How an Elite Person is a Good Person

Let me ask two simple questions. Do artistic, scientific, and intellectual elites have an obligation to society, and if so, what is the nature of that obligation?

I think the answer to the first question is obvious. Humans are social animals, and perhaps only some hermits fail to have any obligation to society. Merely consider how our species and its several precursor species evolved over millions of years. At the very time we were loosing our natural defenses — fangs and massive muscles and the like — we were increasing the size of the groups we lived in.

Through several species and millions of years, we evolved from living in small bands of perhaps 15 or so individuals to living in large bands of 150 or more individuals. A tenfold increase in the size of our social groups — not counting today’s monstrous societies. Humans are not bears. Bears are evolved to live alone. But a human living alone in the wild soon becomes impoverished even by the standards of a hunting/gathering group. Our species is evolved to live socially, and in so many more ways than I can list in a short essay, we depend on each other for our well being.

Our mutual dependency, along with other aspects of our nature, is — or at least ought to be — a basis for our rights and obligations. To attempt to impose a right or obligation on people that goes against the grain of human nature is almost always foolish — although a number of priests and tyrants have tried it.

One often repressed human right is the right to be true to oneself.

One very general human obligation is the obligation to in some way give back to one’s community something good in return for the benefits one has received from it.

Both of those things have deep roots in human nature. We humans are denatured — we become, in a sense, perverted — when we are denied authentic self expression and self fulfillment. The priests and kings have their own reasons for repressing the human need to be true to oneself. And they have many clever ploys to convince people they have no real need for authentic self expression and fulfillment. But priests and kings are fools and liars. No man or woman in all of history who ever realized their full human potential listened to the priests and kings. I wish everyone of the earth’s kids could hear that truth before they set themselves to becoming “a good and loyal subject”. So much of humanity’s potential is crushed by the folly of priests and kings. And, by “kings”, I mean even would be kings — such as George Bush. But I digress.

Besides the often repressed right to be true to oneself, is the general obligation to give back to one’s community. Those two things are brilliantly reconciled in Aristotle’s ancient dictum, which can be translated as, “Where your talents cross with the needs of the world, there lies your calling, life’s work, and bliss.” It is precisely where your right to be true to yourself is reconciled with your obligation to give back to your community that your passion in life will be found.

To echo in part what I said above, one of the most important ways in which humans are a social animal is manifested in how we find our bliss at the juncture where our individual self-realization benefits others. A human who sets out to benefit others at the expense of their own self-realization is just as likely to find themselves as sad, doubting, and disappointed as Mother Theresa was at the end of her life. On the other hand, a human who sets out to realize themselves to no one’s benefit but their own is likely to turn into a dilettante, chasing after the fads and postures of meaning and fulfillment — or worse, become a priest or king.

Artistic, scientific and intellectual elites have the same rights and obligations as anyone else. Specifically, they have the right to be true to themselves, and the obligation to give back to their community. If that is the case, then certain things follow from it. But I have space to mention only one.

The artist, scientist, or intellectual who sets out to merely exploit society for their own gain is acting immorally. This is the problem with so many elites who pass for our intelligentsia these days. They are sell outs. They have not pursued the juncture where one’s talents are reconciled with one’s obligation to the community — they have pursued the juncture where one’s talents are reconciled with the largest paycheck.

For example: Bill O’Reilly, while nothing in the way of a genuine intellectual, passes for one these days. The spin he puts on the day’s events is analogous to the painstaking analysis a real intellectual would do to achieve some insight into the day’s events. O’Reilly has used his talents and skills for entertainment to usurp the role of an intellectual. All for the purpose of becoming a rich man. Were O’Reilly a moral man, he would find where his talents and skills for entertainment can benefit society — rather than harm it. In the most meaningful sense, he has not only sold his followers and his society down the river, he has sold himself down the river too.

Artists, scientists, and intellectuals are currently among the most disrespected members of society. I think part of the reason for that is they are all too often seen as selfishly or callously opposed to society. Now, I don’t for a moment believe that is generally true. But if it were true, it would be a mistake committed against both good morals and human nature. As social animals, our greatest self flourishing and well being comes not from destroying our community, but from using our talents and skills to give back to it some of the good we have received from it.

See also:

Introducing the Carnival of Elitist Bastards

8 thoughts on “How an Elite Person is a Good Person

  1. Yes, well said.

    Coming from the Mormon tradition, I grew-up with this idea that even apparently evil beings have vital roles in the whole of the human story. Having come of age in the era of Star Wars this was also validated by the idea of not destroying the dark side of the force, rather “balancing” the force. That dark and light are two parts of a whole. Yin-yang, blah, blah, blah.

    So, I’m still inclined to think this way even though I’ve largely rejected the source of those first lessons. Now I’d like to think that the only real reason we find ourselves in trouble, for example, Iraq, is that people who had the gift to bring balance to the process were overwhealmed by those who were bent on going to war.

    In a way, this failure to bring balance was not just a personal failure but a failure to do right by the political forces which prevailed. I think we do need hawkish voices, we do need partisan voices, we do need voices who care so much about their gift to the world that they would lie, cheat, steal, even murder to realize it … there is a time and place for these people but they need to be held in check even in their moment of greatest need.

    So I think your point about the nation’s intellectuals and elites failing to serve is applicable to times like these where — how better to put it? Oh well — where the force is out of balance. Where the Matrix needs to be reset. Whatever.

    Great thinking post, Paul. Thank you.


  2. I’m going to wait until I’m home, curled up with a glass of wine, a purring cat, and some music, before I read this. I refuse to try to sneak it in between calls at work. I can tell from the first line I want to take my time and enjoy!


  3. Home, curled up with a glass of wine, and adoring every moment of reading this!

    I once coined a phrase (and I hope anybody filching it will give credit where due, lol!): Not art for art’s sake, but art for the sake of the world.

    As Matt said, we need partisian voices, we need hawkish voices, we need voices that don’t back down – but if we let those voices take over, if we give free reign to egomania, society loses just as much as if we’d let ourselves all get blended into a bland, undifferentiated mass.

    Society needs its joyful givers. And it would be nice to see people caring more for each other rather than their power, prestige, and pocketbook.

    What it comes down to, really, is that more people need to listen to Paul. 😉


  4. Another thought: another reason to rescue intellect and the good reputation of the elite is that when you have a society that degrades its intelligentsia, that rewards intelligence only insofar as it shows no mercy, you have a society in which only sociopaths get respect for being brilliant. Too many good people start to think that in order to be good, one must not be intellectual. And that’s a disaster waiting to happen right there.


  5. I loved this article and a few others so far. Cheers and huzzahs to the Carnival of Elitist Bastards!

    I think we (humans/Americans/whatever) have lost sight of many aspects of not only our nature, but many have also gotten suckered by the Heroic Myths which surround us.

    We’re told over and over that we can rise above everything by no ones’ efforts but our own, that we do not need others for “success” and that people with bad luck had it coming, or were too lazy.

    While there is a place for this sort of myth and the drive it can create in us to better ourselves (huzzah!), I think it ends up making some people forget that we are a social animal, and that our society is what allows us the freedoms to be individuals, free thinkers, inventors and artists, as well as rich businessmen, warhawks, and everything else.

    I think too many people fail to share credit and see only our own efforts instead of the rich tapestry which allows myriad opportunities.

    If you do not mind, I am sharing this with many of my friends from many walks of life, from artists to mad scientists.


  6. Hi Donut! Welcome to the blog! 🙂

    I think you have aptly identified the “Heroic Myth” that influences many of us to think we owe it all to ourselves and have little or no responsibility to others. That can be a very destructive attitude in an animal evolved to live in societies.

    Thank you so much for you kind words!


  7. Unfortunately, we (as artists, scientists, intellectuals) often have to dissent from the general wisdom of both the political classes and the broader community. Of course, we often disagree among ourselves, but what we do (often) have in common is an unwillingness to accept conventional assumptions and boundaries at face value, without questioning them. For better or worse, society hands down a whole range of moral and other ideas from generation to generation as if they were timeless truths – and they are accepted as such by many or most in the community. Many of these ideas, however, are no more than what worked (perhaps well, perhaps not all that well) at some earlier stage of social development. Someone has to test their contemporary relevance and cast doubt on their ultimate justification and continuing relevance, if society is to progress. But those of us involved in the questioning are always going to run the risk of being seen as “elitist” – which we are in a sense – and becoming unpopular outside our own circle.

    In my case, I realise that I’ll never have a mainstream role in the more-or-less political process (no one would ever appoint somebody with my expressed views on, say, human enhancement, to, say, a quasi-judicial position, though I once aspired to that kind of role and would have done a pretty good job).

    But choices have to be made – some of us have to be the dissenters, for the health of the overall culture.


  8. Hi Russell! I agree that artists, scientists, and intellectuals sometimes need to dissent from the mainstream views of society. Recently, for instance, a lot of us have been dissenting from the mainstream view that Bill Henson’s nudes are dangerous or pornographic. I don’t think that in the process of dissenting we need to condemn society. Nor do I think dissent is as powerful a role for the intelligentsia as creating visions. At least that’s how I see it.


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