Morris on why Heian aristocrats weren’t snobs

The basis of snobbery may be defined¹ as the choice of irrelevant criteria from among various possible scales of value, as, for example, in judging the beauty of a painting by its age, or a person’s wit by his wealth; in Murasaki’s world, on the other hand, there was a single overriding criterion by which people were judged: that of birth. Under exceptional circumstances a social group may acquire a ‘monolithic’ hierarchy of values and such groups are relatively free of snobbery, because there is no other scale of values to interfere with judgement. It is precisely such a hierarchy that we find in the aristocracy of Heian Kyō. Their attitude to provincials and to members of their own class was the natural consequence of an accepted scale of values in which a member of the Third Rank, for instance, automatically took precedence over a provincial governor of the Fifth, and a person without rank (tadabito—‘mere person’) was in every respect inferior to one whose birth qualified him for appointment (yoki hito—‘good person’). To call this snobbery is to underestimate its scope.

—Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince.

He actually has a citation for the definition of “snobbery”; here’s the footnote:

1. I am indebted to Arthur Koestler for his definition and analysis of snobbery (The Trail of the Dinosaur and Other Essays, London, 1955, pp. 69–94). Ancient Greece provides an interesting analogy in its use of the terms, kalokagathoi and kakoi, which correspond closey to yoki and waroki hito.

2 thoughts on “Morris on why Heian aristocrats weren’t snobs

  1. You flatter me, Carl-sensei :)

    I keep not posting things cause I’m unsatisfied with my writing. I think I’ll add more posts in this format of “look at this paragraph I found”—at least it’s better than letting the blog die, and certainly better than using twitlonger.

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