The Aristo Factor

on June 22, 2009

Over the last few centuries, entrenched aristocracies have increasingly become a drag — inbred, arrogant, and generally useless. But there was a time when having aristocrats around was a good thing, because they were the major drivers of cultural innovation.

The reasons for this have to do with the interplay among leisure, disposable income, and the desire for novelty. Aristocrats tend to have way more than their share of the first two, which makes them extremely receptive to new games and toys, diversions and amusements, fads and fashions.

Up until the 18th century, most great art and music were produced either at the direction of or to curry favor with wealthy patrons. Even technological advances — like the steam engine or electricity — started out as gadgets to provide bored aristocrats with entertainment.

Ever since the French Revolution demonstrated that it was possible to do without them, aristocrats — and their corporate CEO successors — have become increasingly conservative and set in their ways. They worry that any sort of innovation will make their uselessness all the more apparent and fear that great art and music will stir up the lower orders and put notions in their heads. But once upon a time, things were very different.

Think back to somewhere around 4500 BC. Agriculture, which for thousands of years was merely a supplement to hunting and gathering, has expanded to swallow up the entire human enterprise. Instead of spending a few hours a day digging up mongongo nuts and having time left over to tell stories or decorate cave walls, most people now slave in the fields from dawn to dusk, pausing only to milk the cows and round up the sheep.

Being a peasant is a good, steady gig, but it isn’t very exciting or enterprising. That may be why tribal norms — which had long guarded against excessive distinctions of wealth by requiring the richest people in the village to sponsor the annual festival or give presents to everyone else — began to be relaxed to allow for the appearance of elites.

Nobody knows for sure just how the change happened, but we do know that both houses and burials began to show considerable disparities in social status. And not only do the wealthier people have more of everything, they also have stuff of a quality that had not previously existed — more elegant household goods, finer weapons, extravagant jewelry, and new kinds of toys and games to while away the hours.

As one example, an Iranian site known as the Burnt City, which was inhabited from 3200 to 2100 BC, has yielded both the oldest known dice and the oldest backgammon board — which was made of ebony with turquoise and agate pieces.

Aristocratic households would also have employed the services of bards and story-tellers, who would have been expected to come up with new stories, or at least new twists on the old stories, if they wanted to stay in favor. And that marked a radical shift in the very nature of story-telling.

There are certain old, old stories that are told in very similar form all over the world — stories of the first people, of the theft of fire and how death came into the world, of how the sky-god got annoyed at humans and withdrew to the sky and pulled his ladder up after him.

These stories are so alike everywhere that it is hard to understand why they did not become tedious for their tellers and hearers. But as long as they were only told on special ritual occasions — with perhaps a few bawdy trickster tales added for laughs — it may not have mattered much.

But it did matter to the newly-hatched aristocrats of the late Neolithic. They wanted novelty and variation — and they wanted exciting stories about people who were ideal versions of themselves, doing things they could only dream about: Bold heroes and beautiful princesses, magical journeys to the ends of the earth, and encounters with supernatural beings holding the power to bestow unlimited wealth and good fortune.

In other words, fairy tales. The stuff I was talking about a couple of entries back.

We’re no longer living in the age of aristocracy, of course. These days, it seems to have fallen to teenagers and geeks to provide the demands for shiny new tech toys and magical stories about people very much like themselves. And whatever the outcome of that, it will certainly make things very different than they were for the previous 6500 years.

But the aristocrats carried the torch for a long, long time, and for that we should be grateful.


A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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