In the Matter of Aristocracy

Grant Allen

[Chapter II from the book, Post-Prandial Philosophy,
published 1894 in London by Chatto & Windus]

Aristocracies, as a rule, all the world over, consist, and have always consisted, of barbaric conquerors or their descendants, who remain to the last, on the average of instances, at a lower grade of civilisation and morals than the democracy they live among.

I know this view is to some extent opposed to the common ideas of people at large (and especially of that particular European people which "dearly loves a lord") as to the relative position of aristocracies and democracies in the sliding scale of human development. There is a common though wholly unfounded belief knocking about the world, that the aristocrat is better in intelligence, in culture, in arts, in manners, than the ordinary plebeian. The fact is, being, like all barbarians, a boastful creature, he has gone on so long asserting his own profound superiority by birth to the world around him—a superiority as of fine porcelain to common clay—that the world around him has at last actually begun to accept him at his own valuation. Most English people in particular think that a lord is born a better judge of pictures and wines and books and deportment than the human average of us. But history shows us the exact opposite. It is a plain historical fact, provable by simple enumeration, that almost all the aristocracies the world has ever known have taken their rise in the conquest of civilised and cultivated races by barbaric invaders; and that the barbaric invaders have seldom or never learned the practical arts and handicrafts which are the civilising element in the life of the conquered people around them.

To begin with the aristocracies best known to most of us, the noble families of modern and mediæval Europe sprang, as a whole, from the Teutonic invasion of the Roman Empire. In Italy, it was the Lombards and the Goths who formed the bulk of the great ruling families; all the well-known aristocratic names of mediæval Italy are without exception Teutonic. In Gaul it was the rude Frank who gave the aristocratic element to the mixed nationality, while it was the civilised and cultivated Romano-Celtic provincial who became, by fate, the mere roturier. The great revolution, it has been well said, was, ethnically speaking, nothing more than the revolt of the Celtic against the Teutonic fraction; and, one might add also, the revolt of the civilised Romanised serf against the barbaric seigneur. In Spain, the hidalgo is just the hi d'al Go, the son of the Goth, the descendant of those rude Visigothic conquerors who broke down the old civilisation of Iberian and Romanised Hispania. And so on throughout. All over Europe, if you care to look close, you will find the aristocrat was the son of the intrusive barbarian; the democrat was the son of the old civilised and educated autochthonous people.

It is just the same elsewhere, wherever we turn. Take Greece, for example. Its most aristocratic state was undoubtedly Sparta, where a handful of essentially barbaric Dorians held in check a much larger and Helotised population of higher original civilisation. Take the East: the Persian was a wild mountain adventurer who imposed himself as an aristocrat upon the far more cultivated Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian. The same sort of thing had happened earlier in time in Babylonia and Assyria themselves, where barbaric conquerors had similarly imposed themselves upon the first known historical civilisations. Take India under the Moguls, once more; the aristocracy of the time consisted of the rude Mahommedan Tartar, who lorded it over the ancient enchorial culture of Rajpoot and Brahmin. Take China: the same thing over again—a Tartar horde imposing its savage rule over the most ancient civilised people of Asia. Take England: its aristocracy at different times has consisted of the various barbaric invaders, first the Anglo-Saxon (if I must use that hateful and misleading word)—a pirate from Sleswick; then the Dane, another pirate from Denmark direct; then the Norman, a yet younger Danish pirate, with a thin veneer of early French culture, who came over from Normandy to better himself after just two generations of Christian apprenticeship. Go where you will, it matters not where you look; from the Aztec in Mexico to the Turk at Constantinople or the Arab in North Africa, the aristocrat belongs invariably to a lower race than the civilised people whom he has conquered and subjugated.

"That may be true, perhaps," you object, "as to the remote historical origin of aristocracies; but surely the aristocrat of later generations has acquired all the science, all the art, all the polish of the people he lives amongst. He is the flower of their civilisation." Don't you believe it! There isn't a word of truth in it. From first to last the aristocrat remains, what Matthew Arnold so justly called him, a barbarian. I often wonder, indeed, whether Arnold himself really recognised the literal and actual truth of his own brilliant generalisation. For the aristocratic ideas and the aristocratic pursuits remain to the very end essentially barbaric. The "gentleman" never soils his high-born hands with dirty work; in other words, he holds himself severely aloof from the trades and handicrafts which constitute civilisation. The arts that train and educate hand, eye, and brain he ignorantly despises. In the early middle ages he did not even condescend to read and write, those inferior accomplishments being badges of serfdom. If you look close at the "occupations of a gentleman" in the present day, you will find they are all of purely barbaric character. They descend to us direct from the semi-savage invaders who overthrew the structure of the Roman empire, and replaced its civilised organisation by the military and barbaric system of feudalism. The "gentleman" is above all things a fighter, a hunter, a fisher—he preserves the three simplest and commonest barbaric functions. He is not a practiser of any civilised or civilising art—a craftsman, a maker, a worker in metal, in stone, in textile fabrics, in pottery. These are the things that constitute civilisation; but the aristocrat does none of them; in the famous words of one who now loves to mix with English gentlemen, "he toils not, neither does he spin." The things he may do are, to fight by sea and land, like his ancestor the Goth and his ancestor the Viking; to slay pheasant and partridge, like his predatory forefathers; to fish for salmon in the Highlands; to hunt the fox, to sail the yacht, to scour the earth in search of great game—lions, elephants, buffalo. His one task is to kill—either his kind or his quarry.

Observe, too, the essentially barbaric nature of the gentleman's home—his trappings, his distinctive marks, his surroundings, his titles. He lives by choice in the wildest country, like his skin-clad ancestors, demanding only that there be game and foxes and fish for his delectation. He loves the moors, the wolds, the fens, the braes, the Highlands, not as the painter, the naturalist, or the searcher after beauty of scenery loves them—for the sake of their wild life, their heather and bracken, their fresh keen air, their boundless horizon—but for the sake of the thoroughly barbarous existence he and his dogs and his gillies can lead in them. The fact is, neither he nor his ancestors have ever been really civilised. Barbarians in the midst of an industrial community, they have lived their own life of slaying and playing, untouched by the culture of the world below them. Knights in the middle ages, squires in the eighteenth century, they have never received a tincture of the civilising arts and crafts and industries; they have fought and fished and hunted in uninterrupted succession since the days when wild in woods the noble savage ran, to the days when they pay extravagant rents for Scottish grouse moors. Their very titles are barbaric and military—knight and earl and marquis and duke, early crystallised names for leaders in war or protectors of the frontier. Their crests and coats of arms are but the totems of their savage predecessors, afterwards utilised by mediæval blacksmiths as distinguishing marks for the summit of a helmet. They decorate their halls with savage trophies of the chase, like the Zulu or the Red Indian; they hang up captured arms and looted Chinese jars from the Summer Palace in their semi-civilised drawing-rooms. They love to be surrounded by grooms and gamekeepers and other barbaric retainers; they pass their lives in the midst of serfs; their views about the position and rights of women—especially the women of the "lower orders"—are frankly African. They share the sentiments of Achilles as to the individuality of Chryseis and Briseis. Such is the actual aristocrat, as we now behold him. Thus, living his own barbarous life in the midst of a civilised community of workers and artists and thinkers and craftsmen, with whom he seldom mingles, and with whom he has nothing in common, this chartered relic of worse days preserves from first to last many painful traits of the low moral and social ideas of his ancestors, from which he has never varied. He represents most of all, in the modern world, the surviving savage. His love of gewgaws, of titles, of uniform, of dress, of feathers, of decorations, of Highland kilts, and stars and garters, is but one external symbol of his lower grade of mental and moral status. All over Europe, the truly civilised classes have gone on progressing by the practice of peaceful arts from generation to generation; but the aristocrat has stood still at the same half-savage level, a hunter and fighter, an orgiastic roysterer, a killer of wild boars and wearer of absurd mediæval costumes, too childish for the civilised and cultivated commoner.

Government by aristocrats is thus government by the mentally and morally inferior. And yet—a Bill for giving at last some scant measure of self-government to persecuted Ireland has to run the gauntlet, in our nineteenth-century England, of an irresponsible House of hereditary barbarians!