Sunday, May 07, 2023

Romance & reason 3

This will be my final post on Eva Illouz's work Why Love Hurts (see here and here for the first two). There is a passage about equality in the book that I think is worth commenting on. The issue being discussed is whether the modern understanding of equality undermines attraction between men and women by eroding differences. Illouz draws on the work of Louis Dumont, a French anthropologist:

As he puts it: “[I]t is easy to find the key to our values. Our two cardinal ideals are called equality and liberty.” And these values, Dumont suggests, flatten out the perception of social relations:
The first feature to emphasize is that the concept of the equality of men entails that of their similarity. [. . .] [I]f equality is conceived as rooted in man’s very nature and denied only by an evil society, then, as there are no longer any rightful differences in condition or estate, or different sorts of men, they are all alike and even identical, as well as equal.
Recalling de Tocqueville, Dumont adds: “[W]here inequality reigns, there are as many distinct humanities as there are social categories.” 

Here Dumont is recognising an apparently strange thing, namely that liberal moderns understand equality to mean something like "sameness". In theory, someone could support equality in the sense of seeing different types of beings as having equal value or worth. But moderns tend to want to erase distinctions in the name of equality. Percy Bysshe Shelley, as far back as 1811, in reference to the differences between men and women wrote:

...these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being

Similarly, in 1837 the American feminist Sarah Grimke opined,

permit me to offer for your consideration, some views relative to the social intercourse of the sexes. Nearly the whole of this intercourse is...derogatory to man and woman...We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes...the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female...Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex...we never can derive that benefit from each other's society...

So, from early on equality was conceived as the abolition of distinctions between men and women, i.e. as a shift toward sameness. Why? I think it went something like this. There was once the idea of a great chain of being, which was on the one hand a hierarchy of being, with those at the top having a qualitatively higher nature; however, each creature in the chain was necessary to the function of the whole, so each had a secure dignity for this reason. 

This idea of a chain of being meant, potentially at least, that those higher up the social scale might be thought to be more noble than those who were common. This meant that the noble class had to distinguish themselves not just through money or power but also through nobility of manner, character and behaviour. It meant, too, that most people would look "upwards" for social and cultural leadership to this noble class.

With the demise of this idea of a chain of being, a reaction took place, in which the emphasis was on "all men are created equal". Understood in historic context, this meant not only "equal in value" or "equal in the sight of God" but equal in the sense of there being no qualitative distinction in being: there was no class that due to birth or breeding stood higher in nobility.

I suspect that some moderns hoped that what would result from this loss of distinctions would be a net gain, in the sense that everyone would now stand equally in a condition of nobility. But clearly this is not what happened. Instead, we got what Dumont recognises as a "flattening" not only in social relationships but in the way that moderns think about "ontology" - i.e. about categories of being. We have increasingly lost the ability our ancestors had in discerning what is noble and what is base within the nature of things - leading to a cultural drift downward.

With the insistence on ontological sameness we have also lost a sense of "thick differences":

Dumont is an advocate of the kind of thick differences that are played out between different social and cultural groups in India, for example. In his view, the right and the left hand are not simply polar and symmetrical opposites; rather, they are different in themselves because they have a different relation to the body. What Dumont suggests, then, is that equality entails a loss of qualitative differences. He uses the analogy of the right and left hand because both are necessary to the body, but each is radically different from each other. In the nonmodern, non-egalitarian view, the value of each hand – left and right – is rooted in its relation to the body, which has a higher status. 

This shunning of subordination, or, to call it by its true name, of transcendence, substitutes a flat view for a view in depth, and at the same time it is the root of the “atomization” so often complained about by romantic or nostalgic critics of modernity. [. . .] [I]n modern ideology, the previous hierarchical universe has fanned out into a collection of flat views of this kind.

The regime of meaning to which Dumont points is one in which transcendence is produced by the capacity to live in an ordered, holistic and hierarchized moral and social universe. Eroticism – as it was developed in Western patriarchal culture – is predicated on a similar “right-hand/left-hand” dichotomy between men and women, each being radically different and each enacting their thick identities. It is this thick difference which has traditionally eroticized men’s and women’s relationships, at least since these identities became strongly essentialized.  (pp.186-87)

So our difficulty runs as follows. We have inherited an understanding of equality, whose origins we are no longer self-consciously aware of, but which pushes toward making men and women the same (i.e. a flattening of the social relationships and a "thin" rather than a "thick" expression of sexual difference). This then contributes to a failure in the culture of sexual relationships between men and women.

The solution? It's important not to over-correct. There will always be both a horizontal axis of society as well as a vertical one. Even so, there does need to be a reassertion of "an ordered, holistic and hierarchized moral and social universe". It is one aspect of what constitutes the core of the West - the capacity to rise toward transcendent goods - which cannot even be attempted whilst we still, as a culture, believe ourselves to be inhabiting a flat cosmos.


  1. "....these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished"

    Why are distinctions always detestable??
    What implicit assumptions are being made here?? Differences are not evil, IN freedom there will be differences of all kinds. They will expand as freedom expands

    Why does the fact that men and women differ, more salient, more relevant, more invidious, than the fact that I am one being distinct, and you are another?

    Should THAT distinction be destroyed too?? Why not??

    1. Well, yes, good point. The distinction between men and women would ordinarily be treated as part of a richness of life, just as the existence of personal distinctions is. I presume that Shelley could not register this (intellectually at least) because he was reacting against an older metaphysics, one in which there was, first, a "quiddity" to creatures, a distinct essence to the nature of that kind of creature that might then, second, place that kind of creature within a hierarchy of being.

    2. I can’t help myself but see a connection with diabolical destruction, in that the equality project is all about stripping away differences to make things “equal” (identical) which is obviously destructive. Nothing is created in place of these “anequal” differences that are stripped away. What end can there be to that process except reducing everything to some baseline state of equality in which all distinctions whatsoever are erased? What can that state be except some sort of primordial slop? Or if you even object to distinctions of position in space then it turns into a desire to undo the Big Bang. And if you desire to erase the distinction between extant and non-extant things it turns into a desire to undo Creation entirely. It’s mad, but the logic really only goes that way.

    3. the devil’s original goal before his suicide was to destroy all Creation because he hated women (especially Mothers) and that he had nothing to do with The Incarnation.

      the “apple” of Eden was the devil’s quarantined memories before his suicide: therefore all sin tends towards this direction.

      Now you know.

  2. What can calling things equal mean except a numerical comparison between them? And if we’re doing a numerical comparison how can that but strip everything away but whatever qualities we’re calling equal? Even if we were to include all human qualities, all of them being equal would make everyone identical.

    Is it surprising that when it’s made a moral issue we ignore all obviously unequal qualities or claim that they’re unimportant or even attack people who claim there are unequal qualities?

    I think the “equality” paradigm is at best useless. It contorts human thinking into a strange quasi-mathematical worldview that doesn’t really fit humans at all. In fact I think it necessarily dehumanizes them. Even admirable sentiments like “God loves everyone equally” and “equal before the law” are just less sensible ways of saying “God loves everyone” and “justice for all.”

    Focusing on “equality” also focuses us on the qualities that make us identical, minimizing the qualities that make us more distinct. A woman with little sense of being a woman (non-identical to all non-women) is unlikely to feel that she ought to embody anything particular to her womanhood (e.g. motherhood), similarly to how an Australian with little sense of being an Australian (different from all non-Australians) is unlikely to feel that he belongs in Australia and that non-Australians do not. All “equal” (identical) humans could just as well belong anywhere.

    I’m reminded of an anecdote about an Amerindian hunter who surprised Europeans by not knowing how many rivers were in his territory, appearing to be innumerate. What he could tell them was every minute detail of every river in the territory, a treatment of them all as unique and particular things that therefore couldn’t be summed. Probably to him it just wouldn’t make sense, whereas long-numerate Westerners take this “universalization” or stripping of particularities to “numerize” things for granted.