Man is not man as yet,Robert Browning, Paracelsus, 1835
Nor shall I deem his object served, his end
Attained, his genuine strength put fairly forth,
While only here and there a star dispels
The darkness. Here and there a towering mind
O’erlooks its prostrate fellows: when the host
Is out at once to the despair of night,
When all mankind alike is perfected,
Equal and full-blown powers – then, not till then,
I say, begins man’s general infancy.
What is egalitarianism?
It was suggested, half joking and half serious, that we are all white liberals now. There has been a radicalizing force within post-Enlightenment humanity that has manifested a particular strain of human potential, such that it has transformed our society and come to define the modern West, American society most of all in being founded on a liberal aspiration of revolutionary idealism. This has been previously explored in what kind of shared identity we are becoming in fulfilling an ancient moral vision, not initially even a promise but a mere whisper of a small voice of conscience first felt at the foundation of modern civilization as it was laid down during the Axial Age. That whisper was a tremor that became an earthquake that overturned society and now is settling back down into an unforeseen societal order clothed in new robes of moral imagination.
The beating heart of this inspiring, if tumultuous, moral vision is a profound and unshakeable sense of egalitarianism. It remains as radical today as it was in centuries and millennia past. But what does it mean and where does it come from? The conflict we are experiencing today in protests and revolt, even minor insurrection threatening far worse to come, is essentially the same conflict that arose in the Axial Age following the collapse of Bronze Age civilization and the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Archaic authorization was lost and a new kind of rule-based and brutally violent authoritarianism first emerged. That was what the Axial Age prophets were responding to, with Jesus arriving shortly after that period of the revolutionizing of the human psyche and identity.
Jesus Christ, like many Axial Age prophets before him, preached an egalitarianism that would come to rock the world starting as early as the Peasants’ Revolt in the Middle Ages when the Black Death disrupted the social order, kinship networks were being dismantled by the Catholic Church, and the enclosure movement began the erosion of feudalism (the clearest point of origin for the WEIRD culture of individualism; see Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World). The Peasants’ Revolt is what some consider the first modern revolution and class war. It presaged the far more radically transformative English Civil War that was the model of conflict from which the American revolutionaries took inspiration (see Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars), and an early expression of proto-liberalism, proto-socialism, and proto-Marxism.
Looking back on the ancient world, what stands out is that Jesus didn’t passively resist, much less peacefully submit to worldly power. At one point, he even went so far as to have commited the greatest sin in the capitalist mind, in having committed property damage with his terrorizing the moneylenders by overthrowing their tables in the temple, a direct threat to the entrenched authority of the established social order and moral order. To the respectable elite and loyal citizens of the time, such an act was unimaginable and unacceptable, a defiance of all that was good and worthy. Jesus’ violence against property, within the ruling system of wealth and power, was as bad or worse than the regular violence of Roman authority in killing and torturing untold numbers of innocent people, a fate that would later befall Jesus as well; and so established the Christian tradition of martyrdom as inherited from the Stoics’ egalitarian re-envisioning of liberty as spiritual emancipation.
The elite response to Jesus at the time probably sounded a lot like Edmund Burke’s fear-ridden condemnation of the French revolutionaries in their daring to rise up against the nobility of robed power, in their having sought to disrobe monarchical authority so as to show it as the naked power it always was (or as the infamous Thomas Paine put it: “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird”). Surely, many in first century Rome repeated the exact same false equivalency we hear today, that Jesus was a violent terrorist like those Jewish zealots called the Sicarii who sought to overthrow the Roman Empire with revolt and killings, equating property damage to deadly violence. This claim of false equivalency is based on an ancient claim of hierarchical power in its attempt to discredit and dismiss those who challenge it from below. That is because the same fundamental conflict remains unresolved not only in society at large but, more importantly, within the human psyche.
It’s a deep and profound sense of divide within us that gets expressed in our social relations and the social order. That is why, even after all these millennia later, it still feels like a raw wound. We’ve never recovered from what was lost with the archaic bicameral mind. One can sense what that earlier mindset must have been like by looking at some simpler societies. The Piraha exemplify this with their radical sense of communal solidarity and egalitarianism, along with their more fluid sense of identity. They express none of the oppressive anxiety and violent authoritarianism that defines the modern world. They are far from the only example of this expression of human nature. It maybe should teach us something fundamental about our shared humanity. Egalitarianism isn’t juat another modern ideal invented by intellectuals. It is the core principle of human nature that we’ve forgotten. But in our rigidly hierarchical and hyper-individualistic society, we don’t know how to healthily express this egalitarian impulse.
In denying our own nature, what results is endless conflict. The answer some offer is to further suppress the impulse and to project it onto radicals as scapegoats, as if egalitarianism itself could be cast out from respectable society, something inconvenient and unecessary as with the surgical removal of a vestigial organ. This is a way of disidentifying from the egalitarianism that is so threatening not because it’s imposed from the outside by radical totalitarian dogmatism but because this primal force of moral truth keeps emerging from within. This conflict gets expressed as violence all around. How can we imagine a peaceful society when we refuse to accept the very essence of our own human nature? The first and greatest violence is the disconnection from and denial of this most fundamental moral command of spiritual authorization. We are at war with ourselves and our whole society is built on this anxiety-inducing conflict.
Egalitarianism isn’t and never was simply about modern left-wing ideology as formed out of the revolutionary philosophies of post-Enlightenment thinkers, dreamers, and activists. Egalitarianism isn’t an abstract ideal for it is rooted within us. To attempt to remove it would be to destroy our collective soul, an act akin to ripping out our heart. We don’t hold egalitarianism as a value and principle, as a vision and worldview. Egalitarianism, rather, is who we are. There is no ‘left’ and ‘right’, no division between a set of egalitarian political ideologies and what supposedly opposes them. To oppose egalitarianism would be insanity because it would be to oppose ourselves. Egalitarianism can’t be denied. Rather than a ‘left’ and ‘right’, there is simply and fundamentaly the egalitarian center of our being. To embrace this revolutionary radicialism (i.e., to return to the root) would mean to become fully human. That is the only centrism, moderate or otherwise, that has any meaning.
We need to become fiercely passionate and compassionate, to know with absolute certainty and hold with unswerving conviction the truth of who we are and who we have always been, in speaking to who we may yet become. Egalitarianism isn’t to be forced onto the world by mere social change, protest movements, and political action but, first and foremost, to be remembered and resurrected as our birthright, a gnostic unforgetting of ultimate reality (anamnesis), the awakening to the source of our humanity like a thirst-quenching spring bursting forth from a crack in ancient stone. This moral vision of faith and truth, of freedom and fairness can never be denied or destroyed. No matter how many are killed by authoritarian power, no matter how much oppression is enforced, egalitarianism itself cannot be defeated as long as there is a single human left breathing.
The proof of egalitarianism is in our heart and soul, in each of us and in all of us, irrefutably verified and proven in our own direct experience, felt in the solid ground of our shared being. The echo of archaic authorization is heard in our longing for freedom, a piercing ache that can cripple us with fear, anxiety and nostalgia or inspire us with hope and promise. No matter how lost we can feel in our shared struggles against those who seek to divide and isolate us, may we choose hope again and again; and, however difficult to grasp, may we never forget the promise of egalitarianism, of fairness and freedom, the solidarity of fellow-feeling and spiritual kinship that lifts us out of darkness into the open light of moral vision.
We are all egalitarians. We are a truly free people, the very expression of the egalitarian, a living faith. Let our actions be our prayer, the embodiment of hope’s fulfilment. This is not an endpoint but a beginning, a neverending revolution of the mind, an eternal return of what was never lost, the kingdom all around us. What is true within human nature is the truth of humanity as part of nature, as part of the world out of which we formed. We are not wandering alone in the unknown, not refugees in a foreign land. In listening to this voice of moral authorization, it tells us that we belong, that we are at home in the world, that we are welcome among friends. It is a simple assurance and sense of trust, a faith in humanity.
This is egalitarianism.
For you are all children of God in the Spirit.Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt