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On the history and principle of equality

The Forward Party is committed to the principle of equality


Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, as part of the March on Washington.


By Joshua Peters

Within the political tradition of the West, no other concept has inspired individuals to such a degree as the principle of equality. Equality has been the standard by which ancient and modern Western societies determine the correctness of political actions. The principle of equality was first applied in politics by the Greek statesman Cleisthenes in 507 BCE and then reemerged as a universal proposition by the American Founding Fathers in the form of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Despite current and historical failings to fully commit to it, equality holds deep significance for free people.

The aspiration for justice, as articulated by Anaximander, animates the spirit of free people. They are conscious of injustice, hold society accountable, and affirm the principle of equality when those in power fail to maintain their commitment to it.

I will embark on a journey through history, tracing the development of the principle of equality from the ancient Greeks to contemporary times, to showcase its evolution as a foundation for the preservation of individual liberty, social equality, and human dignity. Additionally, I will provide my own analysis of how the principle of equality can assist individuals in the pursuit of authenticity, particularly in the current cultural climate of alienation and anti-equality sentiments.

The Birth of Equality

I have previously discussed Cleisthenes’ contribution to the Athenian political system through his democratic reforms, which incorporated the principle of equality and established the political belief of isonomia (equality before the law). However, there was a prominent individual who predates Cleisthenes and can be considered the first advocate for what would later emerge as the principle of equality.

The Greek philosopher and polymath Pythagoras of Samos (c. 571—497 BCE) introduced an abstract idea about the nature of things, positing the belief that everything can be understood through numbers. Unfortunately, no extant fragments of Pythagoras’ own writings survive. Our knowledge of his ideas comes from later philosophers such as Parmenides and Plato, as well as writings from Pythagoreans (followers of Pythagoras) like Philolaus.

Many of us are familiar with Pythagoras from our middle school days when we learned about the Pythagorean theorem, a fundamental principle in geometry. However, Pythagoras’ contributions to the human mind extended beyond mathematical formulas and ratios. He formulated a philosophy of life based on an isomorphic relation between arithmos (ἀριθμός) and psyche (Ψυχή), meaning number and soul, respectively. This philosophical foundation gave rise to his religious order, Pythagoreanism.

Pythagoreanism was a quasi-monastic religious order with connections to the Orphic religion, an ancient Hellenistic belief system named after the legendary Greek musician Orpheus. According to the Pythagoreans, the soul was considered imprisoned in the body until it had paid reparations for past misdeeds. In a fragment, the Greek philosopher Philolaus (c. 470—385 BCE) expounds on the idea of the soul being imprisoned in the body. Philolaus maintained “The ancient theologians and prophets testify to the fact that the soul has been yoked to the body as a punishment of some kind and that it has been buried in the body as in a tomb.”

Philolaus communicates that the Pythagoreans held a profound belief in the independence of the soul from the body. According to their perspective, the body served as a vessel to house the soul on its journey through life, guided by the will of the gods. Thus, the soul represents the individual’s true self, and this concept has maintained a significant position throughout Western thought.

These ideas take a fascinating turn when we consider Pythagoras’ isomorphic account between the soul and numbers, at least based on the accounts of his students and other philosophers. Philolaus said that the soul was a numerical ratio, while Aristotle mentioned that the Pythagoreans believed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things. The relationship between the soul and numbers ultimately enables us to express the concept of equality in a way that moves it from the realm of pure abstraction to objectivity based on some quantitative common notion.

For Pythagoras, everything can be translated into numbers. He subscribed to numerology, a belief system suggesting a mystical or metaphysical connection between numbers and physical events in the world. Pythagorean numerology assigns numerical values to letters of the alphabet. In this system, each letter corresponds to a number from 1 to 9. Consequently, the names of objects, concepts, or individuals are thought to carry specific numeric meanings and associations within the context of an individual’s journey through life.

Unlike other numerological systems, Pythagoras’ approach extended beyond mystic interpretation and ventured into a system that aimed to explain the physical world through arithmetic. This innovative approach to constructing a system for explaining natural phenomena using numbers laid the groundwork for the field of modern physics.

Determining the boundary between mysticism and mathematics in the teachings of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans poses a challenge, however. The Pythagorean arithmological system finds expression in the tetraktys (τετρακτύς), representing the decad of the first four numbers (1,2,3,4) and their sum (1+2+3+4=10). This expression takes the form of a triangular arrangement of ten points—four rows with one point at the top, two points in the second row, three in the third row, and four in the fourth row. The tetraktys, an elegant arrangement, symbolizes harmony not only in mathematics but also in music. The ratios of string lengths on musical instruments correspond to the numerical ratios inherent in the tetraktys. (Clearly illuminating its relation to the Orphic religion.)

Moreover, the number ‘4’ holds cosmological significance for the Pythagoreans due to its association with the elements (earth, wind, water, and fire) and the seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). The Pythagoreans propose that the tetraktys represents a divine hierarchical structure, wherein the top point signifies divinity (intriguingly, number ‘1’ represents God in Judeo-Christian numerology), and the bottom four points represent creation. Consequently, for the Pythagoreans, the tetraktys expresses a self-contained proportion to harmonize the cosmos. This conceptualization establishes a complete and natural order of the cosmos using numbers, elaborated under the Pythagorean mind-expanding doctrine of the Harmony of Spheres.

The Harmony of Spheres doctrine posits that the universe is spherical, surrounded by “the unlimited.” Pythagoreans use the analogy of even and odd numbers to represent the unlimited and limited, respectively. This cosmological doctrine connects Pythagoras and Anaximander, as Anaximander’s proportionate universe aligns with the Pythagorean perspective. In his account of Pythagoras’ teachings, Philolaus emphasizes the symmetry between Pythagorean teachings and Anaximander’s cosmology, with certain fragments attributing the number ‘4’ to the concept of “justice.”

Pythagoras’ abstract ideas, like those of Anaximander, ultimately gesture towards a harmonious worldview. While regularly framed in a mystic and metaphysical sense, Pythagoras had a profound impact on mathematics, logic, and the general explanation and interpretation of ideas about the world.

The Greek mathematician Euclid (flourished c. 300 BCE), considered the father of geometry, took the ideas established by Pythagoras and formulated them in his book The Elements, which became the first system of mathematical definitions, postulates, notions, and propositions. Euclid’s first “common notion” states, “Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.”

This revolutionary foundation, exploring what seemed to be a self-evident mechanism for articulating the nature of things, was later adopted by Aristotle in his book Prior Analytics, where he formalized Euclid’s first common notion into a logical deduction: “For if A is predicated of every B and B of every C, it is necessary for A to be predicated of every C.” Said another way: if A is equal to B, and B is equal to C, therefore A is equal to C. Aristotelian logic would ultimately contribute to the birth and development of the scientific method.

Throughout, Pythagorean ideas never lost their harmonic essence. After all, what is harmony if not ensuring that both sides of an equation are equal? Pulling Pythagoras from his abstract thinking and mystical interpretations has indeed proven useful when applied to concrete, physical events. However, the psyche alluded to by the Pythagoreans remains an enduring element.

While there are many unknowns about Pythagoras, there are aspects we can confidently assert. Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry (c. 234—305 CE) outlines four well-known teachings of Pythagoras in his book Life of Pythagoras. The first asserts the immortality of the soul. The second suggests its reincarnation into various species. The third posits existence as cyclical. The fourth encourages us to regard all ensouled creatures as akin. I propose that this fourth teaching can be interpreted to express the common notion that all individuals are equal in relation to life—that is, we are all in the pursuit of happiness, despite our unique preferences and perspectives.

While the seeds of equality were planted and began to sprout in Greece, the concept, in practice, experienced a premature end with the fall of Athenian democracy and a cultural shift towards a hierarchical social structure.

After losing to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian aristocracy gradually moved away from democracy. One major advocate for this cultural shift was the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427—347 BCE), who suggested that society should be organized into three classes: the political guardian class, the warrior class, and the merchant and consumer class. According to Plato, one’s class was determined by a “noble lie” about the nature of one’s soul—whether it was gold, silver, or bronze. Gold souls would be selected as political guardians, silver souls would serve in the military, and bronze souls were essentially free to pursue their desires. In this context, we observe the cultural currents departing from the Pythagorean view that all ensouled creatures are akin. The departure from a proto-conception of spiritual equality would not reemerge until the 1st century with the rise of a Jewish populous movement, leading to the formation of a new religion that embraced spiritual equality—and how to practice it.

From Equality as an Idea to a Practice

Jesus of Nazareth (c. 1—33 CE), also known as the Christ, was a radical Jewish nationalist who challenged Roman occupation and the authority of the temple priesthood in Jerusalem. Like Pythagoras, very little is known about Jesus outside of his followers’ writings. While the New Testament is compiled with fantastic stories depicting his spiritual journey by individuals like Paul the Apostle, a clear theme emerges in the various Gospels that helps us understand the relevance of Christianity in the development of equality.

Unlike the religious beliefs of the Greeks and Romans, which were rooted in culture, Christianity intentionally sought to appeal to all of mankind under the guise of a universal kinship in Christ. Matthew 28:19 (ESV) says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

To the discomfort of the Roman Empire, this universal appeal made Christianity difficult to contain. But why would the Romans want to contain it? By the 1st century, all ideas of equality had been eradicated from public discourse. The Roman emperor was considered the divine son of Jupiter, and all were subjected to his will. He had no equals, spiritually or otherwise. Moreover, this arrangement had strategic value in maintaining control over territories outside of the Roman culture. However, Christianity undermined this social order, suggesting that all were equal in the eyes of God and not spiritually bound to the will of masters, warlords, aristocracies, kings, and emperors. Romans 2:11 (ESV) says, “For God shows no partiality.”

Despite facing persecution, notably from figures like Roman Emperor Nero, Christianity gained momentum as many Roman mercenaries, proletariats, and slaves within the empire embraced the faith. The pivotal turning point came in 312 CE when Roman Emperor Constantine I famously converted to Christianity. By 330 CE, the Roman Empire officially embraced Christianity as its state religion.

While we don’t see a complete return to the principle of equality, Christianity breathe new life into the once fleeting idea, whereby it is given a concrete foundation for practicing the principle. This new interpretation, known as the golden rule, is formulated not just as an abstract spiritual concept rooted in geometric proofs, but rather as a spiritual kinship made tangible for individuals to practice in their everyday lives. Matthew 7:12 (NIV) says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” In simpler terms, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This golden rule becomes one of the hallmarks of Christianity, whereby spiritual equality evolves into a kind of equality that can be practiced.

In contrast to its Greek conceptual interpretation, which suggests that souls are isomorphic to one another, the Christian conception of equality unfolds in the physical world. The golden rule not only beautifully gestures at our shared humanity but also animates individuals to demand social equality due to a spiritual kinship, especially in the domain of politics.

The Rise of Political Equality

Despite emerging from the ancient world into what is now starting to take form as Western culture, the old hierarchical structures persisted, shaping how early Western culture interpreted this new synthesis of the traditions of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. (That is to say, equality was in name only.) A critical figure during this transformative era was Saint Augustine of Hippo (c. 354—430 CE), often attributed as a key architect in the development of Western culture.

The Neoplatonist philosopher and theologian Augustine made a significant contribution to Christian theology, particularly in the development of the doctrine of original sin and the concept of grace. Additionally, Augustine played a pivotal role in merging the traditions of reason from Athens, faith from Jerusalem, and political order from Rome in his monumental work The City of God. While Augustine does not expand on the principle of equality, he posits that ultimate justice and equality can only be achieved in the City of God.

Those who praise the state of Rome in the time of ‘ancient morality and the men of old’ should ask themselves whether real justice flourished in that city, or whether, it may be, it was not even then a living reality in men’s behaviour, but merely a fancy picture. … But true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ; if we agree to call it a commonwealth, seeing that we cannot deny that it is the ‘weal of the community’. However, if this title, so commonly used elsewhere with a different sense, may be too remote from our usual way of speaking, we may say that at least there is true justice in that City of which the holy Scripture says, ‘Glorious things are said about you, City of God.’

Augustine entrenches equality in the spiritual sense and removes it from being a political reality, believing that human cities are fallible, and their present arrangement leads to inequality en masse. Nevertheless, his emphasis on the spiritual and transcendent dimensions of justice, which can be seen as a return to Anaximander’s cosmological view of justice, and thus, this universal requirement for proportionality and equilibrium, will have a lasting impact on the discourse about political authority and systems of governance.

Approximately 800 years after Augustine, the West began encountering what can be termed a legitimation crisis. The adoption of Christianity, with its profound commitment to spiritual equality and a practical method encapsulated in the golden rule, made it evident to the learned individuals in Western society that claims of centralized divine authority were no longer sustainable, especially in the context of kings and the Church.

First, there was the rejection of the king’s divine authority, asserting that he, too, was subject to the law. The Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter,” is a historic document signed on June 15, 1215, by King John of England. It stands as one of the most important legal documents in the history of democratic governance. The Magna Carta emerged from the conflict between King John and his barons, who sought to limit the arbitrary powers of the monarchy.

In the context of the Middle Ages, a notable historical trend emerges—the gradual decline of royal authority considered somehow divine. During this period, the authority of the king was often characterized as primus inter pares, Latin for “first among equals.” This designation implied that the king possessed no special authority to rule but maintained power through strategic relationships with landed-owning nobles. His authority was contingent upon keeping them in check and satisfying their interests. Thus, clearing the way for a new political theory based on a social contract between the ruler and the ruled.

While the Magna Carta was initially designed as a charter to protect the feudal rights and privileges of the barons—limiting the king’s ability to exploit them financially and levy taxes without the consent of his barons, thus establishing the principle of no taxation without representation—it also introduced the belief in due process before the law. The Magna Carta maintained the principle that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned, or deprived of his property without a fair and lawful trial by his peers. This effectively proclaimed that all free people were equal before the law.

The Magna Carta faced initial annulment by Pope Innocent III but was subsequently reissued in 1216 and later confirmed by subsequent kings. Gradually evolving into a symbol of the rule of law and individual rights, the Magna Carta significantly influenced constitutional developments in England and, later, in the United States.

Secondly, the Middle Ages witnessed the decline of the Church as a political authority. Western culture continued the tradition of Athens, emphasizing reason, which created tension with the tradition of Jerusalem and its emphasis on faith. Thus, individuals like Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225—1274) emerged with the aim of reconciling faith and reason. In the process of his attempt to reconcile faith and reason, Aquinas made a revolutionary distinction by articulating that faith and reason are complementary, each having its own sphere of influence in understanding the world. This groundbreaking perspective forever changed our understanding by asserting that faith and reason can coexist harmoniously.

Aquinas argued that there was a division between divine law and natural law, which separated the source of Christianity from the rest of the world, as if Christianity were exclusively concerned with one’s soul, and natural philosophy (the predecessor to science) was exclusively concerned with matters of this world. That is to say, divine law was revealed through faith and natural law was accessible through reason.

[A] law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect community. Now it is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence…that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. … And since the Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Prov. 8. 23, hence it is that this kind of law must be called eternal. …natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law. … Besides the natural and the human law it was necessary for the directing of human conduct to have a Divine law. … By the natural law the eternal law is participated proportionately to the capacity of human nature. But to his supernatural end man needs to be directed in yet a higher way. Hence the additional law given by God, by which man shares more perfectly in the eternal law.   

Perhaps conscious or unconscious of the fact, Aquinas effectively introduces a mechanism for thinking of the world as separate from the Church but not antithetical to Christian doctrine. While committed to the idea of the Great Chain of Being, a derivative of Plato’s structure of the bronze, silver, and gold hierarchical system of souls to justify the Pope and the clergy as having souls closest to God, Aquinas clears a path for the emergence of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. These developments bring with them new political ideas grounded in human liberty and equality and the moral imperative to make concrete the spirit of equality as a governing principle.

In the early 16th century, Martin Luther (1483—1546), an Augustinian friar and German theologian, spearheaded a religious reformation aimed at rectifying corrupt practices within the Church. This movement, known as the Protestant Reformation, played a pivotal role in eradicating the spiritual hierarchy outlined in the Great Chain of Being. Luther’s efforts sought to establish equality among individuals before the Divine law of God’s Providence, echoing the roots of spiritual equality found in Pythagoreanism. Although infused with Christian fervor, Luther’s proclamation of the triumph of spiritual equality during the Protestant Reformation—ending the exclusive spiritual privileges of the Church and thus claims of divine authority—has endured and continues to shape contemporary perspectives.

All Men are Created Equal

It is now the 17th century, and the principle of equality has undergone turbulent times since its days under Pythagoras and Cleisthenes. From the Greeks, equality is formulated as an axiomatic state in which all psyches, i.e., souls, are equal due to a geometric common notion. From figures like Jesus, Augustine, and Aquinas, equality is reinforced as a spiritual relationship with God and Divine law, but it is also made corporeal, allowing one to practice it through adherence to the golden rule. Now, a new element will be introduced to equality, helping to transition it from being purely a principle of the spiritual realm to the material domain of politics.

The English philosopher John Locke (1632—1704) completes what was started by the Magna Carta and the Protestant Reformation by applying these cultural movements to the domain of politics. In the first half of his book Two Treatises of Government, Locke takes Aquinas’ argument and positions all political matters as corresponding to natural law rather than Divine Providence. Contending with a theological argument supporting the divine right of the king based on hereditary lineage from Adam (as in Adam from the Garden of Eden), Locke argues:

That Adam had not either by natural right of fatherhood, or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, or dominion over the world as is pretended. … That if his heirs had, there being no law of nature nor positive law of God that determines, which is the right heir in all cases that may arise, the right of succession, and consequently of bearing rule, could not have been certainly determined.

Locke picks up where Aquinas left off to argue that kings do not have a divine right to rule. This clears the way for natural law to be the dominant lens legitimizing political authority and for reasoning on how certain natural phenomena within the state of nature led to the development of political systems. Accordingly, the king does not rule by divine right, but through an ancient voluntary agreement made between individuals and the rulers to form the first society. This is referred to as the social contract theory.

In addition to eliminating divine authority from the domain of politics, Locke introduced a new formulation often associated with equality today. In A Letter Concerning Tolerance, Locke brings back into focus the Christian attitude of ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

That I esteem that Toleration to be the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church. … Let any one have never so true a Claim to all things, yet if he be destitute of Charity, Meekness, and Good-will in general towards all Mankind, even to those that are not Christians… The Toleration of those that differ from others in Matters of Religion, is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine Reason of Mankind, that it seems monstrous for Men to be so blind, as not to perceive the Necessity and Advantage of it, in so clear a Light. … If an man err from the right way, it is his own misfortune, no injury to thee… The Sum of all we drive at is, That every Man may enjoy the same Rights that are granted to others.

Here, Locke bridges tolerance to equality, asserting that all should be granted the same rights. This marks his role in transitioning equality from a spiritual quality to a concrete political measure.

Locke’s political philosophy had a profound influence on the American colonists and ultimately became the basis for the American Revolution when King George failed to recognize their rights as equal members within the British Empire. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1743—1826) writes,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Emerging from the American Revolutionary War, the new country called the United States of America, influenced by the Enlightenment, proclaimed as a self-evident political truth that all individuals are created equal. However, as it turns out, it was easier said than done.

I Have a Dream

Since the 17th century, America had organized an industrialized slave trade operation that transported captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. By the mid-18th century, many Americans and Europeans began to feel that the institution of slavery was morally reprehensible, and it must be abolished.

Despite his participation in the institution of slavery, Jefferson attempted to enshrine slavery as being antithetical to human nature itself in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote, “[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” The exact reason this passage was removed is unknown, but Jefferson tells us in his autobiography that the blame for removal is due to South Carolina, Georgia, and Northern sentiments.

Slavery was a morally reprehensible stain on a country founded on the proposition that all individuals are created equal. Recognizing that the nation was not living up to its Enlightenment ideals, Americans began to form an abolitionist movement to bring an end to slavery. Great American figures emerged during this struggle, such as the prominent abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, the conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped hundreds of enslaved Americans escape to freedom, Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison, who used his newspaper, The Liberator, to advocate for emancipation and equal rights, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and President Abraham Lincoln.

Efforts to put an end to slavery culminated in the American Civil War, where the northern states defeated the plantation oligarchy of the southern states, ultimately bringing an end to the institution of slavery. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments followed.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. … All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

These constitutional amendments paved the way for additional advocacy reforms, including women’s suffrage to secure the right to vote.

Despite the advancement of political equality, America had not yet confronted the cultural repercussions of centuries of slavery, the Civil War, and the general failure of Reconstruction. This resulted in a surge in racism and the implementation of Jim Crow laws designed to segregate Americans based on skin color.

While America pioneered the realization of Enlightenment principles, particularly in terms of political equality, marking a return to democratic ideals, these concepts have yet to provide a comprehensive response on how they are to function in interpersonal relationships within society. In this context, I contend that even the Christian interpretation of equality falls short in addressing a culture that has largely embraced a mindset of “You stay on your side of the tracks, and I’ll stay on mine.”

In the decades following the Civil War, many Americans adopted a way of life that involved self-segregation from those who were perceived to be different. This gave rise to the peculiar notion that one could be separate from their fellow countrymen and yet still somehow be considered to be equal, disregarding the mistreatment of Americans of African descent by groups like the Ku Klux Klan and bigoted members of society. While historians may not explicitly phrase it this way, it appears to me that this pseudo-principle of “separate but equal” violated the common notion, suggesting we were “equal” to each other but somehow not equal to the same things, whereby skin color became the basis for denying access to restaurants, water fountains, facilities, schools, and marriage partners, and this was enforced with extreme prejudice.

American philosopher and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868—1963) eloquently captures the sentiments of African Americans in his seminal collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk.  

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face…. This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.

Du Bois, alongside other influential public intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington, played a pivotal role in shaping a transformative cultural sentiment. This new wave of thought not only championed equality in the domain of political rights but also sought to extend its reach into the domain of civil rights. Du Bois and his contemporaries became torchbearers in cultivating a broader understanding of equality, one that engendered not just legal and political aspects but also sought justice and fairness in the everyday lives and experiences of individuals. To address this issue, a new element was introduced to our understanding of equality—one that shifted the discourse from color to character.

The civil rights movement ushered in a new commitment to equality centered on the individual’s right to belong in their country and not be treated as a second-class citizen. It was because of this emphasis on individual dignity that equality took a special turn, privileging the individual’s character and making it isomorphic to that of another individual of different cultural, ethnic, or national origin, based on a common notion grounded in a shared humanity. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, civil rights activist and legal theorist, famously stated, “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”

Leading this movement for human equality on the basis of character was American Baptist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929—1968). King looked out and saw the suffering of his fellow Americans by a mechanism that operated outside of existing laws and shaped by cultural norms. Perhaps seeing an opening for change following the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which ban segregation in public schools, King mobilized Americans to advocate for change not merely in the domain of political reform, but also reform our own quality of mind and to judge each other by the content of our character.

King advocated for nearly a decade against segregation and for social equality through nonviolent civil disobedience. All this led to his finest moment, which memorialized him in the minds of Americans. On August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, King gave his most iconic speech, I Have a Dream, emphasizing his vision of a nation where individuals are judged by their character rather than the color of their skin: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

For many Americans, King’s speech on that day seemed to have brought full and meaningful realization to the declaration made over 180 years ago, proclaiming that all individuals are equal. What followed was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which aimed to end segregation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit discrimination against voters, and the Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967 that found laws banning interracial marriage to be in violation of the Constitution.

Tragically, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Nevertheless, his dream endured. In that very year, following his murder, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was signed into law, which aimed to curb discriminatory practices in home lending, including those known as redlining. King’s dream had become the dream of America.

Equality is an Innate Preference

King has left an indelible mark on the American psyche and made a profound contribution to our understanding of the principle of equality. I will submit, as it stands today, that the principle of equality is a common notion that holds all individuals are equal, and therefore one ought to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated. Additionally, equality makes possible the capacity for tolerance of difference—and from tolerance, there is the emergence of acceptance. For once you have acceptance of difference, then one can begin to see what matters is individuality and not judge by that which makes us different but by the content of character.

However, I sense that something crucial has been omitted from the discourse—not in terms of millions of details, other figures, events, and movements that advocated for equality, but rather a reflection on the current moment in culture and politics attempting to usurp equality in the name of “equity.” This has led many well-meaning individuals to actively dismantle the progress of the civil rights movement.

A new crisis of identity has emerged, wherein individuals can no longer recognize the humanity of others because they are wholly focused on that which makes them and others different. It is in this context that I believe I may contribute something of value insofar as the application of the principle of equality is concerned.

Let me preface that I think the contemporary discourse about equal opportunity versus equal outcome is meaningful. For me, this signifies a pragmatic development within our conception of equality that is worth exploring as there are instances where they are not compatible. However, gaining significant attention for this discourse becomes challenging due to a sociopolitical movement gradually reverting to viewing the world through the lens of segregation and the pseudo-principle of “separate but equal,” all in the name of equity. In my opinion, this is a profound mistake.

A culture attitude or political system that is no longer rooted in equality is no longer committed to democracy. This is exactly what we saw with the Athenians, which ultimately led to the decline and fall of democracy some 2,500 years ago. Democracy only works when members of society have an equal voice in the process and do not get marginalized under some bizarre notion of “privilege” to subvert their individual rights and participation in the kingdom of culture.

Secondly, I don’t see how this current quasi-intellectual trend towards equity is unifying America on the proposition that all individuals are equal. We have moved from the motto e pluribus unum, Latin for “out of many, one,” to e pluribus plures, “out of many, more.” In my view, this has contributed to an unprecedented degree of alienation, whereby individuals, especially young people with the advent of social media, have lost a sense of what it means to be authentic and happy.

I believe significant effort must be made to address the alienation in America, which creates an identitarian pathology that tends to work against the principles of equality. German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, who said during a 1984 lecture that modernity “experiences itself as a world of progress and of alienated spirit at once,” interprets alienation as social structures restricting the process of individualization and finding a balance. Habermas argues that alienation contributes to inauthenticity. This cultural shift excludes the individual from pursuing and cultivating belongingness through a shared identity. He argues that the inability to establish a shared identity with other members of society alienates individuals from a meaningful sense of self, ultimately manifesting as a “psychic problem.”

According to American moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, he observed through his research that social media made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests and intimate details of their lives at a scale never before imaginable. However, Haidt argues that the intimate sharing of personal details, facilitated by social media, has not led to a deepening of friendships or the establishment of meaningful connections. According to Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, this trend of not forming meaningful relationships is contributing to widespread loneliness and identitarianism.

The challenge individuals face in expressing themselves authentically stems from a cultural narrative that contradicts the notion of finding symmetry between one’s rational and real self. I argue that achieving symmetry between these aspects constitutes an inherently preferable conception of equality insofar as the individual’s well-being is concerned.

First, what is the ‘real’ and ‘rational’ self? I will avoid talking directly to the Hegelian origins of these concepts and simply say that the real self is the individual as they are, and the rational self is the individual as they wish to be. Perhaps a simple example will make this clear. Some individuals in the scientific community have reservations about calling themselves scientists. Possibly, stemming from a feeling that psychologists call impostor syndrome, i.e., believing one’s wherewithal on a subject is insufficient. Alternatively, it may be due to concerns about coming across as pretentious or trendy because saying “I believe in science” is now a thing. Whatever the reason may be, this tension creates a sense of alienation from the fact that the individual is a scientist in their professional life. Thus, there is a distinction between who one is (the real) and how one rationalizes how they wish to be (the rational)—and a sense of converging these concepts of self to form an authentic identity.

The preference for symmetry is often considered a universal aesthetic principle. While the specific manifestations of what is considered symmetrical or aesthetically pleasing may vary across cultures, there is evidence that humans, in general, tend to prefer symmetrical patterns and forms. In theoretical mathematics, for instance, symmetry manifests in fractal geometric patterns and numerical series, such as the Fibonacci sequence. In these cases, the ratio of consecutive numbers approaches the golden ratio—a value that demonstrates proportionality. Here, it would seem that a desire for equality is an innate idea that allows the individual to discern when two distinct designations are not equal. 

It is here that I will advocate that equality is an innate preference not only in the world of space and time but also in the individual’s mind or psyche. Consequently, individuals must contend with the anxiety, dread, and despair of intense alienation, seeking harmony within both their internal world and their external reality. Achieving and maintaining a meaningful sense of self, reconciling the real self with the rational self to create symmetry, allows one to extend this feeling to form meaningful relationships with others to emerge under a shared desire to have a happy life. Thus, cultivating one’s own sense of authenticity, finding that symmetry between the rational and the real, can contribute to the development of meaningful relations and the minimization of alienation. At the very least, it will contribute to one’s quality of mind and lead to a better outlook on their pursuit of happiness.

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