Another point in Mill's "The Spirit of the Age" that piqued my interest was his discussion about the difference between "natural" and "transitional" states, the first being defined as a state where the most virtuous and wise are in power. He distinguishes between legal/political power and moral authority, and points to medieval Europe as an example of a natural state in both realms. Though we might dislike their beliefs and actions, Mill suggests it seems clear that the noble classes and the clergy were the most educated and skilled of that time. Thus even though we might not consider them good rulers, they were the most qualified available.
Mill was writing in large part as an advocate for what became the Reform Act of 1832, partially extending the vote to the middle classes. Mill attacked the aristocracy as having decayed in their leisure, failing to maintain their skills at governance and neglecting to take advantage of their free time and money to further their leadership capacity. Thus it was no longer true that those in power were the most qualified.
This is all well and good, but a rather obvious question kept creeping into my mind: "What is the spirit of this age?"
Do we retain the capacity to choose the most wise among us, as Mill was so convinced liberal democracy would allow? He refers to the United States multiple times as a paragon of sagacious leadership, but I wonder if a) that was ever true, and b) if so, whether it remains true today.
Certainly there are some very skilled members of our governments, and most are well educated. But I do wonder whether the growing influence of campaign finance and increasing income inequality might be setting up a system in which those chosen to rule has more to do with heredity than wisdom, exactly the formula for the decay which Mill is deriding. I'm not making an underhanded attack at our current President, but I'm concerned with our system as a whole and he certainly is a product of it.
Of even more interest to me than questions of political power is determing the current source of moral authority. One of the characteristics of Mill's "transitional" state is that there are no settled and "received" wisdoms, because there is no accepted moral authority. The clearest example he gives of a "natural" state of moral authority was the medieval, pre-Reformation Catholic church, whose priests were received by all as the intermediaries to God, and who genuinely were the most skilled of their age, likely even being the only ones who could read and thus have access to any collected wisdom.
Regardless of the veracity of Mill's view of the church, it did leave me pondering what our source of moral authority is. It certainly is not 'the' church, as America, religious and Christian as it may be, is not beholden to a particular church. We don't have an aristocracy, and the rise of public education has done much to alleviate the stark contrasts that would result from education being a privilege of the upper class. So the upper class doesn't provide our moral compass. Our politicians? I don't think so. Is it our legal system?
In the end I suppose I'm wondering what people think the great moral influences of our day are, and if there is no stable and "received" perspective, whether that means we are currently in a "transitional" state... if we are in such a state, then some of the battles being fought in our country would seem to take on a greater importance, as they may determine what "natural" state we are headed for.