Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical
The Good Life

In Praise of Aristocratic Attributes
by Larry Sechrest

I have a complaint about some of you, my fellow libertarians, a complaint that may anger many of you. You might dismiss what follows as the senile ramblings of a hopelessly old-fashioned curmudgeon, but you do so at your own peril, because I refer to a very real problem. Moreover, it is a problem that seems rarely to have been discussed, to the best of my knowledge. And I have been involved in the libertarian and Objectivist movements since 1969.

The problem, to oversimplify it a bit, is that all too many libertarians exhibit the unwholesome characteristics of the libertine and the proletarian , while eschewing what I like to think of as aristocratic, or what others might call bourgeois, attributes and attitudes. The exact name one might give them as a category is far less important than recognizing their existence and their value. I should state before proceeding that I am myself no aristocrat, and I do not pretend to be. My parents were both from dirt-poor farming families in the Ozark Mountains of the state of Arkansas. I have never been a man of wealth, political influence, or lofty social standing. Nevertheless, I have always admired and tried to emulate certain aspects of "persons of quality".

Allow me to identify a few of these aristocratic attributes, and then I will explain why I think them so important. First of all, though, let me say that in my experience almost all libertarians and Objectivists do possess a number of very admirable characteristics. I do not mean this essay to suggest otherwise. Libertarians in general, and Objectivists in particular, are usually intelligent, creative, industrious, knowledgeable, and self-reliant. They have a finely-honed and robust sense of justice. They are as skeptical of political promises as they are of junk science. They praise individuals and their achievements. They appreciate wealth as much as they appreciate tales of heroism. Indeed, they grasp what the remainder of the human race has failed to see: that those who create wealth are heroes. They welcome scientific advances at the same time that they deplore the destruction of educational standards. Above all, they understand that mankind has a profound need of the liberty that is to be found only in a laissez-faire capitalist social system. They are usually strong and proud and fiercely independent.

After the foregoing, what can be wrong? It is this. The above catalogue of libertarian traits may establish them - us - as good neighbors, rights-respecting citizens, and productive colleagues in the workplace, but it does not necessarily make them friends to be treasured. Nor does it make their own lives introspectively interesting and valuable. To honor the rights of others is hugely important; it is the core principle without which no society can long prosper. If the entire human race were to abide by that principle, this world would experience a monumental improvement. However, it is in the nature of a minimum. It does not produce a satisfying life; it merely makes it possible for one to pursue a satisfying life.

What more is needed? Attributes that enrich our lives. Attributes that make a "nobleman" of even the lowest-born. Attributes like honour, dignity, integrity, grace, benevolence, refinement, sentimentality, good taste, good manners, and tolerance. Do I claim that such attributes are often missing from the character of libertarians? Yes, I do. In fact, I think it rather obvious that this is so.

Let's face the truth. We libertarians are radicals, in a sense revolutionaries, at war with a world mired in collectivist doctrines, a world mesmerised by the shell-game that is socialism. And as with almost all revolutionaries, there is a powerful temptation for libertarians to reject not just the dominant political philosophy but everything that seems to be associated with "the old regime", everything "old-fashioned" or "traditional". Let us be at war with the political culture. But let us avoid waging war against all that we have inherited. We need to discriminate carefully. We should not ally ourselves, for example, with those sorts of no-talent, mindless poseurs who condemn all standards, all traditions, all authority just for the sake of rebellion itself. Examples that come to mind here are "performance artists" and "rap singers". Good taste requires that such people be left behind. The libertarian revolution, if it is to be worthwhile, must be about creating something good which endures, not just about defying convention.

There is more. Too many libertarians - especially (orthodox) Objectivists - are cold, impersonal, rude, coarse, and intolerant. Personally, I find this deplorable but understandable. Libertarians have long placed a high value on logical argumentation as a sort of badge of membership. Dispassionate and lucid analysis is indeed essential. However, some such discussions have become tiresome, rationalistic exercises in triviality. And all too often formal debates among libertarians degenerate into acrimonious contests not to find the truth, but to see who can embarrass whom. The more informal venues like the LibertyLoop internet discussion list are occasionally plagued by writers who stoop to insults and obscenities. Fortunately, there are other arenas - such as the recently-formed SOLO Forum - where one can find vigorous but polite discourse.

The need to be "tough-minded" in a world generally hostile to libertarian thought is undeniable. One makes a serious mistake, however, when that requirement is misinterpreted as meaning that sentimentality, dignity, good manners, or tolerance should be cast aside. Let us recapture, at least occasionally, some of the gentleness and elegance of life: re-learn the art of sending handwritten letters to friends and loved ones; and never forget their birthdays; read some poetry; listen to music so lovely it makes you weep; sing along when your favorite song is played on the radio. The possibilities are endless.

Our goal as human beings should not, must not, be merely to survive. Our goal should be to flourish. To achieve a free and therefore civil society will be a hollow victory if we fail to civilise our individual selves. Even while deep in the struggle to rid ourselves of the external bonds of political enslavement we cannot afford to forget the internal requirements of our souls. Those souls cry out for beauty, grandeur, and love, among other things. Without good taste and refinement, how are we to appreciate beauty? Without dignity and honour, how can we recognize grandeur? Without benevolence and sentimentality, how will we ever find love? Our lives need the richness, the texture that these "aristocratic attributes" can bring. Political freedom alone will not suffice.

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