Reading aristocratically

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This essay makes the case for the value of the idea of the aristocratic as a term for contemporary criticism, focusing on the distinctions between aristocracy and democracy drawn by Alexis de Tocqueville. The key consequence for intellectual life in the shift from aristocratic to democratic society, in Tocqueville’s view, is the loss of the capacity of one individual to influence another. While democracy improves the material conditions of life and reduces suffering and poverty, the idea of equality nevertheless endangers the highest capacities of human beings. It is aristocracy, not democracy, that exalts the intellect and encourages freedom of thought, which democratic society tends to subordinate to the psychic well-being of the majority. The inequality of aristocratic society gives rise to the expectation that those who are intellectually superior should influence others, even if the former were not born into the ruling caste. The fact that superiority, and not equality, is the defining value means that people are more easily able to accept the insights of others, because they are not preoccupied by the mental labor of defending challenges to their self-esteem. The essay takes up the question of what an aristocratic approach to criticism would look like, and how it might provide a way out of the impasses into which the discipline of literary studies has fallen.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReframing Critical, Literary, and Cultural Theories
Subtitle of host publicationThought on the Edge
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9783319899909
ISBN (Print)9783319899893
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Jan 1

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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