The nobleman versus the meritocrat
One of them sees his station as tied to the common good
History is written by the victors. Living as we do in a world transformed by the French Revolution, “the nobility” is not a term we are likely to take at face value. Our perspective is roughly that of The Clash in their song Know Your Rights: an “aristo klutz” is someone who might accidentally kill someone of the lower orders and get away with it as something… regrettable. We picture an inbred, entitled parasite on the common good.
Yet the moral universe of the European aristocrat was one in which his occupation of the station allotted to him by birth and breeding required, precisely, fidelity to what is good, and rigor against what is base in himself as well as in others. He lives under an imperative that is public in nature, but attaches especially to his person as a noble: to uphold standards.
The thing to notice (and this goes against the current mindset of “equity”) is that standards ennoble all who aspire to meet them, whatever their capacities, and for that reason they lie at the very core of the common good. Ideally, then, aristocrats would be caretakers of the common good — the opposite of our democratic view of them. However much this fits the reality of feudalism, it is a point of orientation that can serve as a corrective to our own.
This is a train of thought I have distilled from A Gentleman in Moscow, especially as refracted through conversations over the weekend with my friend Adrian Walker.
In 2019, I was a guest for dinner at the chateau of a winemaking family in Bordeaux. The estate was some centuries old, the vines parklike. I was one of four or five guests, yet we sat at the kitchen table rather than the dining room, which felt like an intimate privilege and was surely offered in that spirit. The French are an ancient people, and this meal reminded me of the hospitality depicted in certain scenes in Homer. There is an equality at table, whatever the story of the traveler who is welcomed. What impressed me, and what I want to dwell on, is that in the house of this very wealthy family we were served, not by staff (of which they had plenty) but by the grandchildren, who must have been tweens. They did so in silent attentiveness, like proper waiters, and were gently but firmly rebuked once or twice on some point of execution.
In Paris a few days later, I relayed the experience to Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry, a Frenchman of aristocratic family. He said this practice is typical of the milieu he grew up in. There is an education into service – the spirit of it and the actual practice of it. A few cocktails later, he let loose with his opinion of the elites who make up the establishment in France, saying that they lack this spirit entirely.