Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


The American Declaration of Independence clearly states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s certainly inspirational and Thomas Jefferson is to be commended for stating it so eloquently. But apart from its eloquence, what does it mean exactly? What are the practical consequences of believing that all men are created equal? Isaiah Berlin’s essay helps us understand more deeply what equality really means. For one thing, there’s no correct answer. There are several different views of equality. At least five different views are presented in this essay. In no particular order, they are (1.) The natural rights school will not object to inequalities, providing these do not infringe on natural rights. These guys agree with Jefferson that everyone is born with certain rights. But if anyone complains about inequality they would ask: are you being deprived of your life? No. Are you being deprived of your liberty? No. Is anyone depriving your pursuit of happiness? If the answer is still no then you have no complaint. You have all your natural rights intact. Be satisfied. (2.) Appeals to rational thought must protest against any inequality, unless a sufficient reason for it is produced. Under this theory even equality-loving Americans may have to tolerate some inequalities within society. Take a symphony, for example. Without a conductor or someone in charge, what kind of music would result? We can’t all be equal all of the time. In some things someone has to be in charge. We just have to learn to live with it. (3.) The laissez-faire/freedom school of equality: its proponents freely admit (that freedom) may lead to inequalities, but defend (freedom) upon the ground that it gives an equal OPPORTUNITY to all. Under this theory government can make sure that everyone gets an equal chance to succeed. But it can’t guarantee that everyone will in fact succeed. Some will fail. We gave everyone an equal chance; that’s the best goal that government can aim for. (4.) Edmund Burke and the natural social hierarchy: demand full equality of treatment (but only) upon each rung of the ladder, this is the only true equality; but bitterly oppose as being contrary to the natural order any attempt to deny the existence or relevance of such rungs or hierarchies... To say that everyone is equal is just sheer foolishness. Experience teaches us otherwise. To be human means living under certain social traditions. People have not been, are not now, and never will be truly equal. Government should preserve these traditional customs. (5.) Romantic irrationalism: Finally, those must not be forgotten who… object to all rules as such and desire a society, whether this is practicable or not, governed in an unsystematic manner by the will of an inspired leader, or by the unpredictable movement of the Volksgeist, or the “spirit” of a race, a party, or a church. This is the theme of Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and celebrates the visionary members of society. Most of us are equal only in the sense that wey’re like sheep. Once in a while a truly outstanding leader transcends this equality of the dull and the ordinary. Zarathustra was repulsed by the whole notion of equality. He went to the mountaintop. His vision has power to transform our whole society. Isaiah Berlin pointed out all these conflicting views of equality for a reason: I cite this only as a warning against the thesis that the commandment to treat all men alike in like situations needs no independent argument to support it… but are something taken for granted by reasonable men, a form of the working of natural reason, which needs no justification, but is as self-evident as the principle of identity or that red is different from green. Jefferson proceeds on ideas that he believes need no justification. Equality is one of those ideas. But reading about Socrates makes it clear that many of us in fact operate under false assumptions and we really don’t know what we’re talking about. That’s why Berlin’s essay on equality is in the best tradition of the Great Books concept.


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