Out-classed

In discussing elites and class in Christianity and Culture, p.112, T. S. Eliot has an interesting observation on the benefits of an upper class:

At the state of dominance of bourgeois society (I think it would be more exact to say here, “upper middle class society”) there is a difference applying particularly to England. However powerful it was—for its power is now commonly said to be passing—it would not have been what it was, without the existence of a class above it, from which it drew some of its ideals and some of its criteria, and to the condition of which its more ambitious members aspired.

I wonder if something similar couldn’t be said of the United States, which has seemingly always embraced the Horatio Alger kind of self-advancement, but which also abhors class distinctions. It’s possible that the existence of a higher class (understood in many ways, not just financially) is a necessary part of the egalitarian myth. In other words, without a goal toward which to advance, and without the tension of not yet having achieved that goal, the British and American societies might not have made the advances they did. I think George Will pointed out somewhere that class warfare fails as a political strategy in the U.S. because every American aspires to be rich. And I think though those aspirations may seem often to be limited to the crassly commercial, they’ve fueled other achievements. Does that mean that a society, after becoming classless, would undermine itself?

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