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Sociability • Confidence

Think Like an Aristocrat

We may not know his identity precisely but we recognise the type well enough from the annals of European art: an aristocratic young man full of the sense of pride and haughtiness of his class gazes down at us commoners with disdain and indifference. There might be an ancient castle to inherit, a very long and complicated title to his name, a coat of arms and a penchant for archery and fencing.

16th century portrait of a young, haughty-looking aristocrat by Bronzino.
Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, 1530s

It is easy to mock but more interesting to dare to admire. What stands out is how little this young man cares about what we think. He holds out none of the illusions of democracy. He doesn’t believe the crowd has anything to teach him. He places no faith in the opinions of the majority. He has never harboured hopes of public recognition or longed for acclaim from the masses. He knows that idiocy is rife and vulgarity everywhere. He can trust that elevated people are in a sharp minority. He doesn’t need you to like him. And therefore he is free.

We might protest that we could not possibly emulate such attitudes: we have no castle, we can’t trace our ancestors back to Charlemagne, we are democrats… Nevertheless, we limit the concept of aristocracy unhelpfully when we identify it simply with a restricted franchise and country houses. We may be able to become something far more relevant and more flexible than an aristocrat of the blood: an aristocrat of the spirit.

By this is meant someone who, while they might be living in a bungalow, does not automatically assent to the majority view; someone who operates with their own value system in which pride of place is given to kindness, thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Such aristocrats will not rage or cheer on command. They are those rare beings: elitists of the heart.

It is not always easy to live in mass democracies. Without having any interest in changing the voting system, aristocrats of the spirit can embolden us to refuse the tyranny of the majority.

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