Through most of history, people assumed there had to be royalty, a king at its head, to hand down laws and justice to the common rabble. There were a few attempts to give power to the people, such as in ancient Athens, but even there only “citizens,” not everyone, had voting privileges. This was also the case at our nation’s inception when voting was confined to landed, Christian, White males, a situation the Republican party is currently in the process of restoring.
Human nature demands that the cream and the bastards rise to the top. The wealth and power enjoyed by the offspring of European aristocrats could usually be traced back to the most ruthless bastards in the realm. Were these villains deserving of respect? What special qualifications did their descendants possess that qualified them to run a government?
Those who rattle on about “meritocracy” these days usually ignore the fact that the prestige and power enjoyed by many of the upper crust are not necessarily acquired through hard work or admirable traits. While it is possible to succeed solely by virtue of being smart or competent, in a society riddled with social inequities potential and talents of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised are often not permitted to blossom. Even those who go on to develop them, if lacking in leadership skills, deserve our admiration but not necessarily our obedience.
(Accuracy alert: The following is my personal take on history and is by no means presented as a definitive exposition on the subject.)
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, as the Western world awakened from the ignorance and social stagnation of the Middle Ages, the concept of the inherent value of the individual took hold. Consequently, there arose a renewed interest in the Greek democratic ideal. The Reformation pushed that concept as well, asserting each person has a personal relationship with Jesus, who unlike his Dad who tends to be harsh, arbitrary, vengeful, narcissistic and aloof and incites is people to slay His “enemies” was reputed to be a regular guy, a man of the people. Intervention by an hierarchical Church with its own privileged royalty was seen as but a hindrance to grace.
Philosophers, politicians, social scientists, artists, builders, all were inspired by ancient Greek culture with its strong humanistic component. A rising middle class produced educated and financially successful people who were not of the manor born. There arose the sentiment that the common person was “equal” to the aristocrat. They had the capacity to lead or represent us, not due to a birthright, but by virtue of innate “goodness” and/or the competence education and experience conferred.
Our Revolution was engineered by our own upper class who saw no reason to be subservient to the their British counterparts. Though they threw out high flung words about inalienable rights, equality and so on, they doubtless still assumed that the aristocracy, namely, themselves, should rule. The Stamp Act, the Tea tax? Sure, these were valid issues, but I suspect the upper crust leveraged them to induce the underclasses to support their power grab. This is not to say the Founders were lacking in ideals. And who can say that, as educated men, they were not the most qualified to lead? In this respect, not unlike Plato who advocated for “philosopher kings,” they viewed wisdom as a prime qualification for leadership. But, unlike Plato’s ideal philosopher, they were also driven by personal ambition.
The Founders tossed the masses a bone they called representational government, but the wealthy always were the ones with the most representation. The modern Republican party, while prioritizing the interests of the rich, now pander to the basest and most petty priorities of the great unwashed. This has led to a caucus largely composed of people who are sorely in need of a cleansing. It may be the best argument against pure democracy. (Refer to my blog “Too Much Democracy” for a detailed exposition.)
The word “aristocracy” is derived from the Greek aristas, meaning excellent and kratos, meaning power. Literally, “rule by the best.” But in America one usually attains aristocratic status primarily by virtue of wealth, however acquired, or celebrity. As recent history has shown, someone who is “best” only at getting rich or famous may well be lacking in any personal, educational or experiential qualifications for leadership.
Plato was not a fan of a democracy that empowered the common, uneducated masses. He also was not fond of the idea of oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy who became an unworthy “aristocracy,” and he was not enamored of tyranny, the rule of the strongest. Still, I have to wonder at the wisdom of his assertion that philosophers would make the best rulers. To Plato, a philosopher was someone who was interested only in pure thought, in “truth,” and had no worldly ambitions. I doubt you would find many philosophers today, or in Plato’s time, who actually met those criteria. If you did, how practical and practiced in the art of governing would they be?
Still, given the mess the country is in, it’s tempting to fantasize that there is a person who is so smart, so fair, so devoid of personal ambition that they could take us in hand and fix everything. It’s been said that democracy is a terrible form of government but it’s also better than any of the others. The only thing that might be better would be rule by a perfect, benevolent dictator. How likely are we to ever produce anyone like that, and what happens after they are gone?
Plato contended that anyone who wanted to be king was unqualified, and anyone who was qualified would never want to be king. As an amateur philosopher with no political ambitions, I guess I qualify. I do like to fantasize that if I were a dictator I would know exactly what the country needs and accomplish it in a fair, evenhanded way, But loyal readers may suspect, and intimates would have no doubt, that during my reign a number of heads would roll. Trust me. You don’t want me for your king.
Or do you?
It’s a moot question. If nominated I shall not run and if elected I shall not serve. Anybody else feeling up the the job?