Elitism as Literary Theme Summary

Early History

Elitism is a part of literary identity. Until literacy became common, for example, literature was largely written by and for the social elite. Authors thus tended to reflect the self-image of the aristocracy, rarely providing alternative points of view. For example, Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey (both c. 800 b.c.e.) originated as songs composed for presentation in courts. For this reason, the principal characters in both poems are kings or members of the nobility. When Homer does not ignore commoners, he tends to depict them unflatteringly. Anyone who stands outside the social elite, such as Thersites in the Iliad, is usually said to be ugly, vain, uncivilized, lame, or stupid. Even among the ranks of the gods, characters who do not have elite status among the gods, such as craftsman god Hephaestus, are mocked. Occasionally a member of the lower classes, such as the swineherd Eumaeus in the Odyssey, is described favorably. These occurrences are rare, however, and the lower-class character is always praised for his subservient attitude to the elite.

The concept of the elite occurs in much of classical literature. In the Republic (between 388 and 366 b.c.e.), Plato proposes a utopian society that will be ruled by an elite class of philosopher-kings. Aristotle believed that the elite was naturally suited to rule others because of its superior virtue (Politics, c. 335-323 b.c.e.). The “harmony among social classes” (concordia ordinum) advocated by the Roman orator Cicero was an elite composed of the senatorial aristocracy and members of the wealthy middle class. Plebeians were expected to remain content and obedient to these “best people.”