With us, the democratic assumption work more gently. It easily prevails by sheer force of numbers. Whatever is alarmingly different or superior is leveled off like the froth on the glass of beer. Go to the friendliest social dinner, and the conversation will run exclusively on current events and common experiences — so much so that after dinner the men and the women form separate groups and talk business in one, domesticity in the other. The correct mixture of passion and detachment about beliefs, which makes of conviviality something more than eating and drinking together, is less and less attainable. To speak of religion — which once furnished a common background of moral feeling and literary allusion — is widely considered the most pretentious bad manners. Even politics has lost its intellectual content and has become undiscussable except with hand grenades. The effort to avoid misunderstandings and offense reduces the pleasure to zero. One feels as if one were walking on eggs inside one’s brain. In short, talking seriously is as rude as making private allusions which only the members of the family understand.
Jacques Barzun, Begin Here, pp. 211-12
The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.
The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77
While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.
Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.
76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.
78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.
We can see the meaning in the fact that we have a national birthday. Ask yourself, what is the birthday of France? Or China? Or England? One day every summer we celebrate the making of our country. As John Adams predicted, this day is the anniversary of a document that states the purposes of our nation. Abraham Lincoln once spoke of a “central idea” in America, from which all of our “minor thoughts radiate.” The Declaration of Independence called this idea a “self-evident truth.” It is the idea that each of us is equally a child of God, born the same kind of creature, and so equal with respect to our rights.
Larry P. Arnn, “Our Responsibility to America,” in Liberty and Learning, p. 102
Plato bases his ethical theory on the idea that the microcosm (man) should seek to conform to and imitate the macrocosm (the State and, more generally, the cosmos and the eternal order of things). This is why he uses the State as his primary point of exploration and reference in The Republic. To this end, as he begins his discussion of justice in that work, he proposes “that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.” From this macrocosmic perspective, he claims, it will be easier to view justice and injustice and to associate these to the lives of individuals. In this way, the macrocosm acts as both an allegory for and a source of morality in Plato’s thought.
A problem arises in Plato’s thought, however, when he subjects the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of the State in a way that determines man’s value based solely on what he can contribute to the State from his position of subservience to the State. Interestingly, the same criticism applies equally to the ethical ideas of Confucius, Plato’s near-contemporary in China, whose ideas similarly subject man to the State. This is the heart of the objection raised by Julia Annas in her feminist critique of Plato; according to Annas and in opposition to other modern thinkers who have seen Plato as a feminist because of his argument that men and women of the guardian class in his Republic should be given equal roles, Plato, in continuity with Greek thought of his time, sees women as inherently inferior to men but desires their equality within a certain class because he sees such equality as a benefit to the State, although even this conclusion is rather self-contradictory and perplexing when Plato’s thought is considered as a whole.
This problem of the subjection of man to State (or even to cosmos) has been discussed in a more general way by other thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell, who have also pointed out how troubling Plato’s position is. Its flaws are particularly evident for people today, who live in the shadow of ideologies such as Nazism and Soviet Communism which subjected man to State and viewed him only in terms of what he could contribute to that collective. To modern eyes, as a result, Plato’s ideas more often appear as an oppressive regime of terror than as a perfect utopian society. As Russell pointed out once, Plato modeled much of his thought on the ideal State on his impressions of the Greek polis Sparta as it existed in his own day and, had Plato’s utopia ever become a reality in Syracuse, where Plato attempted to make it real, or anywhere else, the effect would have been essentially the same as what actually happened in ancient Sparta: a city-state that produced no great philosophy, no great art, no great literature (very much unlike democratic Athens for which Plato held such disdain and which yet made his career possible) and which was perpetually in a state of war both within and without.
Where I believe that Plato was correct is in his belief that the temporal values of man must be based on eternal values in order to have lasting, meaningful values that are context-free. One need only look at nearly any of the great movements for human rights in the history of Western civilization (or the similar movements Western ideas have inspired throughout the non-Western world) to see the effect, and, I would aver, the necessity, of the need for a concept of eternal values. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one short work which exhibits this reliance of the movements of human rights on the ideas of eternal, transcendent values and a “natural law” that stands above man’s laws and can be used to measure, and to oppose, the particular values of any particular society or individual. It is this idea which inspired and gave the intellectual basis, as King points out, for the various movements against infanticide, against oppression of women, against economic exploitation, against slavery, against segregation, and in favor of the equality and universal dignity of human life.
Where Plato went terribly wrong was in his forgetting that each individual has value and must, to adopt Kant’s terminology if not his ideology, be seen as an end in himself (or herself) and not as the means to an end. While man must, in a sense, conform to the macrocosm of the cosmos in its eternal values and in natural law, he must never become merely a cog in the machine; rather, each microcosm, in order to be a perfect microcosm, must retain value consonant with the macrocosm as a whole rather than merely a portion of it. In short, while Plato discovered an important source of values, his great mistake was to forget the purpose for which he was searching for this source of values to begin with.