Breeding and Virtue

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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11 Responses

  1. Will says:

    Great post.

    My knowledge of this era is limited, but I seem to recall reading that the English aristocracy was a lot more fluid than you might think. The gentry, for example, were less established and often inter-married with wealthier yeomen and merchants. Is it possible that this process made the English upper classes better adapted to commercial activities than other, more established aristocracies?Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Will says:


      What you say is true, but other aristocracies were fluid in other ways. By the 18th century, the typical French nobleman didn’t have a pedigree going back to Charlemagne — he’d more likely had a rich bourgeois ancestor, one who had bought an ennobling office from the king at some point in the sixteenth century or later. The capitalist/mercantile elite was the past of the French aristocracy, not its future.Report

      • Simon K in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, In my limited understanding, though, new-ennobled French aristocrats typically disowned or at least hid their commercial activities as being beneath their new station. English aristocrats typically had to engage in commercial ventures because they couldn’t squeeze enough money to maintain their position at court from their land.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Simon K says:

          @Simon K,

          Both of these are true, but neither of them well supports Clark’s claims. English aristocrats may have had to engage in commerce, but they were acutely aware that this was not their class’s traditional role, and it wasn’t.

          French aristocrats not only hid their commercial activities but were in fact barred from them by law. What the French system did, then, was to take a commercially inclined population and breed out the commercial traits, turning families of rich merchants into families of idle landowners, courtiers, gamblers, and military adventurers.Report

          • Simon K in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            @Jason Kuznicki, Yes, I agree. I was considering writing a longer comment on why the difference between the French and English aristocracies was due to institutions, not breeding, but I’d most be speculating, and I suspect I’d be preaching to the choir anyway.Report

  2. Sheldon says:

    It is hard for me to believe the folks here don’t remember Churchill’s famous retort (in his Labor days) to the MP who said “The upkeep of civilization has been the great work of the aristocracy”: “It seems to me the upkeep of the aristocracy has been the great work of civilization!”Report

  3. Paul B says:

    I thought part of Clark’s point was that downward social mobility in England was driven by the institution of primogeniture, with younger songs getting squeezed out of any inheritance and so having to make their own way in the world. That certainly makes England unique compared to, say, the Islamic system (which divvied property up among heirs in a way sufficiently complex to require the invention of algebra).

    Speculating wildly and irresponsibly from the fact that the Carolingian empire more or less disintegrated as it was divided among too many of Charlemagne’s heirs, I’d guess that France didn’t have that same tradition of primogeniture — which could explain at least some of the difference.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B,

      If only it were that easy. The split inheritance of the Carolingians was taken as an object lesson in why the French had to have primogeniture — and they did, for centuries. It was so firmly settled that often one couldn’t devise one’s estate to anyone else, in the entire or otherwise, if one had a surviving son. And among the surviving sons, the eldest always got the estate and the title.Report