11 May 2011
by Dominic Campbell
Dr. Alexander Jacob
Nobilitas A study of European Aristocratic Philosophy from Ancient Greece to the Early Twentieth Century
Lanham, U.S.A: University Press of America.
This is a lucid work. Its purpose is clearly laid out by the author in his preface.
"The purpose of my brief study, which is devoted to the ideal political constitution of nations, is to survey the philosophical arguments for monarchial and aristocratic government from Greek antiquity to the early twentieth century. It is hoped that the exercise will awaken the reader to the incontestable excellence of this form of government, at the same time as it exposes the disturbing deficits of democracy."
This is a short guided tour of European aristocratic theory, starting with Francesco Guicciardini and finishing with National Socialism. Crucial to an understanding of genuinely aristocratic thought is that the state is not seen as an expediency but as a necessity. Hobbes and Machiavelli, although often admired by conservative writers, are therefore considered, only to be rejected by Dr. Jacob as being not of this tradition at all. Central to the authority aristocracy and the state is the authority of tradition. A perfect democracy according to Burke, is "the most shameless thing in the world." Crucial in every case to the harmonious functioning of civil society are two things: aristocracy and religion. Both aristocracy and religion are the physical demonstration in human societies of the spirit. Moving on from his consideration of the writers of what is here called "the age of revolution" (Burke, Maitre and Vico) Dr. Jacob examines the German idealistic philosophers, beginning with Kant and Fichte. For those who are not very familiar with the writings of Fichte and retain only an awareness of him as the man who made the famous address to the German nation at the time that Germany was occupied by Napoleon’s forces, the quotations from him may come as something of surprise. for example Fichte is quoted from The Vocation of a Scholar, that the aim of all society is, "the ever increasing ennoblement of the human race, that is, to set it more and more at liberty from the bondage of Nature." Fichte was also, we learn, one of the first philosophers to formulate a philosophy of history. Whereas Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Marx, formulated philosophies of history including a paradigm according to which progress was the march of the rational through the history of institutions, so to speak, Platonic and monotheistic religious ideas of history fundamentally reject the notion of an interior logic to historical development. For them history is the "human story" written and read by God. Most forms of conservatism side with revealed monotheistic religion on this point. Consequently conservative thought tends to dovetail with the preaching of an established theology. Aristocratic radicalism emphatically does not.
For the conservative, as indeed for the pragmatists generally, history has no system to it, which does not mean that we cannot learn from history but which does mean that we should be reluctant either to be fatalistic on the basis of what is "historically inevitable" or that we should impose systems on the basis of an interpretation of providence, inevitability or idealistic necessity. For the conservative, it is ideology, understood as a kind of rational religion or a religion without the temperance of tradition to make it wise to human failings and foibles, which destroys the fabric of truly civil society, opening the way for the beast among, about us and within us. So far as aristocracy is concerned and the belief that aristocracy is "good" for society, this is a key point. It is possible to argue for the restoration of an aristocracy and it is possible to argue for the creation of an aristocracy. The two are radically different. One is conservative and the other is revolutionary. More importantly still, the notion of restoring an aristocracy is born of a belief in making the best of the world that we can in which the part played by aristocracy is a natural one, a time proven one, opposed to the uncivilized, undisciplined fury of radical rationalism as expressed in the French revolution. But when Dr. Jacob describes the ideas of Fichte, he points out that it was in the name of a universal idealistic rationalism that Fichte hoped that an aristocracy would be created, not restored, constituting the fulfilment of historical destiny.
Dr. Jacob informs us that for Fichte, the course of human history is a record of the various stages in the development of the self from unconsciousness to full self-consciousness. Like Herbert Spencer, Fichte even lays down stages of human development in which this evolution is said to be taking place. 1) the epoch in which man is governed by his instinctual life; 2) the epoch in which external authority is substituted for instinct as the ruling principle of social life; 3) the epoch in which men revolt from authority in a time of individualism; 4) the epoch in which men begin to understand the rules of reason and voluntarily submit to them; 5) the epoch in which reason becomes fully conscious in men as complete moral freedom. This leads to the affirmation that the individual should forget him/her self as individual and place the one life in the service of the greater manifestation of life of which the individual life is only a part. The concept of aristocracy based on this paradigm of human history is radically different from the aristocratic philosophy of someone like Edmund Burke and this is a distinction which Dr. Jacob glosses over, apparently in an attempt to portray the purveyors of the aristocratic ideal here given as a harmonious whole. The book argues the case for the "superiority of aristocratic government" in a manner such as to suggest that "aristocratic government" is a category which requires neither analysis nor discussion as such, as though the belief in aristocracy is not itself subject to major and arguably quite incompatible conceptions of the meaning and sense of human social organization, of the state and of God.
There are parallels between Marx and Fichte, notably in the insistence by both that the state is created out of a conquest by one race/class of another. Underlying Fichte’s concept was a belief that each people should develop in its own way. The people are gathered in the nation and represented by the state and there are inferior and superior peoples/nations, according to Fichte. An important distinction between Hegel and Fichte which the writer does indeed point out is that Hegel’s morality was not a priori, that is to say Hegel believed that historical change created more perfect moral orders, whilst for Kant or Fichte, there is an absolute right which man is striving towards. The lack of idealism in Hegel’s system has the fault, in Dr. Jacobs' view, that any system can be defended morally on the ground of its being created by historical necessity or as being a manifestation of the cycle of history. Similarly in orthodox Marxism, much can be and has been justified on the grounds of historical necessity which overrides a universal moral dictum. For Hegel, the state was not an instrument of domination or materialisation of power, it was the acme of human progress, the embodiment of freedom. Hegel advocated a restrictive system of voting rights, under which the franchise would only be granted to those gifted with learning, knowledge of public affairs and property.
There is an interesting chapter on Giuseppe Mazzini, who outside Italy is not well known as a thinker, but known mostly as a republican, revolutionary and Italian patriot. Mazzini was however an elitist political theorist, who divided history into two major periods, the period before and the period after the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the watershed of history, indicating the switch to a more rational understanding of the world. But the revolution was for Mazzini "inadequate" because it was individualistic and materialistic. (This reviewer would argue that the French Revolution was very anti-individualistic in the sense that all individuals had to subscribe to the general will of the nation in the people.) Mazzini did not believe that the end of human existence is material well-being. Liberty loses its importance once it is agreed that the purpose of social order is to create optimal circumstances for the improvement of material well-being.
Mazzini sought to stress social duties at the expense of rights and it can be argued (and Dr. Jacob does argue) that the philosopher Giovanni Gentile was a successor to these ideas. Gentile was the house philosopher of the Italian fascist state. He was an idealist, who believed that through the state, men would one day reach a perfect condition of social awareness of their fellow citizens in which a separation of private interest from public commonweal not longer existed. Dr. Jacob quotes Gentile that all human cruelty is a result of imperfect knowledge, exactly as it is in Plato and Plotinous." The basis of evil is matter, or nature, which is opposed to spirit and represents "not merely moral and absolute nullity: the impenetrable chaos of brute nature, mechanism, spiritual darkness, falsehood and evil, all the things that mankind is forever fighting against." this quotation highlights the point at which liberalism and fascism share a certain view of the world in opposition to conservatism. It is a pity that Dr. Jacob does not examine this highly interesting issue. But it is useful that he has pointed to Gentile at all. Gentile seems to be largely forgotten and perhaps the (temporary?) oblivion in which he currently finds himself is unjustified.
Treitschke I suspect is better known to Anglo Saxon readers. Dr Jacob tells us that Treitschke’s views expressed a deep admiration for the elitism of military Prussia but he was less inclined to accord tolerance, even in religious matters, on the grounds that nothing should be allowed to undermine the unity and strength of the state. Interestingly, Treitschke concedes that "with difficulty" a state may tolerate differences of religious ritual among its citizens. In a religious sceptical society such as that of the West today, it may well be considered that religious differences are not much more than differences of ritual. Religion is tolerated by the state to the extent that it is ineffective and keeps silent on the issues which really matter. This only does not apply it seems, where the state and the established religion are united as one political source of legitimacy. At that point religious tolerance ceases.
Treitschke was deeply anti-semitic and urged the German, whom he considered superior to all other peoples, to speak his mind out against Jewish influence in German society, in the arts as much as in the press. Treitschke’s was the principle of a greater Germany, the centralised state which would not tolerate small or minority cultures disrupting the harmony of the united whole. Unlike Hegel however, he did not consider that the state as such was the acme of human development; he argued that the state was only the "external construct of the nation" as Dr. Jacob puts it. However, Treitschke was not a Machiavellian, since he believed that the state should pursue a moral purpose and he condemns Napoleon for not having done so, for seeking power only for power’s sake.
Dr Jacob then comes to Nietszche and points out that Nietszche did not share Hegel’s and Treitschke’s hope that the state continue and indeed strengthen its role as educator and improver. Dr. Jacob points out that the writers he has considered up to this point have not based their political ideas principally on race, although all of them admitted to or hinted at the significance of race in political theory. The writings of Arthur de Gobineau are significantly discussed in the same chapter as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Rosenberg and Hitler. Dr. Jacob writes, "Gobineau was the first thinker to relate the rise and fall of nations to the racial purity of their populations. When the racial constitution of an Aryan society became diluted, it led inevitably to the fall of the state. This is true of both the Greek states and the Roman republic. As for the modern anti-aristocratic movements, such as the French Revolution, they constitute a crime against blood, since they result in a decimation of a large majority of pure-blooded aristocrats." (p.72) This paradigm of racial struggle as the driving force of history is parallel to the Marxist doctrine that all history is the history of class struggle. It is the key doctrine of national socialism. Dr. Jacob makes no attempt to refute the argument and by not doing so implies that when he is discussing "aristocracy" he really means the aristocracy of blood.
While liberal commentators and certainly Jewish commentators, tend to lose a sense of balance when discussing racial theorists, the writer of this book has gone so far in the opposite direction as to appear at times wickedly relaxed about the ethical questions which must arise from any issue involving social exclusion or worse, of unwanted groups.
"..the objective idealistic systems of Hegel and his followers with its glorification of the state, lent itself more easily to tyrannical excesses during the Third Reich, such as the systematic extermination of all peoples not conducive to the regeneration of Aryan society. While these excesses were partly due to the exigencies of war, they were also in part due to the gradual substitution of the external reality of the State for the metaphysical norms of the inner, moral law." (p.80)
This is understatement taken to ludicrous, even grotesque, lengths. It reminds me of the Monty Python cheese sketch: "You people are not conducive to the regeneration of Aryan society. I’m afraid I shall have to shoot you." "Rightiho then, sir."
To what extent is the author pleading the case for the philosophers he describes? Dr. Jacob does not negatively criticise his subjects and the sympathy appears to be considerable. This would also explain why Dr. Jacob chooses not to discuss the figures presented as representative of aristocratic thought but only to briefly describe and elucidate them. It is impossible, from the writing alone, to distinguish between Dr Jacob’s description of a point of view and his own point of view. When we read, for example, that Carl Gustav Carus "was one of the first, after Gobineau, to establish the philosophical reasons for the intellectual discrimination between races." the assumption seems to be that this is an established fact that such a discrimination should be effected. Established orthodoxy, needless to say, insists on something wholly different, namely that all discrimination between races originates in ill-informed prejudice at best and downright malevolence at worst, all right thinking people knowing that racial differences are only skin deep. True, this book is not intended as an argument or plea but as a brief history. Nevertheless, there is not even a mention as to how the philosophers described in this book faced criticism in their own day.
What is an aristocracy? The scholar Philippe Mairet in his essay on Aristocracy and the Meaning of Class Rule published in England in 1931, points out that it is an elite which unlike a plutocracy, insists that its members should possess and exhibit excellence in the function of government itself. Aristocracy must stand for a higher type of man.
A higher type of man. That is what those who seek the aristocratic society seek to arrive at and this is truly Nietszchean as well, seeking the improvement of man, the transcendence of man, his overcoming of himself. For Dr Jacob and the thinkers he discusses here, democracy is responsible for a radical shift in the opposite downward direction, away from the transcendence of man and into the time of his great down going, his degeneration, his return to the primitive state from which he once emerged, his loss of consciousness of his own will, and his submission of the will to the technical forces of a materialist elite. Aristocracy is raised on the irreplaceable values, as Dr Jacob calls them, which universalist democracy is destroying: spiritual awareness, tradition and race. Precisely those three values are being constantly weakened in the West. Dr Jacob has provided a useful set of milestones giving some of the names of thinkers who hoped that Western society would take the anti-democratic path. Gone from our world are the qualities which made an aristocracy possible. They are: piety, wonder and distance. When and how will they regain, if ever, their lost authority among us?