The Aristocratic Ideal

Sorel believed that the bourgeoisie, having derived its moral ideas from eighteenth-century absolutism and from the decadent aristocracy fostered by absolutism, was now attempting to instill this ethic of irresponsibility into the workers, seducing them with the promise of endless leisure and abundance.

He argued, in effect, that the aristocracy of the old regime, with its cultivation of the "art of living,” had anticipated the modern cult of consumption. Aristocrats had traded their power for the brilliant, feverish delights of the Sun King's court. Without civic functions, they determined at least “to enjoy their wealth with relish"; they "no longer wanted to hear of the prudence long imposed on their fathers." The assumption that improvement had become automatic and irresistible relieved them of the need to provide for times to come. “Why worry about the fate of new generations, which are destined to have a fate that is automatically superior to ours?”

Aristocrats tried to avoid their obligations not only to the future but to the poor; this escape from responsibility, according to Sorel, was the dominant theme in eighteenth-century aristocratic culture. 

“At the dawn of modern times, anyone who held any authority aspired to liberate himself from the responsibilities that archaic conventions, customs, and Christian morality had, until then, imposed on the masters for the benefit of the weak.”

The idea of progress furnished the theoretical justification for the abrogation of reciprocal obligations, the foundation of aristocratic morality in its heroic phase, before enlightened aristocrats were corrupted by easy living.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.307

The second position, advanced by Thorstein Veblen, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Dewey, Randolph Bourne, Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, and Waldo Frank, among others, rested on a very different idea of both culture and democracy.

These writers distrusted the missionary impulse they detected in the progressives' program of cultural uplift. Instead of popularizing leisure-class values, they advocated a new set of values based on the dignity of labor.

Their program derived from William Morris rather than from Arnold. They did not necessarily share Morris's enthusiasm for handicraft production, but they followed him in making a revival of craftsmanship the prerequisite of a democratic culture. In his influential essay "The Art and Craft of the Machine" (1901), Wright tried to show that craftsmanship could be reconciled with machine production.

Dewey thought of his educational reforms - the clearest expression of this prewar speculation about the democratization of culture - as another method of bringing about a rehabilitation of labor. Like Veblen, Dewey deplored the "cultured" contempt for honest labor - a legacy, as he saw it, from the aristocratic past.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.346

Britain was regarded as divided into two groups the “classes” and the “masses.”

The “classes” were the ones who had leisure. This meant that they had property and income. On this basis, they did not need to work for a living; they obtained an education in a separate and expensive system; they married within their own class; they had a distinctive accent; and, above all, they had a distinctive attitude.

This attitude was based on the training provided in the special educational system of the “classes.” It might be summed up in the statement that “methods are more important than goals” except that this group regarded the methods and manners in which they acted as goals or closely related to goals.

This educational system was based on three great negatives, not easily understood by Americans. These were (a) education must not be vocational - that is, aimed at assisting one to make living; (b) education is not aimed directly at creating or training the intelligence; and (c) education is not aimed at finding the “Truth.”

On its positive side, the system of education of the “classes” displayed its real nature on the school level rather than on the university level. It aimed at developing a moral outlook, a respect for traditions, qualities of leadership and cooperation, and above all, perhaps, that ability for cooperation in competition summed up in the English idea of “sport” and “playing the game.”

Because of the restricted numbers of the upper class in Britain, these attitudes applied chiefly to one another, and did not necessarily apply to foreigners or even to the masses. They applied to people who “belonged,” and not to all human beings.

The chief element in the old attitude which both groups failed to grasp was the one which we have attempted to describe as emphasis on methods rather than on goals.

In government, as in tennis or cricket, the old attitude desired to win but desired to win within the rules, and this last feeling was so strong as to lead a casual observer to believe that they lacked a desire to win. In parliamentary life this appeared as a diffidence to the possession of high office or to the achievement of any specific item of legislation. If these could not be obtained within the existing rules, they were gracefully abandoned.

This was not an attitude which either the new business leaders of the Conservative Party or the working-class leaders of the Labour Party could accept. Their goals were for them of such immediate concrete value to their own interests that they could not regard with equanimity loss of office or defeat of their legislative program. It was this new attitude which made possible at one and the same time the great increase in party discipline and the willingness to cut corners where possible in interpreting the constitutional conventions.

[Carroll Quigley]
Tragedy and Hope, p.293-4

Related posts: