An Aristocracy of Virtue?

In a 1813 letter to John Adams Thomas Jefferson proposed “instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions….”

What we have now, while still very much an aristocracy of wealth, is no less an aristocracy of Jefferson’s “talent,” or rather the talented, especially those with exceptional mathematical, verbal, artistic, and athletic skills. This is all to the good. But we are still quite without that other aristocracy of virtue, perhaps even more so than in Jefferson’s time.

Also we are still without that which Jefferson himself most wanted from the schools, and as he wrote elsewhere, an informed citizenry.

So we might say that to the aristocracy of wealth, which pretty well described the country of the founding fathers, we have over the next two centuries and a bit more added an aristocracy of talent, but are still without an aristocracy of virtue.

And as things are now for most of us, not either extraordinarily wealthy or extraordinarily gifted or talented, life is still a struggle, and, in spite of the ceaseless, and occasionally heroic efforts of reformers to change that things, for most of us have not changed.

The revolutions of the modern era, begun by those who would change things for what they thought was the better, failed utterly of course to change the way things were, their actions even when well meaning being accompanying with huge costs including millions of innocent lives lost.

If there is a worthy goal for our sacrifices it has to be not to change our natures, that we cannot do (for the time being anyway), but to make us a bit better, that which we could do.

Thomas Jefferson was right about the desirability of an aristocracy of virtue. But up until his time, and up until our own time, other than false progress on previous but mistaken paths traced by religion, we haven’t yet figured out what path now will get us there.

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