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What Is Elitism

Updated on June 14, 2010

A Thought Experiment

Imagine you want to purchase a new home. The real estate agent has assessed your resources and tastes, and offers you two possibilities of the same price. One is a gorgeous country villa, with cobblestone paths, a marble foyer, oak paneling, and--why not?--faucets made of gold. The other is situated near a landfill, hasn't been maintained in years, leaks, is poorly designed, and--why not?--is built on an ancient burial ground. This choice is important for your life and your resources are limited. Perhaps, were you quite wealthy, you could buy both just for the heck of it--after all, it's not every day you get a house built on an ancient burial ground. You (this imaginative you) are not wealthy, however, and you must choose one house where you, presumably, will live out a good portion of your life. There is no doubt that, if you are at all a rational, reasonable person, you will choose the gold-fauceted villa. About selecting houses, then, you are an elitist.

"Pick me!"
"Pick me!"
"No, pick me!"
"No, pick me!"

It Is Not Snobbery

There is a bias in society that has linked elitism to snobbery and perhaps not without justification. Surely some who are elitists are also snobs. However, elitism and snobbery are not the same thing. The point of the above thought experiment was the illustrate just what it means to be an elitist: it means to prefer the best. That is all. If you are offered two apples, all other things being equal, you will choose the apple that appears to be the best.

Choosing the best for oneself is a self-regarding activity. The Classical Greek word for good, agathon, always carried the connotation of being good for you. Good and benefit were synonymous to the Greek mind: there was no such thing as some overarching good, but only what helped the individual to flourish. In most cases it would have been preposterous to judge someone else's choices without knowing them very well, as we cannot be sure of what their goals and reasons are. One can be sure, however, of what's good for oneself. And it is this that the elitist pursues. Elitism is, then, a purely self-regarding attitude: any elitist criticism is criticism of oneself and elitist sentiments are intended as an expression of one's findings about what has been best for oneself, what is most beneficial.

Snobbery, on the other hand, is not a self-regarding attitude; it is an other-regarding attitude. The snob does believe in an overarching good, and it is his good. If anyone pursues an alternate good or the same good in a different way the snob criticises and condemns. The snob may or may not be an elitist. To be sure there are elitist snobs. The sort of people who won't speak to anyone who hasn't seen enough Jean-Luc Godard films or read the complete works of Samuel Beckett. Yet, there are also snobs who are not elitist. One thing that can be said for elitist snobs is at least they are justified in holding their tastes in high regard. This cannot be said for all snobs. Some have miserable tastes, interests, goals and still regard with contempt others who are not of the same mind--or of the same mind in a different manner. There are even anti-elitist snobs who show contempt for anyone who prefers the best in any field of taste.

So, while there is sometimes a temptation to be a snob for anyone who believes he is pursuing what is most beneficial, there is no essential link between elitism and snobbery. The snob may or may not pursue the best; and the elitist may or may not judge the tastes of others.

What Elitism Entails

I may have given the impression above that elitism is as liberal as pursuing whatever one considers good and enjoys. As I mentioned the Greek conception of the good is what is good for you. Anyone who has seen a commercial for a breakfast cereal will be familiar with the distinction between what's good and what's good for you. A cereal can taste good and still not be good for you. While there is some ground for judgments of taste, there is also, quite often, a fact of the matter about what is or is not the best, as in the case with the gold-fauceted villa. It is better for human flourishing to read Samuel Beckett than Stephen King, to watch Jean-Luc Godard films than the Carry On films. As an elitist prefers the best, however much she may enjoy the Carry On films (as I do), she will tend to watch the Godard film instead, given the option and all other things being equal.

Just as with the real estate agent, the heart of the matter is the limitation of resources. If I were certain I could live to a thousand years, I could read trashy horror novels to my heart's content for a hundred years and still have another nine-hundred to devote to good (for me) literature. Unfortunately, life is short and there are already way more books than I can ever possibly read, more movies than I can possibly watch, more songs than I can possibly listen to even were I to live to my maximum expected lifespan.

What a limitation of resources always entails is the need to choose. It is on the level of self-regarding choices that the attitude of elitism enters. We can have many possible attitudes to the necessity of choice: indifference, deliberate anti-elitism (i.e. always the worst), hedonism, etc.. Usually the attitude towards the necessity of choice is one that goes unexamined. However, if we do examine, we have to make a choice even about the attitude to take. This is what happened to me. And amongst the many options, the best seemed elitism: perhaps I was already an elitist and just didn't realize.

This is not to say elitist decision-making must always prevail; it is not a law imposed by a tyrant, it is a general attitude to guide one's choice-making. I am, for instance, shamelessly indulgent in my musical tastes. I also watch far more horror movies than I could ever justify as an elitist. This is mainly because songs and movies don't require much time or effort to get through. Nevertheless, I do spend more time and attention on Mozart and Orson Welles than on Iron Maiden and Wes Craven. When it comes to reading, I am much more of an elitist, because reading requires a larger commitment; there I only read books I'd consider the best. Moreover, elitism is not an attitude to bring to other forms of choice, such as choosing a partner in life: then love and not judgment of 'best' should guide one's decision, obviously. Elitism is primarily a matter of taste. Applied to the wrong areas, the essential attitude of elitism could be dehumanizing calculation, gadget-obsession, mere keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-ing, or, indeed, snobbery; but none of these consequences are what's best for one's flourishing as a human and so are not really elitism at all.

Plato was an elitist
Plato was an elitist

Aristocracy of the Soul

So, why am I a self-professed elitist? Considering the distaste with which the word is often applied, why do I think it is an attitude worth having?

The term 'aristocracy' literally means 'rule of the best.' The original idea behind aristocracy was to allow the best possible people rule. Aristocrats were thought (primarily by themselves) to be superior human beings by birthright and they took this as a right to rule. Plato's Republic argues for a political system that is no republic at all, it is plainly an aristocracy: Plato wanted the most intelligent, best educated, most virtuous people to rule the state. Plato's idea was mainly faulted in that it is logistically impossible to arrange, not that it is theoretically vicious. Even democracy is about choosing the best candidate.

When it comes to things we care about, we naturally want to choose the best. We want to best schools for our children, the best dogfood for our dogs, the best leaders for our countries. As someone who cares very much about his own life in this world--we only get one chance in my philosophy--it behooves me to take it seriously. I cannot but be an aristocrat of the soul. I mean 'soul' here in a secular sense, but take it as you will: the lifeforce, the path, the destiny, the mind, that part of ourselves that develops and flourishes for better or for worse depending on the quality of the choices we make. I don't take myself too seriously, but I do take my 'soul' seriously and I naturally want to give it the best so I be the best I can be.


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