How The Well-born Have Been Failing To Ennoble Our National Character

Democracies are unabashedly commercial and practical. This is probably as it should be. It is futile to demand that creative curiosity be the hallmark of democracies, or to imagine that the modern life has reached a level of rationality in both thinking and practice adequate to allow the transformation of society into an intelligently organized community of active thinkers living in illustration of a natural fellowship ennobled by friendship. Practical success, whether for oneself or others, is the social passion on which the attention of the great mass of people is riveted. A good many of us draw life’s motives and inspiration from the appetite for external or overt action which status and material anxiety excites, and the anxiety about ignorance and knowledge is scarcely felt by us. Yet it is difficult to resist wondering, if the habits of the well- born would have to be similarly circumscribed. Must we assume of them no more than the common run of interests? Is the opportunity of leisure for active thought denied to them, because of a lurking natural compulsion admitting of no intelligent control? Both common sense and reason appear to suggest otherwise, suggesting thereby that the well-born are not doomed to spend their days, like the rest of us, either apathetically or in a cycle of toil and recreation or rest, having no breadth or interest left for active thought.

It is well to take moment to dwell on this before going on. It is easy to caricature the judgements not just of common sense but even of reason. But in this instance the temptation to indulge in caricature may be resisted. For it needs but a mere act of self-examination to realize that the capacity to transform natural tendencies into intelligent conduct through controlled habit formation is not denied to humans, save for the sick and the disturbed. It would appear reasonable, therefore, to affirm the judgment of common sense and reason which demands that the benefits of civilization be adequately realized and integrated in the habits of the well-born, and that their moral disposition be matured into something superior to the common run by the habit of seeking the achievement of full humanity which lies in being a mind.

Cares of the Underprivileged

Less formidable, however, is the judgement of both common sense and reason which the underprivileged must face. The external circumstances as well as the moral atmosphere into which the poor and those like this writer who are just about among the middlings are launched appear to be infelicitous to seek the achievement of being a mind. There is clearly some stubbornness of matter which keeps a good many of us in bondage to the preoccupation with status and material cares. Either that or we become accustomed to living with eyes too fascinated by the allurements of the life of instinct, impulse and social passion to have any breadth or interests left to take any delight in the life of reason. To paraphrase a line of thought which runs in Ernest Barker’s commentary on Plato and Aristotle: The human being, as a political animal, as a man of action, must somewhat recede, if he as a thinking being is to come more prominently forward.

Barker’s words are not those of a counsel of apathy. At some level, they are a recognition of the fact that the vast majority of ordinary humanity are apt to be absorbed in external action, whether the end at which their action aim is the necessary cares of mere existence or the need to excite admiration, respect, or honour for their social figure, for their image as a political animal. It makes no difference that some, in a mood of extreme humility, are apt to take refuge from social and material cares in either fatalistic or quietistic apathy, since apathy is not emancipation from cares but “ bewilderment in despair, marked by fortitude,” to use a borrowed phrase.

An indication of ordinary life’s bondage to social and material cares is the fact that education is esteemed as one of the aids of achieving practical success, suavity and the like by the vast majority of people everywhere. That is why the democratic educative ideal is not the education of reason, but the equipping of the citizen with skills and fine sentiment or culture to be afforded the paths to privilege. However the democratic educative ideal is inimical to the full flowering of virtue, or the goal of full humanity. To pursue education with eyes fascinated by practical success is to make reason a slave of passion.

Education of Reason

For it is the possession of logos, discourse and reason which makes the human being more than a mere animal among other animals, and this capacity for active thought or intellectual understanding is brought into play by the education of reason through training in the history of thought, and by the perfecting of thinking in the direction of objectivity found in science. Following Plato and Aristotle, the classic tradition of thought in the West has insisted that education is a discipline in rationality in the investigation of the truth, that it is an enterprise whose basal function is not the achievement of riches or power or suavity but the education of reason and the advancement of learning.

The modern theologians who believe in the blessedness of the poor are apt to object to the principle in classical ethics that the full flowering of intellectual and moral virtue requires means on the one hand, and the education of reason on the other. Still practical success, or a life of privilege, which the possession of wealth, social distinction, impressive connections and the like signifies, in itself is the not the achievement of full humanity. Plato is said to have returned again and again to the theme that not even the possession of fine culture and exquisite manners, cultivated in some rhetorical garden of Adonis, let alone a mere life of privilege, is enough to guarantee that dignity or true splendour of being a mind would be achieved.

The education of reason involves “a long detour,” to use a phrase familiar to the readers of Plato. On that score, it is but reasonable to think that the opportunity of seeking the achievement of dignity which for the human animal lies in being a mind, is not given to all. Yet we would be overstating the matter, were we say that only the well-born would be called to be passionate about being a mind. Still, in so far as any hint of attainment in the direction of riches or external recognition fills us with satisfaction, and in proportion as it does, we are kept from being absorbed in the arduous intellectual tasks of knowing and understanding, the tasks which seek to bring the encountered world, including the pattern of living, thinking, believing and feeling to which one’s own mind has become accustomed, increasingly within the illuminating sphere of reason in articulated speech.

Honour and Fame

A certain detached and haughty reserve has always been and continues to be characteristic of the high-minded who labour in the vineyard of knowledge. Such a moral disposition is rare as it is difficult to achieve. In contrast, it is a mark of ordinary humanity to be prone to admiration and in turn to set great store by honour or fame or other external achievements that excite praise or envy. A saying of Aristotle runs, “Honour depends more on those who confer it than on whom it is conferred.” Yet there is never a dearth of people with wounded feelings, and in turn, with the depth of personal experience and passionate intensity to crave support in ambition, or more precisely, in romantic self-expression, whether of word or action, in anticipation of external recognition or riches or both.

None of us are strangers to the fact that many of the great innovations in the practical life have thus far come from those who have had a zest for pure achievement, a zest in which blind impulse and wild adventure more than the art of living had been evident. Nowhere is this spirit more prominent than in America. But more generally, the eminent and the chosen vessels of honour in the life of practice have not been rugged individualists. Rather they have been those had craved support in what they would have others think of them, and for whom the impulse for self-perpetuation had found no nobler fulfillment than the praise and honour conferred on their social image by strangers among the living and among those yet to be born. To cite the philosopher George Santayana: “Fame, as a noble mind conceives and desires it, is not embodied in a monument, a biography, or the repetition of a strange name by strangers; it consists in the immortality of a man’s work, his efficacy, in the perpetual rejuvenation of his soul in the world.”

It is beyond doubt that the ideal satisfaction of the impulse for self-perpetuation could be variously conceived. But it would be a pathetic end to a favoured beginning if the satisfaction which the well-born seek for their impulse for self-perpetuation were vulgarly conceived. This vulgar conception, the embrace of which makes one yearn for a happiness derived from imagining that he is an object of praise or envy may be sufficient for most of us to make such a happiness the ultimate aim of life. But having enjoyed the external advantages which a privileged background affords, the well-born must live better. The opportunity of pursuing the blessedness of being a mind is theirs for the asking. Only the presence of deficiencies and excesses in the moral life would deny such an opportunity to them, and the denial of it has considerable import to the rational progress of civilization.

Relativism and Subjectivism

No one in his right mind would go so far as to condemn the desire for objects of ambition, in so far as the response to the desire is neither excessive nor deficient. On the contrary, a sound ethic would encourage the poor and the socially disadvantaged to err in the direction of excess in matters of ambition, lest they be overcome by a mood of extreme humility, and be subjected to an ethic of self-abnegation and cynicism. Moreover, the progress of civilization at the material or technological level is well nigh inconceivable without the ambition and hard work of both the robust poor and those adventurist pioneers.

However in the modern life the dominant intellectual principles are relativism, subjectivism and dualism. Consequently in the modern life, the subjective self is taken more seriously than the universal ideal of human perfection which the human constitution suggests. Growing out of the emphasis on the subjective self is the equalizing and individualizing influence. The yearning of the modern life is for mechanical or absolute equality, rather than for proportionate equality, and the moderns demand liberty which consists in equating moral heroism involved the individualist’s quest to “take possession of the beautiful” with licence. In contemptuous disregard of the ideal of human perfection, the modern life places the greatest possible emphasis squarely on feelings, and on being true to one’s subjective self. This appears to make the ambitions of the privileged and the underprivileged alike ever more unlimited and uncontrolled. And of a good many of the ambitious moderns, it is true that the desire for wealth after wealth, or power after power, or honour after honour appears to cease only in death, as Hobbes who saw the human being as an asocial animal would have remarked.

The habit of thinking that ambition is an end or a good in itself is all too prevalent today. It is a habit of thinking which foists irrelevancy upon the goal of seeking the achievement of full humanity. But that is not all, multiculturalism or cultural relativism growing out of the emphasis on the subjective self, has made any talk of either civilization or its rational progress to appear anachronistic in the modern life. Today fine talk is of cultural pride. The emphasis on the subjective self has also created an atmosphere which is infelicitous at best for disinterested learning. The challenge which graduate faculties of better universities in advanced democracies face in creating a proper atmosphere for research and scholarship is an eloquent demonstration of it. The student bodies of graduate faculties are more and more composed of those whose motivation for advanced degrees is embodied in the anxiety about personal advancement or prestige or clear utility, rather than in the anxiety about ignorance and knowledge, and in turn graduate faculties spend inordinate amount of time training youth for professional advancement or on imparting information having clear utility, rather than focusing on research and scholarship and on educating the intellect for a creative odyssey of the sprit and intellectual conquest.

Criticism of Ambition

There is indeed ambition at the bosom of every child of Adam. Some traditions have recognized the importance of responding intelligently to the objects of desire through controlled habit formation. Others have insisted either on a childlike innocence or on the annihilation of desire altogether which the monkish ideal signifies, and have done so in anticipation of a non- human form of happiness, a happiness divorced from human desires and interests. Some in the traditions of the latter kind have gone so far as to condemn the feeling of being a personality or a soul as an illusion.

Progressivism, the secular religion of the modern life, too is apt to see the vast majority of humanity as greedy bipeds who pollute the earth. In so far as such a criticism of humanity has merit, it is embodied in the fact that there are vast and purposeless disparities of wealth and social privileges in society after society. By the operation of already existing social privileges, it has always been easier for the well-born to cream to the top in the practical life than it has been for the lower classes by the operation of sheer hard work and determination. But a feeling of injustice does not necessarily arise from a mere experience of jealousy or envy, at least not among the robust poor, although the apathetic, if at all, could possibly be accused of harboring a feeling injustice growing out of an experience of envy or jealousy. It tends to rise, rather, when the well-born, because of an insatiable appetite for wealth or power or prestige, begins to monopolize the paths to privilege and eminence in a world of limited opportunity.

Nevertheless, any critique of ambition should also recognize the fact that an insatiable appetite for things advantageous, honouring and creditable among the well-born is sordid and ugly, first and foremost because it deprives them of the opportunity of leisure to be absorbed in the cultivation of the life of reason. For reason is not just practical but also theoretical. Instead, to mitigate or redeem the sordidness and luxury which ambition involves, many a tradition, including progressivism, while insisting that the encountered world is without structure and cannot be known and understood and that the truth is but fiction made, seeks to encourage philanthropy and social idealism in those greedy bipeds whose minds are deemed to be freakish artifacts.

Philanthropy and Social Idealism

There is no question that it is possible to be ambitious without ever trying to limit ambition by considerations of the opportunity of leisure which it serves. Yet in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the world has witnessed higher civilizations and intellectual aristocracies. Indeed historians are apt to remind us that there has never been a higher civilizations without an intellectual aristocracy, for whose members the chief delight has lain in the activities that added, not to the magnificence of their social image, but to the splendour of their intellectual understanding.

The differentiation of social classes has its basis in ambition, but its fulfillment and justification are embodied in the differentiation of pursuits into higher and conventional or lower. If the well-born were mere seekers like the rest of us, the common herd, they would be distinguished only by an insatiable appetite for riches, power or eminence, and as such it would be a distinction without a difference. In the matter of ambition, both excesses and deficiencies are subversive of all sound political institutions. The underprivileged who do less than what is necessary to achieve practical success engender stasis, or faction and discord that grow into ruthless civil wars. But none are ever more subversive of sound political institutions than the well-born who fail to limit their ambition. For as is generally assumed, the absorption in means and instrumentalities, like money-making or power, by the privileged is “always conjoined with unreasoning passion and licentiousness.” The phrase is from the classical historian and philologist, Werner Jaeger, who says elsewhere: “Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.” This if nothing else is a reminder of the importance of a class of well-born people whose souls have not been rendered base or vicious by an insatiable appetite for wealth or prestige.

Regardless, the appeal to either philanthropy or social idealism neither mitigates nor solves the problem of excess in the habits which arise in higher stations. A social animal has an inherent capacity to feel the emotion of love for all the other members of society, which is called philanthropy or social idealism. But anyone, even someone who is base or vicious for the most part, is able to give physical expression to the capacity for social idealism. It is a potentiality which demands neither self-knowledge nor education of reason nor even wholesomeness of personality to be actualized. The concern for the welfare of the human race does not make a man more than mere a social animal among other animals living in communities or flocks, although the want of it makes him a solitary creature who is a danger to himself and others of his community and species. Ambition too is neither here nor there. For dogs are famously loving and loyal, and “profit is sweet, even if it comes from lies.” Moreover if apathy is not emancipation from the cares of practical success and social significance, neither is the life of action, whether with an eye exclusively to social idealism or self-seeking. Both apathy and the boundless appetite for action define the bondage to things advantageous, honouring and creditable. They both illustrate human slavery to the allurements of the life of honour, convention or success magnified.

Our Social Organization

It needs neither great ability nor scholarship to realize that a nation, which is composed entirely of people absorbed in either self-seeking or good works or both, whether robustly or apathetically, runs the risk of witnessing all the blessings of civilization disappear from it. There is no better proof of this than the process of degradation and corruption which our social organization has been undergoing since gaining independence. We are known the world over for the failure of our social organization to strengthen itself intelligently and worthily against stasis, against political inertia, faction and discord that grow into ruthless civil strife, of which we have had more than our fair share. The traditions of organized freedom and the methods of liberty that came to us from the outside are fast disappearing. The conception of government as a power above us which we serve submissively has gained currency and celebrity which it once had, before the traditional material of “Hellenocentric” nations began to be infused into our accustomed patterns of living and thinking through conquest and conversation. And we are living in a period of unprecedented increase in the extent and velocity of the process of degradation and corruption which our social organization has long been undergoing.

A passage in the book of Ecclesiasticus runs: “The wisdom of the learned man cometh by the opportunity of leisure; and he that hath little business shall become wise. How can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth oxen, and is occupied in their labours, and whose talk is of bullocks?” There is indeed much talk of bullocks in our own society. But there is hardly any talk of a gentlemanly or aristocratic ethical tradition whose felicity is set in the self-sufficing activities of the life of reason, nor any evidence of some such ethic to be found in the patterns of living and thinking to which our society has become accustomed. This is in spite the fact that our society has witnessed the presence of a myriad of people who could point to not just ancestral seats and acres but even storied forebears.

This has been but an attempt to give a clarifying expression to the opinion that our society has failed to produce an intellectual aristocracy. In what we said we have been serious, yet we have said nothing new. There is no better apology to be offered here than to repeat a common refrain, “All this is as old as Aristotle.” Still we have resisted the temptation which has been customary in recent undertakings of this sort to place a too great an emphasis on greed. Instead we have tried to advance the suggestion that an emphasis on the traditional material behind the formation of our national character would be most productive in arriving at an adequate understanding of the quality and character of our social organization. For, although a good many things are routinely assumed of our national character in our reflective living and thinking, none is so universally diffused as the notion that our national character suffers from a morbid self-consciousness, from a pathological preoccupation with “the idea of self reproduced in other people’s mind.” (The phrase is Santayana’s.)

Neediness is another word which is representative of the experience that the pathological preoccupation with what we would have others think of us signifies. There are at least two possible outcomes to neediness. One is apathy, whether of fatalism or quietism, the other, an insatiable appetite for action, for doing rather than thinking. The former leads to the yearning for a non-human form of happiness, the latter to the habit which esteems wealth for wealth’s sake, power for power’s sake, and eminence for the sake of mounting easily from eminence to eminence. The ancient Greeks reportedly believed that the worst punishment that could be inflicted on humans is the labours of Sisyphus, the labours that aim at an end which admits of degree, like wealth or power or honour, the labours which have no determinate or definite end.