Our Ruling Class

There are two sorts of stock human dramas that play out in every age of history. The first concerns people who were once rich but are now discovering they are poor. The second is their opposite: people who were once poor who suddenly realize they are rich.

Years ago there were riveting accounts in a Manila newspaper about a man, whose surname was a byword for inherited wealth, pathetically resisting eviction from his ancestral home. The man -- who gave his occupation as artist -- sat disconsolate in the driveway of his former home, surrounded by his books, records and memorabilia, refusing the court order to leave until hunger and the elements forced him out into the street.

The second was represented in my mind by the story of a Chinese businessman who one day found a clan delegation in the shoddy warehouse where he lived, slept and held office despite his great wealth. They implored him to redeem the family honor by not riding around in a jalopy, an act which they claimed reflected badly on the clan's status.  "Honorable patriarch," they begged, "could you not purchase a suitable limousine commensurate to your true wealth?"

The old man was nonplussed. He liked sleeping on packing crates, had no interest in fancy clothes, and was rather fond of his jalopy. But deferring to duty he acceded:

"Oh, alright. One of you please go and find the minimum quality luxury car suitable for the purpose. And remember now, the minimum quality! Not a penny more than necessary."

That was my archetype of the accession to wealth story until I read about Chelsea Clinton, who recently told Fast Company in an interview how she gritted her teeth and took on lucrative gigs before deciding to join her family’s philanthropic foundation because, "I was curious if I could care about (money) on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t."  She decided making money bored her after all and decided to pursue her true Clinton calling, which was telling people what to do.

In Chelsea the Clintons had finally become true aristocrats, finally left their Little Rock roots. Chelsea had joined that elite group which has had money for so long it bores them. She, as the British well knew of the upper classes, finally accepted her duty to rule, shouldered the burden and paid the sad price for a life cursed with luxury and privilege.

To real aristocrats, position is simply the way things have always been. In the movie The Aviator, the Howard Hughes character sits down to dinner with Old Money, and his hosts don't even know where their money came from.

Ludlow: Then how did you make all that money?

Mrs. Hepburn: We don't care about money here, Mr. Hughes.

Howard: That's because you have it.

Mrs. Hepburn: Would you repeat that?

Howard: You don't care about money because you have it. And you've always had it. My father was dirt poor when I was born…. I care about money, because I know what it takes out of a man to make it.

It is always rude to inquire where money comes from. Among real royalty it should simply be there. The recompense for the burden of aristocracy is privilege. Aristocrats must do their duty from grace; now could we please get out of the way? The notion is captured in one of CS Lewis' books, The Magician's Nephew, where Uncle Andrew explains to Digory that truly important people are not bound by rules:

"The moment I picked up that box I could tell by the pricking in my fingers that I held some great secret in my hands. She gave it to me and made me promise that as soon as she was dead I would burn it unopened, with certain ceremonies. That promise I did not keep."

"Well then, it was jolly rotten of you," said Digory.

"Rotten?" said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look. "Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I'm sure, and I'm very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys—and servants—and women—and even people in general, can't possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny."

Morality is for the middle class. Gustave Flaubert knew that aristocrats valued the right to pursue their calling free of the niggling restraints of bourgeois respectability. "There was an air of indifference about them, a calm produced by the gratification of every passion; and though their manners were suave, one could sense beneath them that special brutality which comes from the habit of breaking down half-hearted resistances that keep one fit and tickle one’s vanity -- the handling of blooded horses, the pursuit of loose women."