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INTERVIEW: with Dr. Martin Van Creveld on Equality – The Impossible Quest –

INTERVIEW: with Dr. Martin Van Creveld on Equality – The Impossible Quest

Wednesday , 25, March 2015 11 Comments

Equality_256Dr. Martin van Creveld, Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, is one of the world’s leading writers on military history and strategy, with a special interest in the future of war. He is fluent in Hebrew, German, Dutch, and English, and has authored more than twenty books. He is known for his development of the concept of “nontrinitarian” warfare and two of his books are considered to be canonical in the development of 4th Generation War. What may not be clear at first blush is how his military expertise relates in any way to social concepts like equality, Dr. van Creveld is first and foremost a historian, and he explores equality in great historical and philosophical detail in his latest: Equality, the Impossible Quest. [Also available directly from Castalia House.]


Q: You briefly but effectively expose the instability of highly influential equality myths; for example, by showing that the “strong, independent warrior Amazons” of Dahomey were actually concubines and levied property of a king, or that the progressive anthropology laid out in the Golden Bough is, in fact, at odds with history. Do you have any thoughts as to why such disconnected myths are able to gain so much popular and academic traction?

A: Tales, almost all of them fictional, of fighting women have now been popular for over twenty-five hundred centuries that we know of. The reason is simple: men find the combination of weapons with cleavage irresistible. Ask Freud.

As to Fraser, I did not say he is at odds with history. To the contrary, I pointed out that, in my view, his conclusion that the earliest forms of inequality were probably based on religion—meaning, the belief that certain person had better access to the supernatural, or the spirits, or the gods than others —was probably correct.


Q: You identify a changing view of godhood in practice as a potential contributor to democracy in Greece. Can you explain both that change and its relation to a notion of equality?

A: Yes. As I just said, the earliest forms of political inequality were based on the fact that certain people claimed the right to govern by virtue of being the offspring of, or sent by, or closer to, the gods. Think of Hammurabi, think of the Pharaohs, think of King David. Where archaic Greece, as presented to us by the Homeric poems, differed was that rulers such as Agamemnon did not derive their authority from the gods. Since they did not derive their authority from the gods, they had to base it on some other factor. This eventually opened the way to elections, democracy, and equality.


Q: You identify Plato as a proponent of liberating women from the burden of child-rearing. Why do you think such a notion – that of granting a form of equal rights to women – was never implemented by the Greeks?

The ancient Greek polis was primarily an association of warriors. The mythical Amazons apart, women could not, did not, fight. So they did not get equality either. Much later, incidentally, the same was true in the Swiss Cantons. Which is why they only gave women the vote in 1976.


Q: One of the two examples of equality that you give regarding the Roman Empire is that of the ability for the Emperor to inflict punishment or reward on any person, regardless of status. [The other example was Stoic philosophy]. Can you explain how the carte blanche of the Emperor is a type of equality?

Yes. We are talking not just of the Roman Empire but of all Empires, ancient and modern. In all of these, there was just one man who concentrated all power in his own hands. As the Roman Emperor Caligula (reigned, 37-41 AD) put it to his grandmother, Antonia, “remember, dear, I have it in my power to do anything to anybody.” Confronting the emperor, none of the rest had any power at all; in this respect they were indeed equal.


Q: Is a society’s ability to understand equality a function of that society’s overall intelligence? Are there other innate factors that make a society able to comprehend equality as a concept and implement or reject it on social grounds?

A: This is a loaded question. Personally I do not believe that people of different races or stages of development differ in their IQ. Nor that we, as a species, are becoming more intelligent. In the words of the Old Testament, what has been will be. There is nothing new under the sun. So whether people in a given society do or do not understand the idea of equality depends on the structure of that society as well as culture in general.


Q: When you see peasant revolts portrayed in modern fictions (theater, books, and games) it is likely to be shown as motivated by equality. How does that differ from the historical peasant revolts of the Middle Ages?

With few exceptions, medieval peasant revolts did not aim at equality. All they wanted was to do away with one “bad” king or group of nobles and put another in its place. A world in which everybody would have equal rights and duties was, I think, beyond their imagination.


Q: What impact did governance and social acceptance have on any equalitarian ideals of the Christian Church? How did monasteries handle equality?

A: Early Christian communities, as far as we can reconstruct them, were fairly egalitarian. However, already by the third century AD a hierarchy was being established. Once the Roman Empire became Christian this hierarchy became much stronger still. It created a situation whereby inequality inside the Church was quite as pronounced as that which prevailed inside feudal, and later absolutist, society in general.

The most important methods monasteries used in their attempts to make monks and nuns equal was by denying them the right to own private property. To this were added equal dress, equal rights, equal duties, and the like. However, the larger and richer a monastery the greater the need for administration, not to say government. Which inevitably caused some to be more equal than the rest.


Q: Where does the concept that “all men are created equal” come from?

The first to base his political theory on the assumption that all men (he does not mention women, a fact that is open to different interpretations) are equal was Thomas Hobbes, We know he was a good classical scholar, for he translated Thucydides. However, he could not have taken his idea from classical antiquity: the reason being that, in Greece, equality only extended to adult male citizens. In Athens, according to the most recent calculations, that meant a mere 10 percent of the entire population! So the answer is, we do not know.


Q: Can you address how the economic inequality in America, 1785 compares to that of America, 2015?

Yes. There are constant complaints about growing socio-economic gaps. But then that is nothing new: in the whole of American history, probably not a decade has passed when people did not lament the passing of equality and the dangers to democracy that ensued. That even includes the years of the so-called “Eisenhower consensus” during the 1950s. Yet take the most long-range study I know, C. Shammas’ “A New Look at the Long Term Trends in Wealth Inequality,” published in American Historical Review, 98, 2, April 1993. It shows that, though there have been some ups and downs, on the whole the distribution of wealth did not change much from Revolutionary times to the mid-1980s.


Q: Do you think that some of the contradictions regarding equality in the U.S. Constitution made the document a more stable guide for a new society, or do you see similar contradictions in Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution?

Any attempt to institute equality, of any kind, is bound to result in restrictions on freedom. Personally I think that the U.S Constitution did a credible job in balancing between the two (and, of course, justice). Not so Rousseau who, in his quest for equality, went much too far. Not for nothing did my teacher, Jacob Talmon, see him as the father of “totalitarian democracy.” More problematic still, with him equality is the product of, and requires, constant plebiscites about everything. Given the technical means of the age—there was no Net—such a system implied a very small polity indeed. Against the fiscal-military states of the time it simply stood no chance.


Q: You argue that social equality is not a necessary outcome of economic or legal equality. Can social equality be achieved? Should it?

The only way to achieve equality is to restrict, or even do away with, liberty. Along with liberty justice and the quest for truth—namely the right to think, believe, say and write that equality is not the supreme good—will also disappear. With political correctness reigning as hard as it does, in many places that is already the case. Just try and say that women, or homosexuals, are and should not be equal in this or that way, and you will see what I mean. So I would argue that equality is a dream, and not even a beautiful one.


Q: What are the sexual and property impacts of organized equality in communal bodies?

It would differ from one type of community to the next, so let me focus on the kind of community, the Israeli kibbutzim, I know best. The kibbutzim were famous for having no private property. Everybody had his or her meals in the communal dining room and his other needs from the machsan, or magazine. Couples lived in “rooms” Children grew up not with their parents but in their own houses. A few specialists apart, people took turns at doing all kinds of jobs. Decisions were taken by the kibbutz assembly in which everybody had one vote. It elected the secretary-general and also set up special committees for such things as education, culture, etc.

For some two generations, it did not work badly at all. The fact that kibbutzniks saw themselves, and were seen by the rest of Israeli society, as an elite helped. What brought the system down was the women. First, they were unhappy with the endless routine of communal kitchen/communal laundry/communal child houses. Starting in the 1970s, they started taking on paid work outside the kibbutz. Next, they wanted their children back home with them. Families with children at home needed better houses, more appliances, and so on. Gradually the place of the communal dining room as the center of kibbutz life was taken by the home. Once that happened private property re-emerged and the kibbutzim started falling apart.


Q: How does the concept of equality relate to race, and how does its relationship tend to silence discussion?

To say that different human races exist is not racism. That is or should be obvious to everyone. Racism means the belief, a. that people differ not only in their physical qualities, such as the color of their skin, but in their mental attributes, such as I.Q; b. that such qualities are heritable; and c. that people of some races are superior to others.

Personally I think that these beliefs are false and that any attempt to base society on them is reprehensible in the extreme. That said, I would be very, very reluctant to ban research into them, given that the outcome might be the end both of freedom and of truth.


Q: In what ways is utopia the enemy of equality? Why is equality so often presented as a virtue, when you so clearly demonstrate that it is a more complex animal: a Trojan gift horse (must you beware of it, or instead make sure to not look it in the mouth?) Who is running equality’s public relations?

I find this a strange question. I do not think utopia is the enemy of equality. Often it is a counterweight to oppression, and often it reflects the high ideals of those who believe in it. The difficulty is that equality cannot be achieved without sacrificing liberty, justice and truth. Unless some checks and balances are instituted, the outcome is more likely to be a nightmare than a utopia.


Q: Mary Wollstonecraft believed that the lack of equality between men and women was due to the nature of girls’ education—that they were in effect taught to be subordinates. She was able to test this theory directly by running a girls’ school. What were the results of her experience?

The school was a failure. There were too many expenses and not enough students to defray them. The school did, however, give her the lasting impression that what young women wanted was not equality but privilege—the privilege of being supported and pampered by men. As a result, she looked down on them. She was by no means the only feminist to see things in this way.


Q: What are the potential impacts of designer babies on equality?

Another loaded question, isn’t it? In Roald Dahl’s book, My Uncle Oswald, women can buy sperm. The price is determined by the identity of the father. The better-known and successful he is, the more expensive it is. Assuming this reflects some kind of eventual reality, I think that designer babies will make, indeed are making, society even less equal than it already is.

Martin van Creveld’s history of equality is an intellectual tour de force that is more education than polemic. Published by Castalia House, EQUALITY: THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST is 282 pages and retails for $6.99 in EPUB and Kindle formats.

  • Racism means the belief, a. that people differ not only in their physical qualities, such as the color of their skin, but in their mental attributes, such as I.Q; b. that such qualities are heritable; and c. that people of some races are superior to others.

    I find this rather bizarre. C. I agree with. But why are A. and B. racist? I don’t see the connection at all.

  • Student in Blue says:

    ‘Superiority’ is one of those loaded words like ‘equality’ is. Does one mean universal superiority, or just being better in one area? Is it moral, spiritual, or physical?

    (Also, what exactly is the difference between ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ when genes seem to affect both?)

    All of my questions here are rhetorical.

  • Don says:

    Looks like a book I need to read.

  • Jill says:

    I will probably read this book at some point if it’s the historical treatment it seems to be from the interview. I have thoughts about equality and hierarchy–I haven’t written my treatise yet. They seem to both be false defaults that the human mind settles on. Hierarchies aren’t false in the sense that they occur in human populations naturally, but the universe itself seems to function off something else entirely…not equality or hierarchy, but something more akin to synergy. When I look at the Genesis mythos, I see a rupturing of synergy between God, man, and woman. On the level of the functioning of the universe, though, that synergy is still operational.

  • The Night Porter says:

    If the brain is physical, and last time I checked it is, then how can noting differences in the brains of people of different races be “racist” but noting differences in every other physical attribute not be racist?

    Also, Plato did not propose equality of the sexes – The Republic is not prescriptive. Rather, it is intended to show what it would take to form that kind of regime – how far from nature it would be and types of little tyrannys that would be required to implemented. (See Allan Bloom’s interpretation for a deeper view of Plato than the author’s conventional one – or better read Hegel’s interpretation in the Phenomenology of Spirit where he treats the Republic as a form of idealization, but never as an actual model for society.) Libertarians like Lew Rockwell who treat Plato as a “communist” are simply wrong. I assume the author shares that Libertarian limitation.

  • Damon says:

    Is the book focusing on the concept of equality of outcome or a mix of equality of access and outcome?

  • Peter says:

    There is a strong argument in Christian doctrine for equality of value, as distinct from equality of function.

    Christ and the Apostles spoke and wrote repeatedly that physical, financial or political importance did not imply better access to God or more value to God. The first Kings (Saul and David) were not chosen because of their status or superiority, except in the sense of “You want a strong, good-looking King, ok, but the consequences are on your own heads.”

    If I were to characterise the Christian belief on the issue it would be that in this fallen world, people are unequally endowed in many ways and the consequence is that some form of structured, hierarchical system is required for us to minimise harm. However this is intended to exist in tension with the belief that all are equal in value in the sight of God, and this tempers the tendency of structure to become rigid, domineering and biased to benefit those in power.

  • LupusInFabula says:

    Personally I do not believe that people of different races or stages of development differ in their IQ.

    Anyone who makes a statement like that is either a fool, an SJW or not being entirely honest about his real opinions. And I don’t think Dr MvC is a fool or an SJW.

  • Cathal says:

    Baffling. He does not “believe” that different races have different average IQs. But it’s not an ideological choice, or a question of “belief”. He seems to exempt the brain from evolution for mysterious reasons – his attachment to equality perhaps? Then he claims that it is racist to say that IQ is heritable! What in God’s name is this man trying to pull?

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