Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement

Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement

by Philippe : Bénéton

For most of our contemporaries, to speak of modernity is to think immediately of liberty, equality, and democracy -- and to assume that all is well. But things are not so simple. For while the culture of modernity has spread gradually throughout the West for roughly two hundred years, it accelerated in the 1960s in such a way as to undergo a subtle transformation.… See more details below


For most of our contemporaries, to speak of modernity is to think immediately of liberty, equality, and democracy -- and to assume that all is well. But things are not so simple. For while the culture of modernity has spread gradually throughout the West for roughly two hundred years, it accelerated in the 1960s in such a way as to undergo a subtle transformation. Hence the paradox of the world we live in: by all appearances the "rights of man" have emerged triumphant, yet at the same time they have been emptied of substance because of their radicalization. Modern man finds himself isolated and ensnared. By right, his autonomy should strengthen him; but in fact, he has been dispossessed of himself. The great artifice of our time is to give conformism the mask of liberty. Philippe Beneton, a prominent French conservative, has long meditated on Tocqueville, and Equality by Default is quintessentially Tocquevillian in that it does not offer a partisan polemic but rather paints a picture of contemporary life -- a picture that is also a guide for those who have a difficult time "seeing" contemporary liberalism for what it is. Artfully translated by Ralph Hancock, Equality by Default offers a unique and strikingly insightful account of the late-modern mind.

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Equality by Default

An Essay on Modernity as Confinement
By Philippe Beneton

ISI Books

Copyright © 2004 Philippe Beneton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1932236325

Chapter One


The rights of man is one of those majestic terms that, like liberty or democracy, has a troubled past in the public square and has been put to many uses. The rights "declared" by Jefferson or by Mounier should not be confused with those of 1793 as interpreted by the Jacobins; the Universal Declaration of 1948, framed amidst the confrontation of incompatible doctrines, was in fact universal only by convenience and pretense; the rights now proclaimed by ecologists or feminists are not of the same nature as those invoked by the Roman magisterium since Pius XII. The meaning of rights is a muddled question: though the rights of man have acquired a self-evident authority in modern societies, the nature of the "evidence" itself is unclear. To see the matter more clearly, distinctions must be introduced: there are various versions, various languages of the rights of man, at least one of which is a trap. More precisely, there are three great, overlapping stages in the history of the rights of man, which might be characterized as follows: (1) the official birth of the rights of man, or the moderate liberal version; (2) the ideological stage and the subversion of the rights of man; and (3) the radicalization and the loss of substance of the rights of man, or the extreme liberal version.


"Every human being as human being has rights, the same rights as every other human being. The sole fact of being human confers the fullness of the rights of man; the sole fact of being a human being trumps every distinction among men. The individual's rights are independent of birth, of condition, of wisdom, of virtue; they belong to his very humanity. From this point of view, all men are equal." Though these propositions have now lost all their revolutionary tenor, their consecration in solemn declarations at the end of the eighteenth century signified more than the end of a social order. A new world was beginning, different from preceding ones; we had crossed the threshold of the modern world. The great rupture, in other words, was the following: modern equality marked the entry into a unified world, the end of a time when birth set limits and when natural or conventional distinctions tended in varying degrees to crystallize into differences in nature. From that point onward, no human being was to be viewed as other than human; no one was inferior in his essence, there was no one whose origin, condition, or qualities reflected a difference in nature. What had been taken for granted from time immemorial-that some are by nature worthy of commanding, others destined by nature to obey-was now illegitimate. It followed that the social order must be rearranged.

Of course the idea of the primary and fundamental unity of the human race was not novel; it was an integral part of Christian teaching. But aristocratic society, officially Christian, mostly ignored the scope of these principles and tended to forget that the equality of God's children has universal implications. No doubt things are not so simple and a number of nuances and distinctions would be in order here. Still, it remains that, as a general rule, there has been a gap, if not a chasm, between the religious conviction, professed by all, of the essential similarity of all men and the feelings experienced by the Great with regard to the small. Christian equality remained, as it were, abstract, embodied little if at all in human relations. The feudal nobleman, Tocqueville writes, believed himself to be "of another nature than the serfs," and a few centuries later "Mme. de Sivigni [could] not conceive clearly what it meant for someone who was not a gentleman to suffer."

Modern equality brought down this social order and various false conventions. In the democratic social state, the human race does not recognize differences in kind; men are first of all equal. But in the name of what are they equal? What is the foundation of modern equality, of equal rights? At the end of the eighteenth century, at the time when the rights of man were consecrated in solemn texts, the answer was not obvious. Was modern equality inspired by Christianity, or was its inspiration non-Christian or even anti-Christian? Are these equal and universal rights affirmed by modern natural law an extension, a fulfillment of classical and Christian natural law, or are they instead the translation of a change of direction? The question is difficult and much debated. Besides the interweaving of influences, the main difficulty seems to be the following: the rights of man are formulated in general and equivocal terms; they are in part indeterminate-what do they mean at bottom? By emphasizing differences among competing interpretations, we may sketch the possibilities in the following way:

1. The rights of man are of Christian inspiration. The source of modern rights is found in the Christian idea of the person, which elevated man and endowed each human being with his own unique, irreplaceable value. Modern natural law represents an advance in the consciousness of the dignity of every human being; through a better understanding of natural law it corrects and extends the ancient teaching. This progress is inseparable from the ferment of the gospel.

2. The rights of man are of Christian origin but also result from a break with Christianity. Modern equality is not the translation but the secularization of Christian equality. God vanishes, but not without leaving a legacy, the idea of equality transposed by the modern world from the spiritual to the temporal realm-for better (Hegel), or for worse (Nietzsche).

3. The rights of man are born in a radical break with Christianity (and with the ancient heritage it had assimilated). According to the Christian idea of equality, or to Christian natural law, men share a common vocation, they are governed by the same ends. In the modern version of equality, what men have in common is the right to pursue different ends, the right to have nothing in common except this right. Ancient natural law appeals to nature in order to remind man of his duties; modern natural law appeals to nature in order to loosen the reins of freedom. Modern equality is indeed new in every respect: the equality of sovereign individuals cannot be deduced from the natural law of ancients and Christians; it is no longer the equality of the children of God. The modern idea of emancipation marks a clear break with the past.

How then shall we find our way? The issues are unclear and seem to resist any simple solution. These modern principles were developed within a world shaped by Christianity, but their elaboration is inseparable from a reaction against the political power of religion, and, in the first instance, against the Roman church. They became authoritative in an ambiguous context, the outcome of a century in which Christianity had buckled under the assault of the Enlightenment but had by no means surrendered. The members of the French Constituent Assembly did not at all agree on the meaning of the various articles of the Declaration of 1789 or on the implications of the reference to a Supreme Being. Likewise, if the God invoked by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence was perhaps little more for him than a rhetorical formula, the same cannot be said for all the Founding Fathers.

Thus, there is no unity of tone, but there does seem to be a dominant theme-that of a break with the past, albeit a theme partially muted because it is not pursued to the fullest extent. What are the implications of the dominant version of rights, that is, liberal modernity? It associates the principle of equality with two rejections and thus two emancipatory formulae: the casting of religion outside politics, and the rejection of the bona vita as the end of political action. Classical Christian politics strove to promote rules of life; modern politics (liberal version) limits itself to setting the rules of the game. For natural law as it is understood from Aristotle to Saint Thomas, man is drawn toward a vocation and the end of politics is the fulfillment of this vocation. Politics is in the service of the good way of life, the bona vita multitudinis. In this perspective, the language of classical Christian natural law emphasizes above all the duties of man.

Modern thought, on the other hand, is characterized by the rejection of the good life as the end of political action. Since men are deprived of a natural vocation, or at least cannot agree on what that vocation is, it is necessary to rethink politics with a view to men as they are and to enable men to live peaceably together even though they do not agree on how to live. The work of modern political thought, initiated by Machiavelli and then by Hobbes, and further developed by Locke, issues in a liberal or procedural solution: the duties of man give way to his rights, and the rules of life give way to the rules of the game designed to allow men, divided amongst themselves, to pursue each his own way, his own interest. The rights of man are a key component of the modern promise (in its liberal version) that contains the following elements: a promise of emancipation through individual liberty; a promise of reciprocal recognition through equality before the law; and a promise of well-being through civil peace, the mastery of nature, and the free pursuit by each of his own self-interest. In other words, the promise of a society where equally free men, recognizing each other as equals, will be able to live peacefully and to pursue individually their own private happiness (and first of all their comfort).

In its day, this liberal solution remained a moderate solution. The break was not total; it was not thought through to its conclusion. For Locke or for the French liberals or the American Founding Fathers, it was indeed a question of founding the new political order on the rights of the individual to pursue his own interest; however, they took it for granted that these principles had to be limited in their range by the moderating influence of the family, education, and religion. The bona vita is excluded from politics, but there remain rules that govern ways of life, rules that define what is honorable and dishonorable. Equal liberty plays out only within limits, limits inherited from Christian morality. But the Founders failed to see that they were setting a time bomb. To begin with the autonomous individual and his rights is to open up a dynamic process, that of the sovereignty of the individual, in which the rights of man break every bond with nature. It is to open the way to what was to come, to the results we see today. Whereas Christian thought said, "Here are your duties, and may God help you," contemporary thought declares, "Here are your rights, and to hell with you."


In between Christian and contemporary thought, one might say, arise dramatic periods in which the rights of man are denatured and in which this denaturing provides good reason to transgress and profane them. Michel Villey has held the rights of man responsible for the acts of violence and terror that many have committed in their name, notably in the French Revolution. But the rights of man deserve neither this much credit nor this much indignation; they were not pushed to the extreme, nor even perverted, but rather completely subverted by ideology.

In June of 1793, the day after their victory over the Girondists, the Montagnards drafted a new Declaration of Rights in which they reaffirmed individual liberties and emphasized resistance to oppression-this at the very moment they were involving themselves further in a politics of force and violence. Still, it would be a mistake to find here a contradiction between words and deeds; there is not at all a contradiction, because the meaning of the rights of man within Jacobin discourse had changed.

From the beginning of the Revolution, the activists (or "patriots") never ceased to speak in two interwoven vocabularies, one universalist and the other ideological: (1) "All men are free and equal by right"; (2) "Men are divided into two categories: the good and the evil; the first are the people, the second are the enemies of the people." The ideological vocabulary divided the world in Manichean terms in the name of the Happy City that was to be built, and thus subverted the universalist vocabulary. The rights of man lost all universal value; they were embodied in the camp of the "revolution," the "people," and "freedom." "Freedom for the people," yes, but "the people means us, and no freedom for the enemies of the people." "We are brothers," of course, but "be my brother or I will kill you" (according to Chamfort's ironic formula). Robespierre's famous phrase in which "the despotism of freedom" opposes "tyranny" would have been a contradiction in terms if, from his point of view, freedom had not been definitively embodied in a particular camp-which in effect gave "freedom" a perfect freedom to oppress. Likewise tyranny, barbarism, fanaticism, humanity, patriotism, etc., no longer referred to situations, acts, or feelings; rather, they were identified with the actors themselves. In Nantes, Carrier acted out of "humanity" against "monsters." Ideology says: politics is war, an inexpiable war between the good camp and the bad camp, between "two opposite spirits," as Robespierre said, the benevolent and the malevolent. This Manichean dualism subverted the rights of man.

Whereas the Jacobin revolution used two vocabularies (universalist and ideological), the Bolshevik used only one (and criticized the abstract universalism of the French declarations). Thus the Soviet experience revealed clearly what was partially concealed in the French Revolution, the logic of ideology at work. For Lenin, the war between the good and the evil exhausted reality, and therefore all had to be subordinated to this irremediable struggle. Freedom? asked Lenin-whose freedom? The freedom of the oppressors or of the oppressed? Whose rights are you talking about-the rights of the bourgeoisie to exploit the proletariat or those of the proletariat to liberate itself? Freedom, equality, justice, truth were transformed, denatured by the only point of view that counts, that of class. Ideology crushed universal values and led to this: my enemy (whoever is not with me) has no rights.

There is not, then, an ideological version of the rights of man, Jacobin or Bolshevik, that would be the counterpart to the liberal version. There is, instead, a liberal version of the rights of man and an ideological subversion of these rights. The two paths of modern politics are not at all symmetrical.

This ideological experience has practically come to an end with the 1989-91 fall of the Soviet regime. Ideological hope has collapsed.


Excerpted from Equality by Default by Philippe Beneton Copyright © 2004 by Philippe Beneton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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