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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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    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      To Arthur, Excellent hub. You say what others are afraid to say. I believe in having the best for myself and in high achievement. Nothing is wrong for that. It is good for people to want and strive for the best that they can be.

      I concur with prgundy that there is trend towards being mediocre, antiachievement, and antiintellectual. What is that? Humankind are thinking and intelligent beings. We have brains to think, create, and aspire us to use our highest potentials and reach the highest goals possibles. Arthur, you are indeed a diamond among brass. Great and excellent hub. Keep writing!

    • Teri Pettit profile image

      Teri Pettit 6 years ago from Santa Cruz, California

      Hey, pgrundy and Arthur:

      Goedel, Escher, Bach is a very fun read! You should give it a try.

      (I got to read rough drafts of the chapters while Doug was writing it. We both had offices at Stanford's Ventura Hall at the time. Did you know he carved the wooden GED block himself?)

    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Thanks for your kind comment, sbeakr. Thanks for the fan mail as well. When I have more time, I'll take a look through your hubs.


    • profile image

      sbeakr 8 years ago

      Fantastic discernment between the two, and an inspiring argument in favor of pure elitism. Lovely!

    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Amanda: Thanks for your comment. If I understand you (and I might not), you're worried that elitism might entail materialism and/or unrealistic goal-setting. I address the former briefly in the article when I say elitism seems to be perverted into 'gadget-obsession' or 'keeping up with the Joneses', but that these have nothing to do with what's best for us and so are not elitist decisions.

      What I'm calling elitism only means seeking what's best for our flourishing as people, not our happiness, desires, or unrealistic goals. Sometimes what would make us momentarily happy isn't really what's best for us. And one certainly needn't be aiming to be a dragonslaying princess to find a healthy and well-rounded way of living.


    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Pgrundy: I, too, have a copy of "Godel, Eschar, and Bach" that remains unread. It contains a lotta words! haha

      Eagerly awaiting your hub on this subject I inspired.


    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 8 years ago from UK

      Hi Arthur, this hub reminds me a great deal of an article I recently read about the nature of happiness, and how, for so many of us, happiness is a positional concept. The idea is that if 'possessions' make us happy, they possibly only induce happiness if we somehow have more or better possessions than other people. Of course this kind of happiness is only transitory. Once we have the latest mobile phone, Versace handbag, designer outfit, etc. etc. we almost immediately start eyeing up the next 'must have' item.

      I see elitism as similar in many ways. We start off with high aspirations in childhood. Anything seems possible to the average 6 year old. He or she will some day be a super-hero, a princess, a dragon-slayer, a famous singer, or a film star. Then life takes over and our dreams and schemes are cruelly cut-down to size, and for many of us aspiration is replaced by envy rather than acceptance.

    • profile image

      pgrundy 8 years ago

      I have a copy of the book, "Godel, Escher, Bach" in the house somewhere. I've never read it of course! lol! It was given to me by the head of the philosophy department where I went to grad school--He thought it would be great if we did some kind of paper on it together. I said, Geez zow pete man! I'm a girl! I can't understand this stuff!

      Seriously I did say that. They got so out of control for a bit. There's a girl here, there's a girl here! Let's see what it can do? Quick! Somebody get a stick! I'm scared!


      Coming from 'the wrong side of the tracks' myself I think I know the source of the contempt for learning in the U.S. It's a class thing, and it comes with lots of stuffed rage and perverse pride. I think that would make a good hub. Thanks for the idea! :)

    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      loua: Thanks for your comment. I understand what you're getting at. But I think you have political elitism in mind, whereas I have a cultural and personal elitism in mind. Perhaps my terminology strikes you a bit too fanciful, but at least you get what I'm after. I certainly would not support political elitism, which is a whole other can of worms--worms mostly dead and dessicated for centuries, thankfully.


    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Pgrundy: Thanks a lot for your comment, Pam. I agree there is a rising trend of anti-intellectualism. It seems to be strongest in the US. Our politicians, for instance, are regularly educated and articulate people. It was astonishing to me that Obama was called, with contempt, an elitist for being educated and articulate. Why should it offend anyone that he pursued learning rather than ignorance? Why should anyone find it stupid that you've chosen to be well-read and thoughtful? One thing I didn't investigate in the essay is where the contempt for elitism comes from, but I'd speculate it's some sort of discomfort or shame arising from feelings of inferiority. In line with what CMHypno suggests above, a lot could be solved if people just had better self-esteem (and, as you say, critical thinking!).


      P.S. Did you know the mathematician Kurt Godel believed there was a loophole in the American political system allowing for a dictatorship? He never explained what it was, to my knowledge.

    • loua profile image

      loua 8 years ago from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet

      Just a thought you might ponder:

      From what you say, I believe you qualify better as an eclectic idealist...

      An elitist would not qualify its status, they demand the status as a matter preordained by social status. One does not decide to be an aristocrat, it is a title bestowed by society.

      An elitist is one who believes that a system or society should be ruled or dominated by the elite aristocracy: where the elite think they are aristocratic because of the power, talent, or wealth they possess or inherited. Do you want this as a handle?

    • profile image

      pgrundy 8 years ago

      Thank your for this. I worry about the U.S. right now as regards the topic of your essay. There is a sentiment gaining favor here that ignorance is noble and lack of education is proof of virtue. Naturally people who believe these things see elitism as synonymous with snobbery, but because they refuse to think critically (thinking is for snobs!) they are not capable of, nor are they interested in understanding the distinctions you make here.

      After working hard for most of my life to put myself through college, both because I enjoyed it and because I was angry that it was held up to me as not FOR a person like me (female, poor, lower class), I now get treated to explanations from people half my age of why I wasted my life because such learning is elitist and therefore worthless. But if it's worth it to me to read and write and pursue work I care about because it makes me happy, it's just me pursuing what is best for Pam. That's elitism in your definition but stupidity according to many people living in the U.S. It's all about the money, you know, and I don't have tons, so that proves how worthless it is (at least that's the rap).

      It's a great essay Arthur, but sadly, south of where you live, we are all doomed. We're about a half a heartbeat away from fascism right now. :)

    • Arthur Windermere profile image

      Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

      Coincidentally, I just finished reading/commenting on one of your hubs, CMHypno.

      Well, as I tried to express, there's an extent to which Godard is superior to Carry On that would be taken as subjective and another extent that is objective. Anyone who has studied cinema extensively would probably consider it unreasonable to treat Carry On Spying as superior to Le Mepris. A Godard film just has a lot more thought, care, craft, skill, and artistic expression poured into it than a Carry On film. Carry On Spying is more enjoyable for me to watch. I think it is more entertaining. These are purely subjective judgments. That it is a better instance of filmmaking is either true or false (in this case, false).

      On the other hand, I don't think anyone should feel inferior for preferring the Carry On films. I don't like my elitism to be linked with making others feel inferior or guilty over their tastes; it is not a kind or generous way to do things, as I'm sure you'll agree. I, too, would like everyone to have good self-esteem.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope I at least clarified my view, even if you still don't quite agree.


    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 8 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Very interesting Hub. Isn't it a value judgement on your part though to make statements like Jean-Luc Godard films are 'better' than Carry On Films? Surely it's purely a matter of personal preference for the individual. Who determines what is 'best'? I believe that every person needs to love themselves as best they can, because until they do they can't really properly love anyone else or contribute to the world. Improved self-esteem for all would make the world a better place.


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