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Equality and Necessary Hierarchy

This entry is part 41 of 52 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

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The current proponents of social justice have little idea of what they may be creating in pursuit of their goal. Their goal is a just society, but the pursuit of radical egalitarianism won’t provide them with that.

Richard Weaver, writing in 1948, describes how radical egalitarianism provides nothing new that traditional societies didn’t already produce, and may actually be producing a cancerous envy that will destroy society from within. It promises a fiction, and the frustration from pursuing a non-existent and impossible order creates growing angst and unhappiness.

“Equality is a disorganizing concept in so far as human relationships mean order. It is order without a design; it attempts a meaningless and profitless regimentation of what has been ordered from time immemorial by the scheme of things. No society can rightly offer less than equality before the law; but there can be no equality of condition between youth and age or between the sexes; there cannot be equality even between friends. The rule is that each shall act where he is strong; the assignment of identical roles produces first confusion and then alienation, as we have increasing opportunity to observe. Not only is this disorganizing heresy busily confounding the most natural social groupings, it is also creating a reservoir of poisonous envy. How much of the frustration of the modern world proceeds from starting with the assumption that all are equal, finding that this cannot be so, and then having to realize that one can no longer fall back on the bond of fraternity!

However paradoxical it may seem, fraternity has existed in the most hierarchical organizations; it exists, as we have just noted, in that archetype of hierarchy, the family. The essence of co-operation is congeniality, the feeling of having been “born together.” Fraternity directs attention to others, equality to self; and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism. The frame of duty which fraternity erects is itself the source of ideal conduct. Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition. It will be found as a general rule that those parts of the world which have talked least of equality have in the solid fact of their social life exhibited the greatest fraternity. Such was true of feudal Europe before people succumbed to various forms of the proposal that every man should be king. Nothing is more manifest than that as this social distance has diminished and all groups have moved nearer equality, suspicion and hostility have increased. In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty. People do not know what to expect of one another. Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.

It is a matter of common observation, too, that people meet most easily when they know their position. If their work and authority are defined, they can proceed on fixed assumptions and conduct themselves without embarassment toward inferior and superior. When the rule of equality obtains, however, no one knows where he belongs. Because he has been assured that he is “just as good as anybody else,” he is likely to suspect that he is getting less than his deserts, Shakespeare concluded his wonderful discourse on degree with reference to “an envious fever.” And when Mark Twain, in the role of Connecticut Yankee, undertook to destroy the hierarchy of Camelot, he was furious to find that serfs and others of the lower order were not resentful of their condition. He adopted then the typical Jacobin procedure of instilling hatred of all superiority. Resentment, as Richard Hertz has made plain, may well prove the dynamite which will finally wreck Western society…

It is generally assumed that the erasing of all distinctions will usher in the reign of pure democracy. But the inability of pure democracy to stand for something intelligible leaves it merely a verbal deception. If it promises equality before the law, it does no more than empires and monarchies have done and cannot use this as a ground to assert superiority. If it promises equality of condition, it promises injustice, because one law for the ox and the lion is tyranny.”

(Ideas Have Consequences, pp 42-44)

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

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