There Is No Culture Without Inequality: Stove 1

There Is No Culture Without Inequality: Stove 1

The works of David Stove need wider reading. I had been meaning to do a series reviewing all he wrote, but like the Class I couldn’t decide where to start or how to progress. Which are terrible excuses.

So we will wing it, beginning by reviewing each chapter of his 2003 On Enlightenment. Which, sinfully, appears out of print! Snatch up a used copy when you can.

The first chapter is “Did Babeuf Deserve the Guillotine?” Francois-Noel Babeuf (Stove assumes you know) attempted a coup during the French Revolution—from the left. He was, as the title reveals, unsuccessful. Stove argues that his death sentence was undeserved because Babeuf’s argument for his coup was a direct deduction from Enlightenment principles relied upon by the Revolution. That deduction was “community of property”, which flows directly from egalitarianism. Another way to say this is “communism”, which is the system in which a cadre of elites rule while denying they are ruling, and in which poverty, hence equality, of the greatest number is produced.

The essay is long, so today we cover the introduction to it. Babeuf we get to next time.

Stove, anticipating his readers will be formally educated, begins his assault on egalitarianism from an unexpected angle:

Are you an opponent of privilege? It is ten thousand to one you are. In that case you are, though you may not know it, an opponent of learning too. The reason is simple: leisure, quiet, and access to the learning of others are privileges, and they are also three things without which learning cannot exist.

No two of those three will do on their own. Leisure and quiet will not save learning if the learning of others is not also accessible to you—in short, if there are no libraries. If you have libraries and the leisure to use them, but every moment of waking life is filled with loud noise from Red Guards, rock music, or some other source, the libraries and leisure might as well not exist as far as learning is concerned. If you have the libraries and the quiet which learning requires, but no one has enough leisure to profit from them, then learning will be extinguished just as surely as if you simply shot every educated person in the head, Khmer-Rouge style.

So, if all privilege is abolished, learning is abolished with it. A society in which privilege exists may be a barbarously ignorant one; we all know many instances of that. But a society must be barbarously ignorant if there is no privilege in it at all, only equality all round.

Libraries are now “learning centers”, which proves, yet again, today everything is named for its opposite.

Now it might not be you, dear scholar reader, who is privileged, but you must rely on somebody who is or was and who is or was interested in providing leisure, libraries, and that most precious gift, quiet. There is no escaping privilege. Stove says “The system of private patronage is by now long dead, of course; it is one of the countless victims of Enlightenment egalitarianism.” Well, not entirely dead, as I can testify, but certainly gasping for breath.

Most haven’t the capacity for thinking. “As to incapacity, ask anyone who has taught in a Western university in recent decades.” I have: ask me: incapacity rules. And even if were so that all had equal capacity, only a few have passion for thinking. “To sit quietly alone for hours, thinking about some difficult question, in which you yourself have nothing to gain or lose—this is how some of us spend much of our lives, but to most people it is a purgatorial prospect.”

A passion and the ability for learning in some, particularly the display of it, can, putting it lightly, displease the unable, leading some to thoughts of egalitarian purity. De Tocqueville pointed out the “passion for equality has a curious feature…that the more it is fed, the less it is satisfied. As more and more inequalities are removed, the more galling are any remaining ones felt to be.”

The result, as far as learning is concerned, is that the privileges of the learned become more obnoxious to egalitarian sentiment as they become fewer and smaller; and since the learned are not exempt from egalitarian fever, but on the contrary are often its most active fomenters, those privileges become more obnoxious even to the learned themselves.

You must, by now, recognize this symptom.

There are two more conditions, besides leisure, libraries, and quiet, to produce learned culture: ability and necessity.

Take any branch of culture you like: literature, science, philosophy, history, music, or whatever. It comes neither from the most privileged part of society, nor from the least; neither from the blue-bloods, nor from the “people of the abyss” (as Jack London called them). It comes from the great broad band in between.

It is very obvious why the people of the abyss play no part in culture. They are too tired, or too hungry, or too sick, or too drunk, to acquire even elementary education. And no one can contribute to physics, philosophy, music, or whatever, unless they have, not merely elementary education, but (as I implied before) a good grasp of what others have done before them in that field. Which in turn requires leisure, quiet, and libraries…

But the aristocracy is almost as weakly represented in culture as the opposite social extreme is. King Henry the Eighth wrote a book (defending the Pope against Luther) and of course James the First was an inveterate scribbler. In Victorian times, books of selections from “royal and noble authors” enjoyed wide popularity; or at any rate, wide sales, since no doubt they were much more often bought than read. Few who did read them would have had their respect for the royal and noble much increased by the experience.

One can to some extent see why this should be so. An aristocrat is someone with more opportunity than other people to indulge his or her mere will. Most people, if given that opportunity, will flow into the typical aristocratic activities—war, government, conspicuous display, hunting and related sports—as inevitably as water flows downhill. In culture, on the other hand, or at least intellectual culture, your mere will counts for nothing…

But whatever may be the reason for it, the fact is that if you write down the names of a hundred people who have done something that matters in science or literature or any other branch of culture, you will find that two at most of the hundred come from the most privileged part of the social scale, and one at most from the least privileged…

This is an extremely simple statistic, and one which is very easily verified: anyone who is prepared to take a small amount of trouble can satisfy themselves as to the fact. Yet it is of the greatest importance. If it were attended to, it would be enough on its own to silence forever revolutionary or bohemian ranting about “bourgeois culture”; for it proves that culture is everywhere, and always has been, a middle-class monopoly.

With rare exceptions from the aristocracy, and even rarer people from the abyss, this applies to all ranges of intellectual output, from the literary (plays, novels, poems), music (of quality and not the technological barbarism of today), art, but also to philosophy, mathematics and science.

If you took all the blue-bloods out of English literature or historiography, whom would you lose that matters? Byron; but no one else that I know of. If you took them out of English physics and chemistry, whom would you lose? Only one, I think; Henry Cavendish, whom I mentioned before, after whom the famous Cambridge physics laboratory is named and who was a brother of the third Duke of Devonshire. In the history of mathematics and again in the history of music, there is not one major figure, as far as I know, who was of very high birth. The history of philosophy is only a little more fertile in aristocrats. There is Plato and there is Russell; two striking exceptions, no doubt, but even more strikingly few. Apart from them, the only aristocrat who merits a place in the history of philosophy (as far as I know) is the third Earl of Shaftesbury, and his place is a very minor one.

If it is the middle classes which produce that which is lasting, the lower classes must exist to work, and the higher to rule. And there are only a scant few in the middle classes whom, we saw at the beginning, must be provided with leisure, libraries, and quiet. Which require some form of patronage.

Which means, as is obvious, that egalitarianism, Equality driving the utopia of Equity, would kill culture.

Along with a lot of bodies. Which we’ll come to.

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  1. billb

    I’ll your Byron and rise you, William Blake.

  2. One wonders, though, how many of all people are “of very high birth”? If it’s less than 2%, and especially if it’s a lot less than 2%, then “aristocrats” are overrepresented in those that, as Stove puts it, produce culture. Then again, depending on how one counts “middle class”, they may end up being even more overrepresented in those that “produce culture”.

    So maybe Stove’s reasoning doesn’t hold up as well as he thought it did? Maybe there would be more aristocrats on his list if there were more aristocrats, as a percentage of people, to begin with?

  3. Briggs


    That’s a good point. Assume it’s true. The 2% figure, which decreases as population increases, guarantees the number, and not percentage, from the aristocracy will still be low. It’s not that the aristocracy lacks the talent or ability (to any great extent), it’s that their interests are more naturally bent in other directions. Such as in ruling.

  4. I’ve read Stove – very bright guy; kinda like reading Ayn Rand – you get the feeling that you’re among friends..

    However, occam’s razor applies here too. You get the same conclusions without the 500 pages of deep thinking by pointing out that positive cultural change (defined in the western Judeo Christian tradition) is only possible with the accumulation of economic surplus. See “The power of ugh” on telearb dot net for the simpler and more complete version.

  5. Cary D Cotterman

    I submit Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950), a composer, painter, and writer of notable obscurity, although you can find CDs of his compositions. And then, of course, everyone knows Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

  6. hudbwu:

    Stove never really defines it (as I recall – perhaps incorrectly?; been a few decades..) but I believe his view of aristocratic families is largely limited to the public figures in those families – so The Duke counts, but his younger brothers (captain, emigre, priest) do not. So, much less than 1%.

  7. Ridgerunner

    Arguably there’s the poet and playwright who used the pen name “Shake-speare,” the 17th earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere… a very high noble indeed. Yes, there is some dispute about that, but the more you look into him and the other contenders (including the Stratford man), the more likely Oxford looks. A high reputation for his poetry and comedies, few or none of which survive under his name; many parallels between the events of his life and various characters/places in the plays and poems, especially the sonnets; his status as a patron of playwrights and musicians (Byrd’s “Earle of Oxford’s March” is for him, and John Lyly was his secretary, and Byrd and Lyly–and Marlowe, to name just three–were among his proteges), for which(?) Queen Elizabeth (and King James after her) granted him 1000 pounds a year from 1586 to the end of his life in 1604: these just scratch the surface of the parallels. Mark Twain thought it was Bacon, but he didn’t live long enough to read Looney’s 1920 book that was the first to lay out the evidence for Oxford. Walt Whitman suspected one of the “wolfish earls” done it, and he was right.

  8. Hagfish Bagpipe

    How come I need more stove, Briggs? I have two already; a wood stove and a kitchen stove. What’s this new stove supposed to add? Thinking? Please. It’s obvious thinking is the cause of the world’s troubles. If people didn’t think so much there wouldn’t be so much stupidity on display. Me, I try to never think. I advocate wiggling, as opposed to thinking. I suggest you and your readers try it. Look up Elvis Presley on YouTube for particulars. Just be careful of your back.

  9. I tried to cheat and estimate the proportion of nobility in a population by looking at the proportion of knights in Medieval armies. But the numbers are nonsensical so this is a bad approach.

    This guy states, without quoting anything, that it was as high as 1/3rd in early Medieval period but falling as low as 5% in late Medieval period: However, records of some battles from the Hundred Years War back him up. Supposedly, at Agincourt, the English’ favorite battle, English army was 20% nobles, and French army goes from 50% to 10% nobles, depending on how you count (but generally favouring the higher percentages).

    Anyway, researching this is a fun way to spend 15 minutes but we need better methodology to get a nice estimate.

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