The Great Revolution: III: Equality, Part A

If this were a book, instead of a series of columns for a website, I should have to break it into sections.  After the introduction, which has just been completed, the first real section might be entitled Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the foundation of the revolution.  All three terms can be looked at much as Aristotle looks at the virtues and vices as a mean between two excesses.  Thus proper courage lies between timidity and the rash and arrogant boldness that motivates bullies.

Liberty, in this sense, is the positive mean between the polar opposites of servile dependency and the willful egotism that is alienated from all human ties; fraternity, is a proper hierarchical sense of our duties to friends, family members, and even harmless strangers, in contrast to, on the one hand, a non-discriminatory and non-judgmental love of everyone and everything equally, and, on the other, a universal and ruthless antagonism.

Equality is a still more complex.  As a virtue expressed in Aristotelian terms, it is the mean between the character that invests everything into the distinction between me-and-mine and everything else and the character that rejects all distinction.  In Jacobin terms, however, liberty, equality, and fraternity represent either or both of these three baneful extremes.  Liberty, to take the simplest example, can mean either or both alienation from our fellow human beings and/or a servile dependency upon institutions that lie beyond our control.

But the subject here is equality.  Much depends on what we mean by equal.  Is it the equality of two plus two equals four—or even of two equals two?  Or is it the proportional equality of ratios, as in: As six is to three, so eight is to four?  In the politics of democratic Athens, either kind of equality might be meant by the term isonomia, conventionally translated as equality under the law or simply as equality.  

The advocates of the evermore radical democracy of the Athenian polis argued that for the most part all male citizens should be possessed of the same political and legal rights, regardless of social class or degree of wealth.  Athens did maintain some exceptions, for example, both the strategoi (the top military commanders, who were elected) and financial officials had to meet a requirement of annual income.

More conservative Athenian political leaders seemed more inclined to the proportional view, that a citizen’s political privileges should be in proportion to his contribution to society, as measured by the wealth and social position of his family.  Most moderns, even those who consider themselves “conservative,” would object to the principle of inherited privilege.  I was once having lunch in Charleston with a self-styled South Carolina aristocrat, a non-American who claimed aristocratic background, and an academic from West Virginia.  The two snobs were going on and on about the last time each of them had met a Habsburg—I had them both beat—when the West Virginian vented his disgust:  “Are you saying you’re better than I am just because you had ancestors who amounted to something?”

It’s a fair point, and a reasonable man, given the proposition as put by the West Virginian, would say it was patently unfair, even absurd to base one's worth on remote ancestors.  After all, no one gets chosen quarterback or wins a grammy on the strength of a great-grandfather who had been a great football player or pop star, and athletes and pop musicians represent the pinnacle of American aspirations.

But, what if we put the question more broadly?  Suppose you are in the fourth generation of a wealthy ship-building family that have held onto their money.  Is it fair that you have the money to go to any university you wish, join any club, buy any automobile, date only beautiful and intelligent girls?  A Ray Charles song (written by Eddie “Memphis” Curtis) has a refrain that sums up the attitude: “It shoulda been me with that real fine chick.”   If we can allow envy to undermine social hierarchy, why should the privileges of wealth and property exempt?  Before long, we shall be agreeing with Proudhon that “all property is theft.”

From the modern/postmodern perspective, only rational privileges are acceptable.  A talented baseball player, who works hard to help his team to victory in the World Series, deserves the rewards he receives.  For us, the moral terms rational and individual are inseparably linked, but nature dictates to us the sociobiological calculations that tell us that we—or at least our genes—live on in our children and grandchildren, and a similar principle is at work informing us that the survival and success of a society depends in some measure on a stable population and an enduring social elite.  Of course it is true that a society closed to new blood is also cut off from the genetic variation and social innovation that permits societies to respond to change.  As in virtually every aspect of human social life, there is no one simple answer.  To questions such as, “Which do you want, liberty or equality?” The answer must be “Yes.”  

Back in the 1990s the academic philosopher James Fishkin proposed what he called, in an unfortunate misuse of the English language, a “trilemma.”  While most political theorists assumed an opposition between the claims of liberty and the claims of equality, Fishkin added a third consideration, the stability of the institution of the family.  He made a splash for a time, but academic philosophers do not like to think of the family as a moral element.  Similarly, they hardly ever talk about love and hate, or friendship and revenge.  I tried to persuade Fishkin that in moral terms, the family was the essential leg to his three-legged stool, because there could be no human society that was not rooted in kinship.

So, then, where are we?  We have reached a mystery, which is always the point at which reality discloses itself.  It is not one of the great mysteries, such as how Jesus could be both God and man, but a little mystery.  That opposing principles, such as love and hate, individual achievement and family heritage are held in tension.  In this sense, the principle of equality is an aspect of fairness or justice that stipulates that equal things deserve equal respect or privilege, but this principle is balanced by other considerations, such as kinship and social stability.  

Few citizens who work hard or serve their country in war and peace are willing to take second place to other citizens whose ancestors may have contributed more to society.  And, even under-achieving slackers, in looking to find some excuse for their own failures, will embrace any movement, rooted in envy, that promises to put them on the same level with the wealthy and well-born.  To know and accept one’s place in society is difficult for most of us, and we conceal our own lust for superiority by using the language of equality.  Let us, for just this moment be frank:  Virtually no group that demands equality is really seeking anything but superiority.  In the struggles between Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Christians, aristocrat and merchants, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, straight and crooked, members of the outgrowth, whatever limited goals they may say they are aiming at, are really seeking the ability to get even and dominate those who have been their superiors.  In Rwanda, the Hutu claimed they were being discriminated against by the Tutsi.  All they wanted was equal rights, but when they rose up it was to exterminate their hated superiors.  So it has been and so it will ever be.

But this lust for moral, political, and economic “equality” (which is superiority) is a natural phenomenon, as common among baboons and apes as it is among humans.  So long as it is kept in check by other equally important imperatives, it is merely a part of the human condition.  Revolutionary equality is a destructive ideology, which we shall take up in the next section.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Michael Strenk says:

    “…whatever limited goals they may say they are aiming at, are really seeking the ability to get even and dominate those who have been their superiors.”

    This is even more pronounced among peoples like the “Bosnians” and the Albanians who betrayed God and blood to gain the whip hand over their formerly c0-equal, co-ethnic co-religionists. What is the point of selling out if one cannot maintain the earthly benefit in perpetuity? The hatred of many Poles for Russia and its people is somewhat similar and has led to similar extremes of behavior.

    Is it possible that, having been given the whip hand over Southern whites during Reconstruction, some black Americans have been nursing a similar grudge having lost that position as Southern whites began to reassert their role in American politics?