The Mystery of Equality [from the vault]
Egalitarianism from Galatians to Brown v. Board of Education
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Originally written 2019
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Were my life in question, instead of my honesty, I would not wish to involve you, or any body, in the least difficulty, for so worthless a poor creature. But, O sir! My soul is of equal importance with the soul of a princess; though my quality is inferior to that of the meanest slave. ~Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740)
The above quote will, I think, ring rather queer to modern ears. Indeed it rang queer to some early moderns as well. Sure Christian doctrine might nominally say all souls are equal in the eyes of God, but to expect those above your station to jump on your account? How presumptuous!
Of course, a quick refresher is in order for those of us who are a-bit rusty on our 18th century Literature.
INTRO: a quick digression through 18th century YA
Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded tells the story of 15 year old Pamela Andrews. The daughter of an impoverished school teacher, Pamela has entered service as a maidservant to Lady B, a local noblewoman. However when Lady B dies, the estate goes to her son Mr. B, a lecherous squire who soon develops designs on young Ms. Andrews. The majority of the novel is consumed with his schemes and attempts to force himself on Pamela, and Pamela’s counter schemes, resistances, lamentations, and various pleas and entreaties for assistance, before, finally giving up, Mr. B agrees to marry Pamela instead of merely forcing himself on her and keeping her as a mistress. It ends with the two in wedded bliss. Pamela’s Virtue in resisting temptation in spite of Mr. B’s conniving and violence is Rewarded with marriage to a man vastly above her station, and whom she (Maybe?) had the hots for all along.
(The novel reads vastly differently depending on whether you, like Richardson’s early female readership, assume Richardson’s Virtuous Heroines are deeply attracted to his wealthy, witty, virile and violent Rake-antagonists, or, like most modernist feminist readers, you assume you a reading a novel comprised almost entirely of repeated attempts to rape and enslave an underaged girl. Of course most of the dramatic tension is the, (according the centuries of readers) pretty hot, interplay between the two.)
It is , I’ll admit, a strange story. At once a Christian morality play and leering semi-pornographic farce, and yet, it was a bestseller in its day and one of the competitors for the (ever controversial) title of “First Novel”. And while I will eventually write a long piece dedicated exclusively to Richardson, Pamela, and Pamela’s much better successor which is still the longest, and many would argue (including yours truly) the best, novel ever written English: Clarissa. We can leave off saying simply that Pamela stuck a chord with 18th century readers, with the Blend of piety and lechery reflecting something quintessential about that centuries conception of virtue, as well as reflecting something fundamental about both piety, the english people, and Richardson himself. Indeed some of the greatest writers in history have spent their time writing parodies of the work with Fielding writing a parody and a Side-quel, Eliza Haywood writing a parody, and The Marquis de Sade’s Justine being directly inspired by the work.
But damn it this is an Essay on equality not edge-pornography. So lets focus again on the quote:
Part 1: The Theological Origins of Equality
My soul is of equal importance with the soul of a princess
That a Penniless servant girl’s soul would be of equal importance with that of a princess is of course true, in theory. A virtuous servant girl might go to heaven just as a vicious princess might go to hell. But in practice the conclusion becomes even more radical: through the magic of Calvinism, we know that God, knower of all things, already knows who will inevitably fail the test of life and go to hell, as well as who will pass and ascend to heaven. Your behaviours and faiths in this life aren’t really determining where you’ll wind up, they are merely pieces of evidence revealing the contents of your soul and where you are Predestined to wind up.
So in practice the Soul of a servant girl that might be predestined to dine with the lord himself amidst the heavenly choir, will infinitely exceed in importance the soul of a princess who is predestined to sup with the traitor amongst the brimstone and the damned.
And while the full implications of Calvinism and the Doctrine of predestination are beyond the scope of the essay, suffice it to say that this doctrine had radical political implications.
Richardson, depending on the source, was either an avowed puritan or a member of an associated radical protestant dissenter faith, and his father had participated in the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion against the Catholic James II of England. While that rebellion eventually failed with many participants fleeing or being transported to the American colonies, the successor “Glorious Revolution” 3 years later would install permanent protestant rule in England, with Catholics still being excluded from the throne in the 21st century (though the royal family was permitted to marry Catholics in 2007).
And while the Jacobite Rising of 1745 led by Charles Edward Stuart aka. “Bonny Prince Charlie” aka. The grandson of James II, managed to rally numerous English Catholics and Scots Catholics before being put down once and for all, the radical religious sentiments expressed by Richardson in Pamela 5 years earlier were fully mainstream.
Now you can find other notable commentators (not that I’m notable) who will go into far more detail relating the connections between the English revolution, the Protestant/Catholic and Merchant-Professional/Aristocrat divide, and how radical protestantism went on to influence the American and French revolutions, and the formation of almost every ideology we have today... or as one commentator memorably put it “How Massachusetts came to conquered the World”.
But this is, again, beyond the scope of this essay.
What I’d ask instead is that you simply notice the dates: in 1740 Richardson, noted Puritan and child of a puritan rebel, publishes his smash hit Novel in which a paragon of faith and virtue and humility, insists in no uncertain terms that “My [lowly servant girl’s] soul is of equal importance with the soul of a princess”, and then 36 years later the descendants of the transported puritans who also rebelled enshrined it into their founding documents with the declaration that “All men are created equal”. And of course we can trace the evolutions and permutations of that Idea through the french revolution and the early history of socialism, progressivism and conservatism, until we get to all the fun ideologies we have today.
Now am I implying Richardson had a causal effect? Absolutely not, no more than any other popular writer in his time. Rather I’m interested in Richardson as a barometer, a measurement in time:
In 1740, the fact that a servant girl’s soul was equal in importance with that of a princess was largely uncontroversial, just as the fact that her life and “quality” were pretty-much worthless was likewise uncontroversial.
I think you can see how these two struggle to coexist, how the first seems to simply demands the second not be true. Well, so did every radical in the western world. And they would do everything to translate this theological commitment into political reality over the the next 50year and right up to...well...to today.
Part 2: Pre-Egalitarian Politics
That the political doctrine of the equality of man is a direct consequence of the theological doctrine is not something any religious conservative would find shocking. Indeed the Apostle Paul seems to anticipate Universal Suffrage, Civil Rights, and Social Justice by almost two thousand years when he declares:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. ~Galatians 3:28
“Well so what!?” I here some of you saying, “Euclidian geometry started as a cult, but that doesn’t mean we change our opinion of it”. Well dear reader the issue is that beyond merely originating as a theological doctrine it is not clear if the political doctrine of the equality of man is meaningfully possible without the theological doctrine.
The Classical philosophers did NOT have a concept of human equality: Aristotle famously advocated slavery, Plato’s theory of forms implies a natural hierarchy of all men with those closest to achieving the Ideal of man enjoying a natural superiority over their lessers, and even Pericles, the famed defender of Athenian Democracy, defending only an “Equal Justice” which only free male citizens (excluding slaves, women and foreigners) could enjoy, with maybe some convenient contract enforcement to speed up trade between the free male citizens and everybody else.
And in defence of the classical pagans: why would they have a concept of human equality?
Indeed what would be equal?
Let us take 2 examples dear reader: Our hypothetical mutual friend Bob and famed Quarterback Tom Brady.
Our friend Bob is vastly weaker than Tom Brady, he is shorter than Tom Brady, he is poorer than Tom Brady, and (if we assume the “strategic genius” of Tom Brady has not been overstated (and the concussions haven’t caught up with him)) Bob is vastly dumber than Tom Brady (I mean we love the guy, but as his friends we can agree he’s kind of a dumbass), and beyond this Bob is vastly worse to look at, though, to be fair, Bob appears to be much funnier than the perennially personality-less sport-star.
Now i can hear someone invoking “Equality before the Law” but here as-well Bob loses. Tom Brady has vastly more money, and vastly more public support and could endure a trail vastly more easily than Bob. What’s more most levels of government will bend over backwards to avoid an open confrontation with Brady, whereas our admittedly coarse and kinda creepy friend Bob is exactly the kind-of person a grumpy cop or prosecutor looking for a scalp would love to make an example of.
And even when it comes to the ballot box there is no equality to be found since our friend Bob pleaded to a minor felony in his 20s and is barred from voting in his jurisdiction.
But then our kinda slimey friend Bob is employed a a political consultant and, though he can’t vote himself, he probably swings more votes each election than Tom Brady could hope to cast in a thousand lifetimes... so again complete raw and total inequality.
So where is this equality to be found? Why would anyone believe in it if not for a, until very recently, quite popular religious doctrine.
(Note: the Hobbesian idea of the Equality of Man as Political Agents (in that they are all capable of violence) is quite distinct from all the above, and thought the Philosophy of early liberalism comes out of it, remains its own phenomenon. For example Hobbesian equality does not imply moral or metaphysical equality. And while you can get to equality before the law via this route, that is generally not the equality conceived in the west today. Rather that is a topic for another piece)
Very obviously it was a quite Counter-intuitive idea, which required an entire moral movement to spread, and spread because of its appeal to... well to the types of people for whom “equal moral standing” was a great step up, and to the types of people for whom playing “defender of human dignity” was a more rewarding game than playing “nth competitor within the hierarchy”.
Now we could go the Nietzschean route of judging the values, character, and aesthetics of these figures vs. Those they supplanted... but that isn’t necessary for this piece.
Suffice it to say that the Idea is counter-intuitive, has its appeals to certain parts of the population, and takes a deal of effort to maintain.
Traditional Christianity of course has its recurring rituals, some of which are its own and some of which it likes to be present for : Nightly Prayers, Grace at Dinner, Sunday Service, Weddings, Funerals, ect. All good settings to remind people of their equal relation to the almighty, to their final judgement, and to their earthly guides/advocates. Whereas the political doctrine of equality has to play two games, first in pre-egalitarian regimes it has to be spread by, often oppressed, advocates who seek out the downtrodden and try to convert/organize them (seriously read the biographies of Early Christian saints and Socialist Political Organizers and they are shockingly similar (right down to the martyrdom often)), second once it has established itself it has to enforce itself, without any of the Christian rituals.
Part of this is achieved by front-loading a whole whack of “education” onto children. Part of this takes the form of the right’s much maligned “indoctrination”, repeated instruction on what are and aren’t appropriate to say, what is and isn’t an appropriate interpretation of certain observed realities, or Historical events, ect.
But even more of the education is just the structure of the institution: distinctions of class, gender, race and religion, are obviously discouraged and minimized by the very structure of the classroom, and when they are too undeniable for even the completely artificial environment to correct for, an entire system of private, alternative and defacto segregated schools serve to isolate children amongst their own kind and allow the artificial illusion of equality to set in.
Imagine if in contrast desegregated public school were actually mandatory and the girls of Polygamist Mormons, the children of gangsters, the children of billionaires, and the Amish were all in the same classroom as the young Olympians, child actors and Young Hackers....well America would collapse, but so would the illusion of equality.
The classroom functions because only the most extraordinary behaviour will win you anything lasting (which would inevitably be removal from the classroom) and only the very worst behaviour will cost you anything lasting (which would also inevitably be removal from the classroom). The girl with straight A’s and the boy who is suspended almost weekly return from the weekend and enjoy equal status.
But even this extraordinary effort is not really sufficient to get people to believe and keep believing in a fundamental equality of mankind, so there is an entire system of additional education for those who will take leadership roles, and those same systems are trusted to gate-keep most idea producing institutions in the grown-up world. And even then for all but the most recent history of egalitarian societies (aside from some notable totalitarian experiment) the Christian Church has remained the backbone community and social regulation. (Comparing non-Abrahamic countries with democracy to the west is left as an exercise for the reader, the results can be heavily debated)
Again this says nothing about the merits of equality either way. Keeping schools heated also requires a great deal of effort, that isn’t an argument for letting the children freeze. But we must note the amount of effort involved and what direction the mercury wants to go. .
Part 3: Post-Egalitarian Politics
If you dislike the religious right, wait till you meet the post-religious right. ~Ross Douthat
There is a certain joy ( which Scott Alexander has mentioned several times) that comes over you when someone you disagree with comes out and says explicitly what you’d always suspected they believed but were too charitable to impute to them. And when you suspect your interlocutor might express the same sentiment...
Well I’m not sure its progress that’s being made, but we’re moving in a direction:
Conservatives are distrustful of any effort to make society more equal because, deep down, they don’t believe equal societies are real. Obviously, “all citizens created equal” needs to be the government’s position, because you can’t trust the government to know where to put people, so it has to treat everyone the same. But this is a legal fiction, like corporate personhood. It just means “the government leaves the market alone so the hierarchy can reveal itself.” You’re not supposed to believe in an equal distribution of power. What are you, seven? This is just the way the world is. Look at alpha wolves, silverbacks; consider the lobster. ~The Alt-Right Playbook: Always A Bigger Fish, Innuendo Studios (2019) (Transcript)
I recommend you watch the full video or read the transcript. It is really interesting to watch someone recognize a value set as genuinely different for the first time and engage with it...while also clearly not having any of the mental models that usually explain and accompany those values.
In this case I think the Innuendo Studios guy has fully understood the rightwing position on “Equality”, without understanding pretty-much any-other aspects of Rightwing thought (his model of the right’s model of “capitalism” is utterly lacking).
Notably it took him a great deal of effort to realize what conservatives have been saying pretty-much explicitly for the entire history of postwar America:
Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same man is not equal to himself on different days. ~Thomas Sowell
The above is not an obscure quote. Start reading right wing books or media and people fall over themselves to include this Sowell quote.
But then as a right-winger I equally struggled to understand the leftwing position. The idea that you might be struggling to achieve equality as such instead of say trying to maximize “equality of opportunity” or using equality as a very rough metric to try and find low hanging fruit for optimization (a community or student that could have their performance greatly increased for minimum outside effort).
The idea that, NO they really do care about the raw number of women in boardrooms, they aren’t just using that as a proxy for say “are women underperforming in a way that might be easily fixable and result in greater economic output” was difficult to grasp.
And the idea that, no, left wingers were really trying to achieve some deep moral objective of equality, in which people weren’t only given a relatively good shot to do whatever they wanted, but would be and WOULD REMAIN, meaningfully morally and metaphysically equal...well that was terrifying.
The Old Religious Conservatives and the until very recently still Religious Left fought like cats and dogs, but they fundamentally agreed that everybody (yes I know the complex history of race and gender relations, I’m talking like 1970-2000) was equal before God and Before the law.
You could debate meaningfully how much we owed each-other in light of that, or how much we were “living up to” our ideals, but on a metaphysical level we were pretty-much in agreement and that had a regulatory effect.
Whereas in this year of our lord 2019 we have an increasingly post religious right deciding that, “OK we need a formal equality before the law, and an unjustified prejudice is a stupidity you inflict on yourself” but a fundamentally inegalitarian society that doesn’t pretend equality is anything more than what a good mother or judge has to feign, that would more to their liking.
Whereas on the left we have an establish post-religious and semi-complete secular moral system that has taken the concept of Equality before the Lord (and maybe final judgement) and is committed to realizing it on earth. Even though what is supposed to be equal when there is no Lord to render judgement and everybody has their own vastly different values and weighting of what makes a life dignified or worth living, is a mystery.
But despite what some sneering right-wingers might say, it is not a religious mystery. If it were religious it would not be a mystery: My soul is equal to that of a princess is a perfectly intelligible spiritual commitment, with a logic that can be unpacked. But to have a Moral commitment to the idea that two lives can be equal, or that the quality of two people can be the same, well its not clear there is an explanation for that that can be unpacked.
A profoundly inegalitarian society like 18th century Britain could explain the metaphysical equality between a servant girl and a princess beautifully, and I think you might have been able to predict the course of that century and the one that followed from that, but in 21st century America the same inquiry would result in either a statement of Obviousness or Confusion, and even a inegalitarian anarchist like me finds that concerning,
What we are left with is not a religious mystery but a mystery of Secular morality. (Though the Nihilists might argue that all Secular Morality is a mystery)
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