Aristocracy has a pretty bad rap, especially in our progressive, egalitarian, and “forward-looking” American democracy. The very word aristocracy connotes exploitation, absurd social construction, and just plain unfairness. To go around parading the ideals of aristocracy would be no less evil than to call for a return to chattel slavery, and to some, it would seem the equivalent. The original meaning of the word aristocracy, however, implied something very different from the modern conception of the term. An aristocrat was among the best of men. He was morally and intellectually upstanding in the community, and his title was both a reflection of that and also an indication of his role as leader because of it. He served as a primary source of order in the community.
Right now, Downton Abbey is reported to be the most watched television show in the world. It centers on the Crawley family and their servants at the Downton estate in pre- and post-World War I England. Robert, or Lord, Grantham (or his Lordship as we often hear from the servants, even his wife) is the Earl of Grantham. Lord Grantham perhaps exemplifies the title “aristocrat.” He strives admirably to act always with honor, and though he sometimes falls short, it is his upstanding character on the whole which seems to have captivated the world. His wife, Lady Grantham and heir, Matthew, also show us the more noble side of human nature. Nor is honor confined to just the aristocrats, as several of the servants have memorably shown. The head butler, Carson, is as good an example of living one’s life according to the principle of honor as Lord Grantham. Other seemingly less noble characters often surprise us with profoundly honorable acts. Sharp-tongued Granny is perhaps the most notable. One thing is clear about the show, it revolves around the notion of honor, and its corollary, dishonor.
The notion of honor has come to be restricted to purely military use. It has suffered the same linguistic fate which Irving Babbitt predicted would become of humility—cast into the dictionary of archaisms. Incidentally, humility is also a theme in Downton Abbey, in the sense that many characters recognize inherent limitations, either social, physical, or natural. When Lord Grantham discovers that he has lost his fortune through bad investments, he doesn’t scheme or plot or run away or even try to save just himself, but gracefully and humbly accepts responsibility. He even says that rather than dividing up the fortunes of the estate and leaving the servants without employment, he would sell the whole estate, for to preserve Downton is better than to preserve himself.
We might all do well to emulate the principles that the characters of the Downton estate hold so dear. Propriety, courtesy, modesty, and decorum aren’t all bad. In a time of such disorder, chaos, and uncertainty, perhaps the world is longing for a return to such “shackles” as Rousseau calls them. Perhaps those shackles are more natural to our condition than we now give credit. Those thin veneers of civilization are rapidly disappearing, and would seem to be completely gone from television were it not for such works of imagination as Downton Abbey. Claes Ryn once said that great works of art—those works “rooted in a strong sense of the moral terms of human existence”—are nothing short of miracles, and they appear when we least expect them. It would seem that one is now in our presence. However, we shouldn’t look to Downton Abbey with nostalgic longing, for we will only despair when it becomes obvious that such a world cannot be recreated. No, instead we should look to it for a model of civility, charity, and order. We should look to it and take away that at one point, people accepted their lots in life and made the best of them. They didn’t try to move heaven and earth, but simply to move themselves the best they could. They took responsibility for themselves, and in the case of Lord Grantham, those under their care. They did this all while keeping up those thin veneers that dignify us as human beings. At the very least, Downton Abbey helps us remember that something called honor once existed, and not only soldiers lived and died for it.