Aristocracy means rule by the best. Hence, anyone interested in the reconstitution of an elite must first understand what is the best way to live. Here we can start with some ideas from Rene Guenon to see how they clarify and expand on Aristotle’s ideas on living the good life. For Guenon there are two options:
- Actualize all the possibilities of the human state
- Actualize all the possibilities of transcendent states
Aristotle was limited to the first of these, no mean accomplishment, so we shall start with that and conclude with the second option.
Possibilities of the Good Life
For Aristotle, the pursuit of the good life was not an option for all. So much depends on good fortune, such as the possession of good health, intelligence, financial resources, a good family background, and so on. There must be an excess beyond the mere need to survive. Guenon would describe it in terms of one’s possibilities arising from the caste the person would belong to. Christians instead ascribe such fortune to diving providence, predestination, or predilection.
For the purposes of this discussion we will leave aside the question about the possibilities of those who have not been blessed with the requisite resources Aristotle describes. The pagan in any case was indifferent to them, since all is in the hands of the fates or the whims of the gods. In Hinduism, for example, the Brahmans are unconcerned with the plight of the dalits. Even for Buddhism, which introduced the idea of compassion, the goal is not to relieve the external causes of suffering but rather to teach the elimination of desire as the root cause of suffering.
A curious superstition has arisen in our time, going by the name, the “Law of Attraction”. This is a form of primitive theurgy that wishes to compel the universe to deliver the goods through thought or visualizations. However, this is defective in that it seeks only to receive the material conditions for the good life without undergoing the moral conversion to actually achieve it. The self is creating its image in consciousness all day long through its multitudinous thoughts and imaginations; spending a mere five or ten minutes trying to consciously concentrate one’s thoughts and visualizations in a positive direction is insufficient to counteract the random perturbations arising in consciousness the rest of the day.
False Forms of the Good Life
The first false form of the good life is to live solely for pleasures. There is little point to discuss this here. The other form is to live to achieve esteem in the community. This is a powerful motivating factor for those who are able to achieve it and may sometimes have a public good. In my visits to a hospital this week, I noticed all the annexes named for prominent or wealthy people in the local community. Their need for public esteem paid for special centers to treat cancer and other diseases.
In a disordered society, however, those held in esteem may be much less worthy such as the attention given to various entertainers of dubious moral standing. Now we even have those who are “famous for being famous”, which fame they achieved comes from so-called “reality” shows, rather than for any worthwhile accomplishment.
Esteem can also be received on a lower scale, the so-called “big fish in a small pond”. Thus, there are a myriad number of small groups promoting various political and religious causes. Their leaders publish books and are invited to speak at conferences. As we recently pointed out, there will always to supporters for some cause. However, the lower cannot judge the higher, so the quantity of supporters is a poor guide to determine the actual worth of those leaders. A solution will be proposed in the next section.
Promoting the Good Life
The good life consists in actualizing all one’s possibilities. Since the distinctive feature of the human being is the rational or intellectual soul, this can only mean to live one’s life on that basis. Such a man will dominate the irrational elements in his soul and live by his intelligence. The intelligence will be guided by the Logos, or the rational order of things.
The true aristocrats, therefore, are those willing and able to follow that path. If such men can come together in a true friendship, the possibility of an elite can arise. There are two necessary elements, the proper education and a code of honour.
The aristocrat should have a grounding in liberal arts, specifically the trivium and the quadrivium. These teach the basics of logic, mathematics, language, and cosmology which are the foundation for advanced studies. As the potential rulers, they don’t necessarily need to go deeply into philosophy and theology. The practical arts such as medicine, law, engineering are usually more appropriate for the producing class. The point is to be able to think rationally so they can follow an argument and be immune to false teachings. Through rhetoric, they learn the techniques of persuasion. Although the rulers must be willing to use force when necessary, persuasion is the better approach. Furthermore, with this training they will be able to recognize the rhetorical devices of false teachers and will not be swayed by them.
It would be premature to formulate a code of honour by comparing various ancient and medieval codes. The important point for now is how to enforce it. Since the aristocrat is the “best”, they cannot be judged by those lower. Hence, they must be self-monitoring. This is where the moral will comes in because of the tendency to protect or promote one’s friends, or even one’s own fortune. Nevertheless, this elite would have to be willing to exclude those who violate that code.
In the novel, The Four Feathers by A E W Mason, a man disgraces himself by leaving the army at a time of war. Three of his friends, as well as his fiancée, each give him a feather to point this out. This is the model that needs to be followed by groups with a political aspiration, as least those who do not count on the popularity of the crowd. They need to establish a code of honour and the will to enforce it. Those involved in an immoral lifestyle, the vulgar in rhetoric, the irrational, etc., must be excluded from leadership positions by group consensus. This we see nowhere, so their efforts will come to naught. Those of an aristocratic mind would withhold all support from such movements.
The philosopher is the lover of wisdom and is in search of it. For some, that search is a way of life. Hence, they engage in debates, disputes, arguments, dialogues, conferences, etc., that simply prolong the search without moving closer to the goal.
The Sage, on the other hand, is the one who has achieved wisdom. Beyond the aristocrat, these are the initiates, the saints, and so on, who have actualized possibilities beyond the human state. Their training is done in private, since it cannot be encapsulated fully in the written word.
Aristotle had no awareness of this level, but they must serve as the spiritual and intellectual guides to the aristocrats. Through the rites, moral codes, and exoteric religion they can connect with the folk, providing a common mind for the community to give it cohesion and continuity. Only they will have the authority to anoint the leaders and give them the legitimacy to lead effectively.