The Abstract Principle of Equality

It was 1871 when Swiss philosopher Henry Frèderic Amiel  pondered on the nature of democracy in his “Journal Intime”. It is impressive how Amiel in few clear words nails effectively the problems implied by a representation where one is worth one despite merit, experience, education etc. and foresees the processes that will shape the world as we know it. Of course, he could not predict how the impact of modern means of communications would have made the development of those processes more dangerous and faster with the consequences we know worldwide, however, his intuition has become astonishingly and bitterly true.

“The masses will always be below the average. Besides, the age of majority will be lowered, the barriers of sex will be swept away, and democracy will finally make itself absurd by handing over the decision of all that is greatest to all that is most incapable. Such an end will be the punishment of its abstract principle of equality, which dispenses the ignorant man from the necessity of self-training, the foolish man from that of self-judgment, and tells the child that there is no need for him to become a man, and the good-for-nothing that self-improvement is of no account.
Public law, founded upon virtual equality, will destroy itself by its consequences. It will not recognize the inequalities of worth, of merit, and of experience; in a word, it ignores individual labor, and it will end in the triumph of platitude and the residuum.”
Journal Intime”
12th June 1871


23 thoughts on “The Abstract Principle of Equality

  1. I’m watching it happen here at an increasingly accelerated pace.

    I’m so glad we don’t have kids . . . I’d have to admonish them not to excel at anything.

  2. Pingback: The Abstract Principle of Equality | Stormfields

  3. We hold this truth to be self-evident now, Stefy, but it has been so for some time now. I remember schoolboy debates where the most votes often went to the most entertaining speaker — a sort of ‘reward’ for making us laugh — rather than the one with the most rational argument.

    So it is with Parliaments (when they’re not voting along party lines) and so it also is with demagoguery which tends to be strong on primitive emotions but weak on rationality. Much easier to count the countries which are not falling for this false dawn offered by populist politicians — if only I could think of any examples. (Please note, this last is a rhetorical statement!)

    • “Mala tempora currunt”, dear Chris, I really cannot see any way out. I would call what’s going on in Italy a farse it it weren’t actually a tragedy, a political tragedy, of course.

      • I can’t think that there is ever going to be a simple answer for how we’ve got to this situation — in Italy, Hungary, Poland, the US, Britain, India and a host of other countries — but if democracy has somehow led to the populist fascism that some of these countries are smarting under it’s very worrying.

    • Thanks a lot Kevin and I did enjoy your poem. If mobocracy represents the new barbarians, don’t you have the feeling that this age resembles so much the end of the Roman empire?

      • Apologies for the above comment. I’m not sure what happened there!

        I’m glad you like my poem. I hope that we are not on the brink of civilisations demise.

        Its interesting how (when “the people”) agree with a politician’s proposal we are told that we must respect “the general will for the people have spoken”. Yet when those same “people” disagree with that self-same politician’s pet scheme, we are told that “the people are not wise”. Wisdom does not lie in the people or uniquely in any individual. However, on the whole the better educated are more likely to be wise than are the less well schooled.

        In my view we need to have a society that recognises Lord Acton’s dictum that “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, which entails dispersing power through mediating institutions so as to avoid (so far is possible) the abuse of power, whether by a Hitler, a Stalin or “the people”. We also need widespread property ownership so that individuals feel that they have a stake in society and are therefore less susceptible to the siren calls of those who would stir up the mob. Best – Kevin

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