Sunday, January 10, 2010

Equality (Part I)


Egalite is so out of fashion, and has been for a long time.
The only people who still use the term with a straight face are my kind, for the simple reason that legal enfranchisement remains an issue for us. The very idea of equality is now routinely savaged and parodied by everyone from the Christian Right to the readers of Atlas Shrugged. Supremacism in its racial, gender, religious, and social forms is so much sexier than visions of earnest hippies in their communes sharing a meal of tofu and groats. The old Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, and the new Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand, speaks to our inner striver, and to an even deeper sense of entitlement, our inner bourgeois. We worked hard for what we have, by God, and why should we share it with a bunch of losers and parasites? Why should some alien government confiscate our hard earned dough? (Never mind that this point of view makes no distinction between the democracy of the Federalist Papers and the Absolutism of Louis XIV; never mind that everyone stands on the shoulders of those who came before and blazed the trail, and that no one’s success is possible without a polis to protect everyone from the tyranny of aggression, chaos, and necessity, and to make possible “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; and that maintaining that polis is a basic responsibility of adulthood).
Equality is so 1960s.
And yet, the word “equal” is right there in the center of the founding document of the United States; “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” The central problem of the history of the United States is how to reconcile an egalitarian legal structure with a very anti-egalitarian society. Exactly who gets included in the opening phrase of the Constitution, “We the People of the United States of America…” Who are “the People?” The United States has always been sharply divided along lines of race, gender, and class. People who lived right next to each other refused to see each other as equal even if the law did.
Egalite was a fighting word of the French Revolution along with Liberte et Fraternite. France faced a similar problem in its modern history, not only who is a citizen; but, who is French, and what makes a person French.
In the United States, it is always a struggle to get individuals and groups to see past their own solipsism “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

The Equality of Christians

Universal equality was unknown in the ancient world. Kings and slavery were accepted as facts of life. Royalty was mostly the result of luck. Most kings had the luck to be born into dynasties and lines of succession. Slavery was the result of bad luck. If a warrior surrendered in battle, then it was assumed that he valued his life over his freedom, and was sold at the slave market. Conquered people were completely at the mercy of their conquerors. Whole cities were sometimes sold into slavery. Creditors could, and did, sell their debtors (and their families) into slavery to satisfy debts (well, it was one form of “tough love” to teach people responsibility). Bandits frequently sold kidnapping victims into slavery when their families could not pay ransom. Tough luck. This was accepted by nearly everyone as the Way of the World, and was not seriously questioned until the beginning of the Modern Era.
And how “free” was everyone else? For centuries most people were born into their stations and into their trades and stayed there. In the ancient world, the only upward mobility in most societies was through the military. In the Middle Ages, it was through the Church. In China and much of the rest of the Far East, it was through the civil service. The ancient Egyptians believed that this hierarchy extended into the after-life; the tenant farmer in life was a tenant farmer in death.

It is possible that the idea of universal equality began with Christianity. Hannah Arendt pointed out the radicalism of Jesus declaring sins to be forgiven and telling His listeners to forgive the sins of others. In the ancient world, only the gods and their agents, kings and priests, could forgive sins. Now, Jesus puts that power into the hands of everyone. The Gospels everywhere proclaim the universal sanctity of all people regardless of station or nationality. Saint Paul extends this idea in his efforts to proselytize among the Gentiles. Salvation is not just the free gift of God to each, but to all. I strongly suspect that it was the egalitarianism of early Christian communities that most deeply threatened and offended the Roman Conventional Wisdom. Rich and poor, slave and free, men and women participated in Christian rituals as equals, scandalizing their Roman neighbors.

Something of that early Christian egalitarianism survived long after the Way of the World reasserted itself in the wake of the Emperor Constantine’s transformation of Christianity into an imperial cult. We see it in Christian religious art in forms that are both light and dark.

detail from a page from The Saint Sever Apocalypse, 11th century

The 11th century Saint Sever Apocalypse shows the Blessed at the end of time together with no distinction of rank. Even rows of the Saints holding palms of victory sing eternal praises to the Lamb of God. The absolute universal Christian egalitarianism proclaimed in this illumination from the Saint Sever Apocalypse anticipates the abstract concept of universal equality in the Modern era. The page of the Saints with their even uniformity anticipates the abstract imagery used to express the idea of equality in the 20th century.

The Last Judgment showed a dark and vindictive side to Christian egalitarianism. Jan Van Eyck, or a follower, painted one of the most vivid of all hell scenes in a small diptych showing The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment.

Jan Van Eyck (or follower), Crucifixion and Last Judgement, circa 1440

If you look carefully at this hell scene, you will notice a number of crowns and miters, and even a papal tiara or two. We see this a lot in hell scenes from the 12th through the 17th centuries. This reminded people that we all stand equally before the Seat of Judgment, that earthly station and privilege in no way exempts anyone from this trial. Certainly the hard-pressed peasant or the heavily taxed townsman took some satisfaction at the prospect of their landlords getting their just deserts by the hand of The Almighty.

Martin Landauer commissioned Albrecht Durer to paint an altarpiece for the chapel of a new hospital for the indigent, which he founded. Landauer spent his last days in this hospital at his own request. Durer includes him in the company of the saints adoring the Trinity in Heaven.

Albrecht Durer, Landauer Altarpiece, 1511, Landauer is on the lower left being introduced by St. Jerome dressed in cardinal's robes.

. Landauer and Durer intended this painting to assure people who were suffering and probably dying. Durer shows them a paradise where they would be welcome, centered on a crucified Christ who shares their suffering.

The company of the saints welcomes a work-worn peasant into their midst. It’s not quite egalitarianism that we would understand. In fact, there’s an uncomfortable element of tokenism here. But, it’s as close as the 16th century ever came to anything like equality; if not on earth, then in heaven.

The isocephalic composition is all about equality. Isocephalic is a hundred dollar word for all heads on the same level.

Frieze from the Ara Pacis in Rome showing the damaged figure of the Emperor Augustus on the left.

The Romans had equality of a kind, though it was definitely not universal equality. The Emperor Augustus, attempting to sell the idea of “emperor” to Roman public opinion, had himself shown on the frieze of the Ara Pacis in Rome as a primus inter pares, a first among equals. This is not the equality of all Romans, but the equality of the Roman Patriciate. This Roman artist uses the isocephalic composition to show that sense of patrician equality.

Masaccio uses this Roman isocephalic composition to express something like Christian universal equality.

Masaccio, detail from The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel, Sta. Maria del Carmine, Florence, c.1427

Instead of members of the Roman Patriciate, Masaccio shows poor men stymied by the demand for payment of an entry tax into Capernaum. Masaccio presents Christ and the Apostles as equals in The Tribute Money. They are equal in their poverty and humanity. They are also equal in their monumentality. The faces of these men are not ideal or prettified. The likes of some of them you can still see on the streets of Florence today. Masaccio shows these ordinary men sharing in a momentous occasion, presented with a Roman grandeur once reserved for the Emperor and his court.

The 17th century Dutch burghers were certainly not liberals in any sense we would recognize. There were no liberals until the 18th century. But, among themselves, equality mattered a lot. Their state was a republic that had only recently won its independence from Spain after a long bloody struggle. The Dutch burghers were not only interested in getting rich off the global economy, but in public responsibility. They were very public spirited, coming together to form volunteer societies for the common defense and welfare. Those volunteer associations of wealthy eminent citizens wanted commemoration in works of art. Each member of each association would pay a separate fee to be included in the painting. Artists had to paint the group and its individual members, an extremely difficult and even contradictory project.
Dutch artists went to great lengths to avoid the visual inertia of the isocephalic composition; a composition in which “one could, in a manner of speaking, behead them all with a single blow,” in the words of Samuel van Hoogstraten, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

One artist who succeeded in preserving the equality of the members of the group while making remarkable compositions was Frans Hals.

Frans Hals, Archers of Saint Adrian, 1633

The Dutch then, just like the Dutch now, had little taste for standing armies and professional soldiers. Most of the fighters for independence from Spain were irregulars; guerillas or citizen soldiers. By the mid 17th century, those once fearsome bands of warriors became citizen militias whose primary activity was parading and feasting. Hals shows the Archers of Saint Adrian feasting after parading. There is a certain measure of military rank. The captain of the company sits enthroned like a monarch facing us. Hals rescues the egalitarianism of the company by pushing him far to the left. Toward the center, he puts the lieutenant facing the captain. Between them is the ensign with the company colors. Standing on the far left and the center right are the 2 sergeants. Hals preserves the military rank while showing the basic equality of a group of weekend warriors who elect their officers.

There is no such rank in the group portrait of the governesses of a poor house for elderly men (Hals died bankrupt, and it is said that these were the governesses of the place where he spent his last years).

Frans Hals, Governesses of the Old Men's Alms House of Haarlem, 1664

The women as individuals and as a group appear as sober, conscientious, responsible administrators of a public charity. The simplicity of the composition and the plainness of the coloring express that dutiful sobriety, and their equality.

Rembrandt painted the most famous of these group portraits, a portrait of an Amsterdam militia company known by the apocryphal title “The Nightwatch.”

Rembrandt, "The Nightwatch," 1645

Rembrandt makes the group portrait dramatic and full of noise and excitement. The Captain instructs his lieutenant to sound the call to muster, to form up the men to parade toward us right out of the picture. Orders are shouted. The drummer sounds the muster. People scurry out of the way. Dogs bark. Guns fire. Pike staffs rattle. It is chaos coming to order. Unlike Hals and other Dutch artists, Rembrandt includes a lot of extras, a cross section of the population of Amsterdam. This is a very democratic picture showing the abounding irrepressible life of the great commercial city.
There is an old story that this painting was a failure for Rembrandt, that the patrons did not like it. The evidence indicates the contrary. The captain of the company had the painting copied twice. Each of the men paid 100 guilders to be in the painting. That’s a lot of money. A guilder then was a gold coin. Rembrandt made 1600 guilders off this painting. All the records indicate that the men were happy with the painting. It hung prominently in their assembly hall well into the 18th century. The critical reception was largely enthusiastic.

Perhaps Rembrandt’s most important statement about equality was in his religious work. In the famous print known as “The Hundred Guilder Print,” the Christian concept of universal equality has one of its last and most original presentations.

Rembrandt, "The Hundred Guilder Print," etching, 1649

Rembrandt shows us all the events in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. The sick and suffering come in from the right to be cured. The little children approach Him for a blessing. The rich young man sits confounded by the answer to his question, “What must I do to win eternal life?” The lawyers on the left plot how to trick Christ. This print is as noisy and democratic as The Nightwatch. It is a cross section of classes and conditions of people. Christ stands in the midst of them, in solidarity with them all. All are equal, not in their qualities, but in their sufferings and their sinfulness. Christ stands in solidarity with flawed and suffering humanity.


Rick+ said...

     Sadly, it does sometimes seem the dream of equality seems to have gone out of fashion. So often, I have dealt with parents at my school who can not comprehend that if something is what they want for their child, it might not be good for other children. While politically active, I get frustrated too. Deep down, I honestly believe the way to change the world is not through politics, but through my becoming a better Christian.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

O Counterlight, I love how you gently lead us through the great art of yore, taking us by the hand reasoning!

toujoursdan said...

Great post.

Sadly, as I am reminded whilst reading another blog, liberalism and egalitarianism occur in societies with relative prosperity. When people become stressed and scared the old hierarchies and the oppressive structures come back. I do worry about this country taking a hard right turn if the middle class continues to erode.

Counterlight said...

"I do worry about this country taking a hard right turn if the middle class continues to erode."

I was discussing that very prospect with my friend David Kaplan last night. We have rule by oligarchy now. I am afraid that if the economic downturn with high unemployment lasts, we could have rule by a right wing junta. The USA is turning into Brazil of 50 years ago.
If we get permanent right wing rule, it will because people stay home on election day, not because of any shift in the winds. The sad part is that they may stay home for good reason. The only choice they have is between 2 conservative parties.

clay barham said...

From her works, it is apparent Ayn Rand admired the courageous pebble-droppers, the nails standing above the boardwalk that ruling elite might trip over, who challenged the established and accepted way things were done. It was the creative, imaginative individuals who followed a dream, a vision of some better way of living that she wrote about, not the socialist taker who envied the creative few even when enjoying the benefits of the pebble-dropper’s efforts. This was her focus. All other ingredients haters add to the interpretation of Ayn Rand’s ideas are simply mud to cloud the water. Whether she was atheist or Jewish, anti-Christian or self-centered means nothing. She believed she was OK and others, as individuals, were potentially OK as well, but herds were led by the few who would limit individuals and take from those who have to share with those who have not, and they and their leaders were not OK. Those who violently oppose Rand are the ones who want to retain the Old World ideals of a few elite ruling the many, as is being reintroduced to America by the Obama forces.

June Butler said...

Counterlight, you've done another masterful post. The Hals painting is extraordinary. Each individual in the picture could stand on its own as a portrait.

Oh, and the Rembrandt! What life! The light and the shade are magnificently done.

And your text is quite worthy on its own. That elusive concept that we call "equality"....

Do you use what you post here in your classes, Doug?