René Guénon, De l’initiation:
Never has talk of “the elite” been so incessant, so omnipresent, as now that the elite no longer exists. One even hears talk about “elites”, meaning roughly individuals who surpass, even ever so slightly, the ‘mean’, however low this may be, in any sort of activity whatsoever. (Some sports-journalists speak of “athletic elites” — the final degree of degeneration one can inflict on this word!)
What, then, is the proper sense of elite? The etymological sense is elected, but this, insists Guénon, must be understood neither in the mundane sense of selection for an office nor in the spiritual but exoteric sense of beatitude (the selection of “the elect” by God for salvation), but only in the sense of those who possess all of the qualifications for an initiation into the mysteries which lead to the full development of human possibilities, to an awareness of the unity of these possibilities in one self, and ultimately to a deeper primordial consciousness of what is beyond man.
As I said in The Strange Topology of Populisms, I am guilty of shifting semantic gears between “the elite as de facto power brokers” and “the elite as ruling class forged by its function and its ethos” just as often as anyone else. But it’s always useful to remember that no matter how exacting your choice of words becomes, there will always be someone (I’m looking at you, Guénon!) who still won’t be satisfied.
[But Guénon does raise a good point about the “solecism” of referring to an elite (the group) as composed of many elites (the individuals). Teased apart from its esoteric premises, his point is that if a group of individuals is elected with respect to capabilities which fit them to serve the telos of their institution, then no member of the elite is qualified unless all are. No one of them could be “an elite” by himself. Morphology aside, this point about the formal interdependence of function and matter in an elite is worth remembering. — And practically speaking, if there is going to be a plural form of elite, we would do well to reserve this for multiple (potentially rival) groups, an area where the distinction in number is important but easily obscured. Are Western capitalist countries led by one globalist elite, or by various national elites? And within each civilization/nation, is there a single unified ruling elite, or a competition between various elites (the corporate elite, the academic elite, the military elite)?]