Nobility and Traditional Elites Today

August 31, 2017

By Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Le Nouvel Aperçu, no. 6,  July-August 1994, published in French by the TFP Association

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, author of Noblesse et élites traditionnelles dans les allocutions de Pie XII, answers our questions

Question: Two hundred years after the French Revolution, do you think that French society still has something to expect from the nobility?

PLINIO CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA: Without a doubt. History tells us that aristocracies are formed in such conditions that they last a great deal. Two hundred years! What is that for the French nobility, whose families are so old that their origin ‘is lost in the night of time,’ according to the consecrated expression?

Unlike what happens with individuals and families in a democratic society, where a famous man often disappears even before he dies, the noble condition is not made to have the mere duration of an individual life. The noble condition is made to have the duration of a family. And a family, hereditary by definition, is made to last centuries and centuries without wearing out; instead, it grows in value over time.

One might object that your question does not refer specifically to the passage of time but to the usury inherent in the historical events of the last two centuries, which began with the French Revolution. And one might wonder if, with these two hundred years of revolution fully directed against the nobility, the latter is not worn out to the point of being unable to render further service to the country.

Portrait of Marie-Antoinette of Austria by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty

The history of France, even of republican France, furnishes many examples to the contrary: eminent personalities who have rendered important services to the country in the most diverse branches of national public activity.

 

Q: You comment on the speeches of Pius XII, but after the Ralliement promoted by Leo XIII, should we not consider that the Church has definitely opted for the people and that the role of the nobility and traditional elites is relegated to the past, to the old regime?

PCO – Your question presupposes two statements that I do not share. The first is that there may be a contradiction between the teachings of two Popes: Pius XII would be in contradiction with Leo XIII. Moreover, if we admit, for the sake of argument, that such a contradiction exists, I see no reason why one could not freely choose the teachings of Pius XII instead of those of Leo XIII.

Pope Pius XII

Q: We understand that the descendants of the nobles of the past still have a role to play in Europe, but what is your “preferential option for the nobles” in countries like the United States, which have never seen nobility and whose supreme reference value seems to be money?

PCO – If wealth is an element in acquiring a social status, the most recent sociological studies show that it alone is not enough to accord member status in American high society.

This concept of high society based exclusively on wealth is part of a liberal myth from the last century, generalized in popular consciousness by authors like the French noble Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America. Recent studies have totally debunked this myth. Sociologists show that society in the United States is no less hierarchized than it is in Europe. While nobility titles do not exist, family tradition, like in Europe, plays a predominant role in being accepted into the high society. In the absence of nobility titles, the oldest families of the various cities and states are designated by expressions emphasizing tradition and continuity. Thus one finds the Proper San Franciscans, the Genteel Charlestonians, the First Families of Virginia, the California Dons (allusion to families descended from the ancient Spanish aristocracy), etc. Many of these families retain their ancestral mansion.

Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the US. The Harrisons were among the First Families of Virginia.

If we pay attention to American society, we are bound to conclude that the United States is not guided by the masses but by the elites, both new and traditional. These are organized into hereditary associations, which impart their most refined character to good society. The public knows little about these organizations because most avoid the spotlight of publicity. Moreover, they only accept members from certain social groups in order to differentiate themselves in an anti-egalitarian sense.

Families of new rich people, who, after several generations, end up being admitted into these hereditary associations, must first pay homage to tradition by renouncing the presumptuous ostentation of their wealth, as they sometimes face impoverished aristocrats. The most important of these hereditary societies is probably that of the Cincinnati. To be a member, one must descend from an American or French officer who fought for at least three years in the American War of Independence or fought all the way to its end. Moreover, in many States, only one person from each qualifying family can be a member. This society exists since 1783 and owes its name in reference to the illustrious Roman Quintus Cincinnatus, who abandoned his plow to lead the army. King Louis XVI himself was chosen as its protector, and its members wanted to establish an authentic military nobility in the country.

One may say that all these hereditary groups form in America’s high society an elite analogous to the titled nobility of Europe.

Larz Anderson House. The Washington, DC residence of Ambassador Larz and Isabel Anderson from 1905 until 1937, the house now serves as the national headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati, the nation’s oldest patriotic order.

Q: Who do you think these “traditional elites” analogous to the nobility are in France today?

PCO – The delimitation of the different classes in a society is always delicate and subject to many disputes. As regards the Ancien Régime, and specifically in France, the general public feels that the social classes—clergy, nobility, people—were distinguished from one another with the same clarity as the boundaries between countries of Europe or the three Americas. This is a mistake. First, it must be pointed out that the nobility was far from being an absolutely homogeneous body. There were several modalities of nobility: the nobility of the sword, the nobility of the robe, and others, perhaps ending with the nobility ‘de cloche’. Some historians speak of more than five “layers” of nobility in France. And even so, the boundaries between these different “layers” were often imprecise. In addition, it was easy for a family to move from one layer to another. To this end, a royal decree was sufficient to raise a family of plebeian status to the nobility, or a decision of the king or the justice system would downgrade someone from the noble condition to that of the people. This happened, for example because of a crime, especially a crime against the State such as high treason.

This delimitation has become even more difficult in a society such as ours, where the egalitarian principles of “liberty, equality, fraternity” have contributed to form the structure of the State and with it the structure of society.

In any case, I will try to give a notion. The elite of a people is constituted of elements—individuals or families—who have in their hands the driving forces of the State and of society. In a democracy, the elites are essentially dynamic. It is very difficult for a family to ensure its own duration for a sufficient time to be qualified as traditional.

Our society sought to be an open society, like a stream that is deep enough to receive without inconvenience all the smaller rivers that flow into it along its course. Whatever it wanted, our society had. It resembles a river that receives without discrimination all the waters that join it. But this lack of discrimination increases so much the volume of the liquid mass, with waters sometimes crystalline and sometimes polluted, that you have spills, floods and all kinds of problems. “Arrivism” then triumphs. A certain opportunist concept of EQUALITY also triumphs. Money establishes its dictatorship, either by harnessing politicking, or by placing itself at its service.

All that forms a set of circumstances which, combined with the terrible corruption of customs (vigorously served by a particular concept of FREEDOM), produces as a global result an agitation of rivalries at all levels, from the smallest communes to the whole nation, rather than the secular and hollow FRATERNITY which the dreamers of 1789 tried to substitute for Christian charity.

The traditional desire of good children, who aspire to be the followers of their good parents like recent rings of a chain that becomes all the stronger as it grows old, all that disappeared with the agony of traditions.

However, in the midst of this confused and polluted fog, the new and old elites succeeded in establishing themselves and overcoming the obstacles that surrounded them. This phenomenon is more frequent than most modern media suggest. In my book, Nobility and Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility, recently published in the United States by Hamilton Press, you will find an appendix packed with information and analysis on traditional elites in the United States. In that country, whose importance in the contemporary world is impossible to deny, here are some points that this appendix addresses: —The United States is not guided by masses but by the new and traditional elites. — Traditional elites in today’s USA: a healthy, living and flourishing reality. — Lineage: no other criterion, not even fortune, is just as decisive for conferring social status. — The inheritance of social status in the United States. — Events in American high society, the debutante ball. — The organization of traditional elites today. — Hereditary associations in the United States. — The rigorous conditions for admission of the new rich into the upper classes.

What are these elites in France today? How to distinguish them from one another? One certainly notices that these elites exist. But the laws and customs in force have powerfully combined to prevent them from being clearly differentiated in the eyes of the nation. Therefore, it is almost impossible to present a list of families constituting the French elite, as is the case indeed with almost all modern peoples. In this, the nobility is distinguished. That is what I would say in response to your question.

 

Q: Here in France, as you know, it is fashionable to refer to populism as a plank of salvation. What do you think of it?

PCO – Paying attention to the rights of the human masses described as “the man in the street” is certainly part of the mission of the State and of society, and it is even one of their primary obligations.

Belmead Mansion on the James, formerly was the site for St. Emma Military Academy, it operated between 1895 and 1971. The boys school was funded and operated by St. Katharine Drexel’s sister and brother in law, Louise and Edward Morrell. It is currently the main office for FrancisEmma, Inc. & is listed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

However, your question reflects a strictly egalitarian position that considers the rights of the people — which in the flavorful language of the Middle Ages were referred to as “the common people of God” to such a degree that it leaves no room for any other class. However, the existence of elites is a factor, which, in itself, responds to several legitimate and fundamental needs of the people. Note that I say “people” and not “masses”. By bearing in mind the concepts of “people” and “mass” as clarified by Pope Pius XII, one understands spontaneously and without effort the role of the elites:

1. “The people, and the shapeless multitude (or, as it is called, “the masses”) are two distinct concepts.

  1. “The people lives and moves by its own life energy; the masses are inert of themselves and can only be moved from outside.
  2. “The people lives by the fullness of life in the men that compose it, each of whom—at his proper place and in his own way—is a person conscious of his own responsibility and of his own views. The masses, on the contrary, wait for the impulse from outside, an easy plaything in the hands of anyone who exploits their instincts and impressions; ready to follow in turn, today this flag, tomorrow another.
  3. “From the exuberant life of a true people, an abundant rich life is diffused in the State and all its organs, instilling into them, with a vigor that is always renewing itself, the consciousness of their own responsibility, the true instinct for the common good. The elementary power of the masses, deftly managed and employed, the State also can utilize: in the ambitious hands of one or of several who have been artificially brought together for selfish aims, the State itself, with the support of the masses, reduced to the minimum status of a mere machine, can impose its whims on the better part of the real people: the common interest remains seriously, and for a long time, injured by this process, and the injury is very often hard to heal.”[1]

The complementarity and interdependence between elites and other social classes, on the one hand, and a rich and flexible concept of the common good, on the other hand, contradicts many of the presuppositions of your question and at the same time gives it a valid answer.

 

Q: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, one successively witnessed the disappearance of the old Communist regime, soon followed, in many places, by a return of the communists through elections. Do you think that the old “apparatchiks” today form an elite in those countries? From the perspective of your book, what is the solution to chaos if there is only one alternative between the masses molded by seventy years of communism and the old nomenklatura?

PCO – In this perspective, there is no solution. Chaos is really the sad epilogue of the various evolutions through which the communist world has passed. Where will this chaos end? That is a separate and very different question. History presents us with several cases of chaotic situations that eventually lead to the liquidation of the components of chaos and, consequently, to the formation of various situations, some of which are brilliant. However, in most cases, these are dull, expressionless and melancholic. They are peoples “sitting on the cusp of death,” so to speak.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with the family (left to right): Olga, Maria, Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana. Photo taken in 1913.

This is what happened to ancient Egypt, to Greece dominated by Rome, to India before the great navigations of the West, and to almost all the peoples of the East and Asia.

A brilliant example in the opposite direction was the outbreak of chaos in the territory of the ancient Roman Empire of the West with the almost simultaneous invasion of barbarians and Arabs. The result was real chaos. However, not everything was chaos. While the authorities of the Roman Empire abandoned their posts and shamefully fled as the barbarians approached, the ecclesiastical authorities remained where they were. Very often at the risk of their lives, they began to give a first rate moral formation to these peoples, who, albeit barbarian, had noteworthy characteristics of innocence and moral rectitude.

The Church supported all that she found positive in that primitive morality of the barbarians; she fought what was censurable and constituted a factor of chaos; and from this amalgamation, enlivened by the regenerative force of the Gospel, was born the Middle Ages, from which, in turn, Western Christian civilization germinated.

Obviously, it is an error to suppose that chaos alone managed to generate all that is positive in the centuries that followed the Middle Ages. In fact, the barbarian masses found in the ancient Roman territory an incomparable factor of organization, orientation, cultural and social structuring. It was the ferment of the Gospel, capable of giving life to any people. It was the moral value of the clergy that gave rise to the Middle Ages.

Russian Revolution of 1917

One might add that one hardly sees this factor throughout the Soviet world today. The Greek-schismatic Church, also called “Orthodox”, cannot be regarded purely and simply as a valid continuator of the Catholic Church, of which it is, in many respects, an opponent. During the period of communist domination, it is well known that the clergy of this church, dominated by the “orthodox” Tsar-papist doctrines that placed the ecclesiastical organization under the direction of the Tsars, felt obliged to obey the successive Leninist communists as it had previously obeyed the successive tsars. Instead of being a factor of regeneration and of fighting communism, it associated itself with the regime in order not to disappear. Conversely, it was the willingness of every priest to perish if necessary, but not to give way to barbarism, that gave rise to the Middle Ages.

In any case, the Greek-schismatic church cannot be considered a sufficient factor for the regeneration of the former Soviet peoples. On the other hand, the penetration of the Catholic Church into these territories is very limited due to a series of circumstances of which the West has only an imprecise idea. Finally, a considerable number of Catholics entering the ex-Soviet world are almost always influenced by modern progressive doctrines originating in the West, where the crisis of the Catholic Church, of progressive origin, produces the disturbances which we all know and deplore. It seems that the clergy belonging to this tendency are in no way capable of any restructuring action. From where, then, should we expect a solution? From some well-intentioned individuals especially blessed by God? Only they will be able, with the support of Rome, to raise the remains of the communist “colossus” lying on the ground. However, do these elements exist in the ex-Soviet world? I think so; but they exist in such a small number that they must be sought with a magnifying glass; and one should pray for them and help them as much as possible.

 

[1] Radio message of Christmas 1944, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santità Pio XII, Vol. VI, pp. 238-239.

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