Iieroism is the reason,” explains one of Achilles’ opponents,rn”that the princes are first served at banc[riets.” Goodness was alsorna class distinction (as at Rome), and the agathoi and the aristoirn(like Cicero’s honi) were members of the hereditary nobilit)-,rn’I’he crustv reactionar’ Theognis complained that virtue wasrncontaminated when good men, who had fallen on hard times,rnmarried the daughters of die nouveaux riches.rnInherited nobilit)’ seems a laughable concept in the land ofrnthe Rockefellers and Harrimans. For centuries, sympathehcrnforeigners have been saing, “Give die Americans some time.rnrfter all, Rome wasn’t built in a da’, and a patriciate is the workrnof centuries.” Actual)}’, Hie reerse is true: Aristocracies arernforged in batde and conflict and steadily degenerate in morernsettled times. But even an effete and degenerate aristocracy hasrnits uses, hi her memoirs, Kathleeu Raine said that she hadrngrown tired, earh on, of her intellectual friends for deriding thernBritish upper classes, who retained an almost tribal knowledgernof living well.rnhi fiiet, intellectuals can talk all day about how odier peoplernshould live without ever learning how to spend a pleasant afternoonrnor—what is more serious—how to accept responsibilit}’.rnH’Aclyn Waugh’s Tony Last (in A Handful of Dust) is a figure ofrnfun, reminiscent of Ford Madox Ford’s more tragic “rietjens,rn])ut both Ton’ and Tietjens arc honorable men who, with quietrncourage, hold up their end of excrv’ bargain, even when theirrnw’ixes and friends betra’ them. I do not actually know manyrnsuch people (save a few in South Garolina, most of them longrndead bv now), but they provide a hint of what an aristocracyrncould do for this postdemocratic society.rn(n a fevidal age. the aristocracx is made up of warriors, but warrnis not the only pursuit of die arfstocrat. hi 17tli- and 18th-centur’rnBritain, a landowner was expected to be of service, whetherrnas justice of the peace or member of Parliament, and althoughrnwe nia doubt the inspiring portrait drawn by Clarendon of ViscountrnFalkland or Fielding’s fictional portrayal of Squire Allwrnortlu’, the least we can say is that the’ represented a social idealrnthat is as alien to us as a virtuous woman.rnE’en todav’, die grandsons of robber barons and tobacco merchantsrnspend much of their time defending wilderness areasrnand endangered species from the predations of our contemporanrnrobber barons. We may laugh at the spectacle of spoiledrnfops who go on television to champion the cause of a newtrnthreatened with extinction, but we should at least acknowledgernthat the impulse is noble. Sierra Clubbers with seven-figure incomesrnmay be deaf to the cries of America’s working poor, butrntlie’ have found a cause beyond themselves. They cannot, afterrnall, help being stupid and degenerate, because those arc thernideutif’ing marks of the ruling class to which diey belong.rnAmericans ha’e simultaneouslv idolized and demonizedrnaristocracy. The Societ}’ of the Cincinnati was denounced asrnan aristocratic cabal by the very people who worshiped the Marc|rnuis de Lafayette precisely because he was a marquis, hi fact,rnwe have had precious little nobility of any kind throughout ourrnhiston,’. Georgie Nhnafer (in Boodi Tarkington’s The MagnificentrnAmhersons] insists that three generafions are enough to takernthe taint of enterprise from a faniiK fortune, but the Ambersonrnnione’ is lost in his lifetime.rnDuring the 18th centur)’, both South Carolina and Virginiarnwere ruled by country gendemen who felt at home in Europe.rnNew York, Boston, and Charleston all had a merchant aristocracyrnbefore the Revolution, but in the North, the aristocratsrnwere mostly Tories and fled to Canada and to England. In ‘earsrnto come, their bourgeois successors (Adamses, Otises, et al.)rnaped the anglophilia of the Tories and, as a result, their nascentrnlitde civilization failed by the early 18th century, and Northeasternrnliterature (from the channing Washington Irving to therngrumpv IIenr’ Adams) became a series of ‘etos on evcnthingrndistinctively American. The Adamses, for all their failings, didrnat least maintain some semblance of public spirit. F[enr’s father,rnCharles PTaneis, was virtually the only honorable man inrnthe Lincoln administration, and he ably served the Union causernas ambassador to the Court of St. James.rn’1 he South was luckier. Many aristocrats staved behind to defendrnthe people and places to which they were attached, andrnthe}’ succeeded in assimilating (as the English were also assimilatingrnin their own eountr}) wave after wave oinouveaux richesrnplanters and merchants. The old English aristocracy of thernSouth, as Mrs. Chesnutt observed during the War behveen diernStates, had been displaced h rougher Anglo-Celfie h’pes (Jackson,rnCalhoun, L^avis) w ho had quiekh adopted their predecessors’rnmores. Jefferson Da is was born in a log house. His enterprisingrnfather and ambitious older brother eased young Jeffsrnway into the societ)’ he would adorn, and if he always felt somewhatrnuncomfortable with the Old World of the Virginians, hernrarely showed it.rnWhatever chance there was for an American aristocracx perishedrnin the war that set the descendants of John Adams againstrnthe heirs of George Washington (Robert M. Lee, the son ofrnWashington’s great cavalry chief, was married to MartharnCustis’s great-granddaughter). Hienry Adams knew the truthrnand complained bitterly about the greedy riff-raff that took overrntlie country during the Grant administration and hae never relinquishedrntheir grip.rnIn the 20th centur)’, the best Americans were the entrepreneurialrnbusiness class that Tarkington champions in The Plutocrat:rnCrude, unlettered, and clownish (for the most part), tlievrnloved their eifies and endlessly improved the amenifies of lifern(and boosted their own achiexements). Just at the point whenrnthe might have become a civilizing force —when SinclairrnLewis’s Babbitt was turning into Dodsworth —they were destroyedrnby the New Deal and the war diat sucked the vitalih’ outrnof Cleveland and Chicago and made New York the Americanrneapitol down to the I980’s, when government grew so great thatrnWashington became, at last, the real center of the Americanrnuniverse.rnFor Americans who long for a responsible leadership classrn(whether they call it an aristocracy or a new elite), time is runningrnout—or, rather, it has run out. Such classes bubble uprnfrom the people, or at least from the yeomanry and independentrnbusinessmen. In America, there is no “people” to speak ofrnan} more, much less a eomanry; we are a nation of well-fed I Vrnwatchers and resentful minorities. No populist revolution canrncome from such a stock: If you think it can, }’ou liave not livedrnout here in the heartiand. Our best men remain the smaller entrepreneursrnwho are, one by one, falling prey to the gigantic interestsrnthat have skillfull}’ co-opted the trillion-dollar multinationalrncorporation that calls itself the U.S. government. Beforernwe can begin to speak of an American aristocracy, or of a responsiblernelite class, we shall have to reinvent (or invent) somernformative institutions—a church, a school, a society—that arerninformed by a code of honor somewhat more stringent than wcrnhave demanded from recent American presidents.rnOCTOBER 2001/11rnrnrn