Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Pillar of Aristocracy

On September 2, 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson a letter containing among much else
 Now, my Friend who are the ἄριστοι ["aristocrats"]? Philosophy may Answer the Wise and Good." But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, "the rich the beautiful and well born." And Philosophers in marrying their children prefer the rich the handsome and the well descended to the wise and good.
 What chance have Talents and Virtues in competition, with Wealth and Birth? and Beauty? ...
 The five Pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues. Any one of the three first can at any time over bear any one or both of the two last.
Adams added a postscript:
You may laugh at the introduction of Beauty, among the Pillars of Aristocracy. But Madame Barry says La veritable Royautée est la B[e]autee ["true royalty is beauty"], and there is not a more certain Truth. Beauty, Grace, Figure, Attitude, Movement, have in innumerable Instances prevailed over Wealth, Birth, Talents Virtues and everything else, in Men of the highest rank, greatest Power, and sometimes, the most exalted Genius, greatest Fame, and highest Merit.
This came to mind when I was reading through the pages dedicated to Mme. Récamier in Mémoires de Outre-Tombe. These were to have formed a book of the third part, but Chateaubriand decided against publishing them: Livres de Poche includes them in the "Fragment retranchés" at the end of the third volume. They run to twenty-three chapters, almost ninety pages. Mme. Récamier's beauty does seem to have prevailed over much. The list of men with their heads turned includes at least Lucien Bonaparte, Prince August of Prussia, Benjamin Constant, and of course Chateaubriand. (One could presumably add M. Recamier to the list; but in the narrative he is all but absent.) It is fair to say that Mme. de Staël was devoted to her also. A thumbnail biography in the back of a Larousse writes of Mme. Récamier as celebrated for her wit, her beauty, and the salon she kept. Was she enchanted, flatter, bored, or distressed by the very silly letters sent her by mostly sensible men?


  1. I still think she must have been amused!

    Adams was not a pretty man, I gather, so perhaps experience guides him here. I'm glad he had his Abigail!

    Also, in most people (barring the rare exceptions), wisdom does not come in youth. The choice of goodness also often comes with age and experience. So in the marrying of children (sometimes done at a very young age in those times), only the bare buds of such qualities might appear, whereas beauty and wealth and birth were obvious to all.

    1. I expect that she was amused. I suspect she was flattered also, else why did she keep the letters? (I'm assuming that Lucien Bonaparte and Benjamin Constant didn't lend Chateaubriand the copies they had kept of their letters.)

      I have wondered whether the Adams temperament might have been sunnier had they had the height of the Washingtons and Jeffersons. In the pictures I have seen of Henry Adams, he is not bad-looking; but but he had seven great-grandparents not named Adams.

      As you say, the promise of wisdom can be hard to judge. Still, I would have imagined that in the days of arranged marriages, which Adams seemed to have had in mind, looks would have counted for less than wealth and family. According to the notes in Lucy Norton's translation of Saint-Simon's memoirs, in the days of Louis XIV, one began one's search with prospective fathers-in-law, then settled on a daughter. This method may have something to do with the daughters of Saint-Simon's first prospect all taking the veil.