The virtue matrix: Elitism and Populism

American history moves in various cycles. For example:

  • isolationist ↔ interventionist (in foreign policy)
  • prudish/puritan ↔ permissive/liberal (sex)
  • progressive ↔ conservative (attitudes toward change)

But perhaps the most striking and consequential cycle is the one between elitism and populism.

The question here is about virtue. Who is most likely to be virtuous/corruptible? The common people, or the elites?

This question has an ancient pedigree. The answer a society gives at any given time in effect determines the kind of democracy it will practice and the kind of institutions it will build: It will shift power (or pretend to shift power) to the pole it considers more capable of virtue.

I’ll say more about all this in future posts (especially in response to a great biography of Andrew Jackson I just finished reading). But for now I just wanted to amuse myself with another little diagram. As ever, I’m not taking it too seriously, just trying to order my thoughts and invite yours.

Below, I’ve placed some of the figures that have appeared here on The Hannibal Blog over the past two years (each one has a Tag, or you can search for his name) along a spectrum.

Classical thinkers are in normal font, American ones in bold italics.

(Notice the centrality of James Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution. His answer was, in effect, to be agnostic on the question. Therein lies his genius and the strength of the constitution. So he represents the neutral value, 0)

So weigh in. You can also suggest where to place other thinkers, such as John Locke or Montesquieu, or modern pols such as presidential candidates, or foreign politicians.

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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