Elitism: Socrates’ Athens to Palin’s America



Socrates was a snob, an unabashed elitist. How I love him.

Now, I know it’s not fashionable to be an elitist in today’s America–every four years, a Palinesque figure emerges to tell you that you don’t belong to “real America”. Elites, in some vague and unspecified way, then become those people out there who conspire to keep the honest folks down.

Socrates had none of it, and he too eventually ran into the Palin faction of his time. So this is yet another way in which Socrates, with his life and thought and personality, speaks to us across the ages, as we are discovering in this thread.

The mob and the experts

As ever, we must see Athens as his analog of America. So how did the Athenians see themselves? Above all, as free. Their word for their city was polis, a free and self-governing state. That’s where we get our word politics.

So the non-slave, male Athenians of a certain class lounged around the Acropolis and Agora, debating in their assemblies and deliberating in their huge juries–participating in this and that and every way.

To Socrates they were a dumb herd of sheep. It’s not that he was against democracy per se. It’s just that, as I.F. Stone puts it in his work of investigative journalism about the trial of Socrates (about which more in later posts), Socrates believed in

rule neither by the few nor the many but by the one who knows.

In short, he was neither oligarch nor democrat, but elitist! An Athenian, he always loved and admired Sparta, the elitist enemy of Athens.

(The orginal Greek meaning of aristocrat was “rule of the best”, similar to our meritocrat. How strange that we need to mix Latin and Greek roots together to understand a word properly. See: television.)

So Socrates thought it was just as ridiculous for the Athenians to expect masons and smiths to “govern” and “judge” in the assembly and jury-courts as it would be for them to hire a mason to build a ship. Obviously, they’d get a shipwright. So too they should get a properly qualified statesman for the ship of state.

Better, therefore, to look for the best, then train them, then pick the best again, then train them even more. What you are doing is eligere in Latin, to elect in English, élire in French, and that last variant is where elite comes from.

Americans in particular love this kind of market selection. When they step onto plane and hear from the pilot, when they send in the Marines overseas, when they appoint and compensate CEOs, they are proudly rooting for members of the respective elite.

Just don’t tell Americans that they love elites. When it comes to politics, nothing has changed since, well, the polis. Some sort of Nietzschean slave morality, a ressentiment against anybody who might think of himself as uppity, seizes Americans. This is when you get, say, billionaires posing for the cameras chowing hot dogs and slurping beers, to prove that they are ordinary enough to be president.

The downside of Socrates’ elitism, if we had ever tried to put his ideas into practice, may have been that we would have got a totalitarian society. Indeed, that’s not good.

The downside for Socrates personally was that they gave him hemlock. We’ll get to that.

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13 thoughts on “Elitism: Socrates’ Athens to Palin’s America

  1. I know it is fashionable to use Palin and to a lesser extent George W as an example of how the village bumpkin can rise to the top of America’s leadership but…

    It is a little Naive to believe Palin is a self-made product. The only reason Palin was even close to the white house is that men with great wealth and cunning put her there. She is essentially a pawn of our modern capitalistic elite.

    CEOs of major coorporations, key media moguls, highly skilled “inside” politicians decide by committee who they are going to back and provide the cash and media credit needed for a candidate to get anywhere.

    There people are our modern “Roman Senate” deciding who can and can’t run for the position of Consul….

    So you see, we are an elitist society with two differences:
    A. Our elite is not Plato’s Philosophers, but instead the cream of the capitalistic crop
    B. We drape our elitism with an “everyman” cloth to give the masses a feeling like they actually decide what happens in this country.

  2. “……I know it’s not fashionable to be an elitist in today’s America…….”

    How about that it’s not fashionable to be an intellectual in today’s America, and never has been? The San Francisco longshoreman-philosopher, Eric Hoffer, dwelled much on the topic of America’s disdain for the intellectual. He thought this was why intellectuals, particularly European intellectuals, have always looked down their noses at America – the country ostensibly of the common man, a breed which the the intellectual has always disdained, even hated.

    No doubt this was why George W Bush, the anti-intellectual par excellence, “the village bumpkin” (to use Joe’s phrase), was so disdained outside America, particularly in Europe, where the intellectual is revered.

    But “the village bumpkin” had something going for him, since he was elected not just once into the Oval Office, but twice. I suggest that what he had, was that he was an American archetype – the Hero, the plain-spoken cowboy riding into town, alone, to clean it up.

    For George W Bush, read also Ronald Reagan. Could they have been elected to office anywhere but in America?

    Given the power of archetype, can we wonder that George Bush defeated the intellectual, Socratic, and therefore unAmerican, John Kerry (ditto Al Gore)?

    Barack Obama, intellectual, cosmopolitan, arguably (sic) Socratic, is definitely not an American archetype. So, but for the extraordinary happenings of last September, would he ever have been elected?

    I suggest that Sarah Palin, another American archetype (the Annnie Oakley-like, plain-spoken, gun-toting, anti-intellectual, frontierswoman), should she be the Republican nominee, will be a most formidable candidate, if only because she is this archetype.

  3. Sometimes, you guys are so rhetorical there’s no room for the halfwit to say anything.

    I think Socrates looks like a garden gnome.

  4. So… I’m reading these thoughtful and eloquent comments and then …. Mr. Crotchety is Back! I’m grinning from one ear to the other.
    Socrates did look like a gnome in real life, incidentally. He was famously ugly. That even became part of a dialogue, when the young, handsome and amoral Alcibiades (of whom, more later) recounted how he fell in love with Socrates despite his ugliness, and tried to seduce him, but failed.

    Now, Joe has a point, of course. But I wasn’t really arguing that Palin is a self-made product. I just use her as the archetype of the aggressively, wantonly anti-intellectual, rouse-the-pitchforked-mob, kind of populist. Of course, she is surrounded on all sides by elites. Had she won, she would have hung out with nothing but elitists. That hypocrisy is sort of the point, as Joe says.

    Christopher made me think whether Americans are un-intellectual or anti-intellectual. I think it’s the latter.

  5. I find the pro/con intellectual discussion has its roots in the Euro-American relationship. Europeans have always admired the US ability to “Do” i.e. expand, build, conquer while the US has always wanted admittance into the “old world” elitist club. As often happens in these situations, the resulting symptoms are an outwards disdain, the US for Euro’s culture of “talking with no action” and the Euro’s belittling the US as uncultured Boors.

    Andreas – I find an analog here to the Roman-Greco relationship. I am sure someone has written a good book (or more) about this. Help me out?

    • Very perceptive analogy. I don’t know a good book about this. Which means: Either you or I might consider writing one. Or at least a blog post. Quite possibly coming up.

  6. Andreas – minor late note – on being careful about mixing metaphors.

    You go from ‘pick[ing] the best’ to ‘Americans in particular love this kind of market selection.’ Therein conflating merit with market success. Many factors other than merit, or being the best, determine market selections and success. We need to be particularly carefully to guard against the assumption that the market always gives us the best outcome.

  7. “So Socrates thought it was just as ridiculous for the Athenians to expect masons and smiths to “govern” and “judge” in the assembly and jury-courts as it would be for them to hire a mason to build a ship. Obviously, they’d get a shipwright. So too they should get a properly qualified statesman for the ship of state.

    Better, therefore, to look for the best, then train them, then pick the best again, then train them even more.”

    How? And what makes one a “properly qualified statesman?”

  8. If you truly believe that CEOs are an example of effective “market” selection of a best-of-the-best, then you obviously have never worked in, or looked at with any seriousness, the business world. They are precisely the example of why this sort of thing doesn’t work.

    Besides the obvious conundrum of who is qualified do the selecting, and who is qualified to pick the selectors, and so on, this thinking misses the important factor of interest. Self- or group- interest outweigh reason in political decision making every time. It should not be surprising that reason is secondary to interest, as interest is how desired outcomes are chosen for which reason is applied.

    The one thing democracy does, in theory at least, is give expression to all of a nation’s people’s interests. Looking at the failures of this mechanism in today’s america would be much more useful than this concept of elitism which goes nowhere.

    The selection Palins or Ws over such as Kerry, has nothing to do with elitism in the selected best-of-the-best sense you define it. It has to do with the instinct of “who appears like me and understands me, will have my interests at heart.” It’s like choosing someone of your culture over a foreigner. Both Kerry and Bush came from a very foreign culture to that of most American’s, however one of them understood how to adapt to that culture, talk to it, and even appear to be part of it; one of them did not. Obama, like Clinton, at least has the ability to relate and talk to it.

    This failure to grasp the primacy of interests and culture over reason was what got Socrates killed and continues to be the downfall of American liberals. What “elitism” has really become code-word for in america is this naiveté. A schoolyard analogy sums it up best: an elitist is essentially a nerd who’s going to get beat up because despite his intelligence and learning he doesn’t know how to interact socially with the other kids.

    • What you’re describing is a sort of “mediocracy”.

      Specifically, what you say about the business world reminds me of the Peter Principle: in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

      Anyway, well said, Eric S

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