Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Snob

"O what a vile and abject thing is man, if he does not raise himself above humanity!" --Seneca

"My humanity is a constant self-overcoming." --Nietzsche


The snob, in general, comes in two varieties. The first is driven by impatience, the second--from malice. Those of the second variety learn by the example of their class. They grow up, cut off from the rest of humanity and are often ignorant of how the less fortunate live. Their snobbery is motivated by a poverty of imagination and compassion every bit as empty as the pockets of the poor they despise.

One often cannot understand the cycle of debt and the deadline. Of earning just enough this month to keep the lights on, but let the phone go dead. It is even harder to explain it to themselves. That sense of futility starts as a feeling and ends as a lifestyle. Some become so accustomed to it that finally, they are so deeply embedded they may never hope to see the sun again.

This is the material form of poverty, the form taught to me by experience. However, there is another form that in the damning of which I remain as much a snob as I ever was--the poverty of the mind.

The snob, at least in the past, had much to be a snob about. Wealth usually guaranteed a fine education, steeped in the Greek and Latin classics. Shakespeare, whose family was far from rich, had at least that much exposure to our shared heritage. One shudders to think how little he might have accomplished as a product of a modern public school.

In addition, the wealthy, banned by the rules of their class from the muck of common trade, were encouraged to collect the rents and spend their leisure hours in study and self-improvement. “Otium cum dignitate” was Cicero’s motto, leisure with dignity, that is, leisure to think and reflect.

The word aristocracy comes from the Greek, meaning “rule by the best.” Over time it has become a cliché of social inequality and the bogeyman, in the American mind, of all that is evil and war-worthy.

To those who blindly praise the merits of democracy, (though we have not seen a true democracy since Pericles), the virtues of such a system are rarely examined. I had an uncle who once found pleasure in sneering at the Hanoverian kings of England, and George I who did not speak the language of his subjects, nor deign to learn it. And the intermarriage of royalty has long been a comic tableau of disease and degeneration. Yet, such a Europe, despite its petty squabbles, had a sense of international union not known in Europe since. The union of a mutual culture, that at least those of greater means could be initiated into. But whatever the merits or demerits of such a government, the only true aristocracy remains that of the intellect.

The belief our rulers have earned their position by virtue of wealth and, therefore worthiness, is the unwritten and, often, unspoken rule of our plutocracy. The idea that they should be more intelligent than ourselves is also a common assumption. However, should they make the mistake of assuming publicly superior smarts, there ends the people’s vote. We prefer our leaders either as ignorant as ourselves or, brighter but with a pretence of humility.

It has long been popular to make comparisons between our Republic and that of ancient Rome, and with good reason. Like the mob of Rome who preferred their rulers to share their taste for blood sport, and delighted in the antics of Nero and Commodus for just that reason, the American electorate warms to the appearance of a common touch in their master‘s, and delight in watching them dance for our amusement come election time.

Certainly, politics is not the place for self-respect and dignity. And for that reason, those who dare to raise their heads above the trenches risk the bullets of ridicule. “Who does he think he is?” Says the heifer of the stallion, then mindlessly returns to chewing its cud. The heifer forgets that even a cow may be adored if it seeks to be golden.

Nothing is more remarkable than human potential. It sometimes rises from depths so foul we give those who fulfill its possibilities a name: genius. Many great souls come to mind that fit this description, but few better than a grim looking, pock-mark faced dirty old man known to all the world by but one name---Beethoven.

Did ever such a diamond emerge from a hole so deep? A mother said never to have smiled, a father sinking in a world of drink. He might have been the German equivalent of white trash yet, that same link of communal culture that held the nobility was there to catch him too. His native talent was seen right away by their discerning eyes, and incubated warmly before it was stillborn.

Beethoven was perceived as arrogant. His manner, caused in part by his growing deafness, made him appear cold and aloof. Not so, he was a snob of impatience. His arrogance was irritation at a world that, as he saw it, was too complacent with its vice and mediocrity. If even he could rise, certainly humanity whole could rise as well. It was his mission as an artist to remind them of what was possible. However, he did his job too well. His accomplishment was too miraculous it seemed. Who would ever believe it could be repeated?

Nevertheless, as with the Maestro, such transformations come at a price, most often at the expense of friends and pangs of the heart. In the Dhammapada the Buddha councils: “If, as the disciple fares along, he meets no companion who is better or equal, let him firmly pursue his solitary career. There is no fellowship with the foolish.“ Such actions will naturally be viewed as snobbery, and so they are, but so what? Despite the penalties, there are many gifts it can bestow in compensation, but which proverbially the young are not patient enough to wait upon.

“We are all richer than we know,” says Montaigne. I am in constant awe of human potential, but am almost as much in awe of our refusal to see it in ourselves. Perhaps we are not all gifted in the sense that genius is defined, but certainly we are all capable of doing more than we believe we can, and that is certainly a reason to hope.

In his story, The Man on the Threshold, Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “It is said that every generation of mankind includes four honest men who secretly hold up the universe and justify it to the Lord.” Perhaps four are all that can be expected from our present time. Let us hope the next generation is more promising.