Ever since human societies became a clear and definite field of inquiry, which for Westerners means ever since Greek antiquity, current wisdom holds that the best of imperfect, nonutopian—i.e., viable—human societies have always been those in which predominated what came to be dubbed a “middle class.”

Though commonly used, the content of the term remains rather vague.  What is the specific virtue of being in the middle?  I don’t see any particular virtue in the greatest possible number of citizens being moderately intelligent, educated, or ethical, no more than moderately criminal or evil.  Or should sheer mediocrity be a voucher for good citizenship?  And what are the two extremes between which one finds the middle class?  It makes sense to believe a society is healthier when devoid of extremely powerful or powerless citizens, but this amounts to hailing a society in which political power is more or less evenly distributed among its citizens, therefore nullifying the very notion of a middle class.  Does it make more sense to understand the word in economic terms?  It is often argued that one of the most permanent features of human society is for it to comprise richer and poorer members, and that most civil unrest results from continual strife between those two classes.  It seems reasonable, then, to imagine that the greater the number of neither rich nor poor citizens, the more chance a city has of living in peace.  But then where is the threshold below which or above which an individual cannot be identified as middle class?  Moreover, even though the dividing lines might be clearly drawn, why is it that these particular citizens typically appear perfectly content to remain in the middle range of the social scale?  The more one treads the waters, the murkier they appear.

That is, until one realizes it is conceivable they stay there, not out of inability to do otherwise, but out of a deliberate choice; not because the greatest number of people cannot help but always be in the middle of all possible scales, but because such a social station is a natural choice vast numbers of men are bound to make.  In other words, I think that what constitutes the middle class and gives them strength and stability is primarily a moral element, an attitude toward life in general, and society in particular, a sort of inexplicit philosophy or spirit that many men naturally nurture.

Then what is this inexplicit Weltanschauung?  Thinking and rethinking the riddle, I came up with the conviction it is not one only for sociologists or political scientists, but also for philosophers.  Indeed, I believe it is possible to identify three basic human attitudes regarding the relationship that obtains between any given individual and the society he lives in—three ways of living with others.

First, there is the relatively small number of human beings whose calling is somehow to forfeit their own selves, somehow to transcend their human condition: The saint forfeits his life and/or devotes himself to others for the love of God, the hero risks his life for the sake of glory or for the protection of others, and the genius exhausts himself seeking what is true, good, or beautiful.  Are they good citizens?  Yes, because they constitute a model of devotion to others or to some transcendent goal (all human societies are in need of men capable of acting without regard to their own interest and well-being—noblesse oblige); and no, because their deepest interest is beyond society itself.  In any case, they are no ordinary citizens.

Then there is the considerable crowd of human beings who prefer their own selves to anyone or anything else, from God to their fellow men and to whomever and whatever might have a claim to be served before them.  The most common man is the one who never acts but for what he perceives as his personal interest; he may be found in all walks of life, rich or poor, stupid or astute, powerful or powerless, a citizen of high standing or a lowly beggar.  In all times there have been people willing to do anything for personal profit—money being since its invention the universal means of indulging one’s impulses.  Now we have the welfare recipients who find it natural to be supported, which amounts to living off others, regardless of those who work without asking for help.  Then, at the other end of the scale, there are those who respect the laws of their country, because they provide them with a structure within which they can safely engross themselves in what Aristotle called “chrematistics,” and the Christians “usury.”  Then, of course, it includes the celebrities (like professional footballers, TV anchors, and politicians) who live off audiences stupid enough to contribute from their pockets to the shocking wealth of their idols.  All these are to a city what hornets are to beehives: They feed on the honey they fail to produce.

And then there are the middle classes: people who are neither saints nor hornets, neither selfless nor self-centered, neither oblivious to their personal condition nor exclusively engrossed in it, neither ready for total self-sacrifice for the sake of others nor indifferent to their neighbors’ various predicaments, neither entirely altruistic nor completely egocentric—in other words, people who are in the middle of two extremes of unsociability, whom I am tempted to call “normal.”

Now why do such people exist (or, at least, why did they exist) at all?  Why do they (or did they) represent a significant proportion, if not a majority, of the population of Western societies?  My answer is simple: because it is just plain natural for men to obey two basic drives.  If I may borrow from Plato, a man is like a chariot drawn by two horses, one wild and always striving to go his own way, the other reasonable and eager to help the driver follow the path he thinks best.  This means there is in every man a natural craving not to depend on anybody, so as to live as he pleases with no concern for others, but also an equally natural longing for the approval of his fellow men, their admiration, or their gratitude, a longing to be useful for something beyond his mere personal enjoyment, a secret desire to play an acknowledged and valued part, however humble, in the world about him.  And such a longing constitutes a natural containment to the hubris built into human freedom.

This is, I think, the essence of middle-class people.  So then, the very appellation of middle class is somehow misleading and represents a rather poor translation of what Aristotle called the mesoi, meaning people endowed with the virtue of moderation, as opposed to people filled with self-importance and eager to overinflate their role in society.

If such characteristics are by nature those of many human beings, it takes only common sense to understand they are also the best possible citizens there can be, the true backbone of human societies.  Any viable human society, any aggregate of men that is more than a mere heap of human beings, must indeed meet two basic requirements.

First, each of its members must retain some degree of self-sufficiency, meaning some ability not to depend on others for his survival, but to provide as much as possible for his own needs.  No community should be to each citizen like a cornucopia, mysteriously replenished by some hidden hand, from which he can help himself at will.  But second, it is obvious that such individual independence should be achieved without taking advantage of one’s fellow citizens.  A good citizen is therefore someone who, on one hand, is no burden on the others, but, on the other, either actually possesses the means of basic independence or earns it through dealing with his fellow citizens in a way as profitable to them as it is to him.  In other words, there are ideally only two categories of good citizens: There is the Jeffersonian one, the yeoman farmer, the man who tills his soil and lives off his own labor, and there is the city (or village) dweller who earns his living by having learned a craft that is of service to others.

All that being said, it remains to understand why such citizens appear to be a sort of standard feature of human societies (at least Western ones).

Again, my answer is simple—but perhaps deceptively so.  I think the so-called middle classes of Western societies were actually made up in large part of people whose particular calling was to perform to the best of their ability a great number of functions essential to the life of the city—in other words, people who had engaged in a profession.  (There is no equivalent to the French word métier, which encompasses the English words trade, craft, work, business, profession.  I choose the least restrictive.)

Indeed, I think that what may be properly called a profession presents two main features.

The most obvious is that it should provide a man with basic and lasting independence, allowing him to support himself (and his family) in various conditions of well-being, which may range from modest to rather high, and—an essential feature—always in a durable way.  This means a profession is not a haphazard job, a momentary task chosen for what it brings in, but an activity answering, directly or indirectly, a lasting social need, publicly recognized as permanently useful to all citizens, as fulfilling a discernible function.  This also means there are only a limited number of professions, for there are only a limited number of functions that can be assessed as necessary or at least definitely beneficial to the life of the city.

Such a definition raises a delicate issue: What may these functions be?  How can they be deemed necessary and not superfluous?  I think the answer essentially lies within the very notion of profession.  Indeed, the second essential feature of a profession is a direct consequence of the first: Inasmuch as a profession serves a useful goal, it constitutes by nature an activity with a substance, one that offers an interest of its own, by itself and of itself, independently of its reward.  A professional is a man who loves what he does more than what he can get out of it, as if it were an end in itself rather than a means to other objectives.  A good doctor is someone eager to restore the health of his patients and who, though expecting to be rewarded reasonably, does not avail himself of their pain to get rich.  So much so that one could almost define a real profession as an activity whose ultimate goal is not individual profit.  Hence the common phrase: One enters a profession (as a monk enters his monastery).  It is indeed an activity that does not serve the individual but which the individual serves.  A real profession is what Cicero used to call an officium: A real professional is a man who somehow regards his profession as a duty to perform.

And this explains why professionals are the sort of men least prone to what the Greeks called hubris, a word that could be tentatively translated as an impulse to enlarge one’s role and station within one’s city indefinitely.  A professional is no saint or hero, but no parasite either, because he is a man who makes a reasonable living by serving his community, and is content with what he earns that way, because he is proud of what he does.

No wonder the existence of a sturdy middle class is crucial to the survival of a normal society, and has always been the key to the endurance of past ones: A healthy society is one in which each citizen feels he is somehow of use to his city, and therefore any society is bound to be all the healthier the more its citizens are professionals, each in his own right.  That middle classes lack a little luster should not conceal their true virtue: Inasmuch as men are animals who need e-ducation (i.e., whose own nature should be drawn out of them), because they are endowed with a freedom that must be respected in others and contained in themselves, the middle classes are composed of the best teachers to turn untamed little animals into citizens.  We should remember the crucial role played by the guilds in medieval times.

But I’m afraid that, in modern Western societies, the survival of the middle classes is quite doubtful.

The middle classes have one weakness.  They are badly in need of an aristocracy that may develop out of them, but which it is not their natural calling to produce.  There may be exceptionally strong-willed, particularly gifted men within their ranks (the past history of the West shows many great men have risen from their ranks—warriors, artists, philosophers, and so forth), but on average the middle classes are not geared to produce them on a continual basis.  Middle-class citizens are people who go about their work without being naturally capable of the distance, the remoteness necessary to encompass the opportunities their communities may meet and the dangers they may be confronted with.  Aristotle claimed they were the type of citizens most apt, alternatively, to command and obey, but this can only be true when sailing in untroubled waters, not navigated by rabble-rousers, scheming politicians, avid capitalists, or just plain enemies.

But the main reason for the waning of Western middle classes is the Zeitgeist.  Today, typical citizens tend more and more visibly—and tomorrow they will be the overwhelming majority—not only to look like, but actually to be like, a school of jellyfish: spineless creatures, living side by side but ignorant of one another, drifting according to the movement of the waters, seizing and feeding on anything within their reach, incapable of discriminating between the necessary and the superfluous, doomed by nature not to think but to feel, blossoming in pleasure and retracting in pain (hence the obvious proclivity to sentimentalism), neither aggressive, nor peaceful, without past or future, without the most incremental propensity to wonder why they are as they are, soullessly afloat in a world whose fate they are basically indifferent to, as satisfied with themselves as they are dissatisfied with the universe when it doesn’t provide for them.  Caring neither for authentic independence nor for usefulness, they represent the type of human species most foreign to the middle-class mentality.

But that world is not devoid of princes, or at least the princes it deserves.  Among the jellyfish there are some predators who feed on them, but unlike sharks, human predators are endowed with some sort of rationality: They know if they must keep eating jellyfish, they must also somehow watch out for their reproduction and, to some extent, provide their population with food and shelter, panem et circenses, while they themselves get fatter doing just that.  So they strive relentlessly for the human jellyfish to remain as much as possible just what they are, living atoms without any cohesion, any common purpose, and above all, any propensity for reflection.

Our present world is an ever-more centralized one, on both the economic and political levels, because it is an ever-more atomized one, thanks to the oh-so-stupid individual’s propensity to forfeit the protection of intermediate societies, such as tribes or professional guilds, for fear they would encroach on his “freedom.”  This is why our world is run by new self-centered despots, called media, political parties, and multinational corporations.  And this is why it is a world ever-more-thoroughly split between overprivileged and underprivileged citizens (an increasingly inappropriate word).  It is a world in which the spirit of the middle classes is but a withering relic.