“The Need for an Élite”

Forum and Century, October 1933

“The Need for an Élite”

Forum and Century, October 1933

This article is a plea for an élite, but it is equally a plea for the training and utilization of that more numerous body which is capable of recognizing it. What really is an élite? By the term I mean such people as have, through natural endowment, those qualities that mankind has thought worthy of honor and remembrance, whether virtue or genius, beauty or courage or magnanimity; who have them first of all naturally, but who have also enhanced them by discipline, so that by nature and training they stand out as examples worthy of imitation. Of course, the acknowledgment of the importance of these two groups— distinct groups to my mind — means an acceptance of the idea of inequality, an idea which present-day notions of civilization have made repugnant to many people. The only equalities possible of attainment on earth, as at present arranged, are political equality, social equality, and some sort of economic equality. But outside these, the eternal, unchangeable differences in men begin.

Very few things in the world are perfectly real, very few are valuable in themselves; all the rest are imitations, good or bad. The world is not only full of imitation diamonds and pearls, but full of imitation heroes, imitation beauties, imitation geniuses, imitation celebrities, and imitation good men. It is full of people without much courage or much beauty or much talent or much virtue, who do their best to get up some imitation of these things. This passion for imitation, one of the great passions of man, has produced the enormous benefits that accrue to humanity from discipline and aspiration: if through some drawback in our inheritance we were born timid and got a certain sort of schooling as children, we could grow into a fair imitation of a brave man; if we were born liars, through training we could become passably truthful; if we were born with little brains, we could by industry get up an imitation of intelligence and ability; if we were born plain, we could, by studying our appearance, curling our hair, and painting our faces, achieve a relation to beauty — become pleasant-looking, as the beauty experts say. This passion for imitation is one of the really reliable qualities of men; they can always be depended on to follow each other. Whole philosophies and creeds have been evolved to show people how they can imitate qualities which they have not naturally and to give them the discipline by which virtue can be acquired. Of course, one must admit that the belief in imitations did go to extremes; it reached a point where it became of common belief that all virtue was the result of training, and that each individual had produced his good or bad qualities; and it was almost forgotten that there are some people, a small minority, who by a happy heredity or a careless gift of the gods, are born good, magnanimous, brave, or beautiful, and who cannot help being so, who are incapable of being anything else.

The respect for the self-made man in the realm of the spirit had become unbounded; it was one of the great faults of the Puritans that they thought all virtue came from standards. Now, reduced to simple terms, standards are the array of qualities that people think worthy of imitation and which they try to acquire. The man who made himself virtuous by schooling often became a sanctimonious prig, given to talking too much about his standards and his breeding, and to thinking himself among the elect, and so a rebellion and a reaction against standards became general. Now, humanity cannot give up its standards, cannot give up its attempt to imitate the great and the good, if life on this planet is to be worth living at all, and if we are not all to be overwhelmed with selfishness, savagery, callousness, and egotism.

It was one of the advantages of the now much-abused, English, public-school system that one could send any sort of abandoned wretch of a small boy to one of the great schools, and he would come out so trained and with such a respect for certain manly virtues that he would be, in most cases, capable of passing his life as an honest and decent man, even though nature and heredity might have left him a potential crook and scoundrel. Similar and even better results were produced by some of the great continental schools. At their finest they produced excellent imitations of the best that is known and thought in the world. The objection to this sort of training, and the one which has chiefly brought it into disrepute, was the objection that it was meant for a particular class and that in the course of the schooling and the discipline the product acquired an amount of social snobbery which he was seldom able to shake off. In addition, all sorts of humbug and genteelness came to be regarded as hall-marks of high-class standards, and it became as important to take the top off a boiled egg properly as to train oneself to be a brave or considerate man. It was this babble about standards and the pursuit of minor gentilities that brought a certain amount of derision upon the idea of the gentleman. Actually, at the present time, the word “well-bred” has come to mean merely one accustomed to certain forms of social amenity and has no relation whatever to a discipline in superior qualities.

What happened was that people lost sight of their models, the naturally fine and magnanimous person, the natural genius, the world’s élite. With this I come to the point of this article — a plea for the recognition and utilization of an élite.


We mock at the Victorian age for its hypocrisies, for it produced in intolerable numbers fake good people, who themselves were imitations of poor shoddy. But I think we produce a form of fake which will eventually prove more disastrous and bring us more into disrepute with posterity — the fake intelligentsia, the imitation talented. There is no quality in the world that ought to be more carefully examined than intelligence, for though intelligence itself can exist without any other virtue whatever, no virtue in itself can exist without intelligence — truth, courage, loyalty, sincerity, strong emotion are inescapably bound up with intelligence. There has never been a generous man, a magnanimous man, who was not intelligent; there has never been a really devoted dog who was not intelligent; intelligence is a component of every virtue. The shoddy nature of our intelligentsia is partly the result of the systems of education which have been popular for so long with their craze for finding a creative gift in everybody. Parents are told that every child has a creative power which a particular system of education will nourish and bring to bloom — a theory that has brought into being all sorts of pathetic ambitions, doomed to disillusion and unhappiness. Hardly any of us, as a matter of truth, has any creative gift for anything at all. We are highly endowed if we have an intelligence good enough to imitate the really endowed and to discriminate between them and the pseudo-endowed. We are highly gifted if we have some bent for making engines or pianos, or for sewing or cooking, or, best of all, some bent for loving and helping people. But as for creative gifts, if there are three hundred people of genuine creative gift, of all kinds, in any large country, and a couple of thousand more of good secondary gifts, that country is lucky; all the rest of the population are imitations, good or bad, noble or base.

What have our creative schools been turning out through a misapplication of the theory that education should be a drawing-out ? Have they turned out creators or, what would be possible for them to do, appreciators of creators ? What they seem to have produced is a vast number of young men and women with a passion for trying to distinguish themselves in the easiest and most immediate way, and with such a craze for notoriety and for becoming imitation celebrities that, to get themselves in the public eye, they are capable of any silliness. If they are of sufficient social standing, they can appeal to that reliable human faculty for imitation by giving or selling their names and photos to advertise beds, cold-creams, stockings, shoes, or practically anything that can be photographed. Then the number of people, especially women, who in our grandmothers’ time would be harmlessly, if inaesthetically, employed painting lilies on mirrors, or embroidering crazy cushions, are now harmfully, but equally inaesthetically, employed in producing verse, stories, pictures, and all sorts of imitation works of art — all showing the extent to which ignorance of the best and tolerance of the worst have gone. It seems to me that what we really need is a system of education for those people who have in them the possibility of recognizing the best, for those who have that kind of intelligence which can be trained to recognize the best in every branch of human achievement — art, politics, philosophy, science, education, social organization.


A considerable stir was caused some time ago in the European press by a report from New York that a special school was to be founded in America for children of marked ability. Why, the proposer of the idea was described as asking, have we schools for backward children, for children of ordinary intelligence, and none at all for intelligence above the ordinary? The expression of approval of this project was wide, and it was noticeable not only that the approvers jumped to the conclusion that such a school would somehow provide for the discovery of an élite, but also the cynical disapprovers were convinced of the same thing, and it was this conviction that formed the basis of their objections. Does anybody really imagine, they asked, that mankind wants to advance? Do we want these higher minds, these superior types? Don’t we really like to wallow in mediocrity of all kinds? Isn’t all life run for the medium sort of person who is neither high nor low, bad nor good, clever nor stupid? Isn’t all life, are not all governments and all policies meant for him? Are not all ideas of democracy intended to keep everybody as mediocre as everybody else? The answer to all these questions is that the world does like to wallow in mediocrity and that life is run for the medium sort of person and that God and science and nature, and what laws and justice we have, seem to exist solely for the purpose of protecting and cherishing him. Still, while we like to wallow in mediocrity, the truth is that we cannot stand for long a scheme of life in which we are called upon to imitate other mediocrities; we must somewhere in the world see people who are beacon-lights, who are above the mediocrities. There has never before been such an extensive attempt as has been made in the last decade or two to lower the standing and influence of these people above the mediocre, these beacon-lights. Most biographies were written with the idea of patronizing or lowering the personages written about, of showing up some weakness which was supposed to be more important to deal with than with his greatness. To make a great man appear as much as possible like everybody else, and also with some weakness in a greater degree, was the aim of many of the new-style biographers; and a Frenchman succeeded in writing a biography of a great poet without mentioning the poetry, the real thing that distinguished him from other people and that made him a subject for biography. There was a mania for stating in effect: “This man was not any better than we are; he was in many ways a trifle lower and more foolish.”


Men have always realized that the people who are above the mediocrities, the people of moral and intellectual power above the average (of practically anything above the average), are in many ways at a disadvantage in life, sometimes at such a disadvantage that loving mothers have been known to pray that their little sons and daughters might grow into average men and women. For if a man’s intellect is so superior to other people’s that he stands out from them, even if his social charm or beauty or worldly position is superior to theirs, he is almost certainly going to find him- self subject to jealousies and suspicions and attacks. If he is so superior ethically and emotionally that his standards and his conduct are higher than other people’s, he is certainly going to find himself deceived and betrayed. Men of outstanding scientific or artistic achievement are, in proportion to their distinction, subject to forms of persecution, threats, and abusive letters unrealized by the happy people who have no history and no distinctions. The daily persecution, for instance, to which the most famous living scientist and the most famous living author are subject, would wreck forever the peace of simpler men. Generally, the persecutors give the most lofty moral reason for their malevolence, such as that the distinguished man, because his discovery or his work is bad for humanity, deserves some fate that will be a lesson to other people. But the other side of the picture is also true. In addition to being misunderstood and persecuted, the man of superior endowment is going to be honored and admired; he is going to be remembered, perhaps, for centuries to come. Besides being betrayed, the man of high ethical conduct, of strong emotional power, is going to be loved and admired. Superiority is, at the same time, resented and revered, and if it is more resented than revered by the basest types, it is more revered than resented by the best.

Apart altogether from whether it is loved or hated, no class is so absolutely necessary to the rest of humanity than an élite — a moral and intellectual élite. And a country which does not see the psychological necessity for making pro- vision for the various forms of élite will soon be confronted with masses of people who do not know what to do with their lives. Not knowing what to do with their lives is the malady of increasing numbers in the modern world, especially among the masses who have dropped religion and the guiding traditional ethics of Christianity and who are now trying to attach themselves to any sort of ism or ist that comes their way. That religion is the opiate of the people is one of those astonishing maxims, founded on falsehood and a lack of psychological knowledge, which have an extensive currency in the world to-day. It derives first of all from a misunderstanding of the function of religion and, secondly, from a psychological misunderstanding of humanity — the notion that mankind is made up of Nietzschean super-men who can stand alone in any crisis. All the real weaklings and neurotics I have ever known were people to whom religion would have given a saving strength — men who, without it, clung like babies to the bosom of the nearest woman, or women who hysterically harassed the life of the nearest man. That men and women can stand alone without example or guidance, that they can cope with life unaided, is either the notion of a person with a too-theoretic outlook on life, perilously ignorant of human psychology, or else it is a conception evolved by a demigod for demigods and has no relation to the needs of the bulk of humanity.


At the moment, there is a blind, or at any rate, but a half-conscious effort to discover an élite. Stage any strong man or apparently strong man, and the masses will follow him as they followed Lenin and Mussolini, as they are following Hitler and Gandhi. Make a slogan of an idea that can be shaped into a doctrine, and there will be a number of people attaching themselves to it, some even ready to face death for it, like martyrs in the Roman Coliseum. It is because such people are whirled along by an inner need to attach themselves to something, rather than by convictions of any kind, and are without power of criticizing or distinguishing one set of values from another. Take away a religious creed, and you will have people attaching themselves to some other form of dogma, economic, or political, or revolutionary — the need is there and it will satisfy itself somehow. To make people good communists, to make them thoroughly ists of any kind, take away all other creeds from them and you will have them in the way of becoming fanatics for your doctrine.

Danger, too, is in the fact that some of the middlemen of ideas who expound doctrines are so often themselves men of irresponsible intelligence, with but a capricious concern for the ideas they are handing out to people who have a desperate need to fill up gaps in their lives by assimilating some mental or spiritual pabulum. All ideas and doctrines, religious, moral, political, economic, or artistic, have three classes of people attached to them: first, the initiators, the creators, the élite; secondly, the middlemen of ideas who are attracted and who expound and exemplify the ideas and doctrines to the public; and, thirdly, that mass-public which attaches itself to the doctrine, blindly but passionately — and it is on the amount of passion aroused that the final success of all doctrines outside the domain of pure science or pure knowledge depends. Persons with a genuine conviction are, of course, as rare as persons with any other genuine quality. What commonly passes for conviction is a sort of mental infection which people get from each other and which sometimes afflicts them with the intensity of an obsession: this is what happens in the crises which we call war and revolution and in those waves of emotion which are race-hatreds and hatreds of other peoples’ creeds and ways of life.

The masses are outfitted by the middlemen of ideas, who are themselves recruited from intelligences above the ordinary; it is they who expound the doctrines, sometimes distorting them; it is they who discover the élite, who first recognize a great scientist, a great artist, a great leader. Their role is most important: the destiny of the world is decided by men with a few transforming ideas; these ideas are worked out and applied by the middlemen and are then followed by the multitude. No one can go so far as to call the multitude “the inert majority,” as Lenin did, for if they were really inert no doctrine would succeed — it succeeds only because of the passion of their attachment to it. For the first class, for the é1ite, and for the third class, the masses, training is not of vital importance, for the first has genius and intuition, and the other has unreasoning passion. But for the middlemen, training is of supreme importance. On them rests the responsibility of directing the world, of seeing that in following the destiny marked out for it by the few — the few religious leaders, the few political leaders, the few great artists — there is achieved the greatest good for the greatest number. Towards achieving the greatest good for the greatest number — this may be a personal opinion — political equality, democracy, and education for the masses have been very inadequate; to many who do not subscribe to the tenets of communism, it seems that the essential step towards this greatest good is in some kind of economic equality.

But this, as well as every other problem, moral, intellectual, and artistic, can be solved only by men trained to discern what ideas are of most value and most suitable for the civilization they serve — men humble enough in themselves to recognize those above them, and responsible enough to realize their duties to those below them. No matter what equalizing processes the world goes in for, we will still have the three classes I have written about here — the élite, the middlemen, and the masses — it is no snobbery to acknowledge them; it is only an acceptance of reality.

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