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The Nobility and the Traditional Elites as Guides of Society

Paul VI receives the Guard noble on January 7, 1964. Prince Alessandro Odescalchi carries the standard of the body.

The spiritual qualities and chivalrous manners that derive from Christian virtues qualify the noble to exercise the mission of guiding society.

a. Guiding society: a form of apostolate

Today’s multitudes need competent guides.

The numberless, anonymous multitude is easily provoked to disorder; it surrenders blindly, passively, to the torrent that carries it away or to the whims of the currents that divide and divert it. Once it has become the plaything of the passions or interests of its agitators, as of its own illusions, it is no longer able to take root on the rock and stabilize itself to form a true people, that is, a living body with limbs and organs differentiated according to their respective forms and functions, yet working all together for its autonomous activity in order and unity.

It is the responsibility of the nobility and the traditional elites to guide society, thereby accomplishing a brilliant apostolate.

You could well become this elite. You have behind you an entire past of age-old traditions that represent fundamental values for the healthy life of a people. Among these traditions, of which you are rightfully proud, you number religiousness, the living and working Catholic faith, as the most important of all. Has history not already cruelly proved that any human society without a religious foundation rushes inevitably toward its dissolution and ends up in terror? In emulation of your ancestors, you should therefore shine in the eyes of the people with the light of your spiritual life, with the splendor of your unshakeable faith in Christ and the Church.

Among these traditions is also the inviolate honor of a profoundly Christian conjugal and familial life. In all countries, or at least in those of Western civilization, there rises now a cry of anguish about marriage and the family, a cry so piercing it is impossible not to hear it. Here too, with your exemplary conduct you must put yourselves at the head of the movement for the reform and restoration of the domestic hearth.

And among these same traditions you also count that of acting for the people, in all the facets of public life to which you might be called, as living examples of an unwavering performance of duty, as impartial, disinterested men who, free of all inordinate lust for success or wealth, do not accept a post except to serve the good cause, courageous men unafraid of losing favor from above, or of threats from below.

Lastly, among these traditions there is also the calm, loyal attachment to all that which experience and history have validated and consecrated, that spirit unmoved by restless agitation and blind lust for novelty so characteristic of our time, but also wide open to all social needs. Deeply convinced that only the doctrine of the Church can provide an effective remedy to the present ills, set your hearts upon paving the way for Her, without reservations or selfish suspicions, with words and with works, and especially by guiding, in the administration of your estates, true model businesses from an economic as well as social point of view. A true gentleman never lends his participation to enterprises that can only sustain themselves and prosper at the expense of the common weal and to the detriment and ruin of persons of modest condition. On the contrary, he will put his virtue at the service of the small, the weak, the people—of those who, practicing an honest trade, earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. Only thus will you be truly an elite; thus will you fulfill your religious and Christian duty; thus will you nobly serve God and your country.

May you then, beloved Sons and Daughters, with your great traditions, with care for your progress and your personal, human, and Christian perfection, with your loving good works, with the charity and simplicity of your relations with all the social classes, may you then strive to help the people reestablish themselves on the foundation stone, to seek the kingdom of God and His justice.

b. How the nobility should exercise its mission of leadership

In the exercise of this directive mission, the nobility should bear in mind that there is a vast variety of leadership functions.

In an advanced society like our own, which will have to be restored and reordered after the great cataclysm, the responsibilities of the leaders are rather diverse: the leader is the man of State, of government, the politician; the leader is the worker, who, without resorting to violence, threats, or insidious propaganda, but through his own worth, is able to gain authority and standing among his peers; the leaders are all those in their respective fields, the engineer, the jurist, the diplomat, the economist, without whom the material, social, and international world would go adrift; the leaders are the university professor, the orator, the writer, all of whom aim at molding and guiding spirits; the leader is the military officer who infuses the hearts of his soldiers with a sense of duty, service, and sacrifice; the leader is the doctor carrying out his mission of restoring health; the leader is the priest who directs souls onto the path of light and salvation, providing them assistance for advancing safely along that road.

The nobility and the traditional elites must participate in the leadership, not just of one sector of society, but of any worthy sector, and always with a traditional and proper spirit and in a thorough way.

And what, in this multitude of leaderships, is your place, your function, your duty? It presents itself in dual form: the personal function and duty of every one of you individually, and the function and duty of the class to which you belong.

Personal duty requires that you, with your virtue and diligence, endeavor to become leaders in your professions. Indeed, we all know well that today the youth of your noble class, aware of the dark present and the even more uncertain future, are fully convinced that work is not only a social duty, but also a personal guarantee of livelihood. And We use the word professions in its broadest, most comprehensive sense, as we had occasion to point out last year—that is, technical or humanistic professions, but also political and social activities, intellectual occupations, works of every sort: the prudent, vigilant, hard-working administration of your property, your lands, following the most modern and tested methods of cultivation, for the material, moral, social, and spiritual good of the peasants or other populations who live on them. In every one of these situations you must make every effort to succeed as leaders, whether because of the trust placed in you by those who have remained faithful to the wise and still living traditions, or because of the mistrust of so many others, which you shall have to overcome by winning their esteem and respect, by dint of excelling in everything in the positions in which you find yourselves, in the activities you pursue, regardless of the nature of the position or the form of the activity.

More precisely, the noble should transmit to everything he does the relevant human qualities that his tradition affords him.

In what, then, should this excellence of life and action consist, and what are its principle characteristics?

It manifests itself above all in the perfection of your work, whether it be technical, scientific, artistic, or anything else. The work of your hands and your spirits must bear that imprint of distinction and perfection that cannot be acquired from one day to the next, but rather reflects a refinement of thought, of feeling, of soul, and of conscience, inherited from your forebears and ceaselessly nurtured by the Christian ideal.

It also shows itself in what can be called humanism, that is, the presence, the intervention of the complete man in all the manifestations of his activities, even if specialized, in such a way that the specialization of his ability should never hypertrophy, should never atrophy, never becloud the general culture, just as in a musical phrase the dominant should never break the harmony nor burden the melody.

It is also made manifest in the dignity of one’s entire bearing and conduct—a dignity that is not imperious, however, and that, far from emphasizing distances, only lets them appear when necessary to inspire in others a higher nobility of soul, mind, and heart.

Lastly, it manifests itself above all in the sense of lofty morality, or righteousness, honesty, and probity that must inform every word and every deed.

Aristocratic refinement, so inherently worthy of admiration, would be useless and even harmful were it not based on a higher moral sense.

An immoral or amoral society that no longer distinguishes between right and wrong in its conscience or in its outward actions, that no longer feels horror at the sight of corruption but rather makes excuses for it, adapts to it indifferently, woos it with favors, practices it with no misgivings or remorse, indeed parades it without blushing, thereby degrading itself and making a mockery of virtue, is on the road to ruin….

True nobility is another matter altogether: In social relations it lets shine a humility filled with greatness, a charity untouched by any egotism or concern for one’s own interest. We are not unaware of the tremendous goodness, gentleness, devotion, and self-abnegation with which many, and many among your number, have in these times of endless suffering and anguish bent down to aid the unfortunate and have been able to radiate about themselves the light of their charitable love, in all its most progressive and efficacious forms. And this is another aspect of your mission.

“Humility filled with greatness:” What an admirable expression, so opposed to the vain style of the jet set and to the vulgarity of today’s supposedly democratic and modern manners, lifestyles, and way of being!

c. Elites with a traditional upbringing are profound observers of reality

A noble, gifted with a profoundly traditional spirit, can find in the experience of the past that lives in him the means to understand current issues better than many other people. Far from being on the fringes of reality, he is a subtle and profound observer of it.

There are ills in society, just as there are ills in individuals. It was a great event in the history of medicine when one day the famous Laennec, a man of genius and faith, anxiously bending over the chests of the sick and armed with the stethoscope he had invented, performed auscultation, distinguishing and interpreting the slightest breaths, the barely audible acoustic phenomena of the lungs and heart. Is it not perhaps a social duty of the first order and of the highest interest to go among the people and listen to the aspirations and malaise of our contemporaries, to hear and discern the beatings of their hearts, to seek remedies for common ills, to delicately touch their wounds to heal them and save them from the infection that might set in for want of care, making sure not to irritate them with too harsh a touch?

To understand and love in Christ’s charity the people of your time, to give proof of this understanding and love through actions: This is the art and the way of doing that greater good that falls to you, doing it not only directly for those around you, but also in an almost limitless sphere. Then does your experience become a benefit for all. And in this area, how magnificent is the example set by so many noble spirits ardently and eagerly striving to bring about and spread a Christian social order!

Moved by Faith, the authentic and, therefore, genuinely traditional aristocrat, while preserving himself as such, can and must love the people, over whom he should exercise a truly Christian influence.

d. The authentically traditional aristocrat: an image of God’s providence

But, someone might ask, will not the nobility belittle itself by assuming today’s leadership posts? And will its love of the past not constitute an obstacle to the exercise of present activities? In this respect Pius XII teaches:

No less offensive to you, and no less damaging to society, would be the unfounded and unjust prejudice that did not hesitate to insinuate and have it believed that the patricians and nobles were failing in their honor and in the high office of their station in practicing and fulfilling their duties and functions, placing them alongside the general activity of the population. It is quite true that in ancient times the exercise of professions was usually considered beneath the dignity of nobles, except for the military profession; but even then, once armed defense made them free, more than a few of them readily gave themselves over to intellectual works or even manual labor. Nowadays, of course, with the changes in political and social conditions, it is not unusual to find the names of great families associated with progress in science, agriculture, industry, public administration, and government—and they are all the more perceptive observers of the present as well as confident and bold pioneers of the future, since with a steady hand they hold firm to the past, ready to take advantage of the experience of their ancestors but quick to be wary of the illusions and mistakes that have been the cause of many false and dangerous steps.

As custodians, by your own choosing, of the true tradition honoring your families, the task and honor of contributing to the salvation of human society falls to you, to preserve it from the sterility to which the melancholy thinkers jealous of the past would condemn it and from the catastrophe to which the reckless adventurers and prophets dazzled by a false and mendacious future would lead it. In your work, above you and as it were within you, there shall appear the image of Divine Providence which with strength and gentleness disposes and directs all things toward their perfection (Wis. 8:1), as long as the folly of human pride does not intervene to thwart its designs, which are, however, always above evil, chance, and fortune. By such action you, too, shall be precious collaborators of the Church, which, even amid the turmoil and conflict, never ceases to foster the spiritual progress of nations, the city of God on earth in preparation for the eternal city.

e. The aristocracy’s mission among the poor

One aspect of the traditional elites’ participation in the direction of society is their educational and charitable action. This is admirably described by Pius XII.

But, like every rich patrimony, this one brings with it some very strict duties, all the more strict as this patrimony is rich. There are two above all:

1) the duty not to squander such treasures, to pass them on whole, indeed increased, if possible, to those who will come after you; to resist, therefore, the temptation to see in them merely the means to a life of greater ease, pleasure, distinction and refinement;

2) the duty not to reserve these assets for yourselves alone, but to let them generously benefit those who have been less favored by Providence.

The nobility of beneficence and virtue, dear Sons and Daughters, was itself conquered by your ancestors, and bearing witness to this are the monuments and houses, the hospices, asylums, and hospitals of Rome, where their names and their memory bespeak their provident and vigilant kindness to the needy and unfortunate. We are well aware that in the Patriciate and the Roman Nobility this glory and challenge to do good, inasmuch as they have been in a position to do good, has not been lacking. Yet at this present, painful hour, in which the sky is troubled by watchful, suspicious nights, your spirit, while maintaining a noble seriousness, indeed a lifestyle of austerity that excludes all trifles and frivolous pleasures, which for every genteel heart are incompatible with the spectacle of so much suffering, feels all the more keenly the urge for charitable works impelling you to increase and multiply the merits you have already achieved in the alleviation of human misery and poverty.


Note to the Reader:

The original texts of all the allocutions cited in this work can be found in the Vatican’s published collections of documents for the respective popes. Translations of the allocutions of Pius XII are provided in Part III of Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Hamilton Press (October 1993). Footnote references to the allocutions have been shortened to “RPN,” followed by the year of the allocution and the page(s) on which they may be found in the collected documents or, when otherwise indicated, in Part III of Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites.

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Footnotes :

RPN 1946, p. 340; See Chapter III.

Ibid., pp. 341-342.

RPN 1945, pp. 274-275.

Ibid., pp. 275-276.

Ibid., p. 276.

Ibid., pp. 276-277.

RPN 1944, pp. 180-181.

Ibid., pp. 181-182.

RPN 1941, pp. 364-365.

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