John Adams went to France to solicit aid for the American Revolution,
he was shocked by the disparity of wealth he found there.
He was familiar with wealthy families in his
homeland, in Massachusetts, but even their grandest estates could
not compare with those of the European aristocracy, with their castles
and palace gardens. On the other hand, even the poorest people at
home seemed better off than the average peasant in France, which
amounted to 90% of the population.
At the time, Europe had been shaped by centuries
of feudal economics and decimating wars waged by their aristocracy.
This bred a disparity between rich and poor that became a matter
of caste that a person was born into. A middle class had formed
among merchants, but it was still small in comparison to the poor,
uneducated masses, who barely had enough to survive. That the wealthy
enjoyed riches that were siphoned from the under-classes was just
accepted as the way of things. The privileged lords considered themselves
superior over everyone else. Those beneath them were convinced of
that as well. While religion assured everyone of just rewards in
heaven that superseded earthly treasure, this was little comfort
to starving children.
With the coming of science during the Renaissance,
people began to question things. With every discovery, it seemed
that more and more of the mysteries of the world were being unveiled
from their secrecy. At the root of all these discoveries was the
inquiring mind, searching for truth with a new, liberated integrity.
Humanity was evolving away from superstition and ignorance, and
changing the world for the better.
A number of philosophers emerged from these exciting
yet turbulent times, including Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes,
John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, David Hume, Baron de Montesquieu,
Emanuel Kant, Voltair, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Rene Descartes, Baron
D'Holbach, and Denis Diderot.
Their collective works changed the world they
lived in, introducing religious tolerance, free thought, natural
law, separation of governmental powers, the benefits of freedom
and education for all, and the idea that governments were based
on a social contract that the people could change if they so pleased.
While these ideas did influence the direction
of European society for the better, the greatest beneficiary of
Enlightenment and Idealist thinking fell upon the
American colonies of England. Here, class distinctions were less
significant, and there were many opportunities for mobility. When
the nation's founders read the works of John Locke and others,
they saw how well it fit their own circumstances. They already felt
removed from European aristocracy, and had initiated their own form
of self-governing. They had been separated from religious wars and
hierarchic oppression for several generations. A certain amount
of independence was already in their DNA. Living in the New World,
they could experiment with Age of Enlightenment ideas as was not
When the Declaration of Independence was
unveiled, it reflected just those ideas. The Constitution
which followed did likewise, providing the new United States with
a republic unlike any that had ever been seen, one that consciously
maximized freedom through a social contract, recognized natural
rights and laws, and constructed checks and balances to assure its
Many assumed that the system would fail, but
it did not.
One of the reasons for its success, however,
was that citizens already experienced a general form of egalitarianism
that made a democratic republic possible. They could buy into it,
and not fear the subversion of an aristocracy. When France went
through their own liberation years later, it was quite different.
The aristocracy was so distrusted that terrible efforts were made
to eliminate them completely an ill beginning that took years
Karl Marx later claimed that European
capitalism would eventually create such a disparity of haves and
have-nots, that the lower classes would rebel against the upper
and create an economy based on socialism. No doubt, the French
Revolution was on his mind when he wrote this.
Most developed countries in the West were able
to avoid this outcome by raising a widespread, basically satisfied
working class, who exercised power through elected representatives.
This inclusivity easily pushed aside thoughts of rebellion. Capitalism
did well in building a path to relative prosperity for most people.
Marx's predictions failed, as did future experiments based on his
outline of communism, in China and Russia. Ventures into moderate
socialism have yet to be adequately evaluated. Liberal democracy's
capitalism still reigns supreme.
In today's world, however, things are changing.
Wealth disparity has multiplied exponentially in the United States.
We now have individuals whose income far exceeds that of any monarch
of the past. Despite declarations of equality, they do exert power
that average people do not. Like European peasants of long ago,
we accept this as just the way things are.
With the economic crash of 2008, came a shock
of insecurity reverberating throughout the land. It was caused by
paper transfers of wealth that most people could not understand.
While thousands of workers get laid off, jobs get outsourced overseas,
illegal immigrants come in by the millions, and credit becomes scarce,
CEOs are still reaping million dollar incomes and bonuses
after contributing to the ruin of other people's jobs. Government
bailouts add salt to the wound, as Everyman's taxes are being
siphoned off to save financiers and industries that continue to
terminate jobs and cut benefits. Previous feelings of hope and success
are being replaced by fear and hardship.
Despite the direction we seem to be heading,
Marx's idea of economic rebellion is nowhere to be seen. That's
not how we handle things in a representative government. We look
for civilized answers, even as political extremists continue in
their fruitless, unending, ideological tug-of-war. Despite the drone
of the status quo, serious people are looking for effective answers.
They see the flaws that brought us to this point, and are thinking
of creative ways to repair the situation. Extremists hinder the
process, but then, they remain as they have always been, a burden
that free people have to bear in the name of freedom. We need to
look beyond them.
When disparity of wealth becomes excessive, as
it is today, it becomes problematic. National policies are shaped
to appease wealthy political benefactors that are not necessarily
conducive to the public good. Secret deals are negotiated, favors
sought and given, corruption becomes the norm. There is nothing
new about political corruption. What is new is to what extent and
how ingrained it has become. That an Illinois governor feels comfortable
enough to openly auction a Senate seat for personal profit, suggests
volumes about dealings that are less noticed. Open solicitation
is wrong, but the understanding that comes from a wink and a nod
seems to be okay.
When leaders falsify information that leads to
war, and the only ones who benefit are military-related businesses,
and no indictment is forthcoming, then we have lost our capacity
for righteous outrage. The system, so meticulously formed, is failing
Or more precisely, we are
The Enlightenment Age ideals that free
democracies were based on only work when people buy into them. Representative
government and free market dynamics do not succeed on their own.
People are the ones who make it work people inspired by high
minded ideals and the kind of rationalism that make those ideals
We need to remind ourselves that personal virtue
was not mentioned in the Constitution because it was considered
a given. When greed overcomes prudence, temperance and humility,
capitalism becomes something it was not supposed to be .
Adams and Thomas Jefferson were very impressed by the
wealth of the French aristocracy at the time. Nevertheless, they
turned their backs on it to forge a nation based on egalitarianism.
The framers of the Constitution, many of them financially comfortable,
met in secret because, in building a nation based on equality, they
might be considered traitors to their caste. If greed and power
were in the forefront of their minds, the results would have been
very different. President George Washington would have declared
himself king, and was even bidden to do so. Yet after two terms
he quietly stepped down, setting the standard for all future White
have what it takes to straighten things out because all those heroic
minds come to us as our inheritance. It is not enough to honor them
on state occasions, or study them in history classes. We need to
learn from them as a child learns from a caring parent, or a student
hungering for knowledge from a mentor. These ideas, and so much
more, are who we are when let ourselves. From Greek and Roman philosophers,
to chivalric romances, to Renaissance achievements, to Enlightenment
thought, to the liberation of Idealism, the responsibility of existentialism
and the insights of science we have a steady progression
of development that needs to be recognized, honored and, most of
have praised our vices and exaggerated our weaknesses for far too
long. Human evolution need not take such a circuitous route to find
what lies in front of us already. Greed and the lust for power are
far more of an inconvenience than our natural graces and moral inclinations.
Only constant distraction and propaganda leads us in that direction.
Just a moment's prodding calls virtuous talk from the meanest of
our kind, who readily defends virtue despite his own straying.
power to bring peace to the world, to clean our atmosphere and oceans,
to feed the poor and clothe the naked, to bring justice out of anarchy,
is nowhere else but in our hands. This is the very essence of Chivalry-Now.