One of the world’s foremost historians of Western political and legal thought proposes a bold new model for thinking about equality at a time when its absence threatens democracies everywhere.
How much equality does democracy need to survive? Political thinkers have wrestled with that question for millennia. Aristotle argued that some are born to command and others to obey. Antiphon believed that men, at least, were born equal. Later the Romans upended the debate by asking whether citizens were equals not in ruling but in standing before the law. Aldo Schiavone guides us through these and other historical thickets, from the first democracy to the present day, seeking solutions to the enduring tension between democracy and inequality.
Turning from Antiquity to the modern world, Schiavone shows how the American and the French revolutions attempted to settle old debates, introducing a new way of thinking about equality. Both the French revolutionaries and the American colonists sought democracy and equality together, but the European tradition (British Labour, Russian and Eastern European Marxists, and Northern European social democrats) saw formal equality—equality before the law—as a means of obtaining economic equality. The American model, in contrast, adopted formal equality while setting aside the goal of economic equality.
The Pursuit of Equality in the West argues that the United States and European models were compatible with industrial-age democracy, but neither suffices in the face of today’s technological revolution. Opposing both atomization and the obsolete myths of the collective, Schiavone thinks equality anew, proposing a model founded on neither individualism nor the erasure of the individual but rather on the universality of the impersonal human, which coexists with the sea of differences that makes each of us unique.
Schiavone has written a considered and considerable monograph, which is worthy of the magnitude of its subject-matter: equality. His knowledge of political thought is both deep and broad…and his combining of historical inquiry with conceptual work successful.
A bold, original book—learned without ever being pedantic, engaging without being frivolous, highly personal without ever being self-referential. It takes the reader through a vast body of European literature without ever losing its way. In the end, the reader will come away with far deeper, more nuanced understanding of what ‘equality’ has come to mean over the centuries, what it should mean for us today, and what its possible future might be.
Schiavone displays here extraordinary historic, legal, and philosophical knowledge, enabling him to cover the full span of Western history with great erudition.
The Pursuit of Equality in the West is one of the most richly detailed, original, and thought-provoking books I have ever read. Only Aldo Schiavone could have given us such a lucid and cogent study.
- 376 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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