The Classical Ideal of High Culture in the Democratic Age

  • Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul


One of the elements which has rendered the classics and their ideal of “liberal culture” most questionable to the modern age is the rise of democratic-egalitarianism. In a democratic age the historic association of the classical ideals with “elitism” is deemed a decisive argument against them. In spite of the Greek origins of democracy, it is certainly fair to describe Greek culture as having an “aristocratic” tincture. Its central value was excellence, not equality and it believed in demanding standards of achievement. The classically rooted idea of the liberal as against the “servile” or “mechanical” arts was predicated on the notion of activities proper to the leisure of the “free” gentleman and an aristocratic denigration of labor, trade, and commerce. In more modern times is also the historical association of European high culture with aristocratic patronage. The egalitarian ideal (pace Nietzsche) seems to have roots not in the classical world but in Christianity with its proclamation of the equal dignity of all, and indeed its preferential concern for the poor, weak, and marginalized – an ideal which subsequently appeared also in secularized forms unmoored from its religious roots. Whereas Nietzsche viewed this as negative, we must acknowledge its moral fertility in the struggle for the dignity of laborers and indeed ultimately the abolition of slavery and other forms of oppression. Nonetheless, the applied to the sphere of culture, egalitarianism has a levelling effect destructive of high culture. An urgent task then is how to reconcile the worthy values in moral egalitarianism, with the “inegalitarianism” required for the existence of cultural standards.

The rise of a commercial, technological civilization oriented toward the idea of progress into an ever improving future represented a repudiation of the veneration of antiquity. But perhaps nothing has rendered the classical ideal of culture more morally questionable to us than its points of tension with the principal moral and political value of modern age – that of equality. The Enlightenment culminated in what de Tocqueville termed the “Democratic Revolution.” Thomas Paine’s simple yet eloquent claim was that

…all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others…1

This attack on the principle of aristocracy was no merely philosophical axiom, but the battle cry of the American and French revolutions which would eventually which would upend the old order of Europe and lead to the establishment of democratic ideals as the most energetic force in the political and cultural life of the modern West.

In contrast we must candidly admit that the classical ideal of culture had an aspect which was fundamentally “inegalitarian.” It is true of course that democracy – the rule of the many – has Greek, indeed specifically Athenian origins in the work of great statesmen like Cleisthenes, Solon, and Pericles. Yet the Greek philosophers were singularly diffident about the value of democracy in both its political and cultural aspects. Socrates, the exemplar of philosophical virtue was executed by the Athenian democracy, casting doubt in the minds of his disciples on the wisdom and judgement of the multitude. In the The Republic as we know, Plato elaborates a theory of an ideal aristocracy where the educated and cultured philosopher-kings rule the others, and he treats democracy as one of the degenerate forms of constitution, given over to a chaotic licentiousness and treating unequal things equally.2 As for Aristotle while he accepts democracy(“polity”) where it aims at the common good as one of the legitimate forms of government, he warns pointedly that “…where the laws are not sovereign, then demagogues arise” and that “… a democracy of this nature is comparable to the tyrannical form of monarchy…3

It is however, in the cultural sphere that the inegalitarian aspects of Hellenic civilization are most relevant to our present discussion. The Greeks believed passionately in excellence and strove above all to attain it. Greek culture was unsatisfied with the common and mediocre and took its motto from Homer – ‘αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν”4 – “ever to excel”. This implied a fiercely competitive striving in which there will be difficult standards of accomplishment which few will attain. In accord with her deeply held principle, Greek education likewise exhibited a “canonizing” tendency which looked for works in the arts and letters –, such as Demosthenes in rhetoric, and Euripides in tragic poetry, and above all Homer which could serve as ideal standards for emulation and inspiration.5 This approach of distinguishing the truly excellent from the mediocre was inherited by the Romans. Hence Quintilian in formulating his curriculum for the rhetor writes that he will choose pauci enim <qui>sunt eminentissimi “…a few authors – those who are the most eminent…”.6

And such “classicism” century after century has continued to fertilize the European arts in much the same way. Works like the Parthenon in architecture, the Aphrodite of Milo or the Apollo Belvedere in sculpture, the drama of Sophocles, etc.… have set ideals for later artists and authors to emulate. And if European literary figured developed their own “national” classics in the modern languages – like Shakespeare in English, Dante in Italian, Cervantes in Spanish, etc. – it is remarkable how consistently these figures drew inspiration from the example of the ancients. And the same of course can be said of the visual arts (we need only consider the veneration of antiquity in the artists of Italian renaissance.)

So in spite of the Greek origins of democracy as a political form, arguably then the real source of this modern moral passion for human equality lies not in the classics but in Christianity with its conviction concerning universal human dignity in the sight of God and indeed its preferential concern for the poor, the weak, the suffering, and the marginal.7 At its root the claim for human equality is not empirical but theological and moral. It is the conviction that all human beings are endowed by the Creator with an equal and infinite moral value and dignity. This conviction has proven morally fertile in Western history. The moral battles against slavery and racism, the mistreatment of women, and the exploitation of workers, as well as the enumeration of human rights all issue ultimately from this Christian spiritual foundation. It was the project of the Enlightenment to secularize the Christian rooted ethical affirmation concerning universal and equal human dignity and convert it into a revolutionary political aspiration directed against fixed social inequalities.

It is not the task of this work to assay this democratic movement in the political or moral realm, the positive elements of which are indubitably clear to most readers. However, the issue of cultural democracy must enter into our topic for the claims of high culture are bound to be scrutinized in the context of triumphant egalitarianism because of its explicit claim to superior excellence. Indeed, the very charge of “elitism” is today often treated as a definitive argument which once made discredits the value of a cultural artifact. Allan Bloom in his work The Closing of the American Mind explained these democratic revulsions this way:

Aristocracies hate and fear demagogues most of all, while democracies in their pure form hate and fear “elitists” most of all, because they are unjust, i.e. they do not accept the leading principle of justice in those regimes.8

And we must admit that there has been actual historical entanglement of high culture with formal and informal aristocratic elites. Why did this entanglement occur? Granting the cultural aristocratism of the classical philosophers, it is not immediately obvious what the relationship is between the classics and the actual historical nobility attacked by the modern democratic revolutions. To be born into a noble family is a good of fortune perhaps, but it is certainly no guarantee of superior intellectual gifts. Indeed, the argument of classical and renaissance philosophy moved in the direction of arguing that fitness for rulership rested on vera nobilitas (true nobility) which is acquired by education and virtue rather than by right of birth.9

For all that there has often been a peculiar alliance between the actual, historical aristocracies and the philosophers and artists. And as a historical matter, while the early European aristocracy was primarily a martial class, from the Renaissance onward the patronage not only of philosophers but of high culture generally was an increasingly important aspect of European aristocratic culture. To provide just a few examples Leonardo da Vinci found a patron Duke Ludovico Sforza, behind Mozart in the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Haydn in the Esterhazy family, Shakespeare in the Earl of Southampton, and so forth. In short high culture benefited from its historical alliance with aristocratic patronage.

Why this might be the case is indicated by Allan Bloom in his discussion of the gentlemen as the historical allies of the philosophers:

Why are the gentlemen more open [to philosophy] than the people? Because they have money, and hence leisure, and can appreciate the beautiful and the useless…Aristotle in his Ethics shows how the philosopher appears as the ally of the gentlemen…10

In short, the gentlemen have in principle the leisure to appreciate those activities (as philosophy or the fine arts) which are truly noble, while those mired in the necessities of life are perforce obliged to focus on the merely useful.

In contrast to this form of high culture, mass culture means that the intellectual and aesthetic quality of culture is democratized, determined by the taste of the multitude, the people, the majority. For the classics this would be problematic. First, they would see the fundamental judgements concerning beauty and wisdom as involving issues of knowledge and truth rather than something which can be correctly determined by numerically adding up subjective opinions. Plato´s Socrates in the Crito criticizes reliance on the majority opinion – just as in matters of health one ought to follow the advice not of the majority but of the one who knows.11 Of course if there is no truth in philosophy or in art then this argument fails – which perhaps explains the default relativism in much of modern aesthetic thought.

But if as the classics thought aesthetic, ethical, and intellectual judgement involves a form of knowledge– aesthetic taste for example must be educated, and the same may be said of moral judgements. But Aristotle for example was extremely pessimistic that the untutored and uneducated majority would seek anything beyond pleasure “The generality of mankind shows themselves to be utterly slavish, by choosing what is only a life for cattle.”12

If the classics are correct then taking the majority view as the cultural arbiter and standard can exert a levelling, downward pressure.13 In that case, popular taste and mass marketability will have a vulgarizing effect by re-orienting the culture around the most common aspirations of wealth, pleasure, and entertainment. This fact may help explain the increasing dominance of mass entertainment in popular culture and the corresponding declines of the venerable Western traditions in classical music, art, and philosophy. Necessarily, the standards of a mass market-based culture will have a deleterious effect on the more noble activities whose appreciation requires more thought, concentration, and education, and whose utility-value is less evident from a pragmatic perspective- such as philosophy, the liberal arts, and the fine arts. This problem was already identified by Nicholas Berdyaev in the 1930s:

The mass determines what shall be the accepted culture, art, literature, philosophy, science, even religion. And there is no social demand for culture of a higher order, for spiritual culture, for real art or real philosophy. The social demand now is chiefly for technics, for applied natural science, for economics…14

We have seen already in Part I how the classical ideal of culture and the theoretic life in particular hinges on a kind of aristocratic sense of hierarchy among human activities. The mechanical or “banausic” arts aim at the merely necessary, while the liberal arts (pace Seneca) are those proper to the free man who unburdened by necessity is free precisely to pursue the noble. Excellence (ἀρετή) according to Jaeger was “…the central ideal of all Greek culture”.15

None of this is to argue of course against the real moral achievements which egalitarian movements have made which are inseparable from the Christian re-evaluation of the dignity of the manual laborer implied by the idea of God’s Incarnation as a poor manual laborer. As Berdyaev wrote:

The ancient Greco-Roman world despised work, did not consider it sacred and thought it only fit for slaves. That world was based upon the domination of aristocracy – democracy itself was aristocratic; and consequently the greatest philosophers of Greece, Plato and Aristotle, failed to see the evil and injustice of slavery…Christianity introduced a totally different attitude to labour. Respect for work and for workers is of Christian origin.16

Christianity with its carpenter God brought about over time a moral revolution in attitudes to workers to Western societies. And we may indeed be thankful that Christianity inculcated the idea of the dignity of labor and the laborer which – inherited by the Enlightenment – bore fruit in such achievements as the abolition of slavery, and the efforts to recognize the dignity of workers and improve their treatment. However, at times the egalitarian idea is carried to the point of denying the hierarchy of different forms of labor from whence it leads to anti-intellectualism and the philistine deprecation of philosophy and high culture. Berdyaev explains:

...culture implies a hierarchy of qualities, distinction between the quality of work, and personal gifts. Spiritual, intellectual and creative work is different in quality from physical labour which creates material goods, and it has a different place in the scale of values.17

While recognizing the equal human dignity of the intellectual and the manual laborer, one ought not to deny the hierarchical distinction between the activity of the body, and that of the mind or soul. We must not however consider this hierarchy as a Nietzschean embrace of “Master morality” with its contempt for the poor and weak.

The question before us rather is how to reconcile a moral egalitarianism which recognizes the equal worth and dignity of all human beings, with that degree of necessary cultural inegalitarianism required to sustain y standards of achievement in art, science, philosophy and all domains of culture. Turning to Berdyaev again:

The Greco-Roman world left us a true conception of the qualitative value of aristocratically creative work, and it must be reconciled with the biblical and Christian idea of the holy and ascetic nature of labour and of the equality of all men before God.18

The “democratic” ethical concern evinced in Christian ethics for the vulnerable and weak and consequently for the manual laborer who may be exploited or otherwise treated with indignity, is different from, but not ultimately incompatible with the “aristocratic” values of the Greeks with their aspiration for “the noble” manifested in the highest intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural achievements. A more valid question is how to sustain the ethical universalism which upholds the dignity of all and motivates the democratic culture of the modern age, while protecting the very existence of high culture against its levelling tendencies.


  1. 1.

    Thomas Paine. Commonsense. (Accessed January 9, 2017).

  2. 2.

    Plato.Republic VIII. viii passim.

  3. 3.

    Aristotle. Politics (1292ª).

  4. 4.

    Homer. Iliad. VI. 206.

  5. 5.

    Marrou. 161–163.

  6. 6.

    Quintillian. 2001. Institutio Oratoria/The Orator’s Education . Books 10.1, p. 274–275.

  7. 7.

    The author is not in sympathy with the critique of the Christian ethic found for example in Nietzsche´s On the Genealogy of Morals (First Essay). However Nietzsche’s genetic claim itself that Christianity introduced a kind of “underdog” morality with its ethos of mercy and compassion and concern for the poor, weak and oppressed is eminently defensible.

  8. 8.

    Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987): 250. Herafter “Bloom”.

  9. 9.

    Cf. Quentin Skinner. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Vol 1 (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 236–238.

  10. 10.

    Bloom , 279. (My brackets). This may derive also from Bloom’s teacher Leo Strauss. See for example the discussion of the gentleman in “Liberal Education and Responsiblity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss. Hilail Gilden(ed.) ((Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1989): 323ff.

  11. 11.

    Plato. Crito. (47a-48b).

  12. 12.

    Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics I.V.3.

  13. 13.

    For an interesting if perhaps controversial discussion of the relation between equality and excellence see Charles Murray. Human Accomplishment.(New York: Perennial/Harper Collins, Copyright 2003): 450.

  14. 14.

    Nicholas Berdyaev. The Fate of Man in the Modern World. (London, UK: Student Christian Movement Press,1935 reprinted n the USA): 112.

  15. 15.

    Op Cit. Paideia I, 15.

  16. 16.

    Nicholas Berdyaev. The Destiny of Man. (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1954): 215.

  17. 17.


  18. 18.

    Berdyaev . Supra. 215–216.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Advanced Governmental StudiesJohns Hopkins UniversityWashington, DCUSA

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