Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
9. The Flourishing of Analogous Elites — Contemporary Forms of Nobility?
In speaking of the bourgeois society and its peculiarities, we do not intend to include those families of the bourgeoisie in whose bosom, down through the generations, flourished a genuine family tradition, rich in moral, cultural, and social values.
Contrary to the antithetical nobility, these families’ fidelity to tradition and their desire for continual improvement make them true elites.
In a social structure open to everything that enriches it with true values, these families little by little become an aristocrat-like class. They gradually and smoothly blend into the aristocracy or, by force of custom, become a new aristocracy with its own characteristics alongside the old aristocracy.
Whoever is simultaneously at the summit of political power and social influence—as is the case of monarchs—must know how to preside in a kind, prudent, and tactful way over these highly respectable betterments of the sociopolitical structure. He must be more concerned with sounding out the yearnings that animate wholesome social transformations and identify the aspirations of an organic society than with geometrically setting a course for the nation through decrees.
Far from jealously and narrow-mindedly hindering the full flourishing of other elites, the existence of aristocratic elites is a standard for fruitful analogies and a stimulus for fraternal improvements.
The pejorative sense of the term bourgeoisie is applicable to the sectors of this social category that are uninterested in forming their family traditions, or in maintaining and improving them through successive generations, and instead concentrate on pursuing the most outlandish modernity. Even when their families have lived in opulence or easy comfort for several generations, these bourgeois still choose to resemble a group of parvenus—parvenus in a state of permanent mutation caused by their self-destructive determination not to refine their habits over time!
a. A matter the Pontiffs did not treat: Are there updated forms of nobility?
The preceding considerations lead to an aspect of this question that Pius XII, his predecessors, and successors did not deal with, perhaps for reasons of prudence.
As shown throughout these chapters, Pius XII attributes an important role to the nobility of our time. In view of this role, the Pontiff wishes to conserve the nobility as one of the leading classes of the modern world. Thus, he strives to open its eyes to what it retains of the past, and to the use it should make of this remainder as a means of survival and action, not only to preserve its present situation successfully, but perhaps to recover a broader place for itself at the summit of today’s society.
But the nobility’s acknowledged role is so important that its fulfillment requires more than this paltry and indeed contested residue. Means should be found to expand the nobility’s base of action. What would be the desirable way of doing this? To what extent would this “desirable” also be viable in modern conditions?
Why not consider, for example, a society that would generously provide a framework of support for the nobility’s existence and the plenitude of its benefic action? This framework could eventually take on “updated” forms, consisting of more than just urban or rural property. For example, why not officially recognize the nobility as the bearer of the precious boon of tradition and as a counselor to be heeded and respected by those who hold the levers of power in today’s world?
We should not exclude the hypothesis that Pius XII seriously considered this possibility, even though, for prudential reasons, he did not express the conclusions he may have reached.
Since he analyzed the modern problems of the nobility with such solicitous attention, nothing would have been more natural than for him to have pondered what follows.
b. Authentic, if less brilliant, nobilities—historic examples
With time, especially from the late Middle Ages on, new nobilities came into existence. Although less brilliant, they were no less authentic than the nobility par excellence: the warrior, rural, and seignorial nobility. Examples of these new nobilities abound in Europe.
In Portugal the doors of the nobility were opened to intellectuals. Anyone who graduated from the famous University of Coimbra in theology, philosophy, law, medicine, or mathematics became noble, although without a hereditary title. If three successive generations of a family graduated at Coimbra in one of these fields, all their descendants, even if they did not study at this university, became hereditary nobles.153
In Spain, the investiture in certain civil, military, or cultural offices, and even the exercise of certain forms of commerce and industry particularly useful to the nation, automatically conferred either a personal lifetime nobiliary status or a hereditary one.154
In France, beside the noblesse de robe (nobility of the robe), composed of magistrates, there was the noblesse de cloche (nobility of the bell). This latter name refers to the bell used by the authorities of small towns to summon the people. This noblesse de cloche was customarily formed by bourgeois families who had distinguished themselves in the service of the common good of small urban communities.155
c. Nouveaux riches, nouveaux nobles
These ennoblements did not occur, however, without giving rise to noteworthy problems. Certain historic episodes illustrate this clearly.
For example, King Charles III (1759-1788), contrasting the new industrial progress of some European nations with the painful backwardness of Spain in this field, decided to stimulate the establishment of industries in his kingdom through the Royal Decree of March 18, 1783. Among other measures, he decided to elevate almost automatically to nobiliary status those subjects who, with advantage to the common good, successfully invested capital and effort to establish industries or develop those already existing.156
Many candidates to the nobility became industrialists as a result of this resolution. However, as we have seen, the authenticity of the noble condition consists not only in the use of a title conferred by royal decree, but also—and notably—in the possession of what could be called the characteristic moral profile of the aristocratic class. It is understandable that certain nouveaux riches becoming nouveaux nobles by the royal decree might have found it very difficult to acquire this moral profile. This profile is only acquired through a long family tradition, which the nouveaux riches and the nouveaux nobles usually lack. Important elements of this tradition can be found, however, in less affluent traditional bourgeois elites.
The injection of this new blood into the traditional nobility could, in certain cases, increase its vitality and creativity. However, it could also introduce certain traces of vulgarity and arrivisme disdainful of old traditions, with evident harm to the integrity and coherence of the aristocratic profile. The very authenticity of the nobility could thus be impaired.
Similar situations in more than one European country had an analogous result. In general, though, it was circumscribed by various factors.
First of all, the aristocratic influence was still profound in European society. The nouveau noble-nouveau riche felt ill at ease in his new social condition if he did not strive to assimilate, at least in part, its profile and manners. He rarely gained easy admittance to many of the salons. This exerted an aristocratizing pressure upon him that was reinforced by the attitude of the common people.
The people perceived the comic situation of the brand-new count or marquis and made him the target of unpleasant mockery. Far from opposing the environment in which he was heterogeneous, then, the new noble generally strove in earnest to adapt himself to it. Above all, he did his best to give his children a genuinely aristocratic education.
These circumstances facilitated the absorption of the new elements by the old nobility to such an extent that, after one or more generations, the differences between the traditional and new nobles disappeared. The new nobles ceased to be “new” with the mere passing of time. The marriage of young nobles, bearers of historic names, to daughters or granddaughters of nouveaux riches-nouveaux nobles enabled them to avoid economic decadence and to give new luster to their coats of arms.
To some extent this continues today. However, due to the strongly egalitarian tone of modern society and to other factors mentioned in this book, an almost automatic ennobling, such as that instituted by King Charles III, would demean the nobility much more than it would serve it, since the nouveaux riches are less and less inclined to become new nobles.
d. Are there means, within the present political framework, of creating new forms of nobility?
The question remains: Are there means today of establishing new nobilities—with new hierarchies and modalities that correspond to new functions—so long as they aim to attain some degree of that plenitude of excellence linked to hereditary continuity, which characterizes the nobility still recognized as such today?
On the other hand, what means are there within the present political framework, and independently of hereditary succession, to admit new forms of nobility for people who have rendered distinguished services to the common good, either because of outstanding talent, salient personality, heroic self-denial and chivalrous courage, or great capacity of action?
In the Middle Ages and in the Ancien Régime, there was always room to receive into the nobility people who, although born in the humblest plebeian home, nevertheless gave incontestable proofs of possessing these attributes in a heroic or excellent degree. This was the case of some soldiers who distinguished themselves in war by their courage or tactical skill.
e. A new hierarchical step in the social ladder
These considerations broaden the perspective and give a new flexibility to the distinction between nobility and bourgeoisie, paving the way for a nobiliary tertium genus. This would be a nobility diminutae rationis, like the nobility of the robe and the nobility of the bell in Old France.
A question arises here about the use of the word nobility.
Just as the fruitful vitality of a country’s social body can give rise to new nobilities, so it can also spark the formation of new non-noble levels within lower classes. This is happening among blue-collar workers today. Modern technology’s demand for highly skilled and responsible manpower is creating a third category of worker, midway between the intellectual and the manual worker.
This picture places the reader before a blossoming of new situations. Only with the utmost tact and the intelligent caution intrinsic to organic societies will it be possible to develop, with firmness of principles, justice, and objectivity, new levels in the social hierarchy.
There is yet another question: In view of this rousing “hierarchical” work that the course of events is demanding from the principled men of today, what do we mean by noble? In other words, what characteristics should a new level in the social scale have to merit the qualification of noble? And what characteristics would bar title to this illustrious qualifier?
The question covers so many complex situations in constant change that it is impossible to provide a quick and simple answer at this time. This is especially true if we consider that problems of this nature are better solved through the joint effort of thinkers and the consuetudinary evolution of society than through the lucubrations of mere theorizers, technocrats, and the like.
Merely touching upon this interesting question, we must say that the qualifier noble can only be granted to social categories that maintain significant analogies with the nobility’s original and archetypical standard, which was born in the Middle Ages. It continues to be the standard of true nobility down to our times.
Among the factors whose felicitous convergence favors the formation of new types of nobility we may mention the vigorous and close link between the purpose of the social class and the regional or national common good; the distinctive willingness of its members to disinterestedly sacrifice personal rights and interests for the sake of this common good; the excellence attained by its members in their daily activities; the consequent and exemplary elevation of the human, moral, and social standards of its members; a correlated lifestyle made possible by the special gratitude with which society reciprocates this dedication to the common good; and, finally, sufficient economic means to confer adequate preeminence to the condition resulting from these factors.157
f. The hope that the way indicated by Pius XII not be forgotten
These reflections, prompted by the attentive study of the allocutions of Pius XII on the nobility, express hope—yes, hope that the way shown by this Pontiff be neither forgotten nor underestimated by the nobility, nor by the authentic but not specifically noble social elites existing not only in Europe, but also in the three Americas, Australia, and elsewhere.
May the closing words of this chapter express hope therefore and not merely legitimate nostalgia.
(152) See Chapter III.
(153) Cf. Luiz da Silva Pereira Oliveira, Privilégios da Nobreza e Fidalguia de Portugal (Lisbon: Oficina de João Rodrigues Neves, 1806), pp. 67-81.
(154) Through the exercise of their office, the following persons could become nobles: “the high servants of the Royal Household; the governesses and wet nurses of the Royal Infantes; the alcaldes de Casa y Corte; presidents, councillors, and justices of the Royal Chanceries” (Vicenta María Márquez de la Plata and Luis Valero de Bernabé, Nobiliaria Española—origen, evolución, instituciones y probanzas [Madrid: Prensa y Ediciones Iberoamericanas, 1991], p. 15). Acomprehensive and didactic overview of this topiccan be found in this work, adopted as a manual by the Escuela de Ciencias Nobiliarias, Heráldicas y Genealógicas of Madrid. With regard to the nobility acquired by the exercise of military offices, we cite the following illustration: “In the Royal Decree of August 20, 1637, Philip IV rules that an officer who serves in war for one year enjoys the nobility of privilege, and one who does so for four years may transmit this nobility to his heirs…. “Personal nobility is recognized to all army officers by the Royal Decree of April 16, 1799; and that of May 18, 1864 ordains that the title of Don and Noble be given to the sons of captains and higher officers, to the grandchildren of lieutenant-colonels and to well-known hidalgos who serve in the army” (Vicente de Cadenas y Vicent, Cuadernos de doctrina nobiliaria [Madrid: Instituto Salazar y Castro, C.S.I.C.—Asociación de Hidalgos a Fuero de Espa¤a, Ediciones Hidalguia, 1969], no. 1, p. 28). Among other privileges granted to people dedicated to culture, the Codigo de las siete partidas of Alphonsus X, the Wise (1252-1284), conferred the title of Count on the Masters of Jurisprudence who exercised the office for more than twenty years. (Cf. Bernabé Moreno de Vargas, Discursos de la nobleza de España [Madrid: Instituto Salazar y Castro, C.S.I.C., Ediciones Hidalguia, 1971], pp. 28-29.) Cadenas y Vicent summarizes the criteria of ennoblement in his important work Apuntes de nobiliaria y nociones de genealogía y heráldica: “The priesthood, the performance of honorable offices, the military career, the humanities, the bestowal of a title, matrimony, being born in certain cases of a noble mother, or in certain territories, having rendered great services to mankind, the country, or the sovereign, having sacrificed oneself or one’s goods for great ideals, etc., always were, and should continue to be, just causes for acquiring nobility, since the universal tendency is to broaden the base of the noble class, the most cultured and sacrificed of those that compose the nation, to take advantage of its virtues in benefit of the community” (Primer curso de la Escuela de Genealogía, Heráldica y Nobiliaria, 2d ed. [Madrid: Instituto Luis de Salazar y Castro, C.S.I.C., Ediciones Hidalguia, 1984], p. 30). Ennoblement through the exercise of industrial activities will be mentioned in the next section, 9 c.
(155) In fact, nobility could also be acquired through the exercise of other offices and functions, such as military commissions, royal household offices (high offices at court, the office of secretary and notary of the king), financial offices, university posts, and so on. There is a widespread conviction in France that it is very difficult to draw up a complete list of the ennobling offices and functions of the Ancien Régime. In the book La noblesse, from which this enumeration is taken, Philippe du Puy de Clinchamps goes so far as to affirm that “in the history of the nobility there is no chapter more entangled than that of ennoblement through the holding of an office” (Collection Que sais-je? [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962], pp. 20, 22). There does not seem to be a censure in this affirmation, but merely the registering of a fact, since everything organic and living tends to be complex, and at times even complicated. This differs greatly from the many cold and rigid bureaucratic cadres devised by state capitalism and by certain pyramidal clusters of private macro-capitalism.
(156) Cf. Cadenas y Vicent, Cuadernos, pp. 35-38.
(157) Appendixes I and II of Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites provide examples of the formation of analogous traditional elites and new forms of aristocracy in the New World.