in 1920, excerpts from an essay that speak to the gift of
prescience that speaks to the present age and beyond. Ed.
far, the disease. As to the cause, I have delivered a few
hints. I now describe it particularly. It is, in brief, a
defect in the general culture of the country—one reflected,
not only in the national literature, but also in the national
political theory, the national attitude toward religion and
morals, the national habit in all departments of thinking.
is the lack of a civilized aristocracy, secure in its
position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical
of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality
of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for
its own sake.
word I use, despite the qualifying adjective, has got itself
meanings, of course, that I by no means intend to convey.
Any mention of an aristocracy, to a public fed upon democratic
fustian, is bound to bring up images of stock-brokers' wives
lolling obscenely in opera boxes, or of haughty Englishmen
slaughtering whole generations of grouse in an inordinate
and incomprehensible manner, or of Junkers with tight waists
elbowing American schoolmarms off the sidewalks of German
beer towns, or of perfumed Italians coming over to work their
abominable magic upon the daughters of breakfast-food and
bathtub kings. Part of this misconception, I suppose, has
its roots in the gaudy imbecilities of the yellow press, but
there is also a part that belongs to the general American
tradition, along with the oppression of minorities and the
belief in political panaceas. Its depth and extent are constantly
revealed by the naïve assumption that the so-called fashionable
folk of the large cities—chiefly wealthy industrials
in the interior-decorator and country-club stage of culture—constitute
an aristocracy, and by the scarcely less remarkable assumption
that the peerage of England is identical with the gentry—that
is, that such men as Lord Northcliffe, Lord Iveagh and even
Lord Reading are English gentlemen, and of the ancient line
of the Percys.
as always, the worshiper is the father of the gods, and no
less when they are evil than when they are benign. The inferior
man must find himself superiors, that he may marvel at his
political equality with them, and in the absence of recognizable
superiors de facto he creates superiors de jure. The sublime
principle of one man, one vote must be translated into terms
of dollars, diamonds, fashionable intelligence; the equality
of all men before the law must have clear and dramatic proofs.
Sometimes, perhaps, the thing goes further and is more subtle.
The inferior man needs an aristocracy to demonstrate, not
only his mere equality, but also his actual superiority. The
society columns in the newspapers may have some such origin:
they may visualize once more the accomplished journalist's
understanding of the mob mind that he plays upon so skillfully,
as upon some immense and cacophonous organ, always going fortissimo.
What the inferior man and his wife see in the sinister revels
of those amazing first families, I suspect, is often a massive
witness to their own higher rectitude—to their relative
innocence of cigarette-smoking, poodle-coddling, child-farming
and the more abstruse branches of adultery—in brief,
to their firmer grasp upon the immutable axioms of Christian
virtue, the one sound boast of the nether nine-tenths of humanity
in every land under the cross.
this bugaboo aristocracy, as I hint, is actually bogus, and
the evidence of its bogusness lies in the fact that it is
insecure. One gets into it only onerously, but out of it very
easily. Entrance is effected by dint of a long and bitter
straggle, and the chief incidents of that struggle are almost
intolerable humiliations. The aspirant must school and steel
himself to sniffs and sneers; he must see the door slammed
upon him a hundred times before ever it is thrown open to
him. To get in at all he must show a talent for abasement—and
abasement makes him timorous. Worse, that timorousness is
not cured when he succeeds at last. On the contrary, it is
made even more tremulous, for what he faces within the gates
is a scheme of things made up almost wholly of harsh and often
unintelligible taboos, and the penalty for violating even
the least of them is swift and disastrous. He must exhibit
exactly the right social habits, appetites and prejudices,
public and private. He must harbor exactly the right political
enthusiasms and indignations. He must have a hearty taste
for exactly the right sports. His attitude toward the fine
arts must be properly tolerant and yet not a shade too eager.
He must read and like exactly the right books, pamphlets and
public journals. He must put up at the right hotels when he
travels. His wife must patronize the right milliners. He himself
must stick to the right haberdashery. He must live in the
right neighborhood. He must even embrace the right doctrines
of religion. It would ruin him, for all opera box and society
column purposes, to set up a plea for justice to the Bolsheviki,
or even for ordinary decency. It would ruin him equally to
wear celluloid collars, or to move to Union Hill, N. J., or
to serve ham and cabbage at his table. And it would ruin him,
too, to drink coffee from his saucer, or to marry a chambermaid
with a gold tooth, or to join the Seventh Day Adventists.
Within the boundaries of his curious order he is worse fettered
than a monk in a cell. Its obscure conception of propriety,
its nebulous notion that this or that is honorable, hampers
him in every direction, and very narrowly. What he resigns
when he enters, even when he makes his first deprecating knock
at the door, is every right to attack the ideas that happen
to prevail within. Such as they are, he must accept them without
question. And as they shift and change in response to great
instinctive movements (or perhaps, now and then, to the punished
but not to be forgotten revolts of extraordinary rebels) he
must shift and change with them, silently and quickly. To
hang back, to challenge and dispute, to preach reforms and
revolutions—these are crimes against the brummagen Holy
Ghost of the order.
that order cannot constitute a genuine aristocracy, in any
rational sense. A genuine aristocracy is grounded upon very
much different principles. Its first and most salient character
is its interior security, and the chief visible evidence of
that security is the freedom that goes with it—not only
freedom in act, the divine right of the aristocrat to do what
he jolly well pleases, so long as he does not violate the
primary guarantees and obligations of his class, but also
and more importantly freedom in thought, the liberty to try
and err, the right to be hisown ma n.
is the instinct of a true aristocracy, not to punish eccentricity
by expulsion, but to throw a mantle of protection about
it—to safeguard it from the suspicions and resentments
of the lower orders. Those lower orders are inert, timid,
inhospitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to
a few maudlin superstitions.
progress goes on on the higher levels. It is there that salient
personalities, made secure by artificial immunities, may oscillate
most widely from the normal track. It is within that entrenched
fold, out of reach of the immemorial certainties of the mob,
that extraordinary men of the lower orders may find their
city of refuge, and breathe a clear air. This, indeed, is
at once the hall-mark and the justification of an aristocracy—that
it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men,
and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their
no less degraded aversions. It is nothing if it is not autonomous,
curious, venturesome, courageous, and everything if it is.
It is the custodian of the qualities that make for change
and experiment; it is the class that organizes danger to the
service of the race; it pays for its high prerogatives by
standing in the forefront of the fray.
what is on view in New England is on view in all other parts
of the nation, sometimes with ameliorations, but usually with
the colors merely exaggerated. What one beholds, sweeping
the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national
literature, is in three layers—the plutocracy on top,
a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks at the bottom,
and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping out a precarious life
I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intellectual
deficiencies of the plutocracy—its utter failure
to show anything even remotely resembling the makings
of an aristocracy. It is badly educated, it is stupid,
it is full of low-caste superstitions and indignations,
it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above
all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental
independence and courage. Out of this class comes the
grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already
described. Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched
and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands,
and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state
of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority—moral
certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear.
it is out of reason to look for any hospitality to ideas in
a class so extravagantly fearful of even the most palpably
absurd of them. Its philosophy is firmly grounded upon the
thesis that the existing order must stand forever free from
attack, and not only from attack, but also from mere academic
criticism, and its ethics are as firmly grounded upon the
thesis that every attempt at any such criticism is a proof
of moral turpitude. Within its own ranks, protected by what
may be regarded as the privilege of the order, there is nothing
to take the place of this criticism. A few feeble platitudes
by Andrew Carnegie and a book of moderate merit by John D.
Rockefeller's press-agent constitute almost the whole of the
interior literature of ideas. In other countries the plutocracy
has often produced men of reflective and analytical habit,
eager to rationalize its instinctsand to bring it into some
sort of relationship to the main streams of human thought.
The case of David Ricardo at once comes to mind. There have
been many others: John Bright, Richard Cobden, George Grote,
and, in our own time, Walther von Rathenau. But in the United
States no such phenomenon has been visible. There was a day,
not long ago, when certain young men of wealth gave signs
of an unaccustomed interest in ideas on the political side,
but the most they managed to achieve was a banal sort of Socialism,
and even this was abandoned in sudden terror when the war
came, and Socialism fell under suspicion of being genuinely
international—in brief, of being honest under the skin.
Nor has the plutocracy of the country ever fostered an inquiring
spirit among its intellectual valets and footmen, which is
to say, among the gentlemen who compose headlines and leading
articles for its newspapers.
chiefly distinguishes the daily press of the United States
from the press of all other countries pretending to culture
is not its lack of truthfulness or even its lack of dignity
and honor, for these deficiencies are common to the newspapers
everywhere, but its incurable fear of ideas, its constant
effort to evade the discussion of fundamentals by translating
all issues into a few elemental fears, its incessant reduction
of all reflection to mere emotion.
is, in the true sense, never well-informed. It is seldom intelligent,
save in the arts of the mob-master. It is never courageously
harshly to a rigid correctness of opinion by the plutocracy
that controls it with less and less attempt at disguise,
and menaced on all sides by censorships that it dare not
flout, it sinks rapidly into formalism and feebleness.
Its yellow section is perhaps its most respectable section,
for there the only vestige of the old free journalist survives.
In the more conservative papers one finds only a timid and
petulant animosity to all questioning of the existing order,
however urbane and sincere—a pervasive and ill-concealed
dread that the mob now heated up against the orthodox hobgoblins
may suddenly begin to unearth hobgoblins of its own, and so
run amok. For it is upon the emotions of the mob, of course,
that the whole comedy is played. Theoretically the mob is
the repository of all political wisdom and virtue; actually
it is the ultimate source of all political power. Even the
plutocracy cannot make war upon it openly, or forget the least
of its weaknesses. The business of keeping it in order must
be done discreetly, warily, with delicate technique. In the
main that business consists of keeping alive its deep-seated
fears—of strange faces, of unfamiliar ideas, of unhackneyed
gestures, of untested liberties and responsibilities. The
one permanent emotion of the inferior man, as of all the simpler
mammals, is fear—fear of the unknown, the complex, the
inexplicable. What he wants beyond everything else is safety.
His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that
it will protect him at all hazards, and not only against perils
to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind—against
the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas,
to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes
upon which his everyday thinking is based. Content under kaiserism
so long as it functions efficiently, he turns, when kaiserism
falls, to some other and perhaps worse form of paternalism,
bringing to its benign tyranny only the docile tribute of
his pathetic allegiance. In America it is the newspaper that
is his boss. From it he gets support for his elemental illusions.
In it he sees a visible embodiment of his own wisdom and consequence.
Out of it he draws fuel for his simple moral passion, his
congenital suspicion of heresy, his dread of the unknown.
And behind the newspaper stands the plutocracy, ignorant,
unimaginative and timorous.
at the top and at the bottom. Obviously, there is no aristocracy
here. One finds only one of the necessary elements, and that
only in the plutocracy, to wit, a truculent egoism.
where is intelligence? Where are ease and surety of manner?
Where are enterprise and curiosity? Where, above all,
is courage, and in particular, moral courage—the
capacity for independent thinking, for difficult problems,
for what Nietzsche called the joys of the labyrinth?
well look for these things in a society of half-wits. Democracy,
obliterating the old aristocracy, has left only a vacuum in
its place; in a century and a half it has failed either to
lift up the mob to intellectual autonomy and dignity or to
purge the plutocracy of its inherent stupidity and swinishness.
It is precisely here, the first and favorite scene of the
Great Experiment, that the culture of the individual has been
reduced to the most rigid and absurd regimentation. It is
precisely here, of all civilized countries, that eccentricity
in demeanor and opinion has come to bear the heaviest penalties.
The whole drift of our law is toward the absolute prohibition
of all ideas that diverge in the slightest from the accepted
platitudes, and behind that drift of law there is a far more
potent force of growing custom, and under that custom there
is a national philosophy which erects conformity into the
noblest of virtues and the free functioning of personality
into a capital crime against society.