Book 5, Chapter 10 : Of Hereditary Distinction
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Book 5, Chapter 10
Birth considered as a physical cause - as a moral cause. - Education of the great. - Recapitu- altion
A PRINCIPLE deeply interwoven with both monarchy and aristocracy in their most flourishing state, but most deeply with the latter, is that of hereditary preeminence. No principle can present a deeper insult upon reason and justice. Examine the new-born son of a peer, and of a mechanic, Has nature designated in different lineaments their future fortune? Is one of them born with callous hands and an ungainly form? Can you trace in the other the early promise of genius and understanding, of virtue and honor? We have been told indeed 'that nature will break out',1and that
and the tale was once believed. But mankind will not soon again be persuaded that the birthright of one lineage of human creatures is beauty and virtue, and of another, dullness, grossness and deformity.
It is difficult accurately to decide how much of the characters of men is produced by causes that operated upon them in the period preceding their birth, and how much is the moral effect of education, in its extensive sense. Children certainly bring into the world with them a part of the character of their parents; nay, it is probable that the human race is meliorated, somewhat in the same way as the races of brutes, and that every generation, in a civilized state, is further removed, in its physical structure, from the savage and uncultivated man.
But these causes operate too uncertainly to afford any just basis of hereditary distinction. If a child resembles his father in many particulars, there are particulars, perhaps more numerous and important, in which he differs from him. The son of a poet is not a poet, the son of an orator an orator, nor the son of a good man a saint; and yet, in this case, a whole volume of moral causes is often brought to co-operate with the physical. This has been aptly illustrated, by a proposition, humorously suggested,2 for rendering the office of poet laureat hereditary. But, if the qualities and dispositions of the father were found descendible in the son, in a much greater degree than we have any reason to suppose, the character must be expected to wear out in a few generations, either by the mixture of breeds, or by, what there is great reason to suppose is still more pernicious, the want of mixture. The title made hereditary will then remain a brand upon the degenerate successor. It is not satire, but a simple statement of fact, when we observe that it is not easy to find a set of men in society sunk more below the ordinary standard of man in his constituent characteristics than the body of the English, or any other, peerage.
Let us proceed to inquire into the efficacy of high birth and nobility, considered as a moral cause.
The persuasion of its excellence in this respect is an opinion probably as old as the institution of nobility itself. The etymology of the word expressing this particular form of government may perhaps be considered as having a reference to this idea. It is called aristocracy, or the government of the best [apisoi] . In the writings of Cicero, and the speeches of the Roman senate, this order of men is styled the 'optimates', the 'virtuous', the 'liberal', and the 'honest'. It is asserted, and with some degree of justice, 'that the multitude is an unruly beast, with no fixed sentiments of honor or principle, guided by sordid venality, or not less sordid appetite, envious, tyrannical, inconstant and unjust'. Hence they deduced as a consequence 'the necessity of maintaining an order of men of liberal education and elevated sentiments, who should either engross the government of the humbler and more numerous class incapable of governing themselves, or at least should be placed as a rigid guard upon their excesses, with powers adequate to their correction and restraint'. The greater part of these reasonings will fall under our examination when we consider the disadvantages of democracy.3 So much as relates to the excellence of aristocracy it is necessary at present to discuss.
The whole proceeds upon a supposition that 'if nobility should not, as its hereditary constitution might seem to imply, be found originally superior to the ordinary rate of mortals, it is at least rendered eminently so by the power of education. Men who grow up in unpolished ignorance and barbarism, and are chilled with the icy touch of poverty, must necessarily be exposed to a thousand sources of corruption, and cannot have that delicate sense of rectitude and honor which literature and manly refinement are found to bestow. It is under the auspices of indulgence and ease that civilzation is engendered. A nation must have surmounted the disadvantages of a first establishment, and have arrived at some degree of leisure and prosperity, before the love of letters can take root among them. It is in individuals, as in large bodies of men. A few exceptions will occur; but, excluding these, it can scarcely be expected that men who are compelled in every day by laborious manual efforts to provide for the necessities of the day should arrive at great expansion of mind and comprehensiveness of thinking.'
In certain parts of this argument there is considerable truth. The sound moralist will be the last man to deny the power and importance of education. It is therefore necessary, either that a system should be discovered for securing leisure and prosperity to every member of the community; or that a certain influence and authority should be given to the liberal and the wise, over the illiterate and ignorant. Now, supposing, for the present, that the former of these measures is impossible, it may yet be reasonable to inquire whether aristocracy be the most judicious scheme for obtaining the latter. Some light maybe collected on this subject from what has already appeared respecting education under the head of monarchy.
Education is much, but opulent education is of all its modes the least efficacious. The education of words is not to be despised, but the education of things is on no account to be dispensed with. The former is of admirable use in enforcing and developing the latter; but, when taken alone, it is pedantry and not learning, a body without a soul. Whatever may be the abstract perfection of which mind is capable, we seem at present frequently to need being excited, in the case of any uncommon effort, by motives that address themselves to the individual. But, so far as relates to these motives, the lower classes of mankind, had they sufficient leisure, have greatly the advantage. The plebeian must be the maker of his own fortune; the lord finds his already made. The plebeian must expect to find himself neglected and despised in proportion as he is remiss in cultivating the objects of esteem; the lord will always be surrounded with sycophants and slaves. The lord therefore has no motive to industry and exertion; no stimulus to rouse him from the lethargic, 'oblivious pool', out of which every human intellect originally rose. It must indeed be confessed that truth does not need the alliance of circumstances, and that a man may arrive at the temple of fame by other paths than those of misery and distress. But the lord does not content himself with discarding the stimulus of adversity: he goes further than this, and provides fruitful sources of effeminacy and error. Man cannot offend with impunity against the great principle of universal good. He that monopolizes to himself luxuries and titles and wealth to the injury of the whole becomes degraded from the rank of man; and, however he may be admired by the multitude, will be pitied by the wise, and not seldom be wearisome to himself. Hence it appears that to elect men to the rank of nobility is to elect them to a post of moral danger and a means of depravity; but that to constitute them hereditarily noble is to preclude them, exclusively of a few extraordinary accidents, from all the causes that generate ability and virtue.
The reasonings here repeated upon the subject of hereditary distinction are so obvious that nothing can be a stronger instance of the power of prejudice instilled in early youth than the fact of their having been, at any time, disputed or forgotten. From birth as a physical cause, it sufficiently appears that little fundamental or regular can be expected: and, so far as relates to education, it is practicable, in a certain degree, nor is it easy to set limits to that degree, to infuse emulation into a youthful mind; but wealth is the fatal blast that destroys the hopes of a future harvest. There was once indeed a gallant kind of virtue that, by irresistibly seizing the senses, seemed to communicate extensively, to young men of birth, the mixed and equivocal accomplishments of chivalry; but, since the subjects of moral emulation have been turned from personal prowess to the energies of intellect, and especially since the field of that emulation has been more widely opened to the species, the lists have been almost uniformly occupied by those whose narrow circumstances have goaded them to ambition, or whose undebauched habits and situation in life have rescued them from the poison of flattery and effeminate indulgence.
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