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Oct 28, 2021

Equal To?

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Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

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Equal To?

Equality is a relation, but a more consequential relation is between inequality and liberty.

Vassily Kandinsky 1913  Color Study Squares With Concentric Circles

Color Study, Squares with Concentric Circles, Vassily Kandinsky, 1913

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.

What, then, is a relation? It is a condition that arises between (“by two”) two, or among more, termini, two or more endpoints: linearly—that is, transitively from one endpoint to the next—or radially, from endpoints all separately connected to a central term. In this way of putting it, the terms that serve as endpoints determine the relation. Thus two brothers have between them the relation of fraternity; the category that names the relation is derived from each brother (frater) who is “in” the relation. 

But another question leaps out: Do the termini, the poles, in fact, constitute the relation, or is it the converse: Do the brothers, who are brothers because they have the same parents, name the relation, or does the relation bestow the brotherly being on the boys? Is a relation simply, merely, an in-between, or does it have a potency, at least of placing its term categorically, but also perhaps of something beyond? What would that be? Is there a fraternity beyond brotherly instantiation, an essence beyond the item? Put in terms of equality, which is the issue here: two, say persons, are equal to each other, and it is worth asking what that means for them. But should I also ask: What is equality in itself, and does something substantial, something good or bad or even interestingly indifferent, attach to it, to equality? By “interestingly indifferent” I mean that being merely “equal to” is just not very consequential.

So the questions so far: What is equality as a relation per se, and how is it to be valued—by what approach and with what outcome? Does being equal bestow some life-enhancing good?

Here is what I mean. Let there have been some redistribution, not I hope by bloody insurrection nor, as is unlikely, by congressional lawmaking but by, say, executive order. Suddenly I’m richer by over a thousand dollars. Rebellion before, reaction after, but for a blessed middle-moment we’re all, really, equal in rights and commodities. What is it that I actually have by my equality, or you by yours? Equality didn’t provide my profit; redistributed inequality did. To be sure, then, equalization did it. But that activity is the negation of a negation, the de-unequalization of an inequality. Where is the joy in that? 

Before asking that question in good faith, I should review the meanings of terms basic to this sort of discourse—equal, of course, first of all. In English and French the word for the notion in question is adapted from Latin aequus. It signifies “level” or “leveled”—no heights or hollows disturbing the plain of a landscape, no third dimension disrupting the plane of geometry. The German word is gleich, etymologically much more interesting. Gleich is cognate with the word for a dead body, a mere shape, a “corpse,” Leiche in German. The word comparable, vergleichlich, combines the meaning preserving ver (in turning an adjective into a verb with the redundant lich, since that is cognate with leich, Leiche). So vergleichlich, taken etymologically, means (as weiblich means “womanlike” or “woman-shaped”) “shape-like” or “shape-shaped.” Put into current English, it means “com-par-able,” literally, “able to be brought together as equal.”

These different etymologies seem to me to betoken very different takes on equality, perhaps even indicative of national character—though that is to me dubious territory. I am relying here on the usual translation of equality and Gleichheit into each other, as in “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” which goes into “Freiheit, Gleichheit, Brüderlichkeit.” German equality is not a leveling, being on a plane or topping out at the same height: the metaphorical eradication of spatial difference. It is rather similarity, a sort of defective identity of looks—a likeness, that of belonging to the same kind. Whatever items, however, belong to the same kind only have a kind of sameness. For they are, if the same in kind, different in not being the same item. In fact, they are twice different: once for being two rather than one, and twice for being similar rather than identical. I’ve just referred to sameness as defective identity. I mean that sameness differs from identity. The latter is, as a relation, either self-sameness, a relation a self can have to itself, though perforce a distance-less relation, or self-diremption, again a relation of self to self, but now, of necessity, a self-distancing. It’s the same relation but seen—one in being but two in thinking—from a different perspective, one might even say, of mood. So by calling same-ness “defective identity,” I mean that—by Leibniz’s dictum, which declares that indiscernibles are identical, since to be the same there need to be at least two—these two must be discernibly different, so imperfectly identical.

In sum, so far, equal can be “level in quantity” or “same in shape.” I might say here in passing that the former is unproblematic: line the two amounts up in sequence and if they end together, they’re equal. Or put them in that notional balance, the equation. But the latter is deeply problematic. Let me first say that by “same in shape” I don’t mean “similar.” Similar means, etymologically, “same-like,” so not altogether same—the biggest distinction being that in our world, by a mysterious special blessing, shapes can be the same shape-wise but different size-wise. In geometry, shapes of this latter type are called “similar”; when they share size as well as shape, we call them “congruent.”

A little difficulty arises. There is no way to prove congruence except by coincidence upon superimposition, be it part by part of a figure or whole upon whole. Such coincidence is, however, futile, because neither physical bodies nor geometric figures can really, illuminatingly, coincide. First, bodies can’t coincide because they’re bodies and two bodies can’t be in the same place, and geometric figures can’t be carried safely, without deformation, from one place to another. Second, if you could make bodies or figures coincide, they would immediately disappear into one another, while congruence, equality in size, has to have two terms, since equality is a relation. So congruence is pretty opaque, and Gleichheit, shape-equality, is not so clear.

I should mention here that in German, in fact, both the Latin and Germanic terms are available. I can say: “Das ist mir ganz egal,” “That’s all the same to me” (with a note of cosmopolitan snideness). Or I can say: “Das ist mir gleich,” “I don’t care one way or the other” (in a tone of distanced indifference or masked disillusionment). So much, very minimally recorded, for experiences in speech. No reader will lack them.

Now to the question of central concern: equality is, inspected as a locution, a relation. What kind of a relation? I’ve already said a comparison, though strictly speaking, it might not make sense to talk of being more or less equal; if the items in a pair are not strictly equal, they’re unequal. Yet, because the fall-off from equality is often in a fairly orderly sequence, it does seem permissible to speak of the closest neighbors to the leading examples as being progressively more equal to it; for example, the higher you rise on a salary scale, the more equal you are to the top salary. (A pertinent reminiscence: We were hosting a transatlantic philosophy professor who informed us suitably ill-paid teachers of the liberal arts: “Ich, naturlich, beziehe Spitzengehalt,” “I, naturally, draw a peak salary.” He made our day.) A more genuine description of equality is that equal is unique while unequal is multifarious. For wherever comparison is possible, when items in a pool of comparables are pronounced equal, you know just what must be the case for them to be so called: some measure, count, or description makes them so. When, however, they’re pronounced unequal, you know that their actual relation might be anything amongst their possible pertinent properties. Because there is an indefinite quantity of possible properties on either side of equal, unequal covers a multitude of sins, and equal offers unique rectitude. Of course, that rectitude might be boring.

Vassily Kandinsky 1923  Circles In A Circle

Circles in a Circle, Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

But no, as a sort of hinge between more or less, many and few, excessive and scanty in the realm of assessment, and as a sort of falling-short in the territory of identity, equality is full of those perplexities that adhere to really interesting notions. Such notions ask to be penetrated to their essence. But equality is a relation, and relations, congenitally betwixt and between, evade essence, the verbal articulation of a substantial being, one that is concretely there, real, “thingly.” So, without retracting its relationality, even relying on it, I want to say that equality is shown to have its vitality by the fact that it has its own, very particular, vices: envy and resentment. Anything so strong featured must have some potency. I think this holds for the equality-relation, very especially. 

Since equality is, so to speak, essentially a relation, it depends, once more, on comparison, and comparison evokes close inspection—especially so since equality is a relation of near sameness, all-but identity, as-close-as-possible similarity. So narrow, peering scrutiny is the mode of equality-regard: Are they beneficiaries of something I’m entitled to? Do they have privileges I deserve? Have they just plain got more than me?

Yet because of the complexity of private, social, and professional life, all carried on simultaneously, and a practically inexhaustible complexity of goods and ills, in both kind (modality) and quantity (degree), perfect equality is never attainable, and if there is hunger for it, it is never assuaged. The passions, the vices, that energize this unsociable socializing, this respectless regard, are, as I’ve said, envy and resentment.

The latter of these is, you might say, a flavorless passion, as its name itself betokens. “Re-” is an intensifier, so the word resentment means simply a strong sentiment, a feeling ratcheted up. We’re possessed by a diffuse indignation, some sense of impugned worthiness in search of its source. Often resentment is more ready to fix on a condition, situation, or environment than on a concretely discernible agent. It is a sense that merit and desert awarded to others diminish me: a chronic sense of lost equality. So egalitarians, who pride themselves on fraternal friendliness, also have another face: a jealous aspect of continual alienation.

Resentment’s more focused cousin is envy. Envy is ill-tempered egalitarianism: the resentful sense that another has what I want, the sense of having been shortchanged. Envy is not necessarily a vice, for what, really, is so wrong with wanting the very good someone else possesses? But that wish goes bad if it is angrily focused on their possessing it rather than on my longing for that good object—which latter sentiment actually makes good poetry:

Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of naught
Save, where you are, how happy you make those. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 57)

The negative pleasure associated with envy is what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the “joy in someone’s harm”—an unholy sense that the fates are sustaining our envy.

Envy itself is one of the regard-words. It comes from Latin invidere, “to look upon intensely”—“en-” (“in-”) being an intensifying prefix. Thus invidere has a—relevant—relation to amorous gazing, which is also intense but not “invidious,” that is, hostile in intention; on haunting occasions, though, it can be as persecutory as the malicious kind.

Now the question comes forward: Who are the egalitarians? I do not mean the adherents of our Declaration of Independence. That document—based on a faith in an equal creation by a divinity who intended that equality not to describe our degree of attractions, talents, and merits but merely to imply the same possession of the three rights enumerated, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (and certain others, unenumerated)—merely declares that we are in fact in possession of just these. Rather, I am thinking of the true believers in, the ardent lovers of, equality, equality as a positive good, as a good-in-itself.

Nor am I engaged in finger-pointing. I’ve met such devotees; I see them on the screen; I read what they say, usually quite by-the-way, as truth too obvious to insist on. So when I ask “Who are they?” I am really demanding of myself an ideal portrait, so to speak, of someone so disposed. Perhaps hardly any of that persuasion actually are like that; it’s an exercise of the imagination. Yet I do have some faith in the picture, partly because my personal acquaintances seem really to have been like my sketch. Warning: Don’t expect overflowing sympathy!

I’ll take a moment here to argue that a transition from a pervasive equality of external circumstances among people to a near sameness of soul is nearly inevitable. (I say “nearly” inevitable because most changes I hear announced as inevitable aren’t so in the least—namely, if some of us won’t play.) Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (vol. 2, part 4, chap. 6), discerned a characteristic of citizens of democracies for which he hadn’t yet a name. We’ve got one now: conformism, which seems to me the dispositional intermediary between the conditions of civic equality and personal sameness. 

What accounts for this eventuation? I think the very logic of the institution of equality, equalization, is responsible. Equalization is a done-to noun; the “-ize” suffix of the verb enshrined in the noun betokens a realization of the verb’s base—namely, equal—in some object. So the institution of equality usually means some forcible events—redistributions, suppressions, eliminations. These heroic—or despotic—measures leave their effect on the equalized subjects: individuality, not to speak of eccentricity, are now proscribed; they fade out or go underground, there to seethe. (Suppressed seething is the tinder of rebellion.) So the human soul has been reeducated, reinstituted.

Is this what believing egalitarians love? It’s not unbelievable. Calls for undergoing a change of heart, reexamining our attitudes, and reeducating ourselves abound. The people issuing these calls, innocently, really believe that calling on others to engage in large projects of self-improvement is sensible. But if the callers continue to be disappointed, won’t they transit from encouragement to be good on our own to some enforcement by others? And won’t they be those others? Of course they will, and here begins tyranny. The introduction of high, other-directed morality into politics seems to me an ingratiating devil’s work. Ordinary decency will do well and be safe; its basic formulation in the Hebrew Testament’s Ten Commandments has no injunction to make the world better—perhaps because that’s an invitation to interfere with God’s work and to make a mess. I think: Find what you love and do what follows; leave the world be—as long as possible. 

Well, I’m not a great believer in human types, nor is my experience wide enough to answer the question with competence. So I’ll, as I said, conjecture. Yes, there is a discernible common characteristic of egalitarians. It seems to be describable, in terms of a disposition, as a sort of fierce flabbiness and, in terms of a notional content, as preternatural permissiveness.

Here is an afterthought—a late realization: The “values” prominent in current rhetoric, diversity and social justice, are not really compatible with democracy. Democratic politics is perforce majoritarian; power follows nose-counting. Now diversity, precisely because it focuses on the self-identification of minorities, is apt to demand the privileging of small percentages. To me, about to argue in favor of inequality, diversity is ipso facto attractive. But you have to leave it alone, leave it to its own devices. When it becomes an ideological cause, the locus of ideological mush making and special pleading, you despoil it of its attraction—which is everybody being themselves, choosing their flavorful tribe, and, in that union of freedom and self-confidence, ready to belong first and last to one national community with common principles.

Social justice, too, as distinct from plain equal justice, involves preferential treatment. It expresses a somewhat self-contradictory trust in the patience of what used to be called the silent majority. Allow (what is unlikely to happen) the occasional public posting, on whatever screens people are glued to, of a chart showing percentages of self-identified racial, ethnic, and plain American constituents—and begin to worry if the white male, which as a single constituency is a majority, is practically invisible. Beware silent seething!

For all its lowest-common-denominator tastes and its occasional bad misjudgments, I myself, member of a historically persecuted and ever-persecutable minority too small percentage-wise even to figure among the social-justice minorities—I feel safest with majoritarian democracy. The hypothesis of that trust is that my fellow Americans (no reference to citizen status, just those living on this continent from sea to shining sea) are by and large both decent and sensible—in the longer run. So count their noses and make policy accordingly—policy kept within the bounds of fundamental protection by the Constitution—with its Amendments (particularly the object of my devotion, the First, protecting in due order religion and speech). 

So much for my misgivings about equality. Now to the praise of inequality. First, then, that politics and its policies seem to me best which closely track human nature. And human nature is ineluctably given to inequality. For the most prominent human experience (to which the discovery of our life’s work may, however, be a rival) is love, first between parents and children, then in adolescent friendship, later in adult love, and at some time for a divinity, country, work community. All these loves, then—they are one and all inegalitarian, discriminating (a good word gone bad), and particular, in the old Catholic sense of a personal preference that flies in the face of communal attachment. So it is natural to love one’s little brother best, pain in the neck though the kid may be.

607Px The Power Of Form Applied To Geometric Tracery  One Hundred Designs And Their Foundations Resulting From One Diagram 1851 14800389173

The power of form applied to geometric tracery—one hundred designs and their foundations resulting from one diagram (1851)

Next, it is natural to want to shine; your impulse and your deed may be one of genuine goodness, but who really wants it to remain totally unknown—unless it be for the secret pleasures of anonymity and the lurking belief that a divinity knows? To want to be now and then distinguished, to stand out and be denominated “outstanding,” is natural. (Terminal shyness, hiding one’s light under a bushel, may look like virtuous modesty, but it’s really a festering pathology.)

Again, exerting energy, taking initiative, driving oneself, or leading others—these are all inegalitarian modes that are productive, generally, of more good and goods than of—it must be conceded—occasional evils.

But the most consequential worldly relation for both public and private life is, I think, that of inequality and liberty. “Liberty, Equality”—with “Fraternity” a suppressible third—was the mantra of the French Revolution, and the two are still often paired. To me it is doubtful that they are even compatible.

Logic is in the way. Above I argued that equality is a definable situation, as opposed to the indefinitely many kinds and degrees of inequality. Equality is a supervisable condition. Indeed, since it is capable of being defined, that very act of definition opens the door to the suppression of inequalities, the curtailment of liberty, of civil freedom, and eventually of that inner freedom which makes a specimen of humanity into a human being. It is the freedom to feel attachments, to think thoughts, to dispose the will to action—which, though our very own, can be externally imposed on.

And finally, inequality and its consequent diversity, which expresses itself in a multitude of abilities, interests, and competences, is the very condition for a well-working, blessedly not perfectly performing civilization. I have a suspicion that, terrible though be the things that happen, under equalization they would be devastatingly worse. Recall that it was the National Socialists who engaged in Gleichschaltung, “switching to the same level,” of all life, public and private.

So then should I, should anyone, crave equality? Well, in carefully selected respects I don’t want my wishes blatantly postponed in favor of someone else’s desires—though I’m willing to wait if it’s an emergency. If I have to go to the law—a black hole to be circumvented—I certainly want equal justice. I want a voice equal with those of my colleagues at my college. And so on. But by and large, what honors, endowments, and benefactions come to them enhance the community and so enhance me. That seems to me what it means, among other things, to be a community—a bright light on one of us illuminates us all. But enough of these exaltations: the best way to be equal is to be equal to the business at hand.

And not to wish for, insist on, a very zealous eradication of inequalities bestowed by friends in high places, through varieties of unearned privileges down to dumb luck. My department chairman at Yale, where I did my graduate work, said the wisest, most workable thing to me, perhaps guessing that I’d end up where I’d need it: “Make things work, and here’s the way: pure principles and corrupt administration.” It’s what I’ve been getting at.


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