I have been reading P.M. Forni’s Choosing Civility and a passage he referenced really jumped out at me today. Forni extracted it from E.M. Forster’s What I Believe, and it reads thus:
I believe in aristocracy… If that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive the considerate, and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and all classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others, as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.
I like Forster’s definition of “aristocracy”, especially in an American context where we don’t have a hereditary noble class. I believe there are few people who would fall into that category considering the malaise modern Western society finds itself in, but I believe those of us who constitute the Society of Southern Gentlemen would very well qualify.
We have to remember, though, that as cultures collapse, the old regime is replaced by its usurpers, as we are experiencing in America today. It reminds me of the cycles we can observe in British history. We are told of Brutus of Troy by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whom many learned academians dismiss as a fable-maker, how Brutus founded the peoples known later as the Britons. The Britons had an aristocracy that was overthrown by the pagan Saxons, who installed their own nobility in place of the displaced Britons. We know that Saxon rule was toppled by the Franco-Normans led by William the Bastard, whose followers sired the ancestors to most of Great Briton’s current diminishing aristocracy. Some of their cadet branches settled in the colonies to form the Virginia aristocracy so loathed by the Puritan New Englanders. Several of the Founding Fathers were bred from this stock. They didn’t have titles, but they did have names and influence.
Personally I don’t have a problem with hereditary aristocracy. I believe we still see it in many small town communities through the United States, although we might not recognize it as such. We see families that have influenced their communities for generations; respected by the ladies and gentlemen of the community, loathed by those of ill breeding. Mobility and urban life have done great damage to this aspect of civil society, but this rural aristocracy is worth preserving. Instead of being jealous of established families, we should recognize them for their contributions to the community. We should want to associate with them for the betterment of the whole. Not all of us can be community leaders, but we all can be community supporters.