The rich ye shall always have with you is a truth our Savior in his mercy never declared to us. That the poor should be a permanent fact of human society is discouraging enough, especially for modern Americans convinced there is no problem that cannot be fixed, no sin that is without a cure. Even more offensive to our sensibilities, however, is the intractable problem of the rich and powerful.
Confronted by the reality of entrenched wealth and power, Americans experience violent mood swings, alternating between egalitarian denial and populist outrage. We are capable of saying, if not quite in the same breath, that “America is a classless society,” and that David Rockefeller or the Council on Foreign Relations are behind everything from presidential elections to mortgage rates to African coups. The foundation for both of these contradictory views is the conviction that elite classes are unnecessary, at least in the New World. The upper classes, viewed from down on the farm or from the suburban development built on its ruins, are either self-seeking parasites that contribute nothing to society or, at best, the decorative window dummies that adorned the courts of the later Bourbons.
This is a dangerous delusion—the Devil likes nothing better than to have his existence doubted. When elite classes outlive their usefulness, as they do inevitably, the disparity between their privileges and their utility is the source of social discontent and of a revolution that leads to the establishment of a new elite. It is foolish to speak of “betraying” the revolution, since the ultimate point of any revolution is the succession to power of the revolutionary leaders. When the late Donald Warren’s Middle American rebels succeed in overthrowing the present regime, they will gain more sympathetic masters, perhaps, but masters they will have. From the populist perspective, the great objectives should be the destruction of an arrogant and alien ruling class and its replacement by an authentic, homegrown aristocracy that reflects the character and aspirations of the people.
Mankind without leadership is a mere mob, and there has never been a time (pace Augustine) that some of us did not command and others obey, and “when people have to obey other people’s orders, equality is out of the question.” John Locke, that ideologue of Middle American terrorists, was wrong. There could never have been, even in the theoretical sense given by John Rawls, an “original contract,” because wives and children have always been subject to husbands and fathers. The natural rights and human rights that supposedly derive from a state of nature are mere will-o’-the-wisps leading us to destruction.
The idle rich and the frivolous aristocrat are almost universal stereotypes. The Roman plebs was so convinced of patrician dispensability that at a time when Rome’s very existence was threatened, the lower order seceded to an armed camp. Menenius Agrippa, who was sent to deal with the rebels, told the story of the members of the body that revolted against the gluttonous and idle belly, whom they had previously served. The hands carried no food to the mouth, the mouth accepted nothing that was given, the teeth refused to chew. But, in starving the do-nothing belly, they starved the entire body, including themselves. The story—and the agreement to appoint Tribunes of the people—had its effect.
The Roman plebs was not without legitimate grievances. The patricians of that era, although they did provide military and political leadership, had excluded plebeians from office on the basis of a racial theory. Only patricians, they insisted, had the blood of gods in their veins, and only they were entitled to discharge the sacerdotal functions of Roman magistrates. Since it would have been sacrilege to contaminate divine blood, intermarriage between patricians and plebeians was forbidden.
Race myths of this type are a common justification of political privilege, and they often reflect a history of conquest and subjugation: the Aryans in India, the Dorians in Sparta, the Normans in England, and even the Franks in France all established themselves as a master class on the backs of conquered aborigines. In each of these cases, populist revolt had some of the flavor of race war. The real Hereward the Wake and the legendary Robin Hood are expressions of Saxon revanchisme, and in the years leading up to the Revolution, French intellectuals “discovered” their Celtic roots—an ethnic myth that lives on in Asterix the Gaul.
A more subtle but equally powerful race myth was at work in medieval Tuscany, where Lombard knights had saddled themselves on a Romano-Etruscan population that included not just peasants in the countryside but also merchants in the towns. In Pisa, where the nobles moved into the city and joined forces with the merchants, class tensions were relatively minor compared with Florence, whose nobles remained aloof, dueling and feuding with each other and treating the commoners with contempt. The merchants, in seizing power, loaded the aristocrats with civil disabilities which further exacerbated the feuds between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and, after the Guelph triumph, between the Whites and the Blacks.
It is perhaps no accident that Florence gave birth to the first political philosopher to regard power as the basic principle of politics. The price for letting this aristocratic cat out of the bag has been the eternal reproach summed up in the term “Machiavellian”—as if the philosopher had invented tyranny and not merely explained it. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy are the clearest exposition on the difficulties of maintaining a republic in the face of the disciplined ambitions of aristocrats and would-be tyrants. His Prince remains the most objective portrait of the man of power, a type that both Herodotus and Aristotle had previously outlined in their depictions of Greek tyrants.
After centuries of lies told about Machiavelli and his disciples (among whom we should include James Burnham and Samuel Francis), we still cannot bring ourselves to confess that most of us envy the Prince, that most of us—if we had the guts and the discipline—would gladly sacrifice friends and family to have the chance to gratify our desires. Why else do we play the lottery, if not for the remote possibility of being in the position of Bill Clinton or O.J. Simpson, the exemplary heroes of our civilization?
The tyrant as hero is the subject of a recent book, Il tiranno e l’eroe (Mondadori, 1996), by Carmine Catenacci, who points out that the lives of great leaders, historical as well as mythical, tend to follow a similar pattern. The Leader is usually born, sometimes out of wedlock, to a humble or undistinguished family (Sargon of Akkad, Periander of Corinth) that receives supernatural indications of the event and warnings of threats to the baby’s existence (Moses, Oedipus). On coming to power, the Leader is ruthless in eliminating aristocratic rivals and indulges his sexual appetites to a degree that others regard as pathological (Gilgamesh, Heracles), often with hints of incest (Oedipus with his mother) or other deviance (Pisistratus of Athens apparently sodomized his wife to avoid having children; Periander, after his wife’s death, is said to have “baked his loaves in her cold oven”). Few leaders escape the consequences of their actions, and either they or their children suffer a tragic and exemplary downfall.
When I met Catenacci in May, I asked him about parallels between Greek tyrants and the Signori of the Italian Renaissance, tough violent men like Francesco Sforza, Braccio Fortebraccio, Cesare Borgia, suggesting that even today the Italian obsession with “la bella figura” is a residue of the signorial style. Even though most Italians are fed up with the corruption and inefficiency of their business and political leaders, most men still act as if they wanted to be pezzi grossi (big shots) themselves, whether as cabinet ministers or only as professoroni. Catenacci went farther, pointing out that Bill Clinton is a figure out of the pages of Herodotus: a white-trash background, doubtful paternity, a political career littered with dead bodies, and a sexual pathology that Heracles might have envied. “History,” concluded Catenacci, “is only the myth we choose to believe in.”
A great many people do believe in Clinton, and many of them actually admire him, both for his success and for his impudence, and I cannot help observing that man learns to crawl before he walks. Faced with an arrogant leader, our first impulse is to get on our knees and lick his boots; to stand up and strike a blow requires discipline and courage. In his book, Catenacci nowhere mentions the figure to whom it should have been dedicated: Benito Mussolini, whom the Italians adored as a god, putting up with his mistress and her awful family, suffering through the blunders that brought the armed wrath of the Allies on their virtually innocent heads, and in the end, turning on the designated scapegoat and dishonoring his corpse with the same vindictive fury they once visited upon the family of Sejanus.
There is nothing new under the sun that shines on North America only a little later than it lights up Europe. Our sturdy republican citizens made a god out of Lincoln, adored the President-for-life Franklin Roosevelt, and elevated the dimwitted son of a rum-runner to the status of royalty. Whether we call him king, tyrant, Führer, Party Secretary, or President, the “modern prince,” as Catenacci points out in a phrase borrowed from Gramsci, is the new political myth. His regime may have “a collective structure” or even “go by the name of . . . democracy,” but the modern leader plays by very ancient rules: he eliminates or suppresses all who possess integrity or distinction, he elevates the feeblest members of society—women, children, the “disadvantaged”—and under the cover of good government or human rights he enriches himself and indulges his sexual appetites with abandon.
The time for republican independence appears to have come and gone, at least so far as great nations are concerned, and most Americans, after trying to maintain ourselves upright in the boxer’s stance, have returned to a posture that is more relaxing and more natural. “Leave us alone,” we say, “with our Jacuzzis and the all-modern kitchens where we cook no meals; give us digital television with a hundred cable channels and nothing to watch, and you can do what you like with the country.”
There have been elite classes that were up to the job: clan chieftains, medieval barons, the senatorial and equestrian aristocracy that did the real work of governing Rome in its great days. But there are obvious drawbacks to an upper class that is defined by men like Periander, Cesare Borgia, or William Jefferson Clinton.
How does a people go about getting rid of a tyrant or a degenerate ruling class? Opposition to tyrants does not, for the most part, come from the people themselves but from aristocrats who envy the Leader’s power and have suffered from his depredations. To succeed, the rival aristocrats must be able to pass themselves off as legitimate representatives of the popular will. Washington and Jefferson, although they were far from being “men of the people,” were, nonetheless, only a higher expression of the character and qualities of Virginia farmers. If Jefferson had really been the Enlightened Francophile that Conor Cruise O’Brien has portrayed, he could never have been elected governor of Virginia, much less President of the United States. Today, the ruling elite looks down upon the people as a race of serfs and helots. This disdain is understandable in such foreign masters as Rupert Murdoch, George Soros, and Madeleine Albright, but even our native sons and daughters who come to power can barely disguise their contempt for the Middle American helots who hew their wood and draw their water. When Mrs. Clinton tells us she knows how to rear our children better than we do, half the population rises to its feet to applaud her generous condescension.
Republican Americans are groaning under the tyranny of the modern state, but they have failed to produce the leadership that can overthrow the regime. If we give up on the fictions of democracy and republican independence—as I fear we must, so long as the government can keep this continental empire in one piece—then we are going to have to do something about replacing the alienated, vulgar, self-indulgent degenerates who are not content with owning and managing the country but insist upon interfering in our private life to an extent undreamed of by ancient tyrants and emperors. Nero was popular with the masses, whom he flattered and left alone; it was only the people unlucky enough to be in his social set that he preyed upon. We, however, are all in the same boat, because in reconstructing the American republic as a democracy resting on the popular will, we have invested the “modern prince” with the ultimate power to decide questions of good and evil, life and death. If Nero was a tyrant, we may need a new word to describe the despotic democrats who rule over modern states.
In the days when the word “tyrant” first made its appearance in the ancient world, the Spartans distinguished themselves by opposing these demagogic leaders who spoke for the people. The Spartan commonwealth was, at least in its best days, a disciplined republic, whose citizens enjoyed more “democratic” privileges than any citizen body in history (with the usual caveat that citizenship did not extend to women, slaves, helots, aliens, non-Spartan perioeci).
Everything in the so-called Lycurgan constitution was designed to prevent the emergence of any social or political distinction which could serve as the basis of personal rule. The two kings, of different lineages, were kept in line by the ephors; the ostentatious display of wealth was curbed both by restrictions on money and by the requirement that adult males dine together in common messes.
More important than Sparta’s sumptuary restrictions was the system of education, the agoge. Sparta was one of the few countries of the world, ancient or modern, that based citizenship not merely on the facts of descent, class, and wealth, but also on the compulsory training given to future citizens. A noble Spartan who did not undergo the agoge could not enjoy the privileges of citizenship, whereas foreigners (like Xenophon’s sons) who survived the ordeal may have been eligible. Even Spartans who completed their education could lose their status for failing to live in the Spartan manner or for displaying cowardice, because the object of the agoge was not so much knowledge or mental agility—though a certain wit and “laconic” style was highly prized—as it was character. Xenophon, the Athenian-born mercenary and writer who went to live in Sparta, emphasizes repeatedly that the purpose of Spartan training was to inculcate both shame and obedience, and the Spartan entries in any good encyclopedia of antiquities are filled with anecdotes and proverbs illustrating the self-discipline of Spartan citizens.
Critics of Sparta have objected that once they got off the farm, Spartan leaders like Pausanias (the victor at Plataea) and Clearchus (the mercenary commander who accompanied the younger Cyrus in his bid for the Persian throne) turned into money-grubbing tyrants. The criticism is valid but not entirely fair. How many successful leaders, once they have broken free from the restrictive customs and sense of shame imposed by small-town life, succeed in holding on to their virtue? In 20th-century American history, Frank Capra’s Jeff Smith comes to mind, and for real-life examples we have to turn to George Washington, John Adams, and General Lee. The Athenians had little to brag about in the character of their greatest leaders—the double-dealing con-artist Themistocles, the dictator Pericles, and that thoroughgoing scoundrel Alcibiades. The really remarkable thing is not the number of Spartans who failed to resist temptation “once they had seen Sardis,” but the number who remained, like King Leonidas and his band of 300, “obedient to the commands of the Spartans” until death.
The lesson taught by the Spartans (and by the Romans of the early Republic) is that a responsible elite class can only be created by an education that forms the temper as well as the mind. As Francis Bacon put it in his essay on “Custom and Education”:
Custom is the principal magistrate of man’s life. . . . most perfect when it beginneth in young years: this we call education, which is, in effect, but an early custom. . . . Certainly the great multiplication of virtues upon human nature resteth upon societies well ordained and disciplined.
Different societies have handled this problem in different ways. In Europe, the son of a knight or nobleman was frequently sent as a page to another court, where he would not be spoiled by his own family, and English boarding schools, for all their vices, gave England an elite class capable of governing an empire. The apprenticeship of young workers, apart from teaching the boys a trade and establishing family alliances, also served to avoid spoiling the boys who might grow up to be merchant princes.
Any sensible businessman who made his money the hard way is worried about what will happen to his own sons who grow up in luxury. One friend of ours solved the problem by allocating only enough money to set up his sons in business and left the rest to charity. Others have sent their sons to the school of hard knocks. My father, who dropped out of college to stoke coal on the Great Lakes, was working on a ship belonging to the Steinbrenner line, when a frail lad was given to him as a partner. The young man, who was obviously not up to the work, was perfectly happy to let my father stoke enough coal for both of them. At the end of the watch, one of my father’s friends broke out laughing and told my father that the young man, whose work he had been doing, was the owner’s son, George. Obviously, Steinbrenner père was already concerned about the spoiled brat who would grow up to be the scourge of professional baseball, but by then it was too late.
The American ruling class does not send its sons to sea but to colleges, where they are indulged and spoiled by their almae matres that pander to every vice: booze, drugs, women, men. At their common messes, the Spartans used to introduce helots and make them drunk, to show the young men how not to behave. Today, a college student could serve the same purpose. Colleges that used to have segregated dormitories and curfews for women are now bordellos, and the administrators little better than panders. They do have codes, of course, but they are all concerned with controlling speech and thought. You can shoot heroin and walk naked across campus; you can spend four years preying upon the freshmen girls, and no one will think the less of you, so long as you do not call someone a “water buffalo” or engage in “inappropriate laughter.” Even silence is punishable. At some universities, it is a violation of the sensitivity code to pay no attention to a homosexual when he is making a pass: to pretend you don’t know what is going on is to deny him the right to his sexual identity. Poor Mario Savio, who lived long enough to see Berkeley turned into an indoctrination camp.
It is as if our universities were designed for only one purpose: the elimination of the last vestiges of obedience and shame that have survived four years of high school. The students are treated as animals, to be herded into high-rise zoos and vast lecture halls, where they live down to expectations. The academic standards are so low that it no longer requires effort to earn the gentleman C. When I was teaching at Miami of Ohio (back in the early 1970’s), I discovered that the average grade was B (as it was at Stanford, at the time), and when I asked how B came to mean average (rather than good) work, I was told that Miami students were better than the students at Ohio State. I quoted Seneca’s remark that goodness does not consist in being better than the worst, thus driving another nail into the coffin in which my academic career lies buried.
In speaking at colleges and universities, I have met many fine students—intelligent, polite, normal in every way (which makes them abnormal, indeed)—and I have run into professors who were hardworking, responsible, even brilliant. But these students and teachers are a dwindling minority, even at good schools, and the average university teacher is not only incompetent to do his job—that is clear from the articles published in “learned journals”—but all too often, he is a cowardly, backbiting liar whose code of honor is that of the concentration camp collaborator who sells out his friends for an extra bowl of slop. One of my former colleagues was sent to jail when it was discovered that he had sexually molested his own son. And yet, he is not without his defenders, colleagues who believe he should be reinstated on the grounds that he posed no threat to students, since he never molested a young man who was not a member of his immediate family. I wish I were making this up.
Moderate and liberal defenders of the university will trot out the cliche that schools only reflect society. This is true, but not in the sense they mean. Most Americans are not as degenerate as college professors and administrators (indeed, there are housing projects with a higher moral tone than most universities set), but the university’s lack of standards, its denial of reality, and its cult of immorality do reflect all too well the character of the American ruling class.
There is probably no practical measure we can take that would arrest the decline of the American character. Homeschooling protects children from some vices, but many homeschooled children are terribly spoiled, unable to endure the rigors of competition. Even homeschooling families will undoubtedly continue to pour their treasure into the sewer of higher education. We all want our children to have the good degree that means a good job. Knowingly or not, we are surrendering many, if not most of them, to the enemy.
The modern university is like the blood tribute the Turks levied on conquered Christians and Jews. Every year, millions of conservative Christians send their children to colleges where they will be taught to despise everything their parents hold dear. Among the worst are the Catholic and evangelical colleges, whose second-rate professors have just enough energy to hold on to the back of the bandwagon. The only exceptions I can think of are the tiny experimental schools like Thomas Aquinas in California, Thomas More in Texas, and Rose Hill in South Carolina.
Instead of forcing their way to the table, American reactionaries should have made some effort to displace the degenerate elite with which we are “saddled and hampered and addled.” This would have meant the creation of colleges, not think tanks; the publication of books, newspapers, and magazines, not pamphlets, newsletters, and background reports. I understand the impatience of so-called patriots who think you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but so far as the American right is concerned, no one has thought to buy a chicken or build a henhouse.