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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Equality, as an idea, consists in the belief that things
can be alike and when alike should receive similar
treatment. It involves, therefore, both ontological and
ethical judgments. In the present article it is human
equality that is in question. The affirmation of human
equality is a profound and recurrent phenomenon,
especially in Western civilization, where it is docu-
mented as early as the fifth century B.C. in the surviving
Greek and Hebrew writings. With the Protestant Ref-
ormation, and more especially with the Enlightenment
and the French Revolution, the idea of equality began
to be a major force for institutional change in Europe
and North America, and as such has passed in the
twentieth century to the non-European world also. It
is a complex and elusive idea, related to many other
pivotal ideas. We begin with theoretical considerations
and then proceed with an historical survey.

Conceptions of human equality seem to have de-
pended ultimately on views of the world as a whole.
The world must be seen as more than appearances,
by which no two things are wholly alike. The sense
of an overpowering greatness of a single God, as with
the Hebrews, may produce a sense that all men are
equally his creatures. Equality is also by origin a math-
ematical concept. In a cosmos perceived as a multi-
plicity of qualitatively different objects, higher or
lower, fine or gross, noble or base, the stress is on
hierarchic order in a series of levels. It seems more
than chance that the Greek assertions of human equal-
ity coincide in time with the geometric axioms of
Euclid. In general, however, with the Aristotelian and
Ptolemaic traditions, the idea of a qualitative universe
of earth and heavens persisted in Europe until the
seventeenth century, along with hierarchic ideas of
man and society. With Galileo, the ultimate attributes
of matter, motion, and force were seen as quantitative
and measurable. At the same time, with the English
Revolution (1640-60), we find clear statements of
human equality and begin to hear arguments for polit-
ical representation in proportion to numbers.

Equality, even in human affairs, by no means need
refer to human equality or equality of persons. The
principle of equal treatment has been applied through
the history of the idea, and is applied today to associ-
ated entities or groups that are thought to require
similar consideration, without regard to numbers of
persons which the group may include. Thus, in classical
Greece, each city in the Aetolian and Achaean leagues
had an equal vote, and the states in the American
Union are equal in the Senate today. At the origin of
the English House of Commons each town of any
importance, large or small, received an equal right of
representation as a borough, as did each county; and
as the three-estates system crystallized on the Conti-
nent, the clergy, the nobility, and the “third” estate
were regarded as, in a sense, equals, though persons
within these estates had different rights. The European
kings recognized each other as equals, while observing
a certain precedence, as did the sovereign states which
emerged in the European state-system after the Peace
of Westphalia. Today, by extension, more than a hun-
dred independent nations are legally equal in the Gen-
eral Assembly of the United Nations.

At a more commonplace level, for certain purposes
of consultation if not of power, labor and management
may be equally represented, or faculty and students
in a university committee, or Protestant, Catholic, and
Jewish clergymen on occasions of public ceremonial
in the United States. In such cases it is groups or
interests or functions that receive equal recognition,
somewhat as in the estates-system of Europe before
the democratic movement overthrew it. When enough
individuals feel damaged by such corporate repre-
sentation, the cry is heard for representation by num-
bers, of persons as persons, with “vote by head” instead
of “vote by order.” Meanwhile, in the European tradi-


tion (with the conspicuous exception of Poland), even
in bodies not themselves representing numbers, a prin-
ciple of majority rule established itself, in the place
of a general consensus or of determination by a melior
et sanior pars
(“the better and sounder part”). Decision
by majority required the counting of all voting mem-
bers as equal, whatever their differences in importance,
wealth, or wisdom.

The claim to equality, in these cases, does not assert
that the things compared are wholly alike, but only
that they are alike in certain respects or for certain
purposes. The same is true of human equality, or the
belief in equality of human beings as persons, which
is no more incredible than the equality of Connecticut
and Nevada. “Equality,” said Aristotle, “consists in the
same treatment of similar persons” (Politics VII. 14).
Everything here depends on what is meant by “simi-
lar.” The difficulty is that all human beings are in fact
different, that each individual is unique, that each
embodies his own combination of qualities or the lack
of them—genetic, environmental, or cultural in origin—
such as strength, health, learning ability, courage, per-
sistence, sex, race, moral virtues, nationality, economic
role, wealth, status, or power.

Individuals thus infinitely various can nevertheless
be grouped into classes and categories within which
they receive similar treatment as similar persons. Dis-
tinctions are thus drawn between male and female,
slave and free, citizen and alien, noble and common,
black and white, rich and poor, worker and bourgeois,
bright children and stupid children in school, those who
pass and those who fail an examination, or those who
qualify and those who do not qualify under certain
standards of skill or employment. Such distinctions
when first made are thought to be valid, in accord with
fact or justice. As conditions change they may come
to be thought unjust, or untrue, or irrelevant in fact,
or in conflict with a higher social or divine purpose,
or in violation of a higher category into which individ-
uals may also be put, such as children of God, or human
beings, or citizens.

In any case, given the actual disparities among per-
sons, belief in equality requires an act of choice, by
which some differences are minimized or ignored,
while others are maximized and allowed to develop.
Thus, on the current American scene, differences of
race may be minimized, and differences of aptitude
or performance highly valued, with persons of similar
aptitude or performance of whatever race receiving
similar treatment. Or the differences of aptitude or
performance may be brushed aside, and differences of
race endowed with higher value, so that persons of
similar race are considered alike and receive similar
treatment. One way lies “integration”; the other way
both white ascendancy and black nationalism, or at
most a form of pluralism with a “separate but equal”
doctrine. Either may fall within Aristotle's brief defini-
tion of equality.

Equality may be thought of as a fact: that men in
some respects are alike, theologically, metaphysically,
or in the eyes of the biologist, the psychologist, and
the physician. Or it may be thought of as a value; that
those respects in which men are alike should be the
ones chosen for emphasis, or that men should become
more nearly equal in more respects than they now are.
Where men in important ways are already equal, re-
maining distinctions may seem to be unjustified bar-
riers. Thus Tocqueville identified as a cause of the
French Revolution the fact that men of the upper
middle class had become like the nobles except in
having inferior rights; and in the United States, as
members of ethnic minorities come in fact to resemble
the dominant population, the distinctions against them
lose their force and are seen as unfair discrimination.
On the other hand, persons not really equal, that is
enjoying less than others in education, wealth, income,
respect, or way of life, may wish to become more
nearly equal in the possession of such goods. For them
it is not so much a question of removing barriers to
opportunity as of creating the conditions in which
opportunity may exist. When seen as a value, some-
thing of which there ought to be more, equality pre-
supposes belief in the changeability of society and of
individual behavior. Questions arise also of the conflict
of values, as abundantly evidenced in analytic and
polemical literature. Moves to obtain more equality
(or at times to restrict or reduce equalities already
enjoyed) may conflict with the values of social peace,
lawful order, individual liberty, or objective excellence
and achievement.

If the philosophical questions are whether men are,
can be, or ought to be equal, and if so in what respects
and at the expense of what other values, the historical
question is to examine how men in some societies, at
some periods of time, assert or demand this or that
form of equality, and to see what they are thereby
protesting against, and what ends they hope to obtain.
There is also the larger historical question of whether
equality increases, or is more widely diffused, with the
passage of time. Broadly speaking, one sees a change
from a time when primitive tribes recognized only
fellow tribesmen as “men,” which is to say that they
had no abstract conception of “man” at all, to a time
when all human beings are seen as variants of a single
mankind, though the wanton extermination of some
human beings by others, of which the twentieth cen-
tury has furnished examples, has occurred throughout
the historical record.


In the Greek democracies, as is well known, the
citizens were equal in the possession of liberty, and
largely equal in other respects, but they formed only
one category of the population, from which women,
metics (aliens), and slaves were excluded. To Aristotle
it was evident that slaves and free men differed by
nature. A similar insuperable distinction obtained be-
tween rulers and ruled in the ideal state projected by
Plato. For Aristotle equality required that each should
receive his just due, a doctrine of suum cuique, or
equality for equals, which was perfectly compatible
with an unequal ordering of social groups. In declaring
that “inequality is everywhere a cause of revolution”
(Politics. V. 1), Aristotle meant that turmoil ensues
when persons who are not really equal demand equality
of treatment, or when some among a group of equals
demand more than their share, as of power within the

Signs of a wider sense of equality are found among
the Greeks even before Plato and Aristotle, signifi-
cantly in a religious connection, as when Europides has
Jocasta say that “nature gave men the law of equal
rights,” and that “we are but stewards of the gifts of
God” (Phoenician Maidens, in Abernethy, p. 36). As
time passed, the Stoics, drawing on Greek science,
reached a conception of cosmic law, or a law of nature
to which all men were subject alike, and embodying
a universal reason, of which all men, slave and free,
possessed some spark. By this spark of reason all men
resembled each other, and differed from animals. In
the first century A.D. Seneca observed that no man was
more noble than another except in being more right-
minded or capable of good actions, since “the world
is the one parent of all” (De beneficiis, III, 28). In the
second century Roman lawyers pronounced men equal
by nature. Thus was launched a very long-lived con-
ception; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, justifies
human equality by the statement that all human beings
“are endowed with reason and conscience.” But for
a long time such views had little practical impact.
Stoicism offered a philosophy of calm withdrawal, of
aloofness from pain, care, selfish struggle, and popular
illusion. For lawyers, the natural law remained only
a basis on which actual laws could be examined, and
positive rights were understood to depend not on na-
ture but on civil society.

The Hebrews saw man as created in the “image of
God”—male and female, and as Thomas Paine re-
marked over two millenniums later, quoting this pas-
sage, “no other distinction is even implied” (Rights of
[1791]; in Writings, ed. M. D. Conway, II, 305).
These words from Genesis, as we have them, probably
date from the sixth or fifth century B.C. In Judaism,
their implications were developed by the prophets and
thereafter. Jesus further expressed the same insights.
While he could hardly use the abstract Latinism
“equality,” he saw men as children of one Father,
declared an offense even to the “least of these” to be
an offense to himself and to God, preached love of
one's neighbor as the truest sign of love of God (Mat-
thew 5:44-45). In Saint Paul these Judaic teachings
were reinforced by Hellenistic and Roman conceptions.
Breaking with ethnic Jewry, Paul launched with a new
force the message of universalism. He ordered the slave
to return to his master. But despite all differences the
similarities among human beings were of more impor-
tance. Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians about A.D.
50: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for
ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). He
repeated the same thought to the Colossians: in the
new man, or in the divine image, “there is neither
Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, bar-
barian, Scythian, bond nor free... ” (Colossians
3:10-11). “Barbarian” here means civilized but not
Greek, “Scythian” means what the modern languages
call “barbarian.” Differences of sex, language, culture,
and social position were transcended. All were alike
as persons, all dependent on the same God, all laboring
under sin, all suffering the same psychic stresses of will
and reason, all potential vehicles of divine grace, all
capable of salvation if they would only accept it.

The rise of such ideas must be attributed to the
decline of the ancient Mediterranean civilization, or
at least of the beliefs by which it lived. The failures
of the Greek city-state, as much as the growth of
science and mathematics, turned men either to skepti-
cism or to monotheism and universal law. It became
impossible to believe in inherited myth, local deities,
or merely civic religion. In the new view, slaves were
not slavish by nature, or the Roman Emperor divine.
Populations became very mixed, especially in the great
cities; men also became more mobile. Both Stoicism
and Christianity reflected the growth of the Roman
Empire, in the universality of their doctrines and in
the geographical extension of their adherents. As the
Empire, beginning in the third century A.D., fell into
confusion and violence, with consequent personal inse-
curity, anxiety, and doubt about the world's future,
even the rich and the philosophical turned increasingly
to the Christian religion. As formulated by Augustine,
whose City of God was written early in the fifth cen-
tury, Christianity gave the assurance that, while the
world itself might be going to pieces, a higher realm
of rightness and justice remained intact.

With Augustine also came the development of the
predestinarian idea: that God gave saving grace to


some, but not to others. A new kind of inequality was
thus introduced. The elect were equal to each other
but superior to the damned. If this predestination raised
problems concerning divine justice, it seemed at least
to have some correspondence to the facts, by which
some men were observed to be more insensitive, more
willful, more frivolous, or more vicious than others.
Inequality between the elect and the damned, depend-
ing only on God's will, was in any case not due to
human ordinance or to nature. The Church, as it spread
throughout Europe, preserved a kind of ultimate kernel
of belief in human equality. Slavery disappeared, at
least among Christians. The intensity of the belief that
all souls were equally deserving of salvation produced
the missionary efforts by which Northern Europe and
the more inaccessible rural populations of the former
Empire, the pagani, were Christianized. By the twelfth
century all Europeans except the Jews were supposed,
or indeed were required, to be adherents of the Chris-
tian faith. The result, though later frowned upon as
intolerance, was to produce a certain uniformity, or
equality in some respects, among Europeans of a kind
not so commonly found in Asia, where the most highly
civilized areas might exist side by side with primitive
tribal peoples, or where, as in the case of India, reli-
gious castes continued to be dominant social and cul-
tural institutions.

With the Germanic migrations and spread of Ger-
manic tribal law and of feudalism, very marked social
inequalities were introduced in Europe, originally at
bottom those between fighters and workers, later
formulated as hereditary distinctions between noble
and common. The Church long reflected these differ-
ences. But nothing in church law ever prevented inter-
marriage between Christians of whatever class or eth-
nic group, or acceptance of lowborn persons into the
priesthood, or their elevation in the ecclesiastical hier-
archy. The Church remained the most usual avenue
for upward social mobility well into modern times.

On the other hand, the Church, as it developed in
the Middle Ages, produced new inequalities against
which later generations were to rebel. By the doctrine
of apostolic succession, it was held that the Christian
message had been transmitted most especially to the
clergy, and among them to the bishops, and among
them to the bishop of Rome, or Pope. By adminis-
tration of the sacraments, the clergy provided the
means of salvation to laymen. In addition, since the
time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century,
the Church has been associated with the civil power.
Then for several centuries the clergy were the only
literate persons, and their influence expanded accord-
ingly. As the Church adapted to medieval society its
clergy came to be considered an estate of the realm,
a legal order, the first estate. The clergy grew rich
through pious benefactions, bureaucratic through
worldly success and responsibility, and divided by deep
inequalities within itself. Even at its height as an orga-
nized body in the Middle Ages, the Church had to
contend with temporal monarchs, sectarian heretics,
and occasional undeclared atheists. In the sixteenth
century reformers attacked the idea of a special priest-
hood on whose mediation the laity must depend for
salvation. By the time of the French Revolution the
attack was directed against the whole association of
church and state, including the notion that any religion
should be compulsory for all members of society.

In general, throughout antiquity and the Middle
Ages, the insistence upon human equality led to no
corresponding social change. If it influenced action, it
did so only for individuals in their own lives. It is
possible that Christianity made the powerful a little
less self-satisfied or relentless, and the weak and the
poor a little less hopeless and brutalized. From its
religion, European culture may have acquired traits
of compassion, or depths of private psychology and
habits of examination of conscience. Yet human differ-
ences and pretensions continued to flourish. Men were
equal, but only “in heaven,” as it seemed to indignant
radicals of later times. Or equality might be located
in a golden or patriarchal age of the remote past. Or
it might actually exist in small, self-selecting, and self-
isolating communities, as with the very first Christians
or monastic groups in the Middle Ages. It went along
with ideas of poverty and self-abnegation. Equality was
neither demanded nor expected for men as a whole
in the affairs of the world. Society remained hierarchic,
an ascending series of acknowledged ranks with differ-
ential advantages.

The Protestant reformers asserted the equality of
Christian believers as a means of overthrowing the
special position of the papacy and the priesthood.
Luther considered all men equally capable of spiritual
life, repentance, and hence salvation. They differed in
worldly function, but could lead equally holy lives in
any calling.

It is pure invention that popes, bishops, priests and monks
are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans
and farmers the “temporal estate”.... There is really no
difference... except that of office and work, but not of
“estate”.... Again, it is intolerable that in the canon law
so much importance is attached to the freedom, life, prop-
erty of the clergy.... Why are your life and limb, property
and honor so free, and mine not?... If a priest is killed,
the land is laid under interdict—why not when a peasant
is killed? Whence comes this great distinction between
those who are equally Christian? Only from human laws
and inventions!

(To the Christian Nobility..., in Three
[1520], pp. 14-19).


In these words, written in 1520, Luther anticipated
ideas that were to spread in Catholic as well as Protes-
tant countries, and be basic to the modernizing of
Europe—an ethics of work, classification of persons
according to occupation, dissolution of the medieval
institution of “estate” or “order,” equality of persons
in the eyes of the law, and attribution of undesired
differences to “human invention,” that is to a social
environment that human beings could modify. To
overthrow the traditional priesthood and establish a
spiritual equality of believers, Luther welcomed an
increase of power in the hands of ruling princes, who
could exercise the force necessary for institutional
change. The Peasant Rebellion, which broke out in the
1520's, and which horrified Luther, confirmed him in
his reliance on the power of government.

The Peasant Rebellion was directed against the in-
equalities of serfdom, but drew inspiration and confi-
dence from the religious agitation prevalent in Ger-
many in the 1520's. The religious radicals, generically
called Anabaptists, went beyond Luther in their un-
derstanding of the equality of believers, which for them
meant not only an equality of laity with ecclesiastics,
but an equality of poor and simple men with the
learned and well-to-do. They insisted on a direct,
mystical, and personal revelation from God, which
need not be mediated through any sophisticated ex-
egesis of Scripture. Some were content to form small
peaceful communities—Hutterite, Moravian, or Men-
nonite—in which worldly goods might be shared by
a select few. Others, notably Thomas Münzer, intended
a wider application of a doctrine in which Marxists
and others have seen the first announcement of a kind
of communist movement in practice. Münzer led a
group of organized followers, united as he thought in
a suffering that made them the equals of Christ, who
regarded the existing social order as wholly unjustified,
and acted as a group of prophets to bring about a real
equality for all men in this world. As agents of the
true Spirit they could not tolerate compromise, and
they accepted conflict, violence, and even the extermi-
nation of adversaries as a means to reach the goal
which God himself prescribed. Münzer thus appears
as the first avowed revolutionary extremist in a move-
ment of equalitarian revolution.

Most revolutions of the following centuries, notably
the Dutch, English, and American, owed more to
Calvin. Since Calvin neither opposed private property,
nor had any confidence in the untutored common
people, nor believed that depravity could be overcome
by purely human exertion, he has sometimes been seen
by recent students as a conservative (Lakoff, pp.
38-48). He was radical with respect to the inequalities
by which educated or middle-class persons then felt
offended. He went further than Luther in equating the
laity with the clergy, he rejected the institution of
bishops and the hierarchic ordering of the clergy
themselves, he further reduced the office of priest to
that of pastor or minister, and he refused to allow any
determination of church affairs by government, espe-
cially by princes. He strongly contributed to the re-
publican tradition, which was the strongest revolu-
tionary force for three centuries after his death.
Calvinist groups developed procedures for government
of the church by consent, which were readily trans-
ferred to the political sphere. Calvin insisted also, more
than Luther, on the predestination by which God alone
gave grace or withheld it. He even went so far as to
say: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are
preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damna-
tion” (Institutes, III, 21, para. 5). No one owed his
superiority to his own merits. In thus humbling his
followers before God, Calvin may have made them
more inclined to see each other as equals. At the same
time, they looked down on the worldly, disliked pomp,
and were suspicious of power.

Calvinist and Anabaptist ideas, along with more
purely political forces, came together in the English
or Puritan revolution of the seventeenth century. For
the main body of these Puritans equality was not much
of an issue, though in the course of their struggle with
Charles I they abolished the episcopacy, the House of
Lords, and the monarchy itself. They appealed, not
to human rights, but to the traditional law of England
and rights of Englishmen as they understood them. A
more equalitarian note was struck by John Lilburne,
a spokesman for the group known as Levellers by its
enemies, who, arguing from the “image of God” in
Genesis, found it “unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked,
unjust, devilish and tyrannical” for any man to exercise
power over others without their consent (Abernethy,
p. 95). Cromwell repressed Lilburne, but some of the
civilian-soldiers in Cromwell's army took up the Lev-
eller cause. In their proposed Agreement of the People,
and in the famous debates to which it led at Putney
in 1647, they offered the earliest public program of
what may be called political democracy. They argued
partly from divine and natural law, and partly in the
practical contexts of representation in Parliament and
of providing adequate authority for the laws. “For
really I think,” said Colonel Rainborough, “that the
poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as
the greatest he... that the poorest man in England
is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government
that he hath not had a voice to put himself under....
I do not find anything in the Law of God, that a lord
shall choose twenty burgesses, and a gentleman but
two, or a poor man shall choose none.... But I do


find that all Englishmen must be subject to English
laws, and... that the foundation of all laws lies in
the people...” (Abernethy, pp. 101-03). It was ob-
jected to Rainborough that such a program would
endanger property. And indeed a small group, the
Diggers, did repudiate the private ownership of land.
Their spokesman, Gerrard Winstanley, saw no need
of a difference between rich and poor, believed that
the riches of some arise from the poverty of others,
and argued that “one man hath as much rights to the
earth as another” (Abernethy, p. 126).

The main ideas of the Puritan Revolution were
driven underground at the Restoration. The Revolution
of 1689 vindicated a form of constitutional government
in which equality was of slight importance. Never-
theless the Puritan Revolution and Commonwealth,
and notably the Levellers, raised the issues in terms
of which equality was chiefly debated for the next two
hundred years. Mostly, from the 1640's to the 1840's
the question was one of government, or political juris-
diction and authority, and hence of constitutional
forms. But the issues were by no means purely political,
for they involved the claims of government to regulate
religious practice, the press, and individual thought and
expression; government was itself viewed as a source
of economic wealth for those who took part in it, or
for those whom it favored by successful war, lucrative
appointments, commercial regulations, land grants,
privileges, sinecure, taxation, or pensions. The age of
the “bourgeois revolution,” as these two centuries have
often been called since the 1830's, took no narrow view
of equality. The somewhat disparaging term “bourgeois
equality” arose in the socialist critiques of the mid-
nineteenth century. Some forms of socialism became
preoccupied with economic equality. In others, equal-
ity was not of major importance. The two centuries
following the English Revolution were in fact the
classic period for consideration of equality in human
society. It was in this period that the interlocking triad
of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity was invented.

In England ideas like those of the Levellers, though
not acknowledged as theirs since the term was prejora-
tive, continued to be expressed in the eighteenth cen-
tury, were actively advanced by English “Jacobins” at
the time of the French Revolution, inspired Parlia-
mentary reform, and animated the Chartists in the
nineteenth century. They maintained a continuous life
in the British colonies in America, especially in New
England. This originally English radicalism may have
had more influence than John Locke in preparing the
American Revolution (Bailyn, 1967). Mixing with Con-
tinental thought, it entered into the Enlightenment and
so into the French Revolution and the general demo-
cratic revolutionary movement which swept over the
Western world at the close of the eighteenth century
(Palmer, 1959; 1964).

The principal new thought which the Enlightenment
had to contribute, with respect to equality, was the
idea of environmentalism, the belief that men became
what circumstances and education made them. The
ancient idea that men were equal at birth, or by nature,
or in the eyes of God, was thus enriched by the further
idea that they were potentially equal in earthly life
if only environmental influences could be altered. A
sense of the relativity of all institutions developed
among Europeans as they became more familiar with
Asia and America. The state of nature, long an abstract
legal postulate, was seen more concretely in the lives
of the Huron Indians or the Tahitians. Social critics
used it to argue that existing society in Europe was
artificial, and that prevailing ideas were largely preju-
dices instilled by wrong education. The work of John
Locke was of the utmost importance, his Essay Con-
cerning Human Understanding
(1690) even more so
than his Two Treatises of Government (1698). Locke's
repudiation of innate ideas, his belief that the mind
of every human being was shaped by experience after
birth, was taken up in France by Condillac and Helvé-
tius, and widely formulated as the associationist psy-
chology, which became a premiss of educational and
other reform. Thus the basis of traditional, customary,
and hereditary inequalities was undermined. At the
same time, a strong current of humanitarianism began
to flow. For reasons that are hard to explain, and which
did not arise from pure reason, men were more shocked
by cruelty, sensitive to injustice, insistent on the dignity
of all human beings, eager to alleviate misery and raise
the level to which all could aspire.

During the Enlightenment equality not only ramified
as an idea, but received an emotional charge such as
it had not had since the early Christians. Not everyone
believed in it; some insisted on aristocratic values,
corporate rights, and hereditary status; such views were
made into a philosophy at the close of the century by
Edmund Burke. Equality became a burning question
precisely because inequality was so strongly asserted
as a necessity of civilized living and even of a free
society (Palmer, 1959).

Among the French philosophes, Montesquieu upheld
the need for unequal corporate groups, such as the
nobility and privileged towns, as a bulwark against
tyrannical government. Voltaire and most others were
more inclined to denounce “feudalism” and “privi-
lege.” Rousseau was the main philosopher of equality.
He did not regard it as a fact of nature. “It is precisely
because the force of things always tends to destroy
equality that the force of legislation should always tend
to maintain it” (Social contract, Book II, Ch. 11, italics


supplied). In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality
(1754) Rousseau argued that men were indeed equal
in a state of nature, though somewhat brutish, but that
as their minds developed they also developed qualities
of pride, arrogance, domination, the love of show and
of material goods, together with a desire to outdo their
neighbors and to be admired for their own superiority.

The advent of property inflamed these proclivities
and perpetuated inequality from one generation to the
next. The conclusion, for Rousseau, was neither a return
to nature nor an abolition of property, but a realization
of the social, psychological, and moral costs at which
civilization was maintained. In the Social Contract
(1762), Rousseau raised the problem of Rainborough
and the Levellers, without their concern for equality
of representation: how could a man be obedient to law
and yet remain a free moral agent? Here he argued,
much like Hobbes, that the state of nature was ruled
by force alone. By the social contract each individual,
by becoming a citizen in a civil state, and sharing in
a “general will,” became sovereign and subject at the
same time. In such a state all public authority would
be exercised by delegation only. No one would be born
as ruler or into a ruling class. Equality meant chiefly
an equality of respect and participation among citizens,
but some degree of economic equality was required—
none must be “so rich as to be able to buy another,
and none so poor as to have to sell himself” (Social
II, 11). In his Government of Poland, which
he wrote in 1771 (published in 1782) at the request
of certain Poles for advice on how to prevent the
partition of their country, Rousseau urged the need
of more equal participation in a strong and ineradica-
ble national character.

There were pragmatic reasons for the extension of
equality also. Governments, under what has been called
enlightened despotism, found it useful for fiscal reasons
to reduce the tax privileges of the nobility, to equalize
the tax liability as between various provinces, to bring
religious minorities more fully into the civil commu-
nity, and to weaken or abolish the guild system, which
discouraged new enterprise, protected established in-
terests, and allowed some while forbidding others to
enter upon certain kinds of occupation, manufacture,
or trade. Military requirements also promoted civil
equality. In Austria and Prussia the governments tried
to alleviate serfdom, by making the peasantry into
subjects of the state rather than of their lords, both
for humanitarian reasons and as a means of facilitating
military conscription and training. The need for intel-
ligent and technically qualified officers, in these coun-
tries as well as in France and Great Britain, opened
careers for persons of middle class as well as of noble

The French Revolution in part continued these
equalitarian trends that existed in governments before
1789, and in part proceeded to implement the ideas
of social critics, and, in the crisis of events, to go
beyond them. The new doctrine was set forth in the
Declaration of Rights of 1789, significantly called the
rights not only of “man” but of the “citizen.” “Men
are born and remain free and equal in rights,” accord-
ing to Article I. “These rights are liberty, security,
property, and resistance to oppression.” There followed
the “abolition of feudalism,” of the difference between
noble and commoner, of inheritance of legal social rank
and of public office, together with legislation to pro-
vide equality of rights, equality before the law, equality
of punishment for the same offense, equality of taxation
for persons of the same income, equality of access to
public office depending only on “virtues and talents,”
equality of civil rights for Catholic, Protestant, Jew,
and nonbeliever, equality of property in the formal
sense that all real property was of the same kind (no
longer seigneurial and common), economic equalities
in opportunities for employment or investment follow-
ing an abolition of the guilds, equalities as between
geographical areas within the state, and equality of
representation with constituencies based primarily on
numbers. Equality of educational opportunity, and
sometimes equality of women with men, were pro-
posed but not implemented during the Revolution.

Racial equality was advanced in 1791, when free
blacks received the same rights as whites; slavery in
the French colonies was abolished in 1794. In 1793,
in the crisis of war and invasion, inflation and security,
the artisan and laboring classes made a strong bid for
both political and economic equality. The war also
advanced equality by producing the first large-scale
citizen army. Herodotus, twenty-three centuries be-
fore, had said that the Greeks made better soldiers
because they were free and equal citizens. Robespierre
said much the same in 1793, declaring that the Euro-
pean powers would be defeated because the Revolution
had given the ordinary Frenchman something to fight
for. Kosciuszko echoed the same thought when he tried
to abolish serfdom in Poland during the attempted
revolution and struggle against the Russians in 1794.

The meaning of equality in the French Revolution
was brilliantly set forth by Condorcet, in his Progress
of the Human Mind
(1794), which concluded with the
enraptured vision of a highly secularized Saint Paul.
To the kinds of equality already enumerated he added
others. He saw an eventual equality among all races
and nations, in which those still backward, being al-
ready potentially equal, would one day join in a com-
mon, uniform civilization throughout the world. He
prophesied that by way of universal education, public


hygiene, scientific agriculture, and social insurance
there would at last emerge an equality of fact as the
final objective of the “social art.”

The American Revolution had meanwhile launched
a similar message of equality, though less urgently and
over a narrower range, since except for blacks and
Indians there were fewer inequalities to combat in
America than in Europe. The armies of the French
Revolution took the new ideas to many parts of
Europe, where there were eager sympathizers to re-
ceive them and to work for change in their own coun-
tries. There were many such in Britain and Ireland also,
where, however, the successful reformers came to pre-
fer the ostensibly more empirical views of Jeremy
Bentham. Bentham scorned the French Revolution and
the very idea of “rights,” but he shared its disaffection
with the old social order and advanced his own equali-
tarian doctrine with his principle that, in planning
reform on utilitarian lines, each should count for one
and none for more than one.

Even during the French Revolution, except for
Robespierre and a few others, and except during the
crisis of 1792-95, there was no acceptance of political
democracy in the sense of universal male suffrage. The
vote was thought of as a kind of office for which a
certain capacity was required. It was by emphasis on
their common features as substantial citizens and tax-
payers that older inequalities among Frenchmen were
to be erased. The economic changes, including the
abolition of guilds, the reshaping of property law, and
the resale of real estate confiscated from the church
and the émigrés, were especially useful to those who
owned property or were sufficiently enterprising,
thrifty, astute, or fortunate to acquire it. The very
removal of other differences accentuated the difference
between rich and poor. Property, not rank or status,
was legally inherited. Quantitative differences in
worldly possessions became more important than ever
before in the determination of family standing and
social class. The bourgeoisie came to signify those who
possessed property, whether their ancestors had been
noble or common. The poor had neither property, nor
the vote, nor even that participation in civic activity
and the national culture which both the Enlightenment
and the Revolution had recommended. These differ-
ences between “bourgeois” and “proletarian” were
made worse by changes which were incident to the
Industrial Revolution.

Equality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
therefore came increasingly to mean economic equal-
ity, or, more exactly, a reduction of the difference
between the extremes of rich and poor, since only a
few doctrinaires ever demanded a literal equality of
incomes. It was furthered by the growth of democracy
and socialism. Democracy was now equated with a
universal and equal suffrage, with the vote justified not
by any particular qualification, but as a means by which
everyone, however poor or uninformed on political
issues, could make his needs known, his wishes heard,
and his weight felt in the political process. The results
were variously seen in the recognition of labor unions,
mass parties, the progressive income tax, parliamentary
socialism, and the welfare state. Some early socialists
were political democrats, but most of them had little
faith or interest in the political order, however
reformed. For some, true equality could be attained
only by the ancient idea of small colonies set apart
from the world. For others, in an anarchist vein, the
questions of classical political theory which were very
much alive through the French Revolution, involving
power, authority, law, and obedience, were dismissed
as unnecessary, or ignored. For still others, as with
Marx, such questions were relatively superficial, since
law and government were a superstructure of which
economic relationships were the foundation.

The revolutionary socialism of the nineteenth cen-
tury aimed at an equality beyond that attained in the
French Revolution. It found its precursor in “Grac-
chus” Babeuf, executed in 1797 for planning an insur-
rection against the French Directory. In his Conspiracy
of Equals, Babeuf had projected a genuine and total
equality, in which each person delivered the product
of his labor to a common store, and withdrew from
it an equal income, with no difference allowed for
differences of productivity or skill. Stressing the re-
semblance between human beings in basic needs—
“stomachs are equal,” as he put it—Babeuf was willing
to ignore, in the allocation of rewards, the differences
of talent or effort (Manifeste des plébéiens, in Maz-
auric, pp. 204-19). Few later forms of socialism went
so far. The admiration for Babeuf felt by socialists, and
more recently communists, was due less to his “com-
munism” than to other qualities in his enterprise. He
designed his plan for a whole country, he felt himself
to be part of an ongoing revolutionary movement, and
he organized a small insurrectionary party, or van-
guard, for the seizure of power and overthrow of the

The most serious socialists of the nineteenth century,
while moved by the gross inequalities from which the
poor suffered, aimed less at an ideal equality in the
manner of Condorcet than at a coordination of the
economic system. They objected to its wild cyclical
fluctuations, its unemployment and waste of human
lives, its starvation wages alongside conspicuous luxury,
its dependence on the market, the profit motive, the
machine, and the need of immediate payoff on capital
investment. For Marx, equality was not so much a goal


to be worked for as a consequence that would follow
from the operation of social forces. Capitalism, in his
view—that is, the private ownership of the means of
production and the purchase of labor for wages—
generated by its very nature two social classes, the
bourgeoisie and the proletariat, whose mutual es-
trangement would become more acute until the prole-
tariat took over and the bourgeoisie disappeared. A
classless society would follow, since “class” meant by
definition groupings as they arose from capitalistic
production. Differences of function and of income
would remain under socialism, but they would not be
differences of class, would not be transmitted by inher-
itance of property, and would be justified by differences
of individual talent or usefulness. Equality meant
classlessness. It could be scientifically expected to fol-
low from the facts themselves—from history. As Engels

From the moment when the bourgeois demand for the
abolition of class privileges was put forward, alongside it
appeared the proletarian demand for the abolition of classes
—at first in religious form, basing itself on primi-
tive Christianity, and later drawing support from the bour-
geois equalitarian theories themselves. The proletarians took
the bourgeoisie at their word: equality must not be merely
apparent, must not merely apply to the sphere of the state,
but must also be real, must be extended to the social and
economic sphere.

But the worker must neither imagine that any real
equality was possible in a class system, nor expect that
under socialism all persons would be treated alike.
“The real content of the proletarian demand for equal-
ity is the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality
which goes beyond that, of necessity passes into ab-
surdity” (Anti-Dühring, in Abernethy, pp. 199-200).

It was left for liberals, in the nineteenth and twenti-
eth centuries, to work toward greater equality in a
society which continued to recognize the permanency
of social classes. Unlike conservatives, and in common
with democrats and socialists, most liberals accepted
the goals of the French Revolution, while deploring
its violence. Many, however, especially with the rise
of socialism, came to see a conflict between liberty
and equality. Where socialists argued that liberty for
the capitalists made equality impossible for others,
liberals feared that equality if carried beyond a certain
point, would become a menace to liberty, not only of
economic enterprise but in other spheres. The classic
expression of this concern was given by Alexis de
Tocqueville. He saw in the movement toward equality
the key to all European history since the Middle Ages.
He accepted it as providential and just. He thought,
however, that the end product might be a society of
equally small, helpless, and unorganized individuals
over whom despotism, or an over-strong central gov-
ernment, could be easily exercised. He feared also that
similarity of ideas and achievement might be so highly
prized that all forms of excellence, or freedom of
opinion, would disappear under a general cloud of
mediocrity or in a tyranny of the majority. Tocqueville
wrote his Democracy in America (original French, 1835)
in part to trace the impact of equality upon the Amer-
ican behavior and character, and in part to find out
how the less desirable consequences of equality were
avoided by the Americans. The safeguards in America,
he thought, lay in the decentralized federal system, the
vitality of religion, and the love of liberty itself. John
Stuart Mill, while finding Tocqueville's alarm some-
what exaggerated, and having more confidence in the
good effects of education, felt much the same appre-
hensions. He too believed that all history moved to-
ward equality, that as it had been with the loss of
distinction of patricians and plebeians, so it would
be, “and in part already is, with the aristocracies of
color, race and sex” (Utilitarianism, in Abernethy,
p. 192).

Liberal views on equality, into the twentieth cen-
tury, can essentially be analyzed into two kinds. One
assumes an existing amount of human capacity, widely
different among individuals; the problem is to allow
maximum fulfilment of his capacity for each person,
either as an act of justice, or to prevent frustration
and social disaffection, or to make maximum use of
human talents for society as a whole. Equality of right
is upheld; inequality of fact is accepted. The key words
are fair competition, equality of opportunity, reward
for merit, and careers open to talent. There is a contest
open to all, in which the same rules and prizes obtain;
standards and criteria are the same for all, relating only
to the matter in hand, without regard to personal traits
deemed irrelevant, or, in the American phrase, regard-
less of “race, creed, or color.” The purpose is to give
encouragement to the able. There is upward mobility
for the able few. The social value lies in this degree
of mobility, and in the maintenance of high standards
of skill and performance. A vast apparatus of testing
and examination, of sifting, sorting, elimination, and
legitimate discrimination, has arisen to serve these
purposes and these values. The difficulty in such a
system is that there are more losers than winners, and
that each person can blame only himself, or his own
shortcomings, for his failure to reach the top. Those
disadvantaged at the start remain disadvantaged
throughout the contest. These problems, long ago per-
ceived by others, are wittily illuminated by the British
sociologist, Michael Young, in his Rise of the Meritoc-
(1958). The book describes the horrors of a future


utopia in which each person, at each moment of his
life, really enjoys only what he exactly deserves under
a perfected system of testing, classification, and assign-
ments of social roles.

The other view, which owes as much historically to
democracy and socialism as to liberalism, is most re-
cently illustrated in America in the movement for
racial equality. It was expressed forty years ago in R. H.
Tawney's remark that mere equality of opportunity
may be a cruel jest, like an invitation to dinner sent
by a wealthy person to one who is in no position to
accept it. In this view people must be prepared for
opportunities, not merely presented with them. Ca-
pacity must be instilled, not merely liberated from
obstacles. The pool of capacities for the entire popula-
tion must be enlarged. Thus the American colleges,
more selective in their admissions, and business firms
committed to equal opportunity in employment, pass
beyond the stage of merely selecting the already most
qualified persons; at a further stage they attempt to
produce the qualifications themselves, by preliminary
training, in persons who do not yet possess them. There
may even be a reverse favoritism, or privilege, or
restitution for former injustice, in giving more than
usual attention to persons more than usually disad-
vantaged. The maintenance of high standards remains
important. But the need is seen also to provide for those
who do not excel. Each is encouraged to reach his own
ceiling. But the floor is also raised, below which none
should fall. Liberalism of this kind looks to education,
not only for the production of an elite, but for forms
of schooling useful and relevant to everyone; and in
an increasingly productive society it devises such pro-
jects as the reverse income tax to provide minimum
income even for those who are unable to earn it.
Equality of right moves toward a greater equality of
fact, as demanded by the liberal Condorcet, the col-
lectivist Babeuf, and the socialists who came after
them. Both forms of equality are now argued for, even
in relatively conservative quarters, not merely on hu-
manitarian grounds, but as a means of obtaining social
peace and maximizing manpower resources which a
wealthy society can in any case afford.

Equality, like democracy, is a value which no devel-
oped or civilized country in the mid-twentieth century
will explicitly deny. It is upheld in the Soviet Union
as in the United States, in “people's democracies” as
in the “free world.” Each country realizes it in its own
way and in varying degree, and each has its own kinds
of inequality which still remain. The demand for
equality is still heard, as between rich and poor, be-
tween subjects and rulers, between races in the same
country, between races and nations in the world. The
demand always signifies a sense of inequality or injus
tice, a belief that differences exist which should and
could be removed.

It would be idle to pretend that equality is not in
conflict with other values. It may conflict with superi-
ority of achievement if it ignores the differences in
talents. It may conflict with liberty if liberty means
the right to do as one pleases. Equality can be assured
only if the liberties of some to impose inequality on
others are restricted. Equality exists not by nature, nor
for “man” except on a religious or metaphysical plane;
it exists in civil society, by law, and by the form and
policies of the state. No rights are very useful except
those that the state will enforce. So much is evident
from the difference of impact between the rights of
man as declared by the United Nations in 1948, and
those of man—“and citizen”—as declared by the
French revolutionary assembly in 1789. Anarchy is the
form of human association in which equality would
the soonest disappear. It is only as citizens, as well
as men, by belonging to an organized community and
having a share in the public power, that human beings
can assert or advance their rights, or aspire with any
chance of success to an equality either of right or of


A convenient collection of extracts from ancient to recent
times, though least adequate on French writers, is provided
by G. L. Abernethy, The Idea of Equality: An Anthology
(Richmond, Va., 1959). For an analytic treatment of ideas
since the sixteenth century see S. A. Lakoff, Equality in
Political Philosophy
(Cambridge, Mass., 1964). Also: R. H.
Tawney, Equality (London, 1929, and later eds.); D. Thom-
son, Equality (Cambridge, 1949); L. Bryson et al., eds.,
Human Equality: Fifteenth Symposium of the Conference
on Science, Philosophy and Religion
(New York, 1956), in-
cluding nineteen papers on a wide array of topics; S. I. Benn,
“Equality, Moral and Social,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(New York, 1967), III, 38-41, a compact analysis, with

For selected histories bearing on certain periods see
G. P. Gooch, English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth
2nd ed. (London, 1927); R. R. Palmer, The Age
of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe
and America, 1760-1800,
2 vols. (Princeton, 1959; 1964);
B. Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
(Cambridge, Mass., 1967). Of serious import is the satirical
utopia, presented as history, by M. Young, The Rise of the
Meritocracy, 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equal-
(London, 1958; later eds.).

Documentary sources mentioned above may be consulted
in Abernethy; in M. Luther, Three Treatises (Philadelphia,
1960); C. E. Vaughan, ed., Political Writings of J. J. Rous-
2 vols. (Cambridge, 1915); M. de Condorcet, Sketch
for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind

(New York, 1955); C. Mazauric, Babeuf: Textes choisis (Paris,


1965). A. de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique
(Paris, 1835); trans. as Democracy in America, (various
reprints), is in effect a treatise on equality.


[See also Anarchism; Democracy; Enlightenment; Equity;
General Will;
Hierarchy; Individualism; Justice; Marxism;
Nature; Perfectibility; Property; Reformation; Religious
Toleration; Revolution; Social Contract; Socialism; State;
Stoicism; Utilitarianism.]