"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Beauty, Intelligence, And Wealth – The Nature Of Privilege

When Laura Wright was in the third grade, her teacher asked the class to tell three things about themselves. “I’m pretty, I’m rich, and I’m smart”.

She was exactly right.  She was the prettiest girl in the class, was so smart that she had outstripped all her classmates in arithmetic and reading long before, and came from one of the wealthiest families in New Brighton.

Her home – The Meadows – overlooked was built high above the city with a commanding view of the reservoir, the city, and the Meriden mountains.  The house had originally been built by Laura’s Great Grandfather who was a captain of industry who had built the city into one of the most economically important in the country.  Her grandfather continued at the helm of Wright Industries and the family were fine stewards of The Meadows and the 1000 acres of land surrounding it. The family had always been known for its good taste, philanthropy, and civic engagement; and their Christmas parties were attended by members of the best families of both Boston and New York.

Laura’ grandfather Elias had always taught his children and grandchildren the importance of intelligence, culture, and beauty.  If one had been fortunate enough to have been born with superior intellectual abilities, it was important to use them well.  By this he did not mean in service to others but to oneself.  God distributed favors for reasons known only to Him; but if one were so gifted, ignoring or wasting the potential of individual brilliance would be a rejection of His bounty.

His children had all been so favored.  His son, Hiram, had become one of the youngest members of the Wall Street firm of Atchison, Bard, & Petty, had developed new financial instruments which generated enormous wealth for his clients and for himself.  Robert, the next in line, had stretched the limits of theoretical mathematics to such a degree that even the members of the Nobel committee were impressed.

Beauty had never been a relative or abstract term for Elias Wright.   Aphrodite Ourania was one of the best examples of Greek classicism and certainly the most beautiful woman ever sculpted by Hellenic artists.



Utamaro’s prints captured the uniquely demure-alluring nature of courtesans and captured the essence of Japanese feminine sensuality.

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Edo period screens of cranes were sublimely simple but elegant representations of birds but also subtle Buddhist metaphors.

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Female beauty was not in the eye of the beholder, but a natural construct of symmetry and harmony.  Beautiful women attracted men because of their fertility and sexual attractiveness, and physical markers were classic indicators of evolutionary success. Gloria Swanson was beautiful, and so was Lillian Russell .

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Culture too had no give. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Verlaine, Kant, Descartes, and Newton were not accidental, culturally conditioned thinkers.  They were unique.  No history could overlook them.  They would never fade into obscurity or disrepute.

Wealth was a consequence of culture, intelligence, and beauty. Although individuals might succeed with any one of them, a combination of all three was was a guarantee.

Elias Wright never trumpeted the successes of his children. It was only logical and normal that sons and daughters, born with a genealogical and cultural history par excellence – an unbroken lineage of poets, financiers, scientists, and civic leaders – would succeed in whatever they did.  Born and raised in privilege and high culture, Elias’ ancestors could easily choose mates from among those of similar fortune and ability, thus guaranteeing a long line of artists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs.

Elias was a proud American aristocrat.  Alexander Hamilton was his political mentor, for he understood how populism – the engagement of the masses and the will of the common people – would only dilute and deflect the judgment of the well-born.

In his Speech on the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton said:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born; the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second.

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Genetic dynamics and the confines of socio-economics would work as much against those without privilege as they did for those with it. Steamfitters would always marry the daughters of steamfitters, and despite the promise of American egalitarianism, few people would ever grow far from their roots. The families of native aristocrats like those of Elias Wright would always be able marry for beauty, brains, and culture; and those less fortunate would have few opportunities of marrying up.  The gene pool for them would be stagnant while that of the Wrights would always be refreshed.

Laura Wright had been so well-educated and imbued with a sense of privilege, honor, and responsibility that she was never tempted by the social diversions of her era.  She had little interest in popular issues of race, gender, and ethnicity; nor those anti-capitalist movements that denied the contributions of the elite. She was confident in her parentage, her ancestry, and her God-given intelligence and beauty to have any interest in ‘diversity’.

Laura, like her grandfather, was never arrogant, dismissive of or insensitive to others.  She simply knew that her lot in life and theirs was and would always be fundamentally different.  Their rows would always be more difficult to hoe, but that did not deny the confluence of factors which made hers easy.

If she had any of the evangelist in her, she would have spoken out about the fundamental moral, ethical, and religious values which she had learned from her father and grandfather.   Her father was fond of quoting Cato the Elder whose diptychs formed the basis for his primer of a Roman education.  Honor, compassion, honesty, courage, respect, and discipline were as important for the future leaders of the Empire as mathematics, logic, rhetoric, and composition.  All successful civilizations had been founded on these principles.  They guided kings and commoners since Athens and Persepolis.

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The ancient Greeks had idolized male and female beauty, logic and philosophy, and the extension of a coherent culture based on law and philosophy.  The Romans added administration and management; and the European monarchies included all within successive cultural dynasties.

However, Laura had no desire whatsoever to proselytize. With all her grandfather’s tutelage and the innumerable visible successes of many generations of Wrights, this came as no surprise. In the two Epilogues to War and Peace Tolstoy sets forth his theory of history.  One’s actions – and one’s weakness or greatness – are the results of thousands of years of preceding events. Whether accidental or purposeful, prior events condition our actions and reactions.  Napoleon’s decisions at the Battle of Borodino had nothing to do with any special, unique insight or strategic genius, but the composite of conditioning events and the environment in which he acted.  Had Tolstoy understood genetics, he would most certainly have added biological destiny to the mix.

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Laura had been dealt a great genetic hand of cards, had been influenced by the many events of her ancestral past, and had been equipped by education, breeding, and background to bring consistency to her decisions.  Anything else was irrelevant.

Laura Wright grew up to be a smart, beautiful, and wealthy woman. She married well and brought up her children no differently than her father and mother, Elias and his wife, or his mother and father. Conservative? Of course she was conservative but in no narrow political sense.  She understood the importance of conserving the values, traditions, and privileges that had made her family great and saw no reason whatsoever to change.  

The Wrights were often singled out by the One Percent movement; but Laura was unmoved. The catch-all caricature meant nothing.  She knew that just like in Elizabethan England, Ancient Greece, Kyoto, and Beijing, aristocracies would always exist and prevail in America.

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A French friend of Laura’s explained that his ancestors had fought in the Third Crusade, and the their descendants along with the other aristocratic and noble families of France had been the stewards of religion and culture ever since.  Without them, France would be plain, ordinary, and insignificant.  Laura understood perfectly.

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