When the historian Henry Adams met President Grant the shock upset years of his “education,” a term he used to cover his entire intellectual heritage as an American:
Grant fretted and irritated him, like the Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.
I always think of this scene whenever I hear anyone speak of meritocracy in America. In the country where Donald Trump became president? Grant had at least been a successful general. Trump couldn’t even run a casino. Doesn’t Trump’s election make the notion of rising through one’s merits, however broadly defined, ludicrous? Does it not seem like a defiance of first principles?
Things I was thinking of recently while reading Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes. If not evolution, in the strict Darwinian sense, I think we’ve at least put paid to the notion of there being much progress in human affairs.