Ahistorical? Moi?

I dropped in at Jonathan Derbyshire’s blog just now and realized I must not have done so for awhile, because I hadn’t seen a post from January about something I said. He quotes me disputing in my usual intemperate way the idea that ‘Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God’ and then asks, ‘I wonder, has Ophelia ever read Locke?’ No, of course not; I haven’t read anything. Well, I may have read a few words of Locke here and there (on calendars, jam jars, the sides of buses, that kind of thing), but not actually read. Reading makes my head hurt.

So there’s this thing in the Second Treatise, chapter 2, about the state of nature which is one of

equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

Jonathan adds that ‘Jeremy Waldron makes clear in his remarkable book God, Locke, and Equality that the principle of human equality articulated in the Second Treatise…is an axiom of theology’, and that ‘it is simply ahistorical to deny that our (liberal) conceptions of equality and human dignity have Christian antecedents.’

But is it? I’m not convinced. I don’t deny, in the passage Jonathan quotes, that the Christian ‘view that all have equal worth before God, and the idea of democracy and equality’ were around; what I deny is that it’s possible to know that that particular source was an inescapable source. Maybe it was. Maybe every single person born after Locke’s Second Treatise was steeped in it and had no other source for the idea of equality – but I don’t quite see how anyone could be sure of that. And beyond that, it seems to me inherently unlikely that the idea of human equality is such a far-fetched, odd, unthinkable idea that without Locke, no one would have imagined it. It seems to me that people have a noticeable tendency to develop ideas of equality all on their own, merely by the experience of being treated as unequal. The Thersites effect, one might call it. These things do come up. Seneca talked about a kind of equality; so did Montaigne; at least as possible ideas, if not as desirable goals. So, I don’t deny that Christianity was one antecedent, but I do deny the version that apologists give us, which is that it was the necessary antecedent, that (by implication at least) without it we wouldn’t have the idea at all. I’d need more than the existence of one book by one philosopher to convince me of that, I think.

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