Why Study Aristocracy?

The past, it’s said, is a foreign country. If so, that country lies firmly in the third world. Past societies were much poorer than ours, and had significant amount of inequality. The vast majority of people in medieval times were peasants, not nobles; most Romans were landless poor, and even in classical Athens citizens were outnumbered by slaves. In all these societies, only a tiny fraction of the population was wealthy enough and educated enough to do intellectual work.

What’s less appreciated is the obvious corollary, that a tiny fraction of aristocrats was responsible for the entire intellectual output of premodern civilization. Whether you’re reading Greek philosophy, Roman oratory, Indian Vedas, or the collected works of Darwin, what you’re reading is the product of the aristocracy.

Aristocrats were few. They weren’t particularly selected for intelligence; certainly compared to our modern Ivy League elites. And in many ways, they were poorer than we are – more servants, but fewer books, no Internet, no precision machining, no modern dentistry. And yet, despite all those disadvantages, they were able to produce work that we look up to as classics. You could certainly argue that in some areas, our artists and scientists could hold their own against the ancients. The best of HBO could probably stand up to the best of classical theater, for example. But the fact that the aristocrats were even in the same league, coming from impoverished societies with only a tiny class of knowledge workers, is a marvel.

We don’t have aristocrats today. Oh, we do have plenty of rich people, and even the middle class among us could outspend all but the wealthiest ancient aristocrats. But the key factor that made aristocrats productive wasn’t money; it was freedom. It was the freedom to tinker and engage in intellectual play, to focus on being an excellent person, on living well, and doing things. Being an aristocrat is not about having a lot of stuff, it’s about not having higher ups to please.

And that’s something that even the rich mostly don’t have today. I went to school with some pretty rich kids, and while they may have taken better vacations and the rest of us, they were plagued by pretty much the same career anxieties as anyone else. They were just as nervous about grades and recommendation letters, they fought just as hard to get into prestigious career tracks. This wasn’t a game for them to play as part of their quest for arête; no less than for the rest of us, the rat race was the meaning of their lives.

A modern aristocracy would not need to have serfs. It wouldn’t need to have unjust laws separating aristocrats from commoners. As we’ll see, it won’t even require an economic revolution. What it would need is a new social contract, a new culture. The people in that culture may not be the richest or the most influential, but they have to be able to believe that they’re at the top of the food chain and didn’t need someone else’s stamp of approval. And if they could pull this off, we might see the birth of a new Royal Society or a new Athens.

How do we get from here to there – to transform our modern elites into a form that’s more productive, more courageous, and better aligned with civilizational goals? The answers aren’t obvious, but it’s a pretty important question to figure out.