Equality words become operative only when a preposition and its object are adjoined to them. “He is equal” is in-significant speech.
So we must say: “equal to,” “the equal of,” “on an equal footing with”; adjective, noun, abstract noun; “equal to my neighbor,” “anybody’s equal.”
Thus no one and nothing can be merely equal. Mere was once used by the great Queen Elizabeth in this locution: “I am,” she said, “mere English.” She meant “nothing but, altogether,” for her birth and her allegiances were being questioned. It is possible to be mere English, less likely when you’re American, and impossible if you’re an immigrant.
It is, however, possible for anyone to be merely kind, that is, kind without ulterior motive—without alloy. Equal, though, you can’t be merely; you have to choose a partner-in-comparison: “I demand equality with…” requires a choice, usually of a category. “I’m every bit his equal” will usually involve a person; “I’m equal to anything,” a qualified situation.
Terms, and the being they denote, that do not need the prepositions, or have them in an odd way, I’ll call, for present purposes, “self-terminal”; they are the two terminals of a relation without a distance—a self-relation. Good is such a term, among the Platonists the chief such term. People are “good at” a job or “good for” each other. But they, and beings higher and lower than they, are also good-in-themselves, just good, merely good—good for nothing in particular but for everything in general. There certainly are such people, also such tools, foods, books—they are what you might call the world’s handymen/women. (I write the last word merely from a friendly desire to show attention to my world’s current silliness.)
Such self-terminals are usually acknowledged by speaking of “good-in-itself,” or The Good (which, in the one Platonic dialogue in which it is mentioned, Republic VI, is described as not only good-in-itself—that is, self-sufficiently, non-relatively good—but also good for bringing a world into being, nourishing it, and making it intelligible). In other words, The Good is, at once, a divinity to be sought for itself, the source of the world’s existence and flourishing, and, above all, of its being understandable by us.
To the well-made and well-governed pagan cosmos, the Christians contribute the notion of human beings as invaluable, as being beyond price, priceless, and thus to be priced way beyond this or that valuable property. Therefore they are incomparable.
I think that many, if not most, Americans willing to declare themselves on this matter—though they might balk at the high-toned locution—would agree to the proposition that all human beings are, in some deep way, priceless, along with being incomparable, and that, in consequence, their lives are untouchable. That is expressed in the majority opposition to the death penalty: even a person who is guilty of the two ultimate crimes of violating a child and committing murder (that is, a killing not done within the law) is to be let to live.
So arises a very confounding perplexity: Why would an incomparable being, the only such kind in our natural world (for all other species provide specimens for study, and specimens would not be representative of their species were they not eminently comparable)—why would, or should, such a being, a human being, be devoted to, even zealous for, equality?
I won’t attempt here to document the pervasiveness of references to equality as a good whose universal approval can be taken for granted. Such proof would overwhelm all other text. I have ringing in my ear a half-caught phrase I read in an international magazine I subscribe to, something to the effect that government-sponsored medical insurance would provide the equal universal coverage we all wish for. Let it stand for the barrage of examples.
Before I launch into my inquiry about equality, a word about equity, a recent bi-word intended to supersede equality. It is a ratcheting up that was to be expected. Equity is, to my mind, a sort of superequality, compensatory inequality. It is a world apart from the natural inequality that appeals to me.
Here is the stark fact about equality, suppressed, perversely, by its very obviousness, but ultimately all-significant: equality is a relation. And it is a mere relation. If you’re equal to someone—to anyone who might be a candidate for being above or below you in some respect—in wealth or reputation or personal happiness—you are nothing that is substantial, except “equal to.” Equality, for better or worse, bestows nothing. A more explicit treatment requires a somewhat abstract inquiry that involves terms somewhat devoid of the living color of human experience, drawn off (Latin: ab-trahere) from our feelings, food, passions, projects—but then, nothing is more concrete, more dense in significance, than an idea.