Many of us have mixed feelings about elitism, whether it is the Aristocracy, very rich people or associations of people manipulating the world, if we believe in the various conspiracy theories. Like in the late eighteenth century, should not these privileged few be killed or stripped of what they have so that everyone can be equal?
Egalitarianism is clearly an illusion. Some people can run faster than others, have greater intellectual capacities, be able to make things with their hands that many intellectuals cannot do. A doctor or a company director will be paid better than a factory worker, and will be able to live in a nicer home and enjoy what money can buy. When the inequalities go beyond a certain point, we have the Parable of Dives and Lazarus. The rich who become richer at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged will pay a high price. Elitism also describes the nobility of spirit of those who have a finer understanding of life than materialists or those who live only for pleasure and sensations.
Any defined group of persons is elite from its very nature. The Church is an elite, and the clergy and monastics even much more so. Having skills and experience makes us into an elite. Good garage mechanics and carpenters are an elite by being able to do things most of us are not trained to do. It is the same for those who play a musical instrument, read music or speak a foreign language. The problem enters the picture when elites think that their qualities entitle them to dominate society. I have often grappled with this notion, educated as I was in an English public school where the ethos is turned to excellence and competition. Winner takes all! Privilege comes with responsibility and concern for others. The rich Oxford and Bullingdon Club student who burns a £50 banknote in front of a homeless person deserves the harshest punishment.
I am not trained in sociology, but I see elitism as extremely diverse. In society, it tends to be a matter of high birth, money, initiation in various “I’ll scratch your back and you will scratch mine” societies. An elite society is closed and difficult to join, often maintaining its mystical aura with secrecy. We can see where things are going with the clergy of various mainstream Churches, the lack of accountability and concern for “ordinary” people. Apart from aristocratic (etymologically from the Greek “rule by the best”) birth, elites will form themselves from groups of people who have something in common and are good at it. We all like privileges, being a cut above the average. We are either born into it, are given it or earn it by personal achievement.
The big question is knowing whether the world can be changed for the better by elites and people of merit, or by majorities who vote the elites into power. That is a problem of politics, and I have no pretence of having an answer. I am not concerned with political elitism, the aristocracy or those who are stinking rich. What seems particularly unjust is when elites exist for their own sake and make a special point of excluding new entries into the elite. The big problem with egalitarianism is knowing where the line is between limiting the selfishness of the elite and discouraging talent, commitment, hard work, merit, achievement.
Elitism vs populism has always been an issue in history. There has always been competition to be the best, and there has always been the notion of merit without being concerned about being better than others. Some days ago, I read an illuminating article about four stages of human development: mimicry, self-discovery, commitment and legacy. Most people remain in the first stage, worried about following fashions and what the neighbours think about X or Y. A few begin to seek to discover themselves rather than imitate others. Commitment is about acting on your discovery of your true vocation and purpose in life, leading to building something you leave to the world when you die, something you will be remembered by. The article is worth reading with a critical mind.
I have written before on the nobility of spirit and aristocracy of spirit a notion so beautifully described by the contemporary Dutch writer Rob Riemen, Nikolai Beryaev and the ancient philosophers. I seem to belong to elites – the priesthood of the Church, a fairly privileged family, an education, owning a house, and so forth – but I do believe we have have the responsibility to share. We are not called to give to the poor person in such a way as he becomes what I was and I become what he was. St Martin gave half his cloak, because he still needed something to keep him warm. We are called to help others to find opportunities to read, study, discover – and be elevated from their previous narrowness and disadvantage.
One of the finest aspects of Plato’s work is the notion of the Philosopher King in The Republic. The word philo-sophia means love of wisdom coupled with intelligence, a desire to serve and wanting to embrace a simple life. These rulers run the utopian city of Kallipolis. The Philosopher King loves knowledge, but not merely education. He has access to Ideas that lie beyond forms and manifestations, sees the being and not merely the appearance.
Have Philosopher Kings existed in reality? Plato had a friend called Archytas who ruled Tarentum in what is now Italy. Dion of Syracuse was a disciple of Plato. He wanted to establish an aristocracy of wisdom, but met a sticky end. In the Roman Empire, mostly undistinguished for humanity and wisdom, Marcus Aurelius is remembered for his Stoical literature describing his devotion to service and duty. As a political notion, the notion of the philosopher king is open to the whims of human nature and abuse by those who are less than wise.
Some of us belong to elites and have received privileges. However, we should not live to achieve power and status, but rather to seek to serve wisely. That is the very idea expressed by Christ: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many“. True elitism is the wise use of our talents, true stewardship and our responsibility for the world and people around us, in whatever way is possible for each of us.
I saw a headline in the book review section of one of the Dutch ‘quality newspapers’ the other day which I hoped was not true – to the effect ‘Reading books is elitist – that’s just the way it is’ – my query sharpened at first by the idiom of the last phrase which allowed it to begin ‘Reading books is now…’. It turned out that the contention in the article itself was in fact ‘Reading “high literature” has, after all, always been elitist’, with novels particularly in mind, and to be more anecdotal than an argument for this assertion – or for another suggesting that ‘the average reader is nowhere without the advice of a knowledgeable bookseller’.
I wonder – how far would things like free performances of Shakespeare, or audiobooks, suggest that matters are not so dire (though I agree with the author’s love of paper books, and physical, local bookshops – though, again, my taste runs more to ones with second-hand, remaindered, and cheap reprint books). Perhaps I should try being more mindful, for interest’s sale, of how many ‘views’ amateur performances I’ve enjoyed on YouTube get (though, indeed, one can’t tell how much a given ‘viewer’ actually watched/listened to).
As was implicit in my article, having something that most other people don’t have or being able to do what they can’t do is “elitist”. Why should I be able to read and write when another person is illiterate? Should we not all have to live like pigs, eating slops and wallowing in the mud whilst awaiting the knife? The one with the knife is elitist with his power over life and death. We are elitist in comparison with most species of animals because we use tools and weapons. Equality is an illusion. I suppose our mission in life is to elevate and lift up as much as possible, and give others what we have in terms of culture and skills. That’s what schools should be for. Duc in altum. Read philosophy and literature, but share it with those who want to learn and discover. A lot of inequality is on account of some refusing the gifts they are offered.
“That’s what schools should be for.” Indeed! Sadly a lot of the academici see the gifts only as subjects for the application of the knives of ‘theory’.