Class and ClerisyBy Adam K. Webb for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Some ruling classes in history, more than others, deserve pitchforks. If plumpness is an invitation, then it is easy to understand the unpopularity of those who have fattened themselves on globalised gluttony and by feeding at the trough of government bailouts.
Porchers’ better natures dissuade us from a literal pitchforking of the plump. But those who preside over a disordered world, along with the vast swathes of the global upper middle class whose worldview aligns with them, are often and deservedly pitchforked figuratively in our columns. An anti-élitism of sorts runs through FPR. Against rampant capitalism and top-heavy statism, it affirms an earthy common sense, a humility grounded in small town life and its spiritual offshoots. Such populism is undeniably attractive, especially when put up against those whose hubris, in each of the last few generations, has swollen and spilled over ever more unaccountably in all directions.
Class gets a rather skewed and selective treatment here on the Porch. The vertical problem, the moral bankruptcy of today’s ruling class, gets reduced to part of the horizontal problem, the rootlessness of modern life. Porchers usually take Christopher Lasch’s approach to the matter. Lasch called himself a populist, and set a lower middle class ethic of limits in contrast to the effete cosmopolitanism of the new professional strata. Russell Arben Fox admires Lasch’s vision of a “rough equality of decent communities.” And Jeremy Beer draws on Lasch to point out what is wrong with modern meritocracy. Because individual ambition trumps all else, people move away from their birthplaces and leave communities hollow. Such a brain drain, Lasch argued, deprives traditional communities and neighbourhoods of natural leaders. Meritocrats also feel little obligation to those left behind by the rat race. The old aristocracy, for all its drawbacks, had more sense of noblesse oblige, both because it put down roots and because it knew its privileges were rather arbitrary.
These indictments of modern life are fair enough on their own terms. It is only natural that, in all countries, populism is the usual idiom in which one criticises the squires of the global village. Traditionalism today is a bottom-up proposition, because tradition lingers most in humble places.
We should be careful not to frame the problem too narrowly, however. What does it mean to find a tradition worth defending? For the populists, tradition is a cluster of placebound habits, stiffened by a distinct awareness of what it means to belong somewhere. That sort of traditionalism has some strengths, I admit. It can foil, for a time, those enthusiasts of modernity who impose progress against common sense. It can slow the corrosive effects of lucre-lust.
But it is also a very incomplete kind of traditionalism. According to an older view, a tradition is a heritage that demands a peculiar sort of excellence. It transmits over the generations among a minority the nuances of that excellence and the methods of cultivating it. By its very nature, such a tradition exists in layers and is bound up with class.
To grasp the logic of this older, more aristocratic traditionalism, we must revisit two thinkers: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and T.S. Eliot.
For Coleridge, writing in 1830, the most important bearers of tradition were the “clerisy.” He coined this umbrella term for the Oxbridge scholars learned in theology and the liberal arts, along with the vicars and schoolmasters scattered through the countryside and socially intertwined with the landed gentry. Together they bore a multigenerational trust, that of preserving “civilisation with freedom.” The clerisy kept secular society permanently in contact with higher truths. Its social function and the resources to sustain it were no mere product of historical accident. Coleridge acknowledged that the types of people holding that trust would vary across time and space. They need not be the Anglican clergy as such, for example. But the trust itself could be ignored by any society only at its peril.
Eliot drew on Coleridge for his 1948 essay, “The Class and the Élite.” The intervening generations had seen the clerisy challenged and greatly weakened. Eliot saw that the social reformers of the twentieth century were hoping to abolish social classes and instal an élite based on talent. He thought such a project deeply misguided. A dominant class and a talented élite were both necessary, and not substitutable one for the other. In all ages, he argued, élites recruited talent from people of all social backgrounds. Yet a dominant class with a deep sense of its own continuity, transmitted through families with a similar upbringing, completed the picture. Talented individuals had a cultural destination on their way up, even as they brought in new blood and new insights. The dominant class would bridge the diversity of talents and pursuits, and pass on both heritage and innovation to a well-placed chunk of the next generation. Civilisation benefited from that tension between continuity and inspiration. A well ordered society would hit the sweet spot where continuity and mobility were in balance. It would fit Voltaire’s image of “the slippered feet going down the stairs as the hobnailed boots ascend them.” But the hobnailed boots would be taken off politely at the landing.
Disrupt this equilibrium, and chaos ensues. According to both Coleridge and Eliot, abandoning this continuous high culture heritage would mean disaster. Coleridge insisted that learning without an anchor in the spiritual would turn into mere utilitarian skill-mongering: “talents without genius: a swarm of clever, well-informed men: an anarchy of minds, a despotism of maxims. Despotism of finance in government and legislation….” For Eliot, an élite without a culture-bearing dominant class to discipline it into “a way of life” would be a mass of atoms, with no common heritage and nothing to bind them together across their trajectories of upward mobility. “They will meet like committees.”
These prophecies from sixty or a hundred and eighty years ago ring true in hindsight. We are indeed ruled by committees of the clever and well-informed.
Undoubtedly many of the clerisy’s lamentations as the industrial revolution got into full swing were about petty matters. Some people just could not stand the vulgarity of glorified tradesmen or the indignity of dining next to a guest who could not hold his knife correctly. (Apparently Edward VII did once walk out of a dinner for just that reason, believe it or not.) But the broader indictment of the modern meritocracy stands. The loss of cultural continuity is partly to blame for the rise of strata with plenty of energy and brainpower, but a weathervane in lieu of a moral compass.
This transition took place in different ways in different countries. In some, the clerisy was nudged gradually on to history’s ashheap by pushy strivers who knew which way the wind was blowing. In others, it was shot or exiled by militants with utopian visions and chips on their shoulders.
This is all well known history, of the sort that someone like Lasch himself would probably acknowledge, even if the populist message pushes it to the margins most of the time. But revisiting it this way does highlight the the need for more nuance to the anti-élitism that today’s liberal élites naturally provoke. We should not talk about restoring decency as if it could happen only on a flat social landscape.
It is tempting to thrust the pitchforks at all ruling classes, past and present, because some continuities linger on the surface. Oxbridge and the Ivies have new wine in old bottles. They keep the hierarchy of souls while forgetting the hierarchy of ends. Loosen up ends, and one comes to loose ends; or so one might conclude, looking at the West’s campuses, investment banks, and the conveyor belts that connect them. Here in China, those in power flatter themselves with even more startling conceits of continuity. Supposedly the heirs of the old mandarins, who studied the Confucian classics, are those eager youngsters who now cram for examinations in such inspiring fields as business English, and who later turn into chain-smoking bureaucrats who spit out the tinted windows of their black Audis.
We should not belabour the self-absorption and vulgarity that rein in our time. On their own, they would be mere self-destruction and a coarsening of daily life. They would spill over little. Nor should we simply condemn all hierarchies, as those of a populist bent might urge. As Eliot put it, “the elimination of an upper class at a more developed stage can be a disaster for a country.” Such a society loses ballast. It loses the cultural confidence of a minority aware of its own continuity and the tradition with which it has been entrusted. It loses the backbone that would fortify it against the pressures of both market and state. When that higher tradition vanishes, the more down-to-earth traditionalists who are left naturally fall back on defending place for the sake of place, and custom for the sake of custom. Their ramparts hold out for a while, but eventually crumble.
This may sound like antiquated snobbery. I appreciate why anyone who wants a more just society would look askance at my nostalgia for the clerisy. Even if those long dead societies were well ordered culturally, they still had plenty of deprivation and injustice. Indeed, such evils were the great flaw of the old civilisations. The clerisy’s failure to correct them left a weak spot that the wearers of hobnailed boots could kick in.
But recognising this much also brings to light an opportunity. There really is no going back. The clerisy as a live social force has vanished. With it, the entanglement between tradition and privilege has also gone. Restoration thus becomes a rather more noble rediscovery of purpose. It would mean going back to origins, to the ancient inspirations that crystallised in the great traditions in the first place. And it may mean bringing sincere and thoughtful people, with their roots in different great traditions, in different parts of the world, into dialogue with one another in a way that would have been quite difficult with them still in power separately. Their complacency blinded them.
For the clerisy as individuals, the upheavals of modernity may have been the worse thing that could have happened to them. For the aspirations entrusted to them, it may have been much more salutary.
Perhaps, as some observers regularly suggest, we have entered a new dark age. Dark ages serve their purpose, however. The surest way to be unmolested by mercenary souls is to have nothing to offer them. If so, then the kind of intergenerational continuity that gives a clerisy much of its gravitas may have to be rebuilt on very different ground. If the excesses of the modern world do not collapse swiftly under their own weight, then such an inspired opposition might well spend generations in the wilderness. Such continuity, tested by adversity, could stand it in good stead for a future renaissance.