Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

21

The Problem of Equality

1. ENLIGHTENMENT AND BASIC EQUALITY

Among the most divisive and potentially perplexing of all basic concepts introduced by the Radical Enlightenment into the make-up of modernity, and one of most revolutionary in its implications, was, and is, the idea of equality. Assertion of universal and fundamental equality was undoubtedly central not just to the Radical Enlightenment but to the entire structure of democratic values espoused by the modern West. Yet, neither the philosophical nor the historical grounding of this idea, that is its intellectual origins and roots, is at all obvious and this whole issue has been, to a quite remarkable extent, shrouded in neglect in the historical academic literature.1 Surprisingly ignored as a cultural phenomenon, claiming the basic equality of men and women also continues to be widely opposed and rejected in much of the world today.

As Tom Paine points out in his Rights of Man (1790), the notion of basic equality is impossible without first demonstrating, and winning assent to, the idea of the 'unity of man' and forging the corresponding concept of a 'general interest' in which all share equally. For without this, there is no way of coherently arguing that men, as he put it, 'are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right'.2 Homeric and other archaic societies may have nurtured a conception of equality, and shared status, within particular groups, usually nobles in opposition to and above commoners, an ideal still powerfully lingering in the thought of Boulainvilliers,3 but to develop a conception of general equality is quite another matter. Indeed, at first glance nothing could be less obvious than such a fundamental 'unity of man', something first proposed—and with great brilliance— by Hobbes;4 or, indeed, less obvious than its presumed consequence: that men share (often without acknowledging the fact) in a universal equality applying at all times and places irrespective of historical context and social structure and essential to any genuinely secular system of politics, law, morality, and society.

In a Europe long dominated by kings, princes, and nobles, saturated in the culture of courts and courtiers, to speak of fundamental equality and the unity of man—after the state of nature—must have seemed to almost everyone, aside from

1 Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality, 1–4.

2 Paine, Rights of Man, 66.

3 Venturino,. Ragioni, 307, 310–11.

4 Hösle, Morals and Politics, 36.

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