European Enlightenment

What struck me as particularly compelling in Chapter 8 of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) was how Enlightenment liberalism dovetails so beautifully with Meritocracy.  French Revolution philosophers framed the debate about human nature (which continues to rage on) and articulated the logical contradictions of an absolutist State.  Wooldridge references the vicious nature vs. nurture feud 3 times in the chapter.  Even today, some writers still believe that nurture is the only thing that matters (tabula rasa), despite logic and copious scientific evidence to the contrary.

The distinction between artificial aristocracy (feudalism) and natural aristocracy (some people are smarter than others – sorry if that offends you) is critical because sweeping away artificial inequality quickly allows natural inequality to assert itself.  Wooldridge explains that Enlightenment thinkers talked mostly about virtue and talent at first, not merit, because virtue/talent is less controversial.  Talent was thought of as a “gift of nature, natural disposition or aptitude for certain things or ability”.  But eventually inequality discussions must get to merit – hard work and intelligence.  It’s an undeniable natural quality that varies wildly among humans – it matters.

Society will always be hierarchical because we’re all different.  Leftist levelers hate this fact and want to derogate mind and property.  The chapter concludes by noting that German philosophy was heavily influenced by the French Revolution.  Nietzsche was the consummate meritocratic thinker with his notion of the Übermensch.  Kant argued that intellectual merit is a form of property.  Government has a duty to protect people’s use of their talents in the same way it has a duty to protect their ownership of physical property.  The ability to own and exercise your talents is one of things that distinguishes a citizen with political rights from a mere subject.

Next week, we look closely at two countries in which Meritocracy achieved its greatest success – the U.S. and the U.K.

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The Golden Ladder

Chapter 7 of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) is The Golden Ladder.  Recall the cover jacket of the book, the painting “The Ladder of Fortune” (1875).  It emphasizes, via metaphor, that success in life – happiness/fortune – is not handed to anyone.  It must be earned with effort by climbing the golden ladder.  The words in that painting – on the side rails:  “Morality – Honesty”; and on the rungs:  “Industry – Temperance – Prudence – Integrity – Economy – Punctuality – Courage – Perseverance” – all lead to the fruits of success.  Anti-Meritocratic writers want you to think none of that matters.

Western Civilization was so successful because it embraced Meritocracy at the same time it embraced Science, Capitalism and Individualism.  Those arguing against these concepts (anti-knowledge, post-modern, collectivists in the grievance industry) are looking a gift horse in the mouth.  Wooldrige points out three* converging events igniting the Meritocratic revolution:

  1. Sponsored social mobility (plucking poor but brilliant kids out for higher education).
  2. The acknowledgment of true nobility – natural, earned (not just inherited) aristocracy.
  3. The Protestant Reformation – Max Webber’s “the spirit of capitalism”.

Sponsored social mobility resulted in the founding of universities that recruited students on the basis of intelligence, regardless of poverty or wealth.  Performance-related aristocracy replaced feudal aristocracy.  The elite needed to be educated to fulfil their higher stations in life, even if they inherited their positions at birth.  The new attitude was expressed by Goethe – Really to own what you inherit/you must first earn it by merit.  I should put that on my clients’ wills.

The Protestant Reformation (and Catholic Jesuit response) marked a profound shift in human thinking that changed the world for the better.  It promoted hard work, education, individual responsibility and a moral duty to exert effort in one’s calling.  I won’t belabor the point because I’ve written about it here often, but the spirit of capitalism is not greed and consumption – it’s the creation of order and the best use of resources.

  • *If you’re reading the book along with me (which you should, instead of emailing me that my moral reasoning is irredeemably biased because I’m a successful attorney), Wooldridge refers to these as 3 “worms that gestated in the belly of old European society” and subtitles a section “The Diet of Worms”. Ew! I had to study the Reformation a bit to learn that The Diet of Worms was a formal Catholic deliberative assembly to which Martin Luther was summoned and excommunicated in 1521 (his Ninety-Five Theses was 1517). Worms Germany is one of the oldest cities in Europe and ‘diet’ is a Latin derivative word for deliberate.

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Jewish Scholarship

Wooldridge begins Chapter 6 of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) with a litany of intellectual achievements from Jewish people.  (e.g. Jews win 29% of Nobel prizes and are 50% of all chess grandmasters).  He spends the rest of the chapter examining why.  Jews, who are only 1% of the population, have been historically discriminated against and yet tout extraordinary, undeniable accomplishments.

The chapter’s argument is that Jewish people played a prominent role in developing the idea of meritocracy.  They developed meritocracy in an indirect sense, not directly – like selecting people to rule on the basis of intellectual ability, as Plato did in theory, and the Chinese did in practice.  Judaism is a demanding faith, requiring a high level of intellectual commitment from its followers.  The Hebrew language is rich in expressions for activities requiring a sharp mind, with no fewer than 11 words for seeking or researching, 34 for distinguishing or separating and 15 for combining.

The deep respect for learning of the Jewish combined with historical persecution and a lack of geographic rootedness laid the groundwork for their intellectual success.  The final piece of the Jewish superior scholarship puzzle was their emancipation from strictly religious thinking to an explosion of intellectual creativity in all disciplines.  As children of Orthodox Jews came into contact with new ideas and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the supremacy of reason, they branched out, becoming wandering geniuses. 

Next week, we conclude Part Two (Meritocracy before Modernity) and climb the Golden Ladder leading to the triumphant Rise of Meritocracy.

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Not Our Cup of Tea

Chapter 5 of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) is “China and the Examination State”.  You can’t talk about Meritocracy without discussing China, who is now embracing Meritocracy at a time when U.S. writers are disparaging it – much to our nation’s peril.

China is gonna hand our ass to us.  Believing Meritocracy is bad and seeking to replace it with ‘Diversity’ is a luxury belief – it won’t hurt Ivy League college professors or the woke wealthy, but it is going to wreak havoc on everyone else.

Wooldrige describes the ancient Chinese examination system, admired by the world at the time, in vivid detail.   I felt sorry for the test takers, who studied their brains out to pass the exams under intense pressure.  The Chinese follow Confucius philosophy.  It’s not our American cup of tea but we can learn from Chinese history.  Power, in this way of thinking, is knowledge, imperial duty, and a rigid, aristocratic intellectual hierarchy.   The system survived for 40 centuries uniting China under a sophisticated theory of Meritocracy. 

But, eventually, the harsh “examination prisons” were abolished by imperial edict in 1905.  The system was said to have imprisoned China in a gilded cage because:  Confucianism was a backward-looking philosophy, based on the assumption that an ancient sage had solved the mystery of the universe, or at least the riddle of civilization, and that the only path to wisdom lay in recapturing his insights.  China’s mandarins continued to study the same narrow set of texts even as Europe’s intellectual life exploded with the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rise of social and biological sciences in the 19th century.

We can acknowledge the moral wisdom of Confucius, Plato and Aristotle but we must be reflective of the current instrumental rationality mindset.  Moral knowledge is indeed real, despite today’s constrained way of knowing.  Let’s not forget that the human condition, its moral essence, hasn’t changed for thousands of years, regardless of new technology and modern philosophy.

Next week, we see the extraordinary cognitive achievements of Jewish people; from just 1% of the world’s population emerged an army of intellectual giants that changed the world.

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Footnotes to Plato


Chapter 4 of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) begins:  “All thinking about meritocracy is a series of footnotes to Plato1.”  The reference is to A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1979).  If you go to the cited pg. 39 of that book, the direct quote is:  “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.  What we’re doing right here, right now, thinking about the morality and rationality of meritocracy, is philosophy.

Plato’s idea that society should be run by Philosopher-Kings is hardcore, but it is immensely important to anyone interested in the power of ideas.  I’ve referenced Plato here often over the years in discussing wealth and death.  Remember the allegory of the cave from a 4/12/16 post?  What you believe to be true is only a distorted reflection of reality.  Philosophy opens the door to higher knowledge, which must be used to serve society so Philosopher King Guardians can enlighten our dumbasses watching shadows on the wall:

The knowledge and training for his Guardians is as much moral as it is intellectual.  Plato’s The Republic (375 B.C.) is a collective solution to an epistemological moral problem.  Plato was critical of individual and family power.  He saw family bonds as a moral threat because they encourage parents to put the interests of their kids above society’s as a whole and to accumulate private wealth.  He suggested removing gifted children from their parents by force, replacing marriage with state-sponsored orgies and using a “noble lie” as the basis for governing. 

For centuries, Plato’s utopian vision inspired thinkers in an almost cult-like manner.  Then came Karl Popper (1902-1994), who became the intellectual grave digger of Marxism after revolutionizing our understanding of scientific knowledge.  Wooldridge points out that Popper devoted the entire first volume of his two volume The Open Society and Its Enemies (1948) to denounce Plato as the intellectual godfather of both Fascism and Communism.  Popper’s criticism of Plato changed the world.  When The Open Society was published, 1/3 of humanity lived under governments that called themselves Marxist.  Millions suffered and died because of bad, unworkable Marxist ideas.  Hopefully, humanity has learned.

Wooldrige’s overall point in Chapter 4 is that Plato anticipated and identified problems with Meritocracy 2,396 years ago.  Do you know who else did?  The ancient Chinese.  We get to them next week.

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Family Power

The first three chapters of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) introduces us to the pre-meritocratic world when a person’s station in life was fixed at birth.  Jobs were allocated on the basis of patronage, nepotism and inheritance – not merit. I’ll cover Part One of the book in just this post.  We’ll explore Part Two (Meritocracy before Modernity) and Part Three (The Rise of Meritocracy) one chapter at a time.

Chapter 1 begins with a Shakespeare quote on the dominant view of the world as a hierarchy in which everyone knows their place in life.  There was an almost poetic stability to this world.  Everyone’s life was rooted to a place and family, which was the basic unit of society – not the individual.  Land was lineage – the individual landowner was the ancestral baton-carrier in the relay race of family destiny.  Rights, status, laws, property, all were justified by inheritance rather than utility, by tradition rather than reason.

Chapter 2 explains how family dynasties ruled the world for thousands of years.  Politics was biology.  Wooldridge recounts the brutal European game of thrones that went on for centuries.  He concludes the chapter by foreshadowing the greatest threat to the current meritocratic revolution, which he analyzes later in the book:  The ability of successful families to co-opt meritocracy in the pursuit and perpetuation of family power.

Chapter 3 concludes the first section by exploring the way dynastic societies went about executing the day-to-day business of governing.  The world of Old Corruption eventually became ripe for destruction as reformers wielded the idea of merit as both a critique of what was wrong with the world and a blue print for a better society.

Next week, we begin a 4-chapter tour of the long-term ancient origins of Meritocracy.

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What Is The Point?

In the book Science and the Good – The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (2018), the authors conclude that too many thinkers today are wrong about morality because they are unreflective of:  1) History; 2) Power; and 3) Time.  Time is not History; it’s RIGHT NOW – our current mindset.  This perspective will help with our current project, The Aristocracy of Talent (2021), which articulates moral reasoning for why merit/talent is a moral way of arranging society’s resources and rewards.  The key is understanding that instrumental rationality is a constraining, limiting, incomplete way of knowing.

Page 206 of Science and the Good explains:

An Ethics Naïve About Its Own Time

This is a world whose dominant feature is instrumental (meaning formal, procedural, or functional) and technical rationality, in which the ends of action are pragmatic and the means are evaluated overwhelmingly in terms of efficiency of results.  If values intervene, they are arbitrary rather than intrinsic to the means and ends of action.

Instrumental rationality relentlessly deconstructs other sources of value creation. The result is the weakening of all evaluative perspectives, including its own.  It creates a world with little or no ascertainable grounds for conviction.  On a day-to-day level, the dominance of instrumental and technical rationality in all the major spheres of contemporary life creates increasing pressure to relate to the world through economic calculations of utility, impersonal relations, and expert knowledge. 

What is the point?

As in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the unstable paradox of progressive thought (read my 11/20/18 post), cognition without morality is post-modern nonsense, which inevitably collapses into a futility of paradoxical incoherence.

OK, now that we’ve had a prerequisite on moral epistemology, we can now dive into the first section of Wooldridge’s book on the pre-meritocratic world.

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Third Prize Is, You’re Fired

The introduction of The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) explains that meritocracy is a revolutionary idea – “intellectual dynamite which has blown up old worlds – and created the material for the construction of new ones”.  Adrian Wooldridge maps out his plan to defend meritocracy from a recent intense formidable range of critics who are attacking it.  He strongly urges us to be cautious about rejecting an idea that is so central, so very foundational to our modern world.  Meritocracy’s not perfect but we shouldn’t just stupidly throw it out like a baby with the bathwater.

Wooldridge concedes that the distinction between winning and losing is now much too harsh – he references the film Glengary Glen Ross (1992), when Alec Baldwin tells his office team about this year’s sales contest:  “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado.  Anybody wanna see second prize?  Second prize is a set of steak knives.  Third prize is, you’re fired.”  Wooldridge addresses the equally uncompromising arguments from Markovits and Sandel head-on and wonders:  “Is there a sensible compromise between having ‘you’re fired’ as third prize and giving everybody prizes?”.

The key to understanding meritocracy is history.  Wooldrige is astounded that there has been no good historical analysis of meritocracy even though it is foundational to the modern world – and so he sets out to do just that in his book.  His three-point history lesson is:  1) Meritocracy is a recent revolution – “the chief source of disparity between the fortunes of men lies in the mind” – for thousands of years, that was not the case; 2) The idea of meritocracy changes frequently and easily; and 3) Because of this, meritocracy is capable of self-correction.

The title of his book, The Aristocracy of Talent, should be an oxymoron.  Until recently, talent, carried a moral as well as an intellectual component.  The notion of talent has been de-moralized by a modern way of thinking called “instrumental rationality”.

On this blog, from 4/16/19 – 5/28/19, we studied a superb book on morality, Science and the Good (2018), by Hunter and Nedelisky out of the Univ. of Virginia and The Hedgehog Review.  I followed up a few weeks afterward with how utterly unreflective, short-sighted and biased our “thought leaders” are today about morality.  The profound mistake of our glib, tenured, know-it-all intellectuals can be traced back to their jettisoning morality for rigid pragmatism, militant secularism, nihilism – thinking everything is relative – that there is no objective truth, that morality is not real, that it’s mere opinion/preference, not knowledge.  Perhaps we should re-visit that book a bit to re-confirm that the true is not new and the new is not true before we peer into the pre-meritocratic world.

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The Knowledge Crisis of 2021

Researching and writing a blog like this for years has made me aware of something most people cannot understand or would polemically deny.  A slew of books and articles, particularly published this year, indicate that humanity is facing a knowledge crisis.  Economist Arnold King recently wrote on his blog that the mere titles of books published this year are revealing:

Think Again:  The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (2021)

Minds Wide Shut:  How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us (2021)

The Scout Mindset:  Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t (2021)

Noise:  A Flaw in Human Judgment (2021)

The Constitution of Knowledge:  A Defense of Truth (2021)

Rationality:  What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021)

Publications like Quillette, National Review, Hedgehog Review and others (not in legacy media) are replete with observations that human knowledge/truth/rationality is going through dangerous and difficult times right now.

On 7/25/21 Tyler Cowen linked an article on his blog with empirical data showing a recent surge in cognitive distortions:

It looks to me like highly emotional racial and gender ideology has clouded the thinking of many in the mainstream who are blind to the irrationality of their worldview.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote in the book Living in the End Times (2010) that the need to keep up appearances (to deny reality) at all costs is the mark of ideology:  “One of the most elementary cultural skills is to know when (and how) to pretend not to know (or notice), how to go on and act as if something which has happened did not in fact happen.”

Writers today attacking ancient wisdom and our tried and true economic, epistemic and moral systems are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Capitalism has negative aspects, so let’s get rid of it!  Objective reality is oppressive, so let’s toss it!  Meritocracy hurts some people, so out it goes! 

We’ll be saving the meritocratic baby here in the coming months.

EDIT – Here’s a nice article and book on the moral obligation to share moral knowledge.

And this is a great article about why there are so many wrong/false luxury beliefs in the status wars of our current world.

Finally, here’s an article on reputation concluding that we should not be so polarized about knowledge.

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Deflecting the Markovits-Sandel Fusillade


This is an 1875 painting titled “The Ladder of Fortune”.  It’s on the cover and back of Adrian Wooldridge’s extraordinary new book, The Aristocracy of Talent – How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (2021).  Here on 4/6/21 we began carefully walking through each chapter of two books attacking Meritocracy – 1) The Meritocracy Trap (2019) from Yale Law Professor, Daniel Markovits; and 2) The Tyranny of Merit (2020) from Harvard Philosophy Professor, Michael J. Sandel.  Wooldridge book is a direct response to their “fusillade” as he calls it, and from many others who are revolting against the very ideology that is the foundation of their elite positions in society.

It’s a fascinatingly important topic probing into how financial and cultural resources are, or should be allocated, how success in life is determined and why ‘who gets what and how much’ in our world is indeed moral – despite arguments to the contrary.  It’s a perfect addition to our War Chest of economic and moral knowledge safeguarding wealth and well-being from bad redistributionist ideas and destructive, misguided public policy.

The book is divided into 5 parts: 

Part 1 explores the pre-meritocratic world, when a person’s station in life was fixed.

Part 2 examines the history of meritocracy from Plato, through ancient China to Jewish philosophy.

Part 3 focuses on the great liberal revolutions:  The French and American revolutionary wars and the British transfer of power from royal nobility to an intellectual aristocracy.

Part 4 traces the triumphant historical march of meritocracy celebrating the power and value of intelligence.

Part 5 brings us to the current revolt against meritocracy from both the Left and the Right.  It lights up the darker, corruptive aspects of the idea and concludes with how we must live with our current, no-viable-alternative plutocratic meritocracy.

Next week, join me as we embark on an intellectual and moral journey through meritocracy. British writer Adrian Wooldridge will be our tour guide on this captivating cognitive expedition.

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