The Leveling Spirit of Equality
In a waning society where the burden of jagged truth can no longer be endured and whose preponderance of fools and functional illiterates tips steadily towards critical mass, questioning the sacred cattle of a people's thoughts is tantamount to impiety; and the writer that does so stands a better than even chance of committing professional suicide by his own lack of discretion. To dare hold the sacred concept of Equality to the scrutiny of the Philosopher's Stone carries the risk of not only being misunderstood, but of being branded as a traitor to an age in which the egalitarian spirit has eclipsed the Reign of Liberty in the luxurious West.
Every public and private virtue has contained within itself the possible seeds of its own destruction. Immoderate bravery yields recklessness and excessive charity can bring indiscriminate moral rot and financial ruin. The same can be held for political systems if they remain in abstraction -- unqualified by moderation or wisdom. Democracy, the salvation of modern man, is illustrative of that double-edged rapier that has the capacity to both uplift and to cast down the character of the human condition and leave us infinitely richer or qualitatively impoverished.
While on the surface, the political equality of men in a society has an indisputably positive effect on the condition of human life, the flip side of what the ancients understood as "the rule of the poor" can produce corrosive effects on the culture and psychology of a people. As Aristotle postulated: "Democracy arose from men's thinking that if they are equal in any respect, they are equal in all things." If this is so, the more a society retreats from its aristocratic founding, the less tolerable it is of any de facto distinctions or privileges due to merit, nature, or inheritance.
Having been imbued with such a psychology, it is a small step for a demagogue to use the political power of a democracy to enthrone new modes and orders, and to utilize this proclivity to bring political leveling to fruition, in spite of those natural or conventional distinctions. In the end, liberty -- which was the motivating cause of the democratic impulse, falls victim as equality becomes ascendant in men's minds. The precarious imbalance then of freedom in favor of equality brings degeneration to a society as the spirit that has learned to despise ordered self-rule begins its descent into despotism via the people's thirst for an equality of result in a material sense.
Such a road, unmarked by milestones or the appearance of dangers, is nevertheless gently sloping and calls little attention to itself until a people has proceeded too far. Thus, Aristotle's famous paradox that "the worst form of inequality is to make unequal things equal" brings an injustice into society by the immoderate application of a positive human goal. In this way, the preoccupation with equality becomes the handmaid of both a softened servitude and an unqualified mediocrity; and both of these pave the way for unparalleled distortions in the character of a republic.
Civilizations and societies that become intoxicated with equality at the expense of liberty display a disposition towards cultural homogeneity and are dismissive of the past; since the past is the cruel depository of all manner of injustices by virtue of their embrace of the aristocratic horizon. We must remember that this novel egalitarian worldview is not wholly political in the classical sense, but includes proclivities for music, literature, morality, and religion: assets and institutions that are saturated with the premises and judgments that flow a priori from the currents of existence viewed through the hierarchical lens. In dispensing with the wicked stratifications of value and identity that imposed injustices between the historical classes of humanity, the Western world has clearly advanced over the past. However, the continuum of cultural leveling that attends the democratic/egalitarian worldview leaves a culture markedly transformed -- oftentimes to our detriment.
One does not need to be a Tocqueville to reflect upon the hierarchies that comprise existence and a healthy society. The Biblical Yahweh created man to rule in wisdom over creation and instituted a natural authority in the family. Churches and governments rely heavily on the authority of hierarchies: although with the secular democratization of modern life, the expanding regime has more than opportunistically filled God's vacuum and assisted in the project of top down leveling to feed its own venal agenda. As the fetish for equality grows in intensity within the character of a people, the spiritual propensity to direct one's gaze upwards towards eternal things is countered by an even greater homogenizing gravity aimed at man's temporal state. As a people aligns itself towards the lowest common denominator, the entire hierarchy of virtue and vice dissolves into an indiscriminate common mass that tolerance -- equality's ideological sister, uses in numbing our powers of discernment. Should it be surprising that with nothing to elevate our consciousness towards contemplating the beautiful or the true, a civilization's aspirations increasingly turn to pleasure and the inordinate pursuit thereof?
Some might believe that the stability of a society that has ceased fixating on the excellent, the transcendent, and the sublime is more than compensated as the cultural valleys within society are backfilled through the egalitarian force inherent in education. But as the educational curriculum in America has been increasingly standardized, we find that the new mass of students (and there are always exceptions) have not attained qualitatively to the proficiency levels of their fathers. One does not have to be a sociologist to understand that the performance levels of content and comprehension that complement reading are inexorably on the wane as are the general society's computational faculties. Whether this is a function of: educational bureaucracy, the double-edged technological phenomenon of computers, or merely a result of entertainment's alluring diversions is perhaps only relevant in an academic sense. A leveled society addicted to pleasure and grown averse to the drudgery of learning will soon not possess either the requisite skills or the desire as a whole to move upward towards new summits; and as a result, it will in fact slip incrementally towards the abyss. And consequentially, the yawning gap that paradoxically accompanies a culture's egalitarian leveling will eventually yield an even greater inequality as it stratifies into a dichotomy of masters and drones.
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville offered a penetrating diagnosis on the American character -- virtues and warts notwithstanding. The same voice having remarked that "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom," also observed that "Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom." In disdaining the aristocratic hierarchy of the soul that seeks ordered liberty, the author of Democracy in America offers us a sobering prophesy as to what ultimately occurs to peoples who desire equality over liberty:
Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannize but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Cultural disdain for the "High" by the "Low" is congenital in a culture democratized to the parceled out sound bite and a society whose dreams marinate in the erotic. Having acclimated our palate to what previous ages would have considered as the pursuit of the culturally vulgar and considering our tolerance of the moral decline exemplified in the subsequent character of our entertainments, Tocqueville offers his Cassandra warning to a civilization obsessed with the diminished face of equality, in all its permutations:
When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . . It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.
Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, California and blogs as The Eloquent Professor at www.palookavillepost.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.