On Aristocracy and Violence, and Why These Things Keep Happening

¡buenas dias familia!

It has been an amazingly crazy few weeks of news, hasn’t it? The shocking stories of violence and injustice seem new every morning, and I pray that you have some kind of rituals to ground your spirit in hope and love for the work ahead.

That has nothing to do with organized religion–as a devoted participant in an organized religion I can assure you that it has many costs that don’t always feel proportional to the benefits. With or without the organized component, I encourage you to seek out some kind of healing for your inner person, because this world is going to try to break you anew every day, and we all need each other’s strength in this movement. If you don’t have some kind of rituals of renewal, please reach out to the folks in this CREAD community–nobody sustains this work without that healing component.

I say all of that to preface what I worry will be an emotionally difficult analysis of the times we are living through. An analysis that I struggle to articulate without a necessary critical lens, and I have become increasingly concerned that my social critiques feel more grounded in rage and grief than in love and hope. If nothing else, I’ll ask that you consider and celebrate the hope that lies in simple survival in the face of the overwhelming–we are the unreasonable hope of our ancestors, who successfully looked after and passed onto us life. In the profound words of Lucille Clifton:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

I’ll begin with the concept of aristocracy. Traditionally, this word has meant a hereditary ruling class, but has often been used more broadly to describe a ruling class whose membership is tightly fixed or controlled. It comes from two Greek words, one of which is more recognizable than the other.

The less recognizable one is ἄριστος (“aristos,” or “excellent”). Thus, the aristocracy is made up of the excellent, or to put a finer point on it: those who by superior achievement or essence have earned their place in the ruling class. The idea for the Greeks was that their rulers had special blood, passed down to them by the gods, which made their excellence/merit inheritable from their ancestors and passable down to their descendants. These days we hate to think of merit as something hereditary, we think that we have competed and won everything that we have. One of the best things I’ve read in a while captures the tragic hypocrisy of this ideology quite well, but I don’t really want to dwell on it much longer. Suffice it to say that the meritocracy is as much of a fantasy as white supremacy. It is naked self-contentedness dressed up in magical thinking.

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The second, and somewhat more well known root word of “aristocracy” is κράτος (“kratos”), which means simply “power,” and is also a root of “democracy” (“demos” means mob, and thus democracy is rule by ‘the people,’ or so our HS civics curriculum teaches).

Kratos was also the name of a Greek god, who was adopted by the Romans as “Potentas” (which also means “power” in Latin). In the Greek pantheon, Kratos was an enforcer of Zeus, along with his three brothers: Nike (“Victory”), Zelus (“Zeal” or “Striving”), and Bia (“Might” or “Force”). All four brothers were the children of the pre-pantheon titans Pallas (god of the spring campaign/war season, a pre-figuring of Ares) and Styx (goddess of the river that divides the land of the living from the land of the dead).

For those of you who are completely uninterested in the meandering pantheon of Greece, I promise that I have a point here. In the wild imaginations of the Greeks, the right to rule, (“power”/Kratos) was brother to violence (“force/might”/Bia). They were the children of warfare (“Pallas”) and the risk of death (“Styx”), and siblings to victory in battle (“Nike”) and eager rivalry, envy, jealousy, and/or maniacal dedication (“zeal/striving”/Zelus). Say what you will about the Greeks, but they had a way of relating ideas to each other (and getting lost down the sidestreets of their philosophy).

Anyhow, the key distinction here is that “kratos”/power is not necessarily the brute force violence you may think of (that’s Bia), but it’s more about who gets to decide, for whom, and why. For the Greeks, that power had more to do with war, victory, violence, and striving than with the ‘will of the people.’

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But didn’t the Greeks invent democracy? Well…no, actually. They invented the word, but not really, no.

For the Athenians, the “demos” of their democracy was more descriptive than it was representative. It was the unruly crowd of 500 land owning men with resources enough to contribute soldiers and supplies to the ‘spring campaign season’ (i.e. the wars with other microhellenic city-states). The key difference between the democracy of Athens and the Kingdoms of Ithaca, Crete, etc. was that the many more who had some stake in the war participated directly in decision making in Athens, whereas the King got to decide in places that had kings.

This is all relevant to us because it is the proto-European roots of the structures that we find ourselves struggling against now. Throughout the so-called “Enlightenment” of Europe, wypipo were Colombusing (‘discovering’) the philosophy of the Greeks and their approach to war and political decision making. (They skipped past the parts where Aristotle called their pale skin and culture inferior to the superior temperate-climate brown skin of Greeks. Don’t get too excited though, Aristotle hated black people and white people as equals.)

If you were to go back a few paragraphs and reread that explication of the family of war and death, you might see the parallels between the island nations of the Greeks, and our own United States of America:

The right to rule, to decide on behalf of the nation, is brother to violence. Power and violence are the children of territorial warfare and the risk of death, siblings to victory in battle and to eager rivalry, envy, jealousy, and/or maniacal dedication. Say what you will about the Greeks, but they had a way of relating ideas to each other, and their ideas became extremely popular to some excited noblemen with boats toward the end of the middle ages.

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Throughout the middle ages and up through the early 20th century (and even today, if you think about it), “excellence” was always, always determined through violence. The original aristocrats, Dukes and Earls and all those other titles from Downton Abbey, were originally passed out to successful Generals and Lieutenants of peasant armies in pointless battles over European territory. All the gold that the Spanish could steal from the Americas funded nothing more than a few more years of pointless bloodshed with their neighbors, with most of it ending up in the decorations of the churches that buried the wealthier soldiers.

This is “Western Civ,” but as Baldwin wisely pointed out: “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

Lord Baltimore. Sir William Penn. Lord Baron Amerst. The Duke of York (the old York, and the New one until the battle of Yorktown). To name them all would be exhausting to write and to read, and to name all the violence that birthed and renewed their ‘excellence’ would be almost impossible. This is exactly the excellence that Alexander Hamilton aspired to, and it is why his proposal at the Constitutional Convention involved a hereditary aristocracy, not periodic elections of representatives. Once someone in America claws their way to the top, they make sure and slam that door behind them.

Most of the connecting history between that time and now you are probably familiar with. America normalized violence against the first nations of this continent, and violence against anyone who could be rationalized as less than human (a rationalization that Kendi effectively argues was essentially Yankee Ingenuity–a solution to a labor shortage problem). This normalization of violence shows itself throughout our culture–think about how many films and television shows you genuinely love that include violence that would terrify you if you witnessed it in person.

This violence has long since fractured the American consciousness (and conscience) in ways that make us seem schizophrenic–moral and even empathetic one moment, furiously violent the next. Even when our moral heroes try to implore the conscience of the nation, they can hardly do so without invoking images of graphic violence:

“…Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes…Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (From Lincoln’s Second Innaugural Address)

America can no more conceive of a God than place in His hands the implements of bloodshed, and collapse all those enforcers of Zeus into one terrible justifier of their own violence. Remember all those calloused mobs standing near a lifeless body in pictures of lynchings? Remember those shouting crowds, fire hoses, and dogs from those videos?

Terrifying, right?

This tendency in our culture and history toward such sudden and unspeakable violence, the acceptance of violence as an norm of everyday life–this should give us such profound pause in considering policies that concern violence. Both the legitimated public violence that is the monopoly of the state (i.e. police or military force, capital punishment, drone strikes, etc.) or the less legitimate (but oft rationalized) private violence of mob justice, ‘stand your ground,’ the 2nd ammendment, and school shootings.

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Instead, Americans somehow feel both horrified by the violence of 23 different schools over the last 23 weeks, but many are nonetheless adamant about the rights of Americans to stockpile the machinery of that violence as needed.

Our schools are sacred places–that is, when we do the real work of education, of connecting with humans in an effort to enlarge their spirits with the collective knowledge and wisdom of those that have gone before. Every time someone profanes one of these spaces with the too-easy violence of a loaded weapon, our hearts break. We can hardly face the children in front of us without some share of heavy grief. For those of us who are growing every day in our critical consciousness, though, there should be little mystery as to “why.”

Why does this keep happening? Because it is dyed in the deepest fabric of our flag, whether we sing its anthem or bend our knee. It is who we are destined to be unless enough of us can be made to wake up from this shared nightmare, and can separate power from its foolish siblings: violence, striving, and victory.

We are the unreasonable hopes of our most distant ancestors, but we are more than that. We are also the desperate hopes of innumerable descendants, whether ours by blood or by common ancestry, whose world we are now struggling to design.

Struggle on my friends, and draw strength for your spirit wherever it can be found.

-A

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Abram,
    Thank you for this really thought provoking post. We have been discussing it at the family dinner table extensively since I read it!
    We met at the conference and promised I would write a comment for your next post.
    I am a great fan of the podcast Code Switch with Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby. No doubt you know about it: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510312/codeswitch
    When I listened to the episode called Of Bloodlines and Conquistadors, it strongly reminded me of a previous post you wrote. Have you heard it? Wondering what you think about it.
    Keep on writing CREAD!
    Best
    Jessie

  2. Yes! Codeswitch is a great show, really appreciate those guys. We heard the bloodlines one last week, and it made my wife (Salvadoreña) and me (Chicano) furious… Thanks for sharing!!

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