Are elites enemies of progress?

July 25, 2013

Revolutionary spirits often raise the following objection against the nobility and the traditional elites: Being traditional, they are constantly turned toward the past and have their backs to the future, where true progress lies. They thus constitute an obstacle for any society wishing to pursue progress.

Pius XII teaches us, however, that authentic progress lies only in tradition. Progress is real only if it constitutes a harmonious development of the past, and not necessarily a return to it.  Were progress to break with tradition, society would be exposed to terrible risks.


“Things of this earth flow like a river in the course of time: Of necessity the past gives way to the future, and the present is but a fleeting instant joining the former with the latter. This is a fact, a motion, a law; it is not in itself an evil. There would be evil if this present, which should be a tranquil wave in the continuity of the current, became a billow, upturning everything in its path like a typhoon or hurricane and furiously digging, by destruction and ravage, a gulf between what has been and what must follow. Such chaotic leaps as are made by history in its course constitute and mark what is called a crisis, in other words, a dangerous passage, which may lead to salvation, but whose solution is still wrapped in mystery amid the smoke of the conflicting forces.” (1944 allocution to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility.)

Societies avoid stagnation, as well as chaos and revolt, through tradition. The guardianship of tradition, to which Pius XII alludes in this passage, is a specific mission of the nobility and the analogous elites.

Should they break with their traditions and their past? H.R.H. Crown Princess Victoria at the Baltic Development Forums summit in Stockholm 2009.  Photo by Surtsicna

Should they break with their traditions and their past? H.R.H. Crown Princess Victoria at the Baltic Development Forums summit in Stockholm 2009. Photo by Surtsicna

Some elites neglect this mission by distancing themselves from contemporary life. Others sin by the opposite excess, becoming absorbed in the present and renouncing everything of the past.

Through heredity, the noble prolongs on earth the existence of the great men of the past. “Remembering your ancestors, [you] relive their lives in a way; and your ancestors live again in your names and in the titles they left you through their merits and their greatness.” (1)

Carmen Núñez de Villavicencio y Olaguer Feliú, I marquessa of Domecq D´Usquain

Carmen Núñez de Villavicencio y Olaguer Feliú, marchioness of Domecq D´Usquain

This confers a very particular moral mission on the nobility and the traditional elites. It is up to them to assure that progress has continuity with the past.

“Is not human society, or at least should it not be, like a finely tuned machine, in which all the parts work together toward the harmonious functioning of the whole? Each part has its own role, and each must apply himself toward the best possible progress of the social organism; each must seek to perfect it, according to his strengths and virtues, if he truly loves his neighbor and reasonably strives for the common good and welfare.

Subscription9“Now what part has been assigned in a special way to you, beloved Sons and Daughters? What role has been allotted particularly to you? Precisely that of facilitating this natural development, the role that in the machine is fulfilled by the regulator, the fly-wheel, the rheostat, which take part in the common activity and receive their part of the motive force so as to ensure the operational movement of the apparatus. In other words, Patriciate and Nobility, you represent and continue tradition.” (1944 allocution to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility.)

(1)  1942 Allocution to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility. In this regard, Rivarol, the brilliant French polemicist who opposed the Revolution of 1789, of which he was a contemporary, affirmed, “nobles are like ancient coins that time made into medals”  (in M. Berville, Mémoires de Rivarol [Paris: Baudouin Frères, 1824], p. 212).


Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), 51-52.

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