All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1964

Natural Aristocracy

This scribe and his associates are voluntarily supported and fi­nanced to advance, by educational methods, an understanding of free exchange, private property, lim­ited government principles. With­out a first-rate rationale of the freedom philosophy, so runs our argument, these principles can be neither observed nor practiced. Is this not self-evident?

One might think, indeed, as we have thought, that our mission could best be served by teaching free market economics along with consistent governmental theory; that is, the disciplines which have to do with how man acts in re­sponse to given situations in so­ciety. But this, I am discovering, is not the whole story. Years of experience convince me that man cannot be taken as a constant; men, in fact, vastly differ. For example, a man lacking in high moral and spiritual standards can have the libertarian philosophy “down pat” in the realm of pol­itics and economics. He can grade one hundred in any test and, nev­ertheless, throw the influence of his life behind collectivism! In such an instance we have nothing whatsoever to show for our edu­cational pains.

For instance, I know of a top labor official who has learned and can explain the free enterprise philosophy as skillfully as anyone I have ever heard or read. But this man, weak in moral disci­plines, disregards his knowledge for the sake of personal power. The rest of us would be as well off were he an economic illiterate.

The above observation is not to deprecate teachings in the social sciences; far from it! These teachings are a requisite to un­derstanding. Yet, to pin our hopes for a good society on these teach­ings alone is but to delude our­selves. What is the moral and spiritual character of the man who is learning? This, we are discovering, is the real question; indeed, it is the first question to which a satisfactory answer must be found.

I feel that some such explana­tion as the above is a necessary preface to the following discus­sion which probes into an area that is usually left unexplored by individuals supported to carry on a program of economic education. But if our studies and reflections reveal that economic education, important as it is, cannot, by it­self, solve our problem, then, it follows, we are duty-bound to re­port our findings. I have come to see the need, yes, the necessity, of what Jefferson called “a nat­ural aristocracy among men, founded on virtue and talents.” Without this, so will run my arg­ument, economic expertness or sound organizational theories of society will avail us nothing.

An Unrecognized Need

It is all too apparent that the need for a natural aristocracy is not generally recognized, and un­less the need is deeply felt, we shall never call forth this aristoc­racy. Why is the need not felt? The reason is important: it may be that most of us are unaware of the relatively undeveloped state in which we as humans now ex­ist. Our unawareness, such as it is, may stem from a failure to put ourselves in proper long-range perspective. In no small measure this would seem to account for a great deal of unwarranted self-esteem, for thinking of ourselves as the ultimate in perfection, for our egocentricity. Our natural tendency is to regard the universe as something which revolves around each little “me.”

No person in such a state of self-satisfaction is in any shape to recognize his incompleteness, let alone to improve, to emerge, to continue the hatching process, to soar into what Jefferson meant by a natural aristocracy. A person who regards himself as a com­pleted specimen of humanity can hardly acquire more virtue and talents. If a natural aristocracy is a requirement, then it follows that most of us need a keener appreciation of our present situa­tion relative to where we as hu­mans once were, and relative to what humanity might become.

A Speck in Space

A slight beginning toward an improved perspective might be gained by comparing the time span of what we call humanity with the time span of that infin­itesimal speck in the universe we call earth. For instance, let a 10,000-foot jet runway repre­sent the time span of this planet—perhaps 2,500,000,000 years.

Man, so some scientists contend, emerged from the herd of his animal cousins something like 50,000 years ago, less than the last two inches of the 10,000-foot runway! Man, it seems, is no more than a Johnny-come-lately! [1]

In what condition did these relatively recent ancestors of ours find themselves? The late Cassius Jackson Keyser, mathematician-philosopher of Columbia University, answered the question in this manner:

Long ages ago there appeared up­on this planet—no matter how—the first specimens of our human kind. What was their condition? It re­quires some exercise of the imagination to realize keenly what it must have been. Of knowledge, in the sense in which we humans now use the term, they had none—no science, no philosophy, no art, no religion; they did not know what they were nor where they were; they knew nothing of the past, for they had no history, not even tradition; they could not foretell the future, for they had no knowledge of natural law; they had no capital—no material or spiritual wealth—no inheritance, that is, from the time and toil of by­gone generations; they were without tools, without precedents, without guiding maxims, without speech, without any light of human experi­ence; their ignorance, as we under­stand the term, was almost absolute. [2]

Where We Are on the Yardstick of Human Destiny

The above would seem to be a fair picture of where we were only a few moments ago in long-range time. But where are we now in relation to our destiny? Using human destiny as a yard­stick, we have barely moved. Again, according to the scientists, most species require a million years to develop. Should this rule of nature apply to humans, then we have 95 per cent of the way yet to go—an occasion for humil­ity as well as hope.

Of course, it is absurd to be­lieve that human beings will up­grade more evenly in the coming eons than in the past 50,000 years. Every species including the human species, has its throwbacks and its great masses of medioc­rity. But, encouragingly, the rec­ord is punctuated with numerous oversouls, “the spirit which in­spires and motivates all living things.” While many among us show little if any advancement over the original specimens, there have been and are a few who, in some respects, serve as lodestars, as guiding ideals, as models of excellence, as exemplars of the human potential, and thus qualify for what is meant by a natural aristocracy. Further, if the hu­man species makes the grade, in­stead of falling by the wayside, the unevenness we have noted—the mass of mediocrities and the few oversouls—probably will con­tinue throughout the millennia of man’s hoped-for emergence in con­sciousness, awareness, perception, reason; in man’s power to choose and to accomplish what he wills.

The careful observer can hardly help noting certain “break­throughs” which demonstrate the potential in mankind. Reflect on Jesus of Nazareth. Bear in mind such high specimens of human­ness as Hammurabi, Ikhnaton, Ashoka, Guatama Buddha, Lao-tse, Confucius, Moses, Socrates, and, a moment closer to our own time, Beethoven, Milton, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Rembrandt, and so on. Edison, Pasteur, Poincare, Einstein have, in their ways, soared above most of us and given us light.[3] The performances of these uncommon and remarkable persons are but prophecies of what potentially is within the reach of our species.

Whether or not our species will move on toward its destiny or, more to the immediate point, whether or not we, the living, and our children will be able to play our role in and benefit from a hu­man emergence, would seem to depend on what elements in the population predominate. Will those who are failures in the evolution­ary process rise to political power, forming an inhibiting kakistoc­racy, that is, a government by the worst men, thus retarding or de­stroying the process? Or will our course be determined by a natural aristocracy founded on virtue and talents? We, in our times, may well be living in one of the great moments of decision.

The Worst Get to the Top

One thing seems crystal clear: The worst elements in each one of us will predominate in any mo­ment of time when the aristo­cratic spirit is not “in the pink of condition”; the slightest letdown in its moral, intellectual, and spir­itual virility must inevitably wit­ness disaster. This is true in na­ture: the weeds, pests, fungi, viruses, parasites take over when­ever their natural enemies ex­perience a letdown. Virtue and talents, the natural enemies of ignorance, knavery, foolishness, malevolence, must be perpetually flowering to hold these evils in check. This is to suggest that our species will not make the grade in the absence of those emerged spirits which inspire and moti­vate the human race toward its evolutionary destiny.

Conceding the need for a nat­ural aristocracy is one thing, per­haps a first step in right thinking. But more is required than the mere repetition of the virtue and talents of those who have gone before us. If nothing more than carbon copies were required, it then follows that we of our gen­eration would exhibit no improve­ment over the first specimens of the human kind. We would be in need of no language, no knowl­edge; our absolute ignorance would be adequate. No, the human situation is not meant to be a static situation; it has no stopping place, no “this is it!” Instead, it is a dynamic process, the essen­tial requirement of which is per­petual hatching in virtue and tal­ents, an eternal improvement in consciousness, awareness, percep­tivity.

Human Consciousness

No doubt the scientists are cor­rect in claiming that most species take a million years to develop. Humanness, however, is geared not to the finite but to the Infinite and thus, I believe, what ap­plies to other species does not necessarily apply to man. True, man cannot conceive of infinity, even in the case of time or space. But man can become aware of infinity by the simple acknowl­edgment that he cannot compre­hend finite time or space—a point in time or space beyond which there is no more time or space. By the same token, man cannot conceive of infinite consciousness, consciousness being the singular, distinguishing characteristic of humanness, but he can become aware of it by admitting that he cannot visualize a point in con­sciousness beyond which there could be no more consciousness.

The human situation, it seems, by reason of this peculiar quality of consciousness, is linked to eternity; its design includes no point of retirement; it admits of no Shangri-La implications what­soever; perpetual struggle and the overcoming of endless con­frontations is of its essence. This, however, is not to deny that in­dividuals are free to retire, to resign from the climb, to get out of life, to surrender self-respon­sibility, to think short-range, to “live it up” here and now; they can and do exercise their freedom in this respect, and on the grand scale! And these who acquire so little of that which is distinctly human are assuredly among the many who can and will take over in the absence of a first-rate aristocracy.

It may be that a purpose is served by these drop-outs from the struggle, among whom are numbered many of the famous, the wealthy, the “educated,” and “leaders” in business, church, and state, along with the masses of the nondescript. It is the threat of their take-over, the danger of their dominance of the human situation, that triggers the aristo­cratic spirit into existence. Their actions bring on reactions; their devolution is the genesis of evo­lution; these agents of disaster are meant to create an anti-agency of survival. Without them, the evolutionary process would cease; for man cannot become except as he overcomes. A strong position rests on strong opposition.[4] At work here is the tension of the op­posites or the law of polarity. In short, the unfortunate quitters serve as springboards to those who pioneer progress.

Emerging Creativity in Man

If every action has its reaction, as observation affirms, some people will conclude that we then have nothing to fret about; in other words, let nature take its course while we spin our own little webs. What is overlooked in such a conclusion is that the hu­man situation is peculiarly dis­tinguished by consciousness, a quality not found in other life forms. And as consciousness emerg­es, there comes with it a responsi­bility to share in the creative process. An expansion of the in­dividual’s consciousness toward a harmony with Infinite Conscious­ness demands of the individual that he take on, commensurately, other characteristics of his Cre­ator. It is absurd to believe that there can be any growth in that direction without a corresponding emergence of creativity in man.

True, every action has a reac­tion but, unless there is a con­scious effort—unnatural effort or, better yet, above the natural—to exercise the new creativity born of added consciousness, the reac­tion to the dominance of ignor­ance, knavery, and foolishness will take only the form of displeasure, hate, vengeance, cynicism, satire, political bickering, snobbery, name-calling. Clearly, there is no emergent power in this type of reaction, none whatsoever. No natural aristocracy can be born of this. Such reactions are at the same low level as the ignorant, knavish, foolish actions. And, with nothing more than this, ignorance, knavery, foolishness will continue to dominate society.

To summarize the foregoing: It is my belief that those qualities of character which have sufficed to bring progress in the past will prove inadequate from here on; indeed, the mere duplication of past virtue and talents will not stand us in good stead right now. We need, at this juncture in man’s emer­gence, a natural aristocracy of higher quality than has hereto­fore existed. Looking at the hu­man situation with an evolution­ary perspective allows of no other conclusion! Thus, membership in the natural aristocracy must be more distinguished than ever before, this being a necessary con­dition to human emergence, in fact, even survival.

Not Men, but Ideas

If the above observations are valid, it follows that the estab­lishment of a natural aristocracy should be our prime objective; the teaching of economics or other disciplines of the social sciences can be meaningful only if indi­viduals of virtue and talents are presupposed. What, then, are the qualifications for membership?

Unless careful, we are likely to think of membership in the nat­ural aristocracy as consisting of a set of persons, for such, indeed, has been the case in various so-called aristocracies, composed, as they have been, of privileged mi­norities possessed of great wealth or social position. Aristocracy, in common usage, has been correctly interpreted as consisting of per­sons of a certain lineage or legal standing.

But the natural aristocracy, such as we have in mind, is even more exclusive; its membership is distinguished by manifested virtue and talents. It is not based on law or a given parentage; it must be regarded as more than an order of persons because there is no individual who is absolutely virtuous and talented, nor anyone wholly lacking some virtue and talents.

Now and then there is a person who manifests extraordinary vir­tue and talents, relative, at any rate, to the rest of us. Observing this, we are led into the error of following a fallible individual rather than emulating his virtue and talents which are the bench marks of a natural aristocracy. The error is serious. To become a Confucius or a Goethe is impos­sible, but the virtue of the one and the talents of the other are to some degree attainable and, perhaps by a few, surpassable.

How, then, is the individual to seek identification with the natural aristocracy among men? Strict instruction, I am certain, would deny to anyone the priv­ilege of saying, “I am now a mem­ber of the natural aristocracy.” Glory and fame for the man would not be permissible, only glory and fame for the virtue and talents—the characteristics rather than the characters!

The person himself, insofar as he might have any association with this type of aristocracy, would be now in and now out, as virtue and talents were showing forth through him or being ob­scured. Perhaps we could say that no individual would have any identification with the aristocracy whatsoever except during those moments when he might be in an improving state. In this state—such would be the concentration—he would not be aware himself of his own status. Indeed, any feeling of what-a-good-boy-am-I would be a sure sign of exclusion from the aristocracy.

An Aristocratic Spirit

A natural aristocracy, then, does not consist of “aristocrats” as commonly interpreted but, in­stead, is an aristocratic spirit which can show forth or manifest itself in any serious and deter­mined person. What persons? Hanford Henderson answered the question in this manner:

He may be a day laborer, an artisan, a shopkeeper, a professional man, a writer, a statesman. It is not a matter of birth, or occupation, or education. It is an attitude of mind carried into daily action, that is to say, a religion. It [the aristocratic spirit] is the dis­interested, passionate love of excel­lence… everywhere and in every­thing; the aristocrat, to deserve the name, must love it in himself, in his own alert mind, in his own illumi­nated spirit, and he must love it in others; must love it in all human re­lations and occupations and activi­ties; in all things in earth or sea or sky.

Henderson’s statement pretty well stakes out the dimensions of the aristocratic spirit, in essence, the love of excellence which, of course, includes the love of righ­teousness. And by “disinterested” Henderson meant that this atti­tude of mind should be for its own sake, without any thought of reward in the here or the here­after.

The love of excellence for its own sake! This is the attitude of mind, when acquired, which witnesses man’s sharing in Crea­tion. He becomes, in a sense, his own man.

Indeed, the man who acquires the aristocratic spirit will, quite naturally, have the same view of economics as does Henry Hazlitt: The art of economics consists in look­ing not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

The man with the aristocratic spirit will, along with Immanuel Kant, consider a maxim as good only if the principle of universal­ity can rationally be applied to it; he will no more be guided by the fear of opprobrium on the part of his fallible fellows than he will by the desire for their approba­tion. He acts, thinks, and lives in long-range or eternal terms, for he has linked himself with eter­nity by his love of and devotion to excellence.

Imagine, if we can, the enormous difference between the thoughts and actions of laborers, artisans, shopkeepers, profession­al men, writers, statesmen, as we commonly observe them, and the thoughts and actions of these self-same people were they imbued with the aristocratic spirit! I do not mean to suggest in any of the foregoing that the aristocratic spirit is to be found in institutions (groups, societies, governments, churches, and the like) rather than in man. The spirit manifests itself only through individuals, though perhaps not continuously through any one person.

My own conclusion is that the ups and downs in society are guided by the rise and fall of the aristocratic spirit. It is utter folly to hope for social felicity when this spirit is in the dol­drums, and no maneuver less than bringing it to “the pink of con­dition” will matter one whit. The good society, with its open op­portunity for individual develop­ment, is a dividend we receive when virtue and talents are flow­ering, when the love of excellence and righteousness rides high.



The advantage of the competitive capitalistic system is that no device or method lasts long when something better is offered.

 — William Feather

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”