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Equality - Overview - Ancient Views Of Equality

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For the purposes of understanding the concept of equality within the Western tradition, one has to look back to the two most influential strands of thought that inform the modern West: the Hebrew (and later Judeo-Christian) tradition and the Greek. While the Hebrews did not undertake an analysis of the concept of equality, the worldview and subsequent laws were steeped with a sense of equality unusual in the Western tradition at or before their time. The distance between a supremely powerful single God and humanity was most likely fundamental to this world-view, in which God's creations seemed relatively equal in comparison. Unlike other well-known law codes of the age (e.g., the code of Hammurabi), Jewish law applied to all Hebrews equally, regardless of their sex or class (see especially Exodus 19–35 and Deuteronomy 12–26). At the founding of the second temple in Jerusalem, Jewish law became a kind of first social contract—quite literally in the public reading of the Torah and the people signing that they will live by these laws—establishing a direct relationship between all the Hebrew people and their God (see Ezra-Nehmiah). There was not one secret teaching for the elites and another for the people; rather, all the teachings were available to all the people, and the covenant required the understanding and consent of all.

The first systematic analyses of equality as a concept comes from the Greeks of the classical age, which is perhaps not surprising given their intense interest in mathematics. One of the most thorough of these early systematic explorations of equality was undertaken by Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) in several of his works. In his investigation into the virtue of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the Greek word for "equal" (isos) but gives it a meaning that is more akin to "fairness." Equality is a state to be striven for, intermediate between giving someone more or less than he or she is due, relative to a specific activity or social realm. In disputes over contracts, for instance, a judge must determine the differences in harms inflicted by the breaking of a contract and restore the position of equality by subtracting the profit the offender has reaped from the infraction (Ethics, 1132a1–19).

It is in Aristotle's discussion of political justice that he examines equality in a way that more closely resembles the usual meaning of the term today. Political justice is a matter for citizens, whom he defines as "those who share in common a life aiming at self-sufficiency, who are free and either proportionally or numerically equal" (Ethics, 1134a27–29). Justice, in the political sense, can occur only among those who are free and fundamentally equal in their capacity as citizens, most importantly, in their equality in ruling and being ruled (Ethics, 1134b14–16). In the Politics, Aristotle further refines the concept of political equality in his discussions of justice in a political association. He tells us that the virtue of justice is agreed by all to be a proportionality based on desert or merit, but he adds that "some consider themselves to be equal generally if they are equal in some respect, while others claim to merit all things unequally if they are unequal in some respect" (Politics, 1301b35–39). As neither view is wholly right or wrong, and since reason alone cannot resolve the fundamental conflict, a good regime will attempt to see the legitimacy and limitations of both and attempt to arrange politics and political institutions so that the factions that normally form around these competing views enter into constructive negotiation rather than risk intense civil conflict or rule by superior power alone (Politics, 1301b39–1302a15, 1318a27–b1).

While Aristotle believes in some natural inequalities among humans that today we reject—between men and women, between "natural slaves" and free men—he does lay a foundation for a political critique of economic inequalities. The best regime will be one without extremes of wealth or poverty, not because these inequalities are inherently unjustifiable but because they undermine good politics. The wealthy, because they are unequal (i.e., superior) in wealth to their fellow citizens, believe they should be superior in political power as well—a false and dangerous belief. As a solution to the potential of class rule by either the wealthy or the poor, Aristotle encourages regimes to nurture the growth of the middle classes, whom he sees as better able to grasp the merits and limitations of the two extremes and thereby be a moderating political force (Politics, 1295a33–1296a21; for a brief general introduction to the topic, see Terchek and Moore).

Athenian political practice is just as important as Athenian philosophy to understanding the Greek contribution to ideas of equality. Through the centuries of reforms that would lead to the rise of full-fledged democratic government, three stand out. The first, isonomia, means literally equality of law, embodying both the concept that all citizens be treated equally with regard to the laws and that they participate equally in their making. The second reform, isēgoria, or equality of speech, allows all citizens, regardless of class, to rise in the assembly and attempt to convince their fellow citizens on the best policies and laws. The final reform allows all citizens to participate equally in the agenda-setting aspect of politics rather than just expressing preference on the agenda given to them. While political equality in contemporary democracies has been restricted for most citizens to the voicing of preference rather than the ability to effectively participate in setting or influencing the political agenda, the Athenian reforms highlight that this is only one aspect of true political equality (see Ober, 1989, 1996).

Like the Athenians, Rome came to base its laws on the notion that they should apply to all citizens equally. And as with the Athenians, it was the result of a struggle between the many and the few. During the republic, the plebian class, angered that the laws were applied differently to them and to the elites of the patrician class, pushed for reforms that resulted in the adoption of the Twelve Tables. Stating basic laws in a clear way helped to eliminate their ad hoc alteration in legal proceedings, where they could be made to say one thing for the elite and another for the many.

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