In today’s world, a clear and present danger is the emergence of two-tiered regimes in which an elite few don’t even think of the existence of the run-of-the-mill many, and when they do, the elite increasingly deride them as vulgar and unworthy of their leadership. One symptom of this widening divide is the rise of so-called populism. So-called, or rather called so by the elite. In this development, we suffer a double loss. On the side of the many, we see the loss of a consciousness of one’s own nobility. On the side of the elite, we see the loss of the consciousness of what the motto noblesse oblige involves.
Why have things moved in this direction? I suggest that it rests, at least in part, in a widespread tendency among elites to presume vulgarity and look for any possible reason to humiliate man. The Austrian engineer and novelist Robert Musil put his finger on this strange phenomenon as early as 1930, in his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. There, he describes the mindset of scientists of his time in ironic terms. Here is their program:
To see in goodness only a special form of egotism; to bring under the same heading the emotions of the soul and bodily secretions; to establish that man in his eight or nine tenth is made of water; to explain away the famous moral freedom of character as an appendix of free trade which automatically arose out of it; to bring beauty back to good digestion and satisfactory adipose tissues; to translate begetting and suicide into statistical curves which expose what looks like the freest decision as something forcible; to put on the same footing anus and mouth as the rectal and oral ends of the same thing.What the novelist captured so well in pre-war Austria is now rampant in the whole Western world. Our elites have a reductive habit of mind when it comes to their general assessment of the human condition. Meanwhile, there exists something entirely opposite, a transhumanist dream in which the would-be elite will translate their monetary superiority into a permanent, physical superiority by enhancing their powers with the use of genetic or electronic devices. We may ask whether the idea of human dignity, the generalized ascription of nobility to all members of the human race—and ultimate ground of our sacred cow, human rights—will be able to resist the buffets of this double assault.
We Christians have an alternative: Our dignity is rooted in our relationship to God. A gentlemanly God ennobles whatever he creates and whomever he redeems. He who refuses him must either wallow in vulgarity or dream to lord over his neighbor.