Rebuilding the social body (1)
By Mgr Henri Delassus | 27 September 2023
This is the eighteenth in a series of twenty articles drawn from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905). The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of society, the disastrous effects of human tampering and the necessity of the restoration of Christian society. This series began in April 2022 with “How states are formed”.
In one of his last studies on the family, François-René de La Tour du Pin Chambly rightly said:
“The family always has to be considered as the persistent moral, economic and social entity, whose perpetuation is to be prepared by education, to be protected by legislation and to be seconded by the organisation of society.”1
This is the truth that must be re-established in minds, this is what must be put back into institutions if we want to rebuild society on its true foundation.
When families are reformed in this way in France, the social hierarchy will be re-established automatically. By the practice — more or less perfect, more or less prolonged — of traditional virtues, families will place themselves one on top of the other: at the very bottom, those who continue to live from day to day without looking to the future; above them, those who have enough command of their senses to save money; above them, those who, by accumulating savings, have acquired property; above all, those who enjoy independence from common necessities provided by goods already acquired, and who understand that they must be devoted to their brothers and consecrated to the public good.
Herbert Spencer was right when he characterised the ascension of the social being, as well as the individual being, by the passage from undefined homogeneity to defined homogeneity.
One observes that the different zones according to which a population is raised in the ways of work and thrift, of justice and honour, of charity and sanctity, are not arbitrarily established and imposed by a power extrinsic to families and individuals, as democracy would have us believe; they are born from free play in the mass of the nation. They begin to be drawn from the very birth of each society, and they are accentuated day by day by the good or the bad use of free will and by its results. Always and everywhere, those who put the most ardour and perseverance into work, and the most moderation in the satisfaction of their needs, distinguish themselves from the populace. Among them grow families where traditions of work and moderation, respected and followed for several generations, have brought them property. They constitute the bourgeoisie. Above them is the class of those who, not wanting to enjoy their goods like egoists, devote themselves to the public good.
Louis de Bonald said:
“Although the nobility was, even in France, the heritage of a few families, it was the object and the goal of the efforts of all families, each of which had to work towards establishing itself; that is, to pass from the private to the public state, because it is reasonable and even Christian to pass from a state in which one is only occupied with oneself to a state in which, unburdened of the care of acquiring a fortune because this is as good as done, a man is destined to serve others by serving the state. In France, a family coming out of its infancy, in which it depended on other families for its primary needs, considered itself ennobled for the a goal ulterior to its own projects. Once it had reached this position, it stayed there. The individual could probably advance in rank — from lieutenant to a marshal of France, from counsellor to chancellor — but these ranks, if they were not equal, were alike; the functions, though more extensive, were no different: the family could not receive any other character from them, it could not lose it other than by malfeasance. In people’s governments, a family could only aspire to become rich; then to become richer, even when it was already opulent. It has never received a character that dedicated it especially to the service of the state, and even the public functions to which the rich citizen is momentarily raised are only a way of the family to speculate to the greater advantage of its fortune. There are two ideas that it is not possible to reconcile when one does not see the extreme difference, resulting from such total disparity in their institutions, between the character of a people and the sentiments which are either the strength or the weakness of nations.”
In every time, the class of those who consider the public good more than their own has been called “aristocracy”, the class of “the betters” — aristoi — an appellation as honourable as it is just. The Revolution has made of this word, and of the thing which it expresses, an object of horror: it had reasons for this, and we have our own for not sharing this sentiment.
Let us first observe with Antoine Blanc de Saint Bonnet that, understood in a broad sense, the aristocracy among a people, is composed of all honest people, and all those who are found to be better than the nation at large. An aristocracy is that which is formed at the very centre of people by work, by thrift, by restraint in its appetites; and there are some people in the higher classes, families who are deformed and destroyed by their vices and fall back into the crowd.
But what is generally understood by this word “aristocracy” is the whole of those families which, by a long tradition of virtue, noble sentiments and service done to the state, are raised to the summit of the social hierarchy.
Democracy is placed in opposition to this aristocracy. It endeavours to annihilate it, and for this reason, a century ago, it confiscated the rights acquired in the centuries before. Today, it would stop it from being reborn, and this is why it has made laws so that it can no longer rebuild founding families: the only ones in which traditions can be transmitted, in which merits can be accumulated by the continuous efforts of a series of generations. But to remove from men a great stimulant of goodness, not to permit them to look forward to the future and to see their descendants grow and raise themselves by the impulsion that it will give them, is at the same time to annihilate our human nature, to render society inert and, at the same time, to reduce the totality of the human race to the state of a herd. There, in effect, every head of cattle is equal, hierarchy cannot be produced because there is no liberty — and consequently neither merit nor situations acquired by merit.
Democracy is even more opposed to nobility than it is to aristocracy. We often confuse these two things but they are distinct. The aristocracy which exists in a nation does not necessarily form a nobility in the state. The nobility is a class whose place is marked in the government of the country. It is the total of the families whose elevated sentiments and situation, acquired by long merits, are publicly recognised by the sovereign authority, which, counting on their devotion, employs them in the free service of the country. This investiture is ennoblement.
Starting from the fifteenth century, ennoblement by the king was a regular occurrence which, as a contemporary of Louis XII said, “gave courage and hope to those of the middle estate of coming, by virtuous and arduous deeds to said state of nobility. … This hope meant that everyone contented themselves with his state and had no occasion to machinate against others, knowing that he could be ennobled by good and licit means, and would only put himself in danger if he tried to achieve it by another path. … Its facility was such that one always saw countless people rising to the nobility by degrees, from the people or the middle estate.”
Some of the aristocratic families might not be ennobled, and the king could sometimes, by abuse, ennoble families who had not already ennobled themselves. Joseph de Maistre said:
“One must not think, if one wishes to express oneself exactly, that sovereigns can ennoble. There are new families which launch themselves little by little into the administration of the state, drawing themselves out of equality in a striking manner, and raising themselves above others, like vigorous saplings at the centre of a coppice. Sovereigns can sanction these natural ennoblements, but their power ends there. If they thwart too great a number of these ennoblements, or if they permit themselves to make too many of them by their own power, they work for the destruction of their state. False nobility has been one of the worst scourges in France.”2
At the present time, nobility in France is no more, at least at the class level. Will it be rebuilt? That is a secret of God, of events and of time. It is permitted to wish it and to rest this wish on the observation that the nobility shone in all antiquity and may yet reappear with more splendour than ever among modern peoples, that in France it lived fourteen centuries and that it has been the glory of our country, that it made her grandeur for a thousand years, whilst, in a hundred years, democracy has put her in the state that we see now. Hippolyte Taine, in his first volume on the Revolution, regretted its disappearance.
“Thanks to his fortune and rank, the man of this class is above vulgar needs and temptations. He can serve freely; he does not have to be preoccupied with money, with providing for his family, with making his way. He can follow his convictions, resist noisy and unhealthy public opinion, be the loyal servant and not the base flatterer of the public. As a result, whilst in middle or lower conditions of life, the principle impetus is self-interest, for him the great motor is pride. And among the profound sentiments of man, there are none more proper to be transformed into probity, patriotism and conscience, because the proud man has need of his own respect, and to obtain it, he is tempted to merit it. From all these points of view, compare the English gentry and nobility to the politicians of the United States.”3
Taine then shows how the education given to the gentleman, the milieu in which he finds himself, in his frequentations, in the knowledge that he acquires from men and things, if he is gifted, permit him to be a statesman before the age of thirty.
This series will continue next month with “Rebuilding the social body (2)”.
- Association catholique, 15 October 1897.
- Considérations sur la France, p 149.
- The rich classes of a society can only fulfil their social duty if the state makes it possible for them to accomplish it. Men of this class can only use their instruction, their pastimes, their fortune and their good will to the profit of the state if the state lends itself to the task as it did in France, and as it still does in England.