Sunday, September 9, 2007

Piety, wonder and distance

What is an aristocracy? The scholar Philippe Mairet in his essay on Aristocracy and the Meaning of Class Rule published in England in 1931, points out that it is an elite which unlike a plutocracy, insists that its members should possess and exhibit excellence in the function of government itself. Aristocracy must stand for a higher type of man.
A higher type of man. That is what those who seek the aristocratic society seek to arrive at and this is truly Nietszchean as well, seeking the improvement of man, the transcendence of man, his overcoming of himself. For Dr Jacob and the thinkers he discusses here, democracy is responsible for a radical shift in the opposite downward direction, away from the transcendence of man and into the time of his great down going, his degeneration, his return to the primitive state from which he once emerged, his loss of consciousness of his own will, and his submission of the will to the technical forces of a materialist elite. Aristocracy is raised on the irreplaceable values, as Dr Jacob calls them, which universalist democracy is destroying: spiritual awareness, tradition and race. Precisely those three values are being constantly weakened in the West. Dr Jacob has provided a useful set of milestones giving some of the names of thinkers who hoped that Western society would take the anti-democratic path. Gone from our world are the qualities which made an aristocracy possible. They are: piety, wonder and distance. When and how will they regain, if ever, their lost authority among us?
Michael Walker [Return to
The notion of restoring an aristocracy is born of a belief in making the best of the world that we can in which the part played by aristocracy is a natural one, a time proven one, opposed to the uncivilized, undisciplined fury of radical rationalism as expressed in the French revolution. But when Dr. Jacob describes the ideas of Fichte, he points out that it was in the name of a universal idealistic rationalism that Fichte hoped that an aristocracy would be created, not restored, constituting the fulfilment of historical destiny.
Dr. Jacob informs us that for Fichte, the course of human history is a record of the various stages in the development of the self from unconsciousness to full self-consciousness. Like Herbert Spencer, Fichte even lays down stages of human development in which this evolution is said to be taking place.
1) the epoch in which man is governed by his instinctual life;
2) the epoch in which external authority is substituted for instinct as the ruling principle of social life;
3) the epoch in which men revolt from authority in a time of individualism;
4) the epoch in which men begin to understand the rules of reason and voluntarily submit to them;
5) the epoch in which reason becomes fully conscious in men as complete moral freedom.
This leads to the affirmation that the individual should forget him/her self as individual and place the one life in the service of the greater manifestation of life of which the individual life is only a part. The concept of aristocracy based on this paradigm of human history is radically different from the aristocratic philosophy of someone like Edmund Burke and this is a distinction which Dr. Jacob glosses over, apparently in an attempt to portray the purveyors of the aristocratic ideal here given as a harmonious whole. The book argues the case for the "superiority of aristocratic government" in a manner such as to suggest that "aristocratic government" is a category which requires neither analysis nor discussion as such, as though the belief in aristocracy is not itself subject to major and arguably quite incompatible conceptions of the meaning and sense of human social organization, of the state and of God.
There are parallels between Marx and Fichte, notably in the insistence by both that the state is created out of a conquest by one race/class of another. Underlying Fichte’s concept was a belief that each people should develop in its own way. The people are gathered in the nation and represented by the state and there are inferior and superior peoples/nations, according to Fichte. An important distinction between Hegel and Fichte which the writer does indeed point out is that Hegel’s morality was not a priori, that is to say Hegel believed that historical change created more perfect moral orders, whilst for Kant or Fichte, there is an absolute right which man is striving towards.
The lack of idealism in Hegel’s system has the fault, in Dr. Jacobs' view, that any system can be defended morally on the ground of its being created by historical necessity or as being a manifestation of the cycle of history. Similarly in orthodox Marxism, much can be and has been justified on the grounds of historical necessity which overrides a universal moral dictum. For Hegel, the state was not an instrument of domination or materialisation of power, it was the acme of human progress, the embodiment of freedom. Hegel advocated a restrictive system of voting rights, under which the franchise would only be granted to those gifted with learning, knowledge of public affairs and property.
There is an interesting chapter on Giuseppe Mazzini, who outside Italy is not well known as a thinker, but known mostly as a republican, revolutionary and Italian patriot. Mazzini was however an elitist political theorist, who divided history into two major periods, the period before and the period after the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the watershed of history, indicating the switch to a more rational understanding of the world. But the revolution was for Mazzini "inadequate" because it was individualistic and materialistic. (This reviewer would argue that the French Revolution was very anti-individualistic in the sense that all individuals had to subscribe to the general will of the nation in the people.) Mazzini did not believe that the end of human existence is material well-being. Liberty loses its importance once it is agreed that the purpose of social order is to create optimal circumstances for the improvement of material well-being.
Mazzini sought to stress social duties at the expense of rights and it can be argued (and Dr. Jacob does argue) that the philosopher Giovanni Gentile was a successor to these ideas. Gentile was the house philosopher of the Italian fascist state. He was an idealist, who believed that through the state, men would one day reach a perfect condition of social awareness of their fellow citizens in which a separation of private interest from public commonweal not longer existed. Dr. Jacob quotes Gentile that all human cruelty is a result of imperfect knowledge, exactly as it is in Plato and Plotinous." The basis of evil is matter, or nature, which is opposed to spirit and represents "not merely moral and absolute nullity: the impenetrable chaos of brute nature, mechanism, spiritual darkness, falsehood and evil, all the things that mankind is forever fighting against." this quotation highlights the point at which liberalism and fascism share a certain view of the world in opposition to conservatism.
It is a pity that Dr. Jacob does not examine this highly interesting issue. But it is useful that he has pointed to Gentile at all. Gentile seems to be largely forgotten and perhaps the (temporary?) oblivion in which he currently finds himself is unjustified... Nobilitas A study of European Aristocratic Philosophy from Ancient Greece to the Early Twentieth Century by Dr. Alexander Jacob University Press of America lanham, U.S.A. 114pp $18 50)

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