 1940s that was excessively militaristic and against “the good European”.
But before 1914, Germany was the only powerful White nation attempting to create a path that would come to terms with modernity, while advocating a nationalism that emphasized the priority of the freedom of Germans as a people over the rights of abstract individuals. This rejection of the universalist pretensions of Enlightenment liberalism did not amount to a rejection of modernity. The Germans of the post-1850s were the most advanced Europeans in science, technology, military power, levels of education, and culture generally. Germans wanted a path that would be balanced with its unique history, respect for aristocratic authority, together with a propertied and cultured middle class, working in unison with a powerful state acting in the interests of the Germans, with the highest capacity for independence and strength among the competing powers of the world, rather than a state acting at the behest of a dominant capitalist class pursuing its own interests, or at the behest of a democratic mob easily controlled by private companies and media. At the same time, Germans during this period enjoyed considerable individual liberties, universities were open to merit; there as a constitutional monarchy, rule by established procedure, a high degree of economic freedom, and a truly dynamic cultural atmosphere which encouraged the full development of individuality in culture.
It will be very hard for Western nations to recapture the aristocratic-citizen virtues of their past. We are heading into a high-tech, AI-controlled society, driven by the imperatives of capitalist globalism with socialist provisions and mandated racial equity. Can we learn something from the Russian and Chinese elites in their adoption of the newest technologies without embracing Western liberalism? Or is the West inherently liberal, irremediably committed to individual rights? The only way out, as I see it, is a state of affairs characterized by persistent societal breakdown, widespread racial tension, discontent, and delegitimization of the current elite, leading towards a serious consideration of an alternative beyond liberalism.
 Theodore Mommsen, The History of Rome, vol. 2, trans. W. P. Dickson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 386.
 Ibid., 403–404.
 Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (University of Chicago Press, 1983).