In this sweeping survey of the history of equality (to my knowledge, the only such down-through-the-ages look at equality in print), Dr. Martin van Creveld has thrown down the gauntlet for any subsequent work on the subject. That is, if there are any other scholars or demogogues out there willing to accept the challenge. One of the lingering questions proposed in the conclusion of the book is whether “the quest for equality demands…that the search for truth be abandoned and some dogma put in its place.” If, however, we are spared the intellectual straightjackets and “Equality: The Impossible Quest” is not to be the last of its kind, then as a comprehensive treatment of and general introduction to man’s (often bloody) experiments with equality, Dr. van Creveld’s work will likely prove to be more equal than its successors.
Although the book is broad in historical scope the thematic focus is narrow; Dr. Van Creveld does not get sidetracked by topics outside of the book’s purview. Whether by way of monks or monkeys, he has a keen concern to reveal the inequalities that exist in even the most ostensibly egalitarian societies. Again and again he points to them as short-lived islands in a larger unequal society, whose parity, such that it is, comes at a steep price — usually paid for by liberty and at the expense of the vast majority of the lesser-than population. So although one might consider his tone to be ‘academic’, that is not to say he doesn’t have a point-of-view (the subtitle “The Impossible Quest” should give you a clue as to the thrust of his argument!) But if you’re looking for a forceful political argument on whether society should be made more or less equitable, or what form of government has just the right mixture of justice, liberty, and equality, look elsewhere.
Instead, this is a more than fascinating eleven chapter stroll down equality lane, displaying impressive insight, much engagement with every side of the question, a graphic and wide ranging selection of texts and issues, and even at times a sense of humor. In Chapter 1, ‘Whence Inequality’, Dr. van Creveld takes us through the vigorously enforced social hierarchy of animals, band societies, and chiefdoms, in which he aims to show that inequality did not creep into the social structure over time but rather served as the very foundation for these primitive polities. Chapter 2 is given to ‘The Greek Miracle’, focusing especially on the great city-states of Sparta and Athens in which we learn about the rather exclusive nature of their isonomia civic equality (when property is shared in common and money doesn’t exist, better have a large group of slaves to keep things running!). The contradictory nature of equality as put into practice by its proponents is one of the great ironies of the book, amusing and horrifying in–dare I say–equal measures. Chapter 3, ‘The Proud Tower’ takes us through the various empires, kingdoms, and feudal lands of world history, from Rome to the Ottomans, again showing inequality as the organizing principle. In Chapter 4, ‘Islands in the Sea’, Dr. van Creveld proposes how oppression (bad leaders exercising their power unjustly) motivated the various coups and uprisings against the ruling class, rather than any notion of equality, which would have been inconceivable to them.
Indeed, one of the great advantages in the presentation of the narrative is how utterly startling it is when the notion of equality arrives more or less ex-nihilo in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, and swiftly from there into Jefferson’s famous statement in the Constitution where it has apparently acquired a ‘self-evident’ nature (Chapter 5 ‘Liberal Equality’). Then, to top it off, we witness the sudden explosion of the idea in the West, first in its civic form and then in socio-economic terms with the socialists and communists (Chapter 6 ‘Socialist Equality’). By the time we move through the holocaust and the civil rights movement (Chapter 7 ‘The Rise and Fall of Racism’) to reach our modern world, equality has been enshrined, deified, and worshipped as a god, and she’s just as paradoxical and humorless as feminism (Chapter 8 ‘Minorities into Majorities’).
Chapter 9 (‘Brave New World’) is the climax of the book, and if you don’t already think we’ve started to move into cloud-cuckoo land, seeing some of our modern policies in light of world history will help put it into perspective. Less effective are the final chapters that deal with inequalities in death and the afterlife (Chapter 10 ‘Death and Beyond’) and speculations regarding those in the future (‘The Promise and the Threat’); if only because there are more immediate and pressing concerns that will raise their head before anybody can download their consciousness to a computer.
Dr. van Creveld should be commended for not only putting out such a work of distinction, but for tackling the subject at all, especially in detailing the costs that the quest for equality brings. Read it for yourself or share it with your more-than-equal advocates of equality.