From the October 2001 issue of Chronicles.

A fish starts rotting from the head, it is said. That a society starts rotting from its head needs to be much better understood. Blaming the decline of Western society on a “revolt of the masses” absolves elites, who must bear the brunt of the blame. Catering to popular tastes is not the result of relentless pressure from the grassroots but of an elite class proclaiming the wisdom of “the people” and granting them privileges, giving power to new elites.

Among those who set the tone in America today—in the arts and entertainment, the media, the universities, and politics—the stink of rot is unmistakable. These elites not only condone but generate the growing nastiness, crassness, vulgarity, debauchery, and mediocrity of life. From corporate boardrooms to lecture halls, courtrooms to movie studios, foundation boards to pulpits, legislatures to newsrooms, civilization is gasping for air. Many within the American elites do resist the general trends—some bravely and with limited success—but they do not consider themselves on the winning side. Many try telling themselves that things are not as bad as they seem. Some play, pathetically, at still being of the ruling class by riding horses on their country estate, lunching at the Metropolitan Club, or attending Sunday services with “nice” people at the Episcopal church.

If we are to think strategically about America’s elites, it is necessary, first of all, to abandon a preoccupation with elections and politicians or, at a minimum, greatly broaden our conception of politics. Practical politics does not set its own direction; it is largely symptomatic of the moral, cultural, and intellectual life of society. Politicians make a difference—a great deal of difference in some historical circumstances—but they do not autonomously generate the energy and direction of politics. In an important sense, they follow rather than lead. Only at the margins can politicians direct the general trends of civilization. They are confined by the hopes and preferences dominant in their society. These bear the imprint of other elites, living or dead; of those who shape the mind, imagination, and moral sensibilities of a people.

Regarding the dominant political elites as the core of America’s problems betrays an insufficient grasp of what ultimately moves human beings and decides the long-term direction of society. If, by some odd historical accident, the ranks of the despised political elites were sharply reduced in an election, the elites that mold the larger moral, imaginative, and intellectual patterns of society would remain. The prevalent cultural ethos would continue to fashion the desires and beliefs of the American people, who would continue to idolize the same kind of politicians they had just removed.

Elites both define and embody a society’s deepest longings and fears. By definition, they have the more or less grudging acceptance of a people, however much particular groups may resent their power. New, superior elites could emerge today only if the spirit of civilization were somehow to reawaken among those who shape thought, imagination, and moral sensibility, so that a new sense of what is desirable and undesirable began to emerge. Such a change would require a transformation of the universities, the churches, and the arts, including entertainment.

Another obstacle to clear thinking about America’s elites is populism, which attributes wisdom to “the people” and perniciousness to elites. Granted, the common people may look superior to elites at a time when the former are holding on to sound tradition while the latter are recklessly abandoning it. But if the common people seem wiser than elites in times of social upheaval, it is only because they are slow to adopt the new ways of their elites. For a while, they may loudly protest departures from inherited beliefs; in the long run, however, they will follow society’s trendsetters, whose attitudes will be transmitted through their churches, schools, colleges, music, newspapers, and TV programs. Tradition cannot defend itself without its own strong and sophisticated elites, and the deterioration of tradition will soon weaken and confuse “the people.”

There may be nothing wrong with mobilizing ordinary people against misguided elites as long as “common sense” survives, but populism rests on a misunderstanding of how societies develop. Reversing social decline is not a matter of kicking the scoundrels out. It requires the evolution of new elites across a broad range of concerns.

Elites will always set the tone of society. Attempts to create a “classless society are bound to fail. As Edmund Burke wrote, “Those who attempt to level, never equalize. In all societies . . . some description [of citizens] must be uppermost.” Levelers only pervert the social order. “They load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground.” The only issues worth discussing are what should be “on the ground,” what should be “in the air,” and how that selection might become flexible, circumspect, and humane.

Americans have always been deeply ambivalent regarding social class. Many have resented traditional Western elites, associating them with injustice and oppression. Thomas Jefferson declared that “kings, nobles and priests” are always a “confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people.” The U.S. Constitution forbids titles of nobility. On the other hand, many Americans have an almost fawning attitude toward European royalty and nobility. Some Americans still play at being British gentry. Significantly, the original U.S. Constitution set up quasi-aristocratic institutions: the presidency, the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. An elite of popular representatives would, in the words of the Federalist, “refine and enlarge the public views.” It could be plausibly argued that, in substance, the Framers set up an elective constitutional monarehy. In his personal demeanor and sense of decorum, George Washington had set standards worthy of a king. Still, populist impulses and social resentment have competed with a desire for elites. Jefferson himself voiced populist opinions, but he also wished for a “natural aristocracy.”

All elites are prone to self-centeredness, arbitrariness, conceit, and inbreeding. The remedy, many contend, is “equal opportunity,” which will reward merit. America, they claim, has found a way of recognizing ability without creating a class society. But a classless society is an illusion, and talk of “equality of opportunity” overlooks the fact that civilization is defined by how it discriminates among abilities. Since man is, by nature, lazy, civilization can not leave discernment of high and low to “market forces” or the majority. It must create structures for promoting and protecting the highest human aspirations.

Civilization lives by its discriminations and rankings. It penalizes some human inclinations and rewards others. Gatekeepers of many kinds push some individuals forward, hold others back. Civilization favors the wise and virtuous, not the superficial and dissolute; it honors responsible statesmen, courageous soldiers, good students, excellent artists, honest businessmen, and careful craftsmen rather than opportunists, cowards, slackers, pornographers, shysters, and fakers, however able. It is of the very essence of civilization not to provide equal opportunity.

A proponent of “equality’ of opportunity” might say that he opposes only arbitrary or illegitimate denial of opportunity, but that objection begs the all-important question: How should we properly discriminate? It is through unequal opportunity that society encourages individuals to give their best and discourages the opposite. Besides, “equality” is a pure abstraction, a mathematical idea, whose application to society only produces confusion.

A classical, “well-rounded” education used to be considered basic for people of influence. The Greek discipline of paideia formed the whole person. It was intended to prepare the individual for the life of the good, the true, and the beautiful by fostering physical vigor, intellectual and aesthetical discernment, and—above all—moral character. Members of elites had to be civilized, broad-minded human beings, whatever their special functions in society. In combination with good social background and experience, sound education was thought to produce the gentleman, the person qualified for gatekeeping.

Many champions of “equality of opportunity” would have all doors flung wide to merit. Why should a bright, knowledgeable lawyer not advance quickly in the law firm and in general society? Perhaps he should, but not if he is a blatant self-promoter, an amoral hired gun, or a person who knows or cares little about the connection of the law to the higher purposes of society. A surgeon highly skilled at wielding his instruments might also be found socially wanting for having a truncated, cynical view of life, choosing his specialty according to profitability, living in a garish home, and chewing gum in his flashy tuxedo—characteristics that are only seemingly irrelevant to the practice of medicine. Civilization needs some condescension and snobbishness.

It used to be said that it takes three generations for family wealth to produce aristocratic breadth and refinement, but there are exceptions, and individuals of humble social origins sometimes contribute greatly to civilization. Burke still may have a point: “The road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course. If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation.” Employing a lax or narrow definition of merit may facilitate social circulation, but only of a certain type, and soon the new elites will impose their own criteria for advancement. Burke’s comment on the era inaugurated by the French Revolution is relevant: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” Burke was too uncritical of the old order, but he also did not know the worst of what was to come.

A society is fortunate if its most truly admirable individuals set the standards for the rest. One of the central aims of civilization is that they be in a position to do so. Sound elites will exhibit flexibility and tolerance, but to ensure the tethering of expertise and ability to the humane purposes of life, they will look for more than utilitarian “skill” and energy in those whom they promote.

Some distinguish between “equality of results,” which is supposed to be bad, and “equality at the starting line,” which is supposed to be good. But every society is the product of long development, and there can be no such thing as a starting line where “equals” begin seizing their opportunities. Historically evolved social structures and preferences create inequality of opportunity. Equality at the starting line would presuppose emptying society of what makes it civilized. For example, for all to start from scratch, there would have to be no inheritance.

Was it concern about equality of opportunity that once gave the United States the most confiscatory estate taxes in the Western world? Or were those taxes inspired by the related presumption that self-made men are especially admirable and are, therefore, the only ones really entitled to their property? The latter reflects the American prejudice in favor of people engaged in utilitarian pursuits, a prejudice so pronounced and one-sided that success in business is assumed automatically to qualify a person for influence in other areas, including—if the success is sufficiently great—the presidency.

An older Western tradition had a very different bias. The narrow and mercenary attitudes assumed to be characteristic of people in trade and production were thought to make them less than suitable for inclusion in the highest social and political circles, which required breadth of mind and sensibility. This bias reflected the classical Greek ideal that those who set the tone should be capable of partnership in the life of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Property was merely an indispensable means to this end. The active life of leisure, not busyness, was the highest form of life, a notion that helped define the Western idea of the gentleman. Members of the Western “bourgeoisie” modeled themselves on the nonutilitarian attitudes of the aristocracy, which is one of the ways in which the higher purposes of life were integrated into economic life.

Disparagement of nonutilitarian pursuits (especially in America) has long militated against the highest form of gatekeeping. The trend can be traced back to John Locke, among others. His latitudinarian version of Puritan Christianity helped elevate the self-made, “productive” man by asserting that an individual creates value by “mixing his labor” with things in nature and thus becomes entitled to ownership. Busily working away at tangibly useful tasks is pleasing to God. Locke’s emphasis demoted “nonproductive,” contemplative work and those elites who engage in it. He counseled that the young be educated for a life of usefulness and gain. Locke disparaged much that had been highly valued in earlier Western culture, as when he wrote that “parents should labour to have [the poetic vein] stifled and suppressed.” Poetry usually goes together with gaming, he asserted, and they are alike in that they “seldom bring any Advantage.”

The formation of new, discriminating American elites would require a rediscovery of the centrality of nonutilitarian endeavor. To make such a statement at a time when the arts, the universities, and the chinches are in deep trouble may seem quixotic as well as discouraging, but a floundering civilization cannot be rescued by uncultured makers and doers. Unfortunately, doers of a nasty kind are often the ones who take advantage of desperate circumstances. In the long run, only a reinvigoration of mind, imagination, and moral character will make a difference. What specific elites might emerge from such a development, we cannot foretell. What we can be predict is that they would put hucksters, smut-peddlers, demagogues, and other self-seekers in their place.