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John O'London's Weekly, Vol XIII No 318 May 9 1925, pp. 161-162.

Rafael Sabatini site logo

Are You An Ancestor?

by Rafael Sabatini

Ancestor-Worship as practised in China may be tolerable; as practised among the white races it has been rendered by modern conditions of life slightly ridiculous, and it begins to stand revealed as a pretext for self-magnification on the part of persons who, too often, are otherwise of no importance. It is little more than a lingering vestige of things that have already passed away, because no longer necessary to the evolution of civilization in the phase which it has now reached.

Where evolution is resisted, revolution is the usual alternative. This has been witnessed in many places and in many ages. Within modern historical times it was witnessed signally in England in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the theory of divine right had become a stumbling-block to progress, and still more signally—because more violently—in France at the close of the eighteenth. Yet when the storm of the French Revolution had abated, when order had been resolved out of chaos, and an imperial throne erected upon the ruins of the monarchy, surviving members of the old régime regarded Bonaparte with undisguised and rashly outspoken contempt as a parvenu. His stupendous genius as a soldier, administrator, and law-giver commanded no respect in the eyes of men who could remember only that by birth he was undistinguished.

* * *

These men had failed to grasp the great lesson of the cataclysm they had survived: that an enlightened and progressive community could no longer suffer itself to be governed by those whose only right to govern rested upon their ancestry; but demanded, instead, to be governed by men who possessed the necessary qualities in themselves. Out of this lack of understanding sprang that suggestion made to Napoleon by a well-meaning dullard, that to fortify his right to the imperial throne to which he had climbed, he should establish his ancestry.

It was a suggestion to which Napoleon returned the illuminating answer: "Ancestry? I am, myself, an ancestor."

That phrase, charged with hard common sense and the acute perception of realities, which underlies all genius, was probably entirely misunderstood by the prejudice-ridden minds to which it was addressed. Yet very plainly it asks a question to which there would appear to be one only possible answer: Does true greatness belong to him who achieves it, or only to him who succeeds, generations later, to the fruits of that achievement?

* * *

Was the Norman bastard who conquered England and founded the line of Norman kings anything more than a high-flying adventurer or first-class brigand? Yet among the many foreign critics who despised Bonaparte for an upstart, there would be some who took pride in, and had been at pains to establish, descent, not indeed from King William himself, but from one or another of those who merely followed in his Norman train. Oliver Cromwell, who from humble circumstances rose to be supreme in England, as Lord Protector, and could, had he so willed it, have assumed the crown and founded a dynasty, might equally have been condemned for a self-made man. Still more heavily might this contempt have fallen upon the Florentine trader Cosimo de' Medici—whose armorial device in the shape of the three balls may to this day be seen adorning the portals of many a pawnshop—who rose to be the greatest man in the State, and whose trader's blood within two hundred years ran in the veins of almost every royal family in Europe. Muzio Attendolo, who, from the great physical strength that was one of his least endowments, was surnamed Sforza, was a Romagna peasant who abandoned the plough to follow a company of free-lances, and by his talents and energy raised himself to the command of armies and his son to the throne of Milan.

* * *

If, continuing this review, we ignore the utterly ignoble origins of certain great houses—and there is no lack of them—whose titles and honours have their roots in harlotry, usury, and violence, and we consider only those whose nobility is legitimately based upon worthy service to the State, we invariably find that such families spring from some man of humble, or comparatively humble, origin, who, surmounting difficulties in an age which denied opportunity to his class, rendered himself conspicuous as a soldier or a statesman, and by his services in either capacity earned the gratitude of his country, concretely expressed by a title of nobility and a grant of lands or money.

Pride of nobility may have its justifications. It can be, indeed, and no doubt often has been and still is, a source of noble inspiration. The old French formula noblesse oblige was not by any means an empty phrase. A great house has its traditions, and in many great houses of Europe we see to this day an earnest endeavour on the part of some of their members worthily to maintain those traditions by a continuance of service akin to that which originally ennobled them. An able, ambitious, and handsome young guardsman at the Court of Charles II. who combined great military talents with considerable ability as a politician, thrust himself forward until, later in life, he reached the supreme command, and so distinguished himself in this, that from a simple esquire, as he had been when first he came to Court, he ended by being created a Duke. If the direct followers in the ducal line he founded have done little that is remarkable, at least the younger branches of that house have more than once conspicuously upheld the name which he rendered great and the traditions of service which he established.

* * *

Humanity's most elementary sense of justice would be shocked and outraged if the descendants of a criminal deservedly hanged, say, three hundred years ago, should still lie under the burden of the infamy earned by that ancestor. Why, then, should glory attach to the possibly worthless descendant of a hero?

No answer is possible that would not be at war with all reason. For we are dealing with something that at heart is no better than a stupid superstition which has become woven into the warp of civilization, and which, like all superstitions, has hampered progress. If in the past it has not rendered impossible, at least it has greatly curtailed, the expressions of individual worth by which alone humanity advances.

* * *

This was fully realized in the eighteenth century by the men of comparatively humble origin who composed what was known as the Third Estate in France. When, in consequence, they put forward their revolutionary proposals that the country should be given a constitution under which all men might enjoy equal rights at law and equal opportunities for self-expression, the best argument that aristocracy could oppose to it was that nobility was an order consecrated by antiquity, and that its rights and privileges were supported by the authority of centuries. Which was to say that if a wrong has been a wrong for a sufficient length of time it becomes in consequence an established right. It was not an argument likely to prevail with men determined to sweep away shams so that realities might be given a chance to blossom. They had seen how, a century earlier, Cromwell had broken the shackles of divine right, which fettered England as they were still fettering France. They had witnessed more recently the revolution in North America, whereby a free people had refused to submit to the yoke of a system of government already anachronistic and futile. And they were resolved upon winning for themselves a similar emancipation from the chains of feudalism and privilege, imposed upon them by an arrogant and in the main effete minority. They realized that America, which offered itself so conspicuously just then as an example, had originally been called into existence largely by just such a condition of things in Europe as that against which the bourgeoisie of France was then in revolt.

* * *

It was largely because in Seventeenth-Century Europe there was so little opportunity for a man to express himself, to achieve liberty of action, to enjoy even freedom of worship, that the stream of emigration had set strongly towards the New World. And it is well-named the New World. For it was new spiritually as well as physically. It was new not only in the sense of being newly-discovered, but also because it held out the prospect of new life, under new conditions, with equal opportunities for all. It was a land in which the only obstacles to advancement were weakness, stupidity, and sloth; a land where only realities counted; where every man was his neighbour's peer; where energy and ability might enjoy free scope with the certainty of reward; where, in short, individual worth was the only claim to respect and credit. To the great spirits cramped in the Old World by class distinctions and class and other prejudices it was Utopia.

* * *

The Old World may be accounted in a period of social transition. The old gods are not yet entirely cast out; preconceptions and a veneration of old-established customs still keep them in their niches. But side by side with them the new ones are beginning to appear in strength, just as side by side in the European illustrated papers you will find, weekly, the photographs of men and women of two worlds: the world of persons who are just names, mere living monuments to the illustrious dead from whom they descend; and the world of those whose claim to distinction rests upon own personal achievement in the fields of science, art, literature, or commerce, by which humanity is served and civilization advanced. Because this movement has been tardy and is slow there have been convulsive impatiences and minor outbreaks which have retarded the ideal social evolution by producing momentary reactions. For if the old tyrants from palace and castle have been cast out, it is not so that tyrants from the gutter may take their place.

* * *

The world to-day does not require the supremacy of any one class over the others; but is concerned to extinguish all privileges and distinctions that are not earned by personal worth. Equality is an empty dream in a world into which men, physically and mentally, are not born equal. But equality of opportunity is already universally recognized as the State's duty to the individual, just as it is universally recognized—although certain groups may still be reluctant to admit it—that a man's value to society and claim to esteem lie in his own ability to be an ancestor, and not in the appearance he makes in the cold, reflected light of a glorious ancestry.

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