Equality is a word on everyone’s lips. You might say it’s ‘all the rage’ these days. There are calls for equal pay, equal opportunity, equal voices, equal preferences, equal choices. Of all the American ideals, equality is at the top of the list (recreation & individual autonomy are up there, too). Equality, of course, is a good thing; its application to human affairs is a necessary component to a just, fruitful society. And that is the key question: what is the role of pursuing excellence in lieu of obtaining a good life? Thomas Jefferson knew this well as he penned the rough draft for the Declaration of Independence. He originally wrote, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent.” The phrase ‘sacred and undeniable’ was changed to ‘self-evident,’ while ‘and independent’ was scratched out, leaving us with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  (Many have disputed the apparent contradiction of this statement by citing abuses toward African Americans and women, and those disputations are worthy of their stance on the podium of American life. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jefferson meant ‘humanity’ when he wrote ‘all men’ when referring to the notion of equality). Equality is certainly an American ideal.
Of course, attaining to equality in a society is no easy task. The choices and voices of equality make demands upon us as a collective people, as American citizens, as diverse religious groups, diverse ethnicities, diverse sexual preferences and identities, etc., calling us to tolerance and acceptance of one another. It is indisputable that equality is a necessary aspect of human life. Like all abstract ideals, however, they must be grounded in what is real. The reality is twofold. First, we are created equal with unalienable rights endowed to us by our Creator. Second, there is an actual, natural law, which comes from human beings as having a particular nature or essence. Our nature or essence, humanity, is a signpost, telling us how we are to live: according to the purpose communicated by our nature or essence. This Aristotelian notion has been replaced with Marxist ideals of dialectical materialism, which reduces human beings to mere, material organisms. It is this idea which fosters a notion of equality that, to a growing segment of Americans—especially the younger generations—make socialism and Marxism so appealing.
How then, should equality be applied to American life, especially with respect to economics? In Plato’s Apology, there is memorable quote from Socrates regarding wealth. It is a statement which turns the tables on the socialist ideals whereby the government takes from the citizenry and gives to others in the name of equality. In the Apology, Socrates is defending himself before the city council of Athens (‘apology’ means to give a defense as in a court of law). Socrates’ alleged crime is that of corrupting the youth of Athens by proposing that there are no gods. An added, interesting saying of Socrates is this: he says he avoided politics in the public sphere so as to protect his life. Instead of a public life, he went around privately, asking questions, trying in vain to seek a wise person. He says, “A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time”. Alas for Socrates as he is condemned to death anyway! Yet someone will say, “maybe that’s true in some dictatorial regime, but not in ‘merica.” May we never see the day. Even so, Socrates has more wisdom for us: the call to change society by means of living a private life, or having a small job, or being in a small ministry, or not being ‘very important’ is also an encouragement to those are not in high-profile, public offices living in Washington D.C., or in big, popular churches, ministries, or publishing houses which are in places of prominence and popularity. Now, what is it that Socrates said which applies to the idea of equality and socialism?
Socrates said, “Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively” . In the words of Socrates, even if people have an abundance of material goods, they will not necessarily pursue excellence in life. One thinks of the welfare system in the U.S., and how for so many, it serves as an ambition-killer. Although, in all fairness, welfare, food stamps, and the like have helped many people sustain their families while they pursue excellence. I myself am a benefactor of government aid while pursuing higher education (we lived off of loans for a while). So, there is no fault in a nation having a safety net for people.
But that’s not what Socrates is talking about, and that’s not what people are pushing for when they espouse socialist and Marxist ideals. Socialism is about the redistribution of wealth in the name of equality. Of course, people should pay taxes and people should help the poor. And while the lines between government-run welfare and socialism can get blurry in a hurry—and I’m not expert in delineating between the lines—what Socrates says rings clear and true. Wealth does not bring about excellence. Rather, if people pursue excellence, then the wealth and goods for all of humanity will follow. When people have wealth, they have things of value that can be exchanged. In socialism and Marxism, the idea of exchange is destroyed, because the government forces people to give up the idea of personal ownership, and it is personal ownership which fosters excellence. That is, excellence includes hard work, ambition, perseverance, and risk. Socrates therefore has much to say to us today in the 21st century. Wealth does not, in fact, produce excellence. Rather, excellence produces wealth.
There is an important philosophical notion here as well, when we think about how ideas impact human life. For Socrates, the philosophical notion is that excellence precedes the good of material wealth. Excellence, of course, is an abstract idea, whereas material goods are concrete. So, for Socrates, mind precedes matter. This is also known as Idealism. Thomas Jefferson held the same view when he wrote about unalienable human rights a ‘self-evident.’ A truth is ‘self-evident’ when it can be demonstrated by reason alone (say, the Pythagorean theorem). Opposed to Socrates and Jefferson stands Marx’s dialectical materialism, which reduces human beings to mere matter. In the Judeo-Christian understanding, God as Creator is the one who gives rights to all human beings, and who provides wealth to the nations, blessing them in the pursuit of excellence (see the Psalms and Prophets on this).
So, if we want people to have the goods that wealth brings, we have to rid ourselves of the idea of enforced, material equality imposed by the government, and embrace the idea of ‘self-evident’ equality. Forced material equality means taking the goods of someone who has pursued excellence and achieved wealth and giving it to someone who hasn’t. Forced equality means hiring a people because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation, as opposed to their qualifications for the job. To the contrary, self-evident equality means giving people the opportunity to take risks, pursue goals, achieve dreams, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual identity, but based upon their qualifications for the task. It is axiomatic and worthy of memorization: Socrates said, “wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively” .
1. See, The Library of Congress, “Creating the Declaration of Independence” at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/equal/index.html.
3. Plato, “Apology” in Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper (Indinapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 29.
3. Ibid., 28.
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