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

Monday, July 31, 2023

The Best And The Brightest - In Praise Of Elitism

 Cato the Elder was a Roman philosopher and educator who in his diptychs enunciated the fundamental principles of a Roman education – the foundational values on which leadership was based.  Cato wrote of a singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.

Seneca, Epictetus, and Plutarch as well as Cato were Roman moralists who provided the intellectual and philosophical foundations for the education of the future leaders of the Empire.  All of them stressed respect, honor, discipline, courage, empathy, intellect, and reason.  The young Roman aristocrats might have been born with wealth, breeding, and culture; but without the foundation of a moral education they would weaken; and both they and the empire would suffer. The self-confidence needed to be a Roman leader, these philosophers knew, came from a certainty about moral principles.  Right action would be rewarded and respected.

These moral principles are not relative.  They are as absolute as the Ten Commandments and have guided kings, priests, and common men since the first human settlements.  Men collectively and instinctively knew that given a human nature rooted in survival, venality, greed, aggression, cruelty, and dishonor would be the rule; and therefore evolved a set of principles which, although idealistic and hopeful more than practical, had to be codified if not deified. 

Plato’s dualism was based on the contradiction between the ideal and the real.  He knew that men existed on two planes – a superior and inferior one.  Without the belief that a pure, uncorrupted morality could exist, human activity would be chaotic and little different from animals.  Through rigorous training and discipline students could intuit the Good, or the world of the ideal. 

This Pythagorean, Platonic sense of moral idealism translated by Cato the Elder, Seneca, and Epictetus has been largely lost today.  Relativism cannot support the absolute.  Honesty, courage, discipline, respect, and any of the other principles postulated by them are valid only to the degree that they are understood within the context of conditionality. The dumbing down of America.  

In David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest the author describes the heady environment of the Kennedy Administration - a collection of the brightest minds in the country, Harvard-educated men of firm moral foundation; ambitious men of finance, industry, and government dedicated to investment in America; men for whom service was a core value and responsibility at the heart of their patriotism. 

Kennedy valued intelligence and talent over government experience.  Smart men, educated to value analytic reasoning, dispassionate consideration of facts, but within the context of social and personal responsibility, were what the young President was looking for.  He had little patience for those not as schooled as he and his Boston Brahmin coterie were - men of ability but whose more modest upbringing deprived them of the Bostonian historical legacy. 

Yale in the years before Inslee Clark and the 'democratization' of the university was the seat of sophisticated learning and principal Constitutional values.  It was there, in addition to a sound liberal arts education, that students learned the importance of honor, courage, discipline, compassion, duty, and responsibility - the very values espoused by Cato and taught to the young men who would lead the Roman Empire.  This education was a consolidation of the early training given by their parents - families whose ancestry dated to the American Revolution and beyond to the courts of England. 

It is no surprise that the American Constitution reflects Enlightenment thought and values, for John Locke and his colleagues understood that rationality in the abstract was nothing; and that human intelligence was given by God for a purpose - to understand him and his creation. 

Individual rights as envisioned by the Founding Fathers were always protected as long as they were expressed within the context of the interests of the community.  Jefferson was quite specific in his explanation of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.  It was  never meant as a defense of vanity or personal self-worth; but only as a validation of the individual within his larger community.  Jefferson and his colleagues would be appalled by today's promiscuous expression of personal identity and rights attendant.  Community and nation always come first, they averred; and individual enterprise, the engine of social progress, could never overstep social bounds.

This idea became the ethos of the new Republic. 

The Kennedy Administration was perhaps the last to institutionalize this ethos - to celebrate it, embrace it, and use it as the benchmark for successful public service.  Of course, ethos has its limits, and those men charged with the nation's well-being overstepped their bounds.  Elitism also breeds arrogance, and assumptions about America's leadership in the world were sadly mistaken; but the foundation on which it was based was sound.  

The Age of Identity has changed all this.  The idea of one universal set of values - a national ethos - is antiquated, say social reformers, especially in a pluralistic, diverse society.  Culture is multi-faceted.  That of the inner city is a product of slavery, colonial white oppression, and institutional hegemony.  Blacks should and will define their own ethos, one bred out of street culture and credentials and deeply rooted in their tribal African past.  Hispanics will - and should - embrace their earliest indigenous roots, their own evolved character of Catholicism, and their particular racial identity.  Gays and transgenders cannot possibly embrace the beliefs of a homophobic group of former Englishmen. 

This disassembly - the diversity that divides - puts America at a geopolitical disadvantage, for the world is more characterized by historical identity not personal identity.  It is no surprise that Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey among others look to their imperial pasts and hope to restore their former glory.  Culture and religion are at the heart of the new nationalism.  These countries have retained a core, universal ethos, and their leaders can only laugh at an America coming morally apart at the seams. 

Everything today points to the erosion of ethos and the foundational principles of Jefferson.  Yale and Harvard take all comers and while attempting to guarantee academic excellence can only founder in identity politics.  As importantly under the aegis of progressivism, they feel no obligation to teach the values of Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, or Cato. 

There seems no turning back.  Re-establishing the moral principles of the past when they have been so badly eroded is near impossible.  Somehow the Republic will have to coalesce around something else, but given its centripetal forces, nothing is in sight.  

America's culture has become process only - accession, rights, identity, revindication, and judicial claims.  There is nothing of France's pride in being the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, Russia's veneration of Peter the Great or China's imperial dynasties.  We have only movement and reassignment. 

Elites - the aristocracy - have always been the caretakers of history.  Without us, said a member of the French nobility, the country would forget.  Elites have always been historically and culturally relevant.  America has lost both a sense of history and the foundational values of its origins. 

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