The origins of European thinking on inequalities

Articles on Pierre Bourdieu and symbolic violence: link
Posts on Dawn of Everything: link
Posts trying to deal with the absurd state of political discourse: link

In chapter 2 of The dawn of everything David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the context in which the standard story of societal development was developed. The story is generally attributed to a 1754 essay by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Humanity. The essay was submitted to “…a national essay contest on the question: ‘What is the origin of inequality between men, and is it authorized by natural law?’ P. 28. How did we come to this question in France, a country where the very idea of ​​inequality threatened the whole social order?

The authors give a brief intellectual history of Europe. During the Dark Ages, the continent was cut off from global commerce and global intellectual discourse. In the Middle Ages, Arab scholars reintroduced Aristotle to Europe. Gradually, other Greek and Roman writers were recovered and studied. European scholars, mostly clerics, began to build an intellectual tradition.

By the way, Europeans do not seem to have taken full advantage of the scholarship of Arab thinkers and others, which was quite advanced at that time. They were not tied to these traditions as dogmas, but were able to read and study them quite neutrally. European clerical scholars mostly tried to adapt the ancients to a more principled Christianity. It’s not even a little surprising that their early thinking reinforced existing social structures. As an example, consider the divine right of kings. See the fix at the end of this article.

Back to the text. There is nothing about equality in the whole pre-Renaissance system of thought.

Ranks and hierarchies were assumed to have existed from the beginning. Even in the Garden of Eden, as the 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed, Adam markedly outclassed Eve. “Social equality” – and therefore its opposite, inequality – simply did not exist as a concept. A recent study of medieval literature by two Italian scholars actually finds no evidence that the Latin terms aequalitas or inaequalitas or their English, French, Spanish, German and Italian cognates were used to describe social relations before the time of Christopher. Columbus. P.32.

The first discussions of equality arose in the development of natural rights theory. This theory evolved to justify the European domination of the peoples they found when they invaded the Americas and other lands beginning in 1492. Natural law theory attempts to identify the inherent rights of people simply because ‘they are human beings, and even though they live in a state of nature, completely unaware of Christianity. They concluded that you could invade them as long as you didn’t treat them too badly, whatever that meant.

The discourse on natural rights distances the first societies in the history of the Garden of Eden, paving the way for secular theories. European thinkers offered ideas of what the original people might have been. A common conception was that societies in the state of nature were free and equal. In contrast, we have Thomas Hobbes who argued that in the state of nature there was a war of all against all, only saved by the advent of the mighty state.* The authors then describe some aspects of the term equality . For example, the Christian religion teaches a form of equality. We are all equal before the Almighty. There is not much about freedom in the discourse of the time.

What we are going to suggest is that American intellectuals – we use the term “American” as it was used at the time, to refer to the native inhabitants of the western hemisphere; and “intellectual” to designate anyone used to discussing abstract ideas – actually played a role in this conceptual revolution. P.35.

From the beginning of the French invasion of North America, missionaries, soldiers and travelers lived among the Americans. They learned other people’s languages ​​and talked about everything humans talk about. Of course, that didn’t stop the rape, torture, and murder. Many of these Europeans wrote reports and books, and gave lectures, on what they heard. As a result, we have first-hand knowledge of how Americans perceived the French as well as how the French perceived Americans. This story fills the Chapter. I will cover some of these fascinating dialogues in my next article. In the meantime, here are a pair of quotes that give a good taste of native criticism of the invaders.


Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former professor of theology assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonquian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not like the Mi’kmaq very much, but reported that the feeling was mutual: “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For, they say, you always fight and quarrel amongst yourselves; we live peacefully. You are envious and slander yourself all the time; you are thieves and deceivers; you are greedy and neither generous nor good; as for us, if we have a piece of bread, we share it with our neighbour. They say that and love things continually. What seemed to irritate Biard the most was that the Mi’kmaq constantly asserted that they were, therefore, “wealthier” than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other more important assets: ease, comfort and time. P. 38-9, footnote omitted.


[One writer] was surprised and impressed by the eloquence and powers of reasoned argumentation of his hosts, skills honed by almost daily public discussions of communal affairs; his hosts, on the other hand, when they were able to see a group of French people gathered together, often remarked on how they seemed constantly to quarrel and cut off each other’s conversation, employing feeble arguments, and on the whole ( or almost the subtext seemed to be) not showing up particularly bright. People who tried to take over the stage, depriving others of the means of presenting their case, acted in much the same way as those who took over the material means of subsistence and refused to share them; it is hard to avoid the impression that Americans saw the French as living in a sort of Hobbesian state of “war of all against all”. P.39.


1. Why have I never heard of these fascinating discussions between Americans and European invaders? I had a fairly good upbringing and am reasonably well read, and I’ve never heard of it, I didn’t know there were any contemporary records and I didn’t know these records were commonly discussed among French bourgeois.

2. What did the other peoples of the Americas, Africa, India and China think of the invader? Are there similar recordings? These people have been mute, transformed into something less than human to use Arendt’s expression. They were talking about themselves, but we don’t know them today, their way of thinking, their understanding of their life and the world. We are weakened by this loss.

3. This disappearance of entire cultures is a real violence against the peoples and cultures destroyed by the European invaders. But it is also symbolic violence towards larger audiences. Our speech, our ability to understand how things are or could be, is deprived of a range of deeply needed alternatives. We are herded into channels of thought chosen by those who know what others were thinking and who, for their own reasons, bury not only the bodies but also the minds of our fellow human beings.

History may be written by the victors, but the victors did not destroy all contemporary documents. I hope there are scholars and volunteers looking for it.

* Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the bloody and shocking English Civil War, which must have influenced his theory that

//… during the time when men live without a common power to hold them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a war, as that of every man, against every man. …

… In such a state, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit is uncertain; and therefore no Culture of the Earth; no navigation, nor use of the goods which can be imported by sea; no spacious building; no instruments for moving and removing things that require a lot of force; no knowledge of the face of the Earth; no time account; no art; no Letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; And the life of man, lonely, poor, mean, brutal and short.//

Leviathan, ch. XIII. I watched this to see for myself; I haven’t read Leviathan and I won’t.
I wrote that it seemed European scholars had not taken full advantage of global thinking when Aristotle was reintroduced by Arab scholars. I should have checked. Of course, my education included nothing of the influence of Arab thought on the thought of medieval scholars. According to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the brilliant Arab polymath Ibn Sina, known to us as Avicenna, influenced scholars like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Sina’s work on metaphysics was banned in Paris in 1210. This is just another example of the Eurocentrism of my upbringing, and one more thing I need to relearn.

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