Toward A New Aristocracy

Toward A New Aristocracy

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767–1824), Apotheosis of the French Heroes Who Died for their Fatherland During the War for Liberty, 1802

Translated by Greg Johnson

Translations of this translation: CzechPortuguese

Their names continue to identify the boulevards of a unique though disfigured capital: Berthier, Murat, Jourdan, Masséna, Soult, Brune, Bessières, and others.

By his decree of May 19th, 1804, Napoleon created the first fourteen marshals of the empire, to which he would add ten more. Yes, their names still remain on the perimeter of a Paris that hardly appreciates their glory.

Bonaparte had not been idle. The decision to restore the rank of Marshal came twenty-four hours after the senatus consult that gave him the title of Emperor of the French.

The noble titles of the Old Regime had been abolished in 1790. From his accession to the throne, Napoleon wanted to institute an imperial nobility, which he did in several steps, until the decree of March 1st, 1808 establishing a hierarchy of hereditary titles. As a social distinction, nobility was thus granted by the State to reward its supporters. Of course, a title never guarantees nobility of character or soul.

Napoleon obviously tried to get back to the monarchical tradition, but also to a much older tradition. In a few dazzling years, imitating ancient Rome, France had passed from a Republic to an Empire. However, it differed from its model in lacking the foundation of an aristocratic senate of patricians.[1] Did the Emperor wish to correct this deficiency? Destiny did not ratify his decision.

He was not the successor of the Roman Emperors, but he was the first of the modern Caesars. His power was built on the debris of the monarchy, but even more so on that of the old nobility which, for at least two centuries, has slowly lost its purpose, being dispossessed of its social and political functions by the voraciousness of the administrative monarchy. This monarchy did not support a free and vigorous nobility. It wanted dependant and submissive civil servants. It died because of it, unlike England and other great European monarchies that were always based on active nobilities until the day before 1914.

Then, in the vacuum created by the catastrophe of the Great War, the Caesars multiplied. But, in spite of various attempts, no new nobility could be constituted. One does not found a nobility with civil servants, even in uniform. Spengler had defined the old Prussian nobility by two moral qualities that seem scarcely compatible: “freedom and service.” It is hard to say more in fewer words.

I touched on this subject in another article, “Secret Aristocracies.” Several readers asked: “Why ‘secret’?”

It was an image. And what images suggest often has more scope than any argument. Perhaps it would have been more exact to speak of an “implicit” aristocracy, but it would have had less force. Initially I wanted to avoid any confusion with the daydreams of false chivalry used by mystifiers and their dupes. I wanted to also set aside the dreams of those who are enthralled by political romanticisms. Finally, I wanted to suggest that today there exists an invisible, self-titled elite, beyond all distinctions of class. They are men and women who, through the pursuit of personal excellence, quietly uphold higher duties. One meets them in many contexts. No bond associates them and no apparent sign distinguishes them in the eyes of ordinary people.

The Japanese say that it is precisely by invisible signs that one first recognizes a “Master,” i.e., one who has reached a certain perfection in his existence or in an “art” that is not necessarily martial. To found a “secret” aristocracy was one of the goals of the brilliant creator of scouting.[2] He had the experience of the very old British aristocracy, decrepit though it may have been, and also the experience of an army still penetrated by a spirit of nobility going back to the Iliad. His goal remains viable, with the proviso of purging it soundly of all “good-boyism.”

“Boulevard des Maréchals” (“Boulevard of the Marshals”), Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire, no. 46,


[1] On the permanence of the Roman aristocracy and its role under the Empire, one can refer to the study of professor Yann Bohec, published in the Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire, no. 43, p. 46.

[2] Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, 1857–1941—Ed.

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