Illustration of a Friedrich's Reception of Eleanor. Photo: iStock
Illustration of a Friedrich's Reception of Eleanor. Photo: iStock

In search of “the best of all possible worlds” one may think of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, or one may analyze various political systems to find a complex picture with stark differences regarding aristocracy and freedom of speech.

Take the United States, a democracy with freedom of speech sans aristocracy since seceding from the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War, unlike Canada, where freedom of speech is cherished as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations with the queen of England as queen of Canada, let alone aristocratic Great Britain, the beacon of freedom of speech. But what is aristocracy good for in today’s world, one might ask?

Take Austria. While every day tourists from all quarters come in droves to Vienna to visit the Habsburg palaces, where the imperial family and Empress Sisi lived – what for a hundred years has been highly profitable for so many, except the Habsburgs themselves. Grotesquely, the Habsburgs and the aristocrats are even prohibited from bearing their titles in Austria officially, because of the still-valid Habsburg Law of 1919, banning the Habsburg dynasty and all aristocrats, after Charles I, the last emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, being expropriated from all his possessions, went into exile with his family on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

A footnote in history? Interestingly, even today many Austrian politicians seem to feel uneasy with aristocrats, as if afraid of sharing the limelight with aristocracy, although aristocrats and politicians have cooperated well in European constitutional or parliamentary monarchies (the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and Monaco).

One might argue that compared with the aforementioned constitutional or parliamentary monarchies, democracies such as Austria were not strong enough to have a parliamentary monarchy. Austria can be seen as an anomaly in this regard, as in Germany – by no means a monarchy – aristocracy is legal. Germany accepts aristocracy, unlike Austria.

Aristocracy can function as a role model and guideline for culture, decency, elegance, and virtues, providing a framework of values, stabilizing and housing all aspects of a modern pluralistic society under one umbrella

The aristocratic birthright privilege runs contrary to the definition of equality. But the birthright-privilege argument against aristocracy doesn’t hold, as societies without aristocracy still have a birthright privilege, if one is born into a rich family, even in communist countries.

Modern pluralistic democracies don’t need aristocracy anymore, some argue. Others reason that if a society is strong enough, truly pluralistic, and the aristocracy is in resonance with the people, there is room for aristocracy as one societal aspect. Moreover aristocracy can function as a role model and guideline for culture, decency, elegance, and virtues, providing a framework of values, stabilizing and housing all aspects of a modern pluralistic society under one umbrella.

The attraction of royals can be seen in light of more than a billion people watching the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan.

Would not celebrities or nouveau riche do? How do they differ from aristocracy, if not in putting the emphasis on cultivating values and not on money?

Aristocrats, at least ideally, remind one of the junzi “The Noble Ones” in Chinese history, as they are educated in cultivating virtues from early on, and are prepared to serve as leaders for their people; au contraire, members of the financial aristocracy are prepared to make money, not to represent a country.

So MBA-business ethics often serve as a fig leaf, as they are only addressed in class, not cultivated from early on, not entailing personal qualities, but addressing corporate behavior (corporate governance) and eyeing a good image among the public, but not keeping the whole picture in mind. Business-ethics courses don’t make the MBA student a gentleman or a lady, which is an internalized code of conduct cultivated from early on.

Regarding cultivating values, not only ethics come to mind but also values such as freedom of speech (apropos already constitutionalized, for example, in the Roman Republic two millennia ago), protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and held dear, in contrast to many countries worldwide.

When taking freedom of speech seriously, sooner or later a debate culture evolves, as rules become necessary to understand one another. Yet in Austria, though freedom of speech exists generally, there is no tradition to learn arguing, speaking up in school, having debate clubs and contests, unlike in the US and Germany with institutionalized debate training, encouraging you to speak your mind and to argue.

What about Asia? There are some aristocracies left and in many countries freedom of speech is violated. Take the strict censorship of Iran’s theocracy, or that in China. An exception might be Japan, with the Tennō (emperor) and aristocrats on top, but with pretty much stable conditions and freedom of speech.

When freedom of speech is not respected, not taken seriously, people are deterred from speaking their mind, speaking up, arguing, and thinking for themselves. Censorship is an effective way for those in charge to stay in control. Silencing the public or at least limiting freedom of speech is an effective recipe for staying in power and not being criticized.

Yet even if in your region freedom of speech is respected, if censorship is in some way or another active, if even netiquette-based (social) media are restricted, then you are not at liberty to publish freely, but must be content to conform with those in charge. This strangles people’s innovative productivity, having negative effects on the economy.

Autocratic regimes strongly rely on a silenced public exposed to filtered information and orchestrated communication among people too afraid of speaking their mind, not encouraged to make up their own mind. A democracy’s strength is measurable by the degree freedom of speech is taken seriously, and debates displaying opposing views from different societal corners are welcome and established in schools, universities and clubs.

That is, are speaking up, arguing, debating, speaking one’s mind, thinking for oneself encouraged and institutionalized, or are they only a privilege of the few?

Dr. Dr. phil. Immanuel Fruhmann is an Austrian philosopher and educationist specialized in philosophy of science and language, cultural and social philosophy, as well as adult education, with years of experience in analysis of geopolitics and giving philosophical and educational insights to the public. He is psychotherapist in training and works as coach and consultant as well as writer.
Fruhmann is a Knight of the Order of St George, a European Order of the Imperial House of Habsburg-Lorraine, as well as vice president of the Austrian Education Alliance, associated member of the Kinderbüro (political lobby for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child), and the Austrian Economic League.