The Origins Of European Thought On Inequality

Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts trying to cope 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 history of societal development was developed. The story is usually traced to a 1754 essay by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind. The essay was entered into “… a national essay competition on the question: ‘what is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’” P. 28. How did we get to this question in France, a country where the very idea of inequality threatened the entire social order?

The authors give a short intellectual history of Europe. In the Dark Ages the continent was cut off from global trade and global intellectual discourse. In the Middle Ages, Arab scholars re-introduced Aristotle to Europe. Gradually other Greek and Roman writers were recovered and studied. European scholars, mostly clerics, began to construct an intellectual tradition.

As an aside, the Europeans don’t seem to have gotten the full benefit of the scholarship of Arab and other thinkers, which was quite advanced by that time. They weren’t bound to those traditions as dogma, but were able to read and study them fairly neutrally. European clerical scholars mostly tried to adapt the ancients into a more principled Christianity. It’s not even slightly surprising that their early thinking reinforced existing social structures. As an example, consider the divine right of kings. See the correction at the end of this post.

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

Ranks and hierarchies were assumed to have existed from the very beginning. Even in the Garden of Eden, as the thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed, Adam clearly outranked Eve. ‘Social equality’ – and therefore, its opposite, inequality – simply did not exist as a concept. A recent survey of medieval literature by two Italian scholars in fact 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 at all before the time of Columbus. P. 32.

The first discussions of equality arose in the development of the theory of Natural Rights. This theory evolved to justify the European domination of the people they found when they invaded the Americas and other lands beginning in 1492. Natural Right theory tries to identify the rights which inhere in people just because they are human beings, and even though they are living in a state of nature, completely unaware of Christianity. They concluded that you could invade as long as you didn’t treat them too badly, whatever that means.

Natural Rights discourse moves early societies away from the Garden of Eden story, opening the way to secular theories. European thinkers proposed ideas about what the original people might have been like. One common conception was that societies in the state of nature were free and equal. In contrast, we get Thomas Hobbes who argued that in the state of nature there was a war of all against all, only salvaged by the arrival of the powerful state.* The authors then describe some aspects of the term equality. For example, the Christian religion teaches a form of equality. All of us are equal in relationship to the Almighty. There is nothing much about freedom in the discourse of that time.

What we’re going to suggest is that American intellectuals – we are using the term ‘American’ as it was used at the time, to refer to indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere; and ‘intellectual’ to refer to anyone in the habit of arguing about 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 eaah other’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 the way the Americans perceived the French as well as the way the French perceived the Americans. That story fills out the Chapter. I’ll take up some of these fascinating dialogs in my next post. In the meantime, here are a pair of quotes that give a good taste of the Indigenous Critique of the invaders.


Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not think much of the Mi’kmaq, but reported that the feeling was mutual: ‘They consider themselves better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” They are saying these and like things continually.’ What seemed to irritate Biard the most was that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, ‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time. P. 38-9, fn omitted.


[One writer] was surprised and impressed by his hosts’ eloquence and powers of reasoned argument, skills honed by near-daily public discussions of communal affairs; his hosts, in contrast, when they did get to see a group of Frenchmen gathered together, often remarked on the way they seemed to be constantly scrambling over each other and cutting each other off in conversation, employing weak arguments, and overall (or so the subtext seemed to be) not showing themselves to be particularly bright. People who tried to grab the stage, denying others the means to present their arguments, were acting in much the same way as those who grabbed the material means of subsistence and refused to share it; it is hard to avoid the impression that Americans saw the French as existing in a kind of Hobbesian state of ‘war of all against all’. P. 39.


1. Why have I never heard about these fascinating discussions between the Americans and the European invaders? I had a pretty good education and I’m reasonably well read, and I never knew about it, did not know there were contemporaneous records, and didn’t realize that those records were commonly discussed among French bourgeoise.

2. What did the other peoples of the Americas, Africa, India, and China think of the invader? Are there similar records? These people have been muted, turned into something less than humans to use Arendt’s phrase. They spoke for themselves, but we of today don’t know them, their thinking, their understanding of their lives and the world. We are weakened by this loss.

3. This disappearance of whole cultures is genuine violence towards the people and cultures wrecked by the invading Europeans. But it’s also symbolic violence towards broader publics. Our discourse, our ability to understand the way things are or could be, is robbed of a deeply needed range of alternatives. We are herded into channels of thought chosen by those who know what others thought and who for reasons of their own bury not just the bodies but the thinking of our fellow human beings.

History may be written by the victors, but the victors haven’t destroyed all the contemporaneous records. 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 men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. …

… In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.//

Leviathan, Ch. XIII. I looked this up to see for myself; I haven’t read Leviathan and won’t.
I wrote that it seemed that European scholars did not get the full benefit of global thought when Aristotle was re-introduced by Arab scholars. I should have checked. Of course my education didn’t include anything about the influence of Arab thought on the thinking of Medieval scholars. According to The Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, the brilliant Arab polymath Ibn Sina, known to us as Avicenna, influenced such scholars as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Sina’s work on Metaphysics was banned in Paris in 1210. This is just another example of the Euro-centrism of my education, and one more thing I have to relearn.

64 replies
  1. Doctor My Eyes says:

    Thank you for that pair of stunning quotes. Like you, I am surprised. I studied “history” and yet. not a clue such things existed. There are so many interesting aspects to this, both from a meta level and from the quotes themselves. One striking thing is that the people who relayed these quotes seem to have presumably relayed these opinions of Americans while blithely avoiding any consideration of their merit. They certainly seem not to have deigned to indulge in self-examination.

    The quotes remind me of a story from the Donner Party that raises the issue of who is the more civilized. Desperate, a small group set out from the encampment to find a way across the mountains. They were accompanied by two Americans, in the essayist’s original sense, as guides. At one point the group began to discuss the possibility of choosing one of their group to sacrifice as food for the rest. The two Americans looked at one another, backed into the wilderness, and disappeared.

    My personal bias is to take these views of Americans toward the invaders as accurate and insightful, heartbreakingly so. My small Vermont town has taken on the task of incorporating over 100 Afghan refugees; I now devote most of my time to helping with this endeavor. Here in the US, of course, Afghans are routinely thought of as fundamentalist, uneducated tribesmen who do nothing but fight with each other; yet, I assume that they have been uprooted from a culture that, in basic ways, is more healthy than ours. I have wondered if there is a way to discuss with them the fact that our sense of community is fractured, that strangers are not routinely polite, that many neighbors don’t even know their next-door neighbors. I won’t go on further about this except to say that it is one of my biggest concerns for them, one of the ways in which I feel they are most vulnerable. What I am saying is that my attitude about our culture is much along the same lines as that of the indigenous peoples as relayed in those quotes.

    3. …”Our discourse, our ability to understand the way things are or could be, is robbed of a deeply needed range of alternatives.”…

    The vibrant music center in my town has focused the last two years on performing works of under-appreciated composers, specifically anyone other than cis white male. Naturally this translates especially to women and to people of color. I felt my mind expand recently when, by way of introducing a chamber music performance, one of our sharp young teachers explained that we are not being “inclusive”. I can’t do the full explanation justice–I am still learning–but the part I absorbed was that we are not admitting people into our special space; rather, we are tearing the walls down that confine us into a limited world. In a fundamental way we are opening ourselves to reality, to what already exists. Florence Price and Samuel Taylor Coleridge do not become great composers as a result of our blessings (and subsequent self-congratulation for being so liberal). Florence Price and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were great composers, and if we don’t’ know that, it is our loss. Their works stand on their own, unaffected by our judgments.

    Thank for the stimulating essay. I could go on and on about it. Bmaz had suggested to me that I would appreciate discussions with you. I am sorry it has taken me so long to join in.

    • bmaz says:

      Heh, think I’ve told this story before, but when up in Boulder for a couple of years for grad school, I ate daily and drank bad beer at the Alferd Packer Grill in the student memorial union complex. Named for Alferd Packer, along with the Donner folks, maybe the most famous western US cannibal. The running joke was “the food is okay, but at least we are eating better than Alferd Packer”. Also, too “eat a friend for lunch”.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Pearl Street must have been a bit more plebeian then. Now it’s like Rodeo Drive, assuming it survived the latest fires.

        • bmaz says:

          Pearl Street was awesome back then. Some great little restaurants and shops (including a great record store), not overly glitzy. And, of course, the Blue Note, hands down as sweet of a jazz club as I ever frequented anywhere.

    • gmoke says:

      Joan Didion’s ancestors were part of the wagon train that included the Donner Party. Her forebears had the good sense to split off on an alternate route before getting snowbound.

      It’s a bit of family history that resonates throughout her work.

  2. timbo says:

    Much appreciated. Yeah, I didn’t know about the French records of First Peoples opinions and thoughts either.

  3. Alda Earnest Goodpeople says:

    “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’”

    Like many of you, I have been down quite a few rabbit holes in exploration of questions like these, and after 30 years researching the nature of the same from pretty much every angle, it is my learned opinion that the origin of inequality among men “is natural law”, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, as follows.

    Beginning with the microcosm, is there equality between the number of chaotic processes/structures, relative to the number of relatively more static processes/structures? The answer is currently no, where there are more chaotic processes/processes than relatively more static processes/structures in the observable universe? As Heraclitus the Greek is paraphrased, “the only thing that is constant is that everything will change”, or “no person washes their foot in the same river, because it is not the same foot, nor is it the same river”. Accordingly, chaos is more powerful than the structures it creates, they are not equals.

    Is there equality among the number of fundamental particles in the observable universe? The answer is currently no, there are more of some fundamental particles in the universe than others, who collectively have more power than other fundamental particles, where power equates to more energy over time, than others.

    Is there equality among the known fundamental forces? The answer is currently no here also, where some fundamental forces have more power than others.

    Is there equality among the known number of atoms in the observable universe? The answer is no here also, as some atoms like hydrogen and helium far outnumber other types of atoms in the observable energy, and thus collectively have more energy over time or more power with respect to other atoms.

    From the perspective of genetics, is there equality among the number and types of genes in all cell types? The answer is currently no, different cell types have different types and different numbers of genes, and some of these genes are more powerful in volume than other genes, and some of the products/proteins of those genes are more powerful than products/proteins of other genes.

    With respect to cellular biology, is there equality among cells with respect to the number of different cells, and with respect to the power of each cell type? The current answer is no, as there are certainly more of some cell types than others, and as some cells are much larger than other cells, and some cells are much more powerful and/or aggressive than other cells. Cells are interesting to this discussion because there are cells that live in a symbiotic harmony, other cells that live off of other cells in a parasitic manner, and still other cells that plainly consume other cells in order to survive.

    With respect to organisms, is there equality among organisms? The answer is currently no. Some organisms have vastly greater power over other organisms. Here what is interesting is that some of the smallest organisms can have power over some of the biggest organism, for example bacterial infection by very small organisms can kill much larger organisms, in the same way that an unchecked cancer cell or tiny little virus can eventually kill its much larger host, in a manner that the much larger host is powerless to stop due to the authority of natural law inequality, not unlike the networked, complex, and comorbid mental illness known as the billionaire syndrome.

    Within the animal “kingdom”, is there inequality among animals? Of course the answer is yes.

    Within the human population, is there inequality among human animals? Of course the answer is yes.

    Within the population of stars, planets, and moons, is there inequality with respect to representation? The current answer is yes, as there are not a known equal number of the same types of stars, nor an equal number of planets around each different type of star, nor an equal number of moons around each planet.

    Within the population of stars, planets, and moons, is there inequality with respect to representation with respect to suitability for life as we known life? The current answer is yes, as not all types of stars, planets, and moons are conducive to life as we know life, and are inhospitable.

    Within the realm of galaxies, clusters, and superclusters, is there inequality with respect to representation? The answer is currently yes, there are not a known equal number of the types of galaxies, clusters, and superclusters in the known universe.

    With respect to light energy/matter and dark energy/matter, is their inequality with respect to representation? The current answer is yes, as there is far much more dark energy/matter than light energy/matter in the observable universe.

    “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’”

    The answer seems to be that natural law is the origin authorizing inequality among men, from the microcosm to the macrocosm.

    • d4v1d says:

      Generally a good observation; I don’t recall the matter/antimatter imbalance in your list?

      This, though, I quibble with: “as there is far much more dark energy/matter than light energy/matter in the observable universe.”

      A hard case to make as we don’t know what either is, or that they are anything at all – just as Copernicus looked at generations of Ptolemaic calculations and tables, and saw that the math was wrong – and corrected it (h/t Kepler). Einstein essentially did this, too. And there is a significant and growing percentage of astrophysics who are solidly in this camp, and all of them are in the ‘in any event, we actually don’t have a clue” category.

      • Old Antarctic Explorer says:

        Yes! You get up earlier than I do d4v1d.

        I recently finished an unofficial Relativity class taught by a retired physics professor. The last two sessions were all about Dark Matter. He went through eight different explanations for dark matter, each one of which thought they were correct, or course. And the research and math looked good for all of them. They ranged from MOND to Information Theory. The one he liked best, without saying it was correct, was a MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) theory with only one adjustable parameter. The rest has up to 4 parameters. John Wheeler famously said that with six parameters he could fit an elephant. “Actually don’t have a clues” is just about right and I would extend that to the whole physics community.

      • LadyHawke says:

        While we don’t know what dark matter is, we can measure and calculate its gravitational effects in detail (as it keeps galaxies from flying apart, etc.) and so determine that the “ordinary” baryonic matter we experience makes up only 15% of their sum.
        The extent of what we know about dark energy is what it does – causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. The universe is very roughly 70/25/5 dark energy / dark matter / baryonic.
        So much yet to learn, if we don’t kill human civilization off.

    • skua says:

      I feel I’ve been shown again that humans can categorise and compare things in ways that create inequalities.

  4. Alda Earnest Goodpeople says:

    “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’”

    Down another rabbit hole…

    From an organizational learning and development perspective, inequality and equality can be related to tall and flat organizational structures, respectively.

    From an organizational learning and development perspective, the two fundamental structures of organizations are flat structures (democratic or more-or-less equal say in decision-making in theory) and hierarchies (for example but not limited to a monarchy, where one person or a small group of people make the decisions).

    From an organizational learning and development theory perspective, startup organizations and those facing a more chaotic environment must strive to be more organic, less mechanistic, flatter, less formal, less division of labor, with less structure, more innovation, more decentralized with respect to decision-making, and implement fewer formal operating procedures, in order for the organization to be able to quickly adapt to rapid change to survive and grow.

    From an organizational learning and development theory perspective, more mature organizations and those facing a less chaotic environment have the luxury to become less organic, more mechanistic, taller, more formal, with greater division of labor, with more structure, less innovation, more centralized with respect to decision-making, and implement increasing more formal operating procedures, in order for the organization to be able to quickly adapt to slower change to survive and grow.

    What is interesting and contributes to the collapse of organizations, countries, and empires is that when faced with increasing chaos or rates of change threatening their economies from the inside and the outside, and attacking their ability to defend the same inside and outside of the organization — per organizational development theory — increased chaos and instability require them to decentralize, and not to centralize further (North Korea is great example here), to become less of a hierarchy and flatter, in order to adapt to the increasing rates of change fast enough allow the group/organization/interorganization to survive and grow.

    Much of this has to do with a number of communications and direct report equations — very much like the Dunbar Number of 150, implied and specified in previous posts — where in organizational development each person at their limit should not have more than 7 direct reports, and where the ideal number of layers in an organizational structure should be between 3 and 7 layers, beyond which the capacity to effectively communicate and network between people is “exponentially defeating” the ability of the organization to adapt to change to survive.

    More simply, the more people under any one person — exponentially more communications are required between individuals under that one person with their leader and with one another — in such a manner that overcomes the leader’s ability to lead, turning leaders into managers, in such a manner that this impacts the ability of very large group/organizational/interorganizational tall structures to adapt to change fast enough to survive and grow, the “red tape” or “bureaucracy” effect.

    “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’”

    More simply, the more chaotic or unstable the environment or natural law, the less hierarchy is effective — and the less chaotic or more stable the environment or natural law, the more hierarchy is effective.

    The result is that more chaotic environments favor greater equality and decentralization (usually achieved post-revolution, after pre-revolution leaders refuse to decentralize and instead increase centralization or fascism), and less chaotic environments favor less equality (usually achieved pre-revolution).

    To be clear, I am not endorsing revolution of any kind here, but rather, regurgitating organizational development theory, combined with research on the rise and fall of empires for the last 400 years.

    Discussion question, did the former administration increase or decrease the chaos of the environment inside and outside the American interorganization, and if they did increase the chaos, did they seek to centralized more power or decentralize power, and if they sought to centralize the power, while increasing the chaos, was this yet another branch of the combined effort to overthrow the government?

  5. Eureka says:

    re Discussion 1,2 (and yes there are more of these texts):

    The French contact-era texts/interactions and the ideas/values they learned from first Americans inform both crucial French assistance in the (ideals and shape of the) American Revolution and the French Revolution. [Besides French-British antipathy and some layers of irony — cf. The Marquise de Lafayette — the fusion of these ideas with European traditions are more than important kernels towards (then-) modern representative governance.]

    Author bias (whether ‘favorable’ or ‘not’) is always important to bear in mind: that French writers chose to share these things we now (and then, as the case was) find valuable can come down to idiosyncratics, accidents of history shaping the respective authors’ POVs.

    Regardless, one can still glean valuable (and at times rather faithful) info on the colonizeds’ ways if you keep this in mind working with such texts.

    One famous example with which I am quite familiar is the Florentine Codex (La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España/The General History of the Things of New Spain) by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, based on info collected during the mid-to-late 1500s by, with, and from Nahua-speaking Aztec people (The Spanish version was translated to English in the 1950s-1980s; the Nahua version was translated to English in more recent decades; see wikis for more specifics).

    So long as you keep in mind that these were Catholic converts or that the project was irrevocably related to those efforts, you can glimpse a lot of different perspectives through even an, at times, judgy lens.

    See also the Books of Chilam Balam, some of which were recorded pre- and peri-colonization by various Maya-language speakers.

    Remember, too, that these are near-universally men speaking and writing.

    • Eureka says:

      For example, one can learn that Nahua approaches to “health” and “medicine” were decidedly biopsychosocially integrated. Besides, say, a(n often) biologically efficacious* “treatment”, there were social elements that were just as important (my favorite example is the public identification of those with venereal disease — but it wasn’t like a shaming parade in the Nahua way; that type of element more came in later under Catholic-Hispanic influence).

      *See e.g. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano’s work

    • Ed Walker says:

      Fascinating. I wonder if the Florentine Codex mentions the reaction of the Indigenous People to the invaders?

      I should note that the authors are sensitive to the differences between the French and the Americans. They observe that we are probably closer to the Indigenous Americans than to the invading French in our outlook. They quote some of the French missionaries complaining about the Americans because they aren’t interested in French Catholic ideas about subservience to the Almighty.

      • Eureka says:

        There are pictographic representations of contact/interaction as in most relevant codices (sometimes with captions of varying detail) but I don’t recall direct-speech type snippets like you may be looking for. [In fact there’s evidence that recorded speech events, such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s long-delayed recounting of conversation between Hernan Cortes and Moctezuma II, have been woefully misconstrued as opposite to what (e.g. here) Moctezuma meant per Nahua speech habits (narrator: he needed the equivalent of a sarcasm tag) — beyond the political and class issues with such accounts.]

        This is actually an enormous, multifaceted field of inquiry. I have some resources and context/background for you I’ll share when I can make time.

        Briefly, pictograms are far more common, reliable, and faithful to how Nahua (and many other Mesoamericans) communicated their stories (oral histories via readings of these illustrations, sometimes from multiple points of view, are recorded in annales). I’d call them (stylistically) more reification-with-revision of identity texts than direct reports such as represented in the post. Even after Nahuatl became a literary language with the introduction of the Roman alphabet, their “statements” are more important in the pictographic elements; the captions (initially/primarily in Spanish — that was the proselytization project, after all) which came to predominate — and which later, in the form of longer texts, displaced images — are relatively impoverished.

        You’re in for some more book reading if you want to know more. [Not like I want to pass along myths that interpretation of literary-based historical texts requires any less expertise, but you will need more help with translation here.]

        • Eureka says:

          [Apparently I’m doing this now]

          See for ex. Stephanie Wood’s _Transcending conquest: Nahua Views of Spanish Colonial Mexico_.

          See also the succinct wiki, with a list of major works (mostly US-based scholars), for New Philology, a ~ 50-year-old school which emphasizes understanding contact and colonization in Mexico (mainly, but also elsewhere in Mesoamerica) from indigenous points of view by prioritizing their texts in their languages.

          You could also poke around the ethnographic/historical archive sections of MNA (Museo Nacional de Antropología) and INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia); there are complex politics as everywhere but owing to tourism (giant structures), among other factors, indigenous peoples’ histories are much bigger points of nationalized pride in Mexico than in the US. [If at times more for salable show of folkways than modern standards of living.]

      • Eureka says:

        [This follows the informative replies I made which are in moderation so I can’t append to them, but read those first.]

        For illustrative purposes, here’s one handy example (from a different codex). Scroll to the image with this captioned text, bottom right:

        Conquistador Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán as depicted in Codex Telleriano Remensis

        “año de onze casas y de 1529 se partio nuño de guzman para jalisco yendo a sujeptar aquella tierra finjen que sale la culebra del cielo diziendo que les venia travajo a los naturales yendo los cristianos alla”

        (Year of 11 House [Mahtlactli Calli] and of 1529, Nuño de Guzman left for Jalisco to subjugate that land; they feign that a snake came out of the sky saying that hard times were coming for the natives with the Christians going over there.)(Filio 44R)

        What is this scribe saying, in whose voice? [This is a terribly complicated example backstory-wise, too, because of competition between Nuno de Guzman (later arrested for treason — click through to his wiki) and Cortes.]

        How does the image serve or subvert the text?

        You also have to know their cosmology to get this.

        [And going back to the “not-travel travel” conversation a couple-few posts ago, as I meant to make explicit then: the idea that “religion” is separate from governance/social structure/ behaviors of everyday life is a specially American bias per our founding principles.

        Don’t be put off by tables of content &c. thick with references to cosmology because it’s the bread, butter, and meat for the rest one might like to know.]

        Also, I’m not getting into the whole “the Aztecs thought the white people were like the sun(god)” thing: see some contexted scholarship on that.

  6. Alda Earnest Goodpeople says:

    “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’”

    One last rabbit hole…

    From the perspective of natural law pertaining to animal behavioral studies, food “abundance” environments versus food “scarcity” environments largely affect the altruistic versus sociopathic conduct — affecting equality and inequality behavior.

    For example, though big cats in Africa are social animals, during times of food “abundance” — during times of food scarcity, they will readily eat their own, similar to the Donner Party or Brazilian soccer team that crashed in the Alps.

    Similarly, having discussed with keepers at Monterey Aquarium — when they kept a great white shark in the tank, and fed the shark plenty of food — the shark did not seek to eat the smaller fish in the tank, but instead swam around the tank in harmony with the fish.

    Similarly, other primate studies have proven that when an “alpha” animal is removed from the population, the other primates have been shown to live together in harmony, in more of a care and share environment, because fundamentally, the alpha primate created a scarcity and not an abundance environment for others, by taking more than his fair share of abundance, leaving others facing scarcity.

    Regarding “incel” research in humans, some have argued a Pareto Principle applies, where 80% of females allegedly want to mate with only 20% of males, creating a scarcity environment for 80% of males, resulting in “incels” or “involuntary celibates”. Interestingly, many of those incited by Trump, and many of those involved in mass shootings, are allegedly incels.

    Separately, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, also fundamentally argued that those with greater access to “abundant” resources faster developed their nations, technologies, and dominance faster, and that this was largely due to unequal geographic distribution of natural resources.

    Last, in Dr. Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”, abundance of love between the ages of 0-4 years old was not conducive to sociopathy, versus deprivation of love between these ages was conductive to sociopathy, arguing the “nurture” component of sociopathy.

    Arguing the nature component of sociopathy, and expanding beyond this great read is that some people are genetically-predisposed to sociopathy, and/or have brain imaging that is predisposed to sociopath, but other research has shown that if given enough love, that the same doesn’t manifest in those with sociopathic genes and/or sociopathic-affiliated brain imaging.

    Similarly, returning to Dr. Martha Stout and others, the concentration of, and number of connections between, the prefrontal cortex cells is allegedly a nature argument for and against sociopathy, where if memory serves, the more “abundant” the cells and connections, the less sociopathy.

    “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’”

    It seems that the origin of inequality among people is also governed by natural law with respect to the inequality of access to, the distribution of, or spectrum of the abundance of natural and nurturing resources required to make all people equal, leaving some people, groups, cultures, organizations, and countries with an abundance of natural and nurturing resources, relative to other people, groups, cultures, organizations, and countries, with much less.

    More simply, because there is not an equal distribution of the resources required for every person to be equal with every other person, as a function of natural law, inequality is inherently part of the design.

    The design is “perfect” and “working” for those who live in abundance, and “flawed” and “broken” for those who live in scarcity, and again borrowing the Pareto Principle, it seems that less than 20% of people think the natural law is perfect and fair, and that more than 80% of people think the natural law is broken and unfair.

    Last, in the field of philosophy, “the natural law” can have very different meanings depending on the ranking of fundamental axioms governing existentialism. For people of faith, the spiritual realm is the supreme natural law, from which the mental realm is derived, from which the physical realm is derived. For the faithless or empirical scientists, the physical realm is the supreme natural law, from which the mental realm is derived, from which the spiritual realm is derived. Folks like Descartes made the mental realm the supreme natural law, “I think, therefore I am” or “I think, therefore I exist”. His dream paradigm left him untrusting of the physical realm, because dreams seem real, but are not, him then questioning if his dream was real, and his life was not, and/or if his life was within the dream of another.

    In closing, is the origin of inequality among people not also based on the unequal understanding of what is natural? Short of creativity, do we give credence or thought to those things we have not been taught?

    • Rayne says:

      This is the internet and citations are easy to do using simple HTML or even cut-and-pasting a link. I’m going to point to your “some say” about incels as an example where a citation should be easy to add. Please use them.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Trump is fond of “some people say,” when he really means, “I want,” or “I think.”

    • Ed Walker says:

      A lot of what you describe as inequality seems to me to be just differences. There are more of some elementary particles than others. There are more sperm than eggs. Aside from the fact that we can offer sensible explanations for these differences, there aren’t value judgments attached to them.

      People can observe these differences and use them for our purposes. For many differences among humans, people assign value: as noted, Aquinas says men outrank women. We should pay attention to this kind of inequality for the purposes of this series.

  7. d4v1d says:

    Like you, I am still reading this work and will leave my observations on the things I found revelatory when I have plowed the entire field. Or at least until your commentary reaches ‘usus, fructus, abusus.’ (That’s a tease folks – I doubt anything I have to say will improve or illuminate @Ed Walker’s commentary on the matter when it appears.)

  8. Theodora30 says:

    The Arabs that studied and added to the knowledge of Greece, Rome and India were Muslims, a fact I am surprised wasn’t pointed out. I was out of college before I learned about the civilization the Muslims established in the early centuries following Mohammad’s death. I did learn that Arabs created our far superior number system which replaced the clunky Roman one, developing a place value system by adopting the zero from India. I also remember being told Arabs also created algebra which brought groans from us. But not once did anyone point out that these Arabs were part of vast Muslim civilization.
    During this time period after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe had turned away from the learning of those earlier civilizations. During that same period Islamic leaders were collecting all the knowledge they could and collecting those writings in huge libraries. One leader paid a bounty to anyone who brought him a book. Because of their extensive trading networks they were able to collect a wide array of writings.

    After 9-11 I was hoping PBS at least would do some shows about Muslim history to counteract the belief that Mohammed was extremist religious fanatic who established a religion that keeps them in the Dark Ages. From what I have read eventually the Islamic Empire was weaker when groups fell into tribalism and religious divisions much like the US is doing today.

    • John Lehman says:

      Arguably Islam was, in the Middle Ages, much more tolerant of different religions then Christians were at the time.
      Islamic Madrasas (Universities) in Spain, Timbuktu and Baghdad sheltered and encouraged Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian as well as Islamic scholars. Some also argue, that the Renaissance was the result of European exchange with Islamic culture.

  9. Epicurus says:

    Mr. Walker, re; point 3 maybe rather than violence it is just social entropy. Is there a civilization that hasn’t experienced it?

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    For a long period after WWII, the study of history in the US was as constipated as its anti-labor policies. It was largely confined to an opportunistic form of political history that sanctified great men, capitalism, and the Cold War. It demonized America’s enemies (Russia, China) without allowing hoi polloi to study them. The same a fate happened to sociology for a long stretch.

    Economic and social history were virtually absent, as were “foreign influences,” such as the French Annales School. Historiography – who writes history, why, for what purposes and with what biases – was confined to graduate school. Contrast that with the UK, where it was part of the first-year curriculum. Whigs are not hairpieces, and you have to understand historiography in order to understand what you’re reading. Scholars like Norman Kantor and Howard Zinn, who tried to change things, were criticized by a conservative, defensive academy and derided as advocates and populists – the faculty lounger version of acid throwing.

    It’s a great illustration of Orwell’s, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Republican authoritarians, who daily assault facts, the truth, and public education, have very much taken that to heart.

    • Artemesia says:

      I grew up in Washington State where study of Wash state history was required in high school. Never learned anything about the Wobblies — or the rest of the labor movement which was so active in that part of the country. Never learned about the KKK which was strong in that part of the country — there were few black people — their target was Catholics. Didn’t learn about the holocaust till I lived and went to high school in Germany. Decades later, driving my 8th grade daughter and friends when something on the radio mentioned Hitler; my daughter was the only kid who had heard of him.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Not usually much coverage of the 1919 Seattle steel strike – a national scandal – or that Wobblies were brutally murdered in Centralia – pretty much ignored by the press – because those local miners and lumbermen were such nice, churchgoing guys. There is more memorabilia in Centralia about the visit of Buffalo Bill Cody than those murders.

        There were a lot of organized reactions to the 1917 Russian revolution, from capital determined that “it” won’t happen here. Your experience is a bit like studying the history of Pittsburgh without learning about the Homestead steel strike.

  11. Jenny says:

    Thank you Ed. So much history to be unearthed.

    They came with a Bible and their religion- stole our land, crushed our spirit … and now tell us we should be thankful to the ‘Lord’ for being saved.
    Chief Pontiac, American Indian Chieftain

    What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the white man ever made with us have they kept? Not one.
    Sitting Bull

    They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.
    Red Cloud

  12. Hug h says:

    Thank you Mr. Walker, very thought provoking. All the more relevant in light of recent book burnings, part of a concerted political effort to keep the history of oppression hidden from young impressionable eyes.
    Reading this brought to mind a quote I saved years ago that made a big impression.

    “Speaking of poor children reminds me of Sitting Bull, as good an authority on our economy as anyone, even if he wasn’t an economist and even though he died in 1890. After the Lakota were defeated, he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for a season, but he never got ahead financially. He gave the bulk of his earnings to the street urchins who hung around the show. He was shocked that a nation powerful enough to conquer his people couldn’t or wouldn’t feed its own future. The white man was good at production, he concluded, but bad at distribution.”
    -Rebecca Solnit

    Long after early European/American contact, astonishment of our ways lingered.
    I bought myself a copy of “The Dawn of Everything” for Christmas, you’ve motivated me to move it up the future reading cue.

    • Jenny says:

      Yet hear me, friends! We have now to deal with another people, small and feeble when our forefathers first met with them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough, they have a mind to till the soil, and the love of possessions is a disease in them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the poor may not! They have a religion in which the poor worship, but the rich will not! They even take tithes of the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.
      – Sitting Bull

      • John Lehman says:

        In the Lakota language the word for White people is Wasi’chu.
        Some Lakota friends told me the story of how the name came to be:
        When the first European met with the Lakota, the Lakota honored him with a feast of tatanka (bison) meat.
        When the platter of meat was passed around the White man took the piece with the most fat hence the name “ Wasi’chu” taker of the fat or fat taker.

  13. nord dakota says:

    I did read Hobbes’ Leviathan in college, but that was ever so long ago. I do recall he referred to his decline as welcoming having some hole to crawl out of this world.

  14. Artemesia says:

    I can’t remember which Japanese film classic it was, but I remember being immersed in some classic samurai film in which a Dutch ship arrives and westerners come into the scene. You could smell them through the celluloid. One was so immersed in the dignity, quiet masculinity and even ritual violence of the culture and then these obviously unbathed, large, clumsy, loud, stomping western traders were like nails on a chalkboard. Saw it over 50 years ago and still have that sense of suddenly seeing our culture through the eyes of another culture.

  15. Franktoo says:

    Ed: I think we can cherry-pick evidence supporting or contradicting the concept of noble Native American civilizations. The Maya and Aztecs practiced human sacrifice. A handful of Europeans under Cortez never would have conquered the Aztecs without help from neighboring peoples who hated them. The bones in burial grounds around Native American settlements show that many died violent deaths before the arrival of Europeans. After living in relatively undisturbed hunter-gather societies in New Guinea, Jared Diamond asserts violence was endemic. On the other hand, the Iroquois Confederacy apparently inspired some of America’s founders. Given the tendency of many social scientists to seek only evidence that supports their preferred hypothesis and the human weakness of confirmation bias, it isn’t clear who is capable of recognizing the “truth” in this field. Certainly not me.

    According to Jill Lepore’s American history “These Truths”, Thomas Hobbes was a director of the Virginia Company during the struggles of the Jamestown colony. She asserts those experiences also influenced the young Hobbes to view of human nature even before the English Civil War.

  16. gmoke says:

    Ben Franklin and other Founders used the structure of the League of the Iroquois as part of their work on making the Constitution. There is also a strain of thought in Colonial America about why many of those captured by Indians (or “Americans”) preferred to stay with their new tribe of captors instead of returning to their families.

    PS: Franklin was wary about all those “new” German immigrants too, mucking up the “purity” of the Colonies.

  17. sleutherone says:

    This past week on Finding Your Roots episode “Mexican Roots”, the two guests traced ancestry to Mexico. Both were found to have a fair percentage of Native American in their admixtures. According to Dr. Gates, there was never a doubt that Spain came for silver and gold and the invaders needed workers. He then explained the many ways that racial and ethnic mixing occurred in Mexico after the invasions and thus how it showed up in the genes of the guests.

    Native Americans and Africans brought in via Spain were widespread and documented extensively in household, church and official records. This was important as all aspects of life were caste driven and the plan to classify was in place before the invasion. “Casta” painting charts were created that depicted people of various racial and/or ethnic mixes. For official documents and transactions one of the paintings was chosen by the official to classify each person involved. The chart that was shown on air had sixteen different classifications, but others had more.

    The swift conquering of what is now Mexico, and the relatively rapid rise of the caste system implies that there might not be many records from the Americans as might be present with those in areas invaded by France. The government/religious record is apparently extensive though.

    Some good news. I have a friend who studies indigenous histories and teaches college students how to use the archives for indigenous studies. She does her own research following the lives of individual women through letters and documents. She tracks women because unlike many of the enslaved men, women were brought into households, educated the children and passed down stories. Unfortunately, as was indicated by Dr. Gates, many times the enslaved American men did not survive to share what they knew.

    Thanks for the post, Mr. Walker, looking forward to the next.

  18. John Paul Jones says:

    I haven’t had time to read through all the responses yet, but as to this – “There is nothing about equality in the entire pre-Renaissance system of thought” I would sort of agree, but argue that the statement lacks nuance, and might be criticized as somewhat too absolute.

    Was there a lack of thought about equality in medieval times? Well, though the clerics may not have mentioned it, they were unlikely to have missed the fairly large number of peasant rebellions, some of which explicitly highlighted the notion, as in the scrap of doggerel – “When Adam delved and Eve span/Who then was a gentleman?” (Attributed to John Ball.)

    And as to the clerics themselves, I think one has to consider the level of heretical beliefs, that is, the repeated emergence of heresies over centuries, some of which were specifically about the denial of social hierarchy, i.e., all people equal in the eyes of god (though a good number were also about hierarchies of elite souls). There is also some literary commentary from the middle ages on the notion that true gentility is a quality of soul, and not necessarily anchored to social rank or position. So people find their way to the notion, in various forms, even though the “official” notions promulgated by ideologues try hard not to mention it, or engage with it.

  19. Christopher Blanchard says:

    I do tend to start my infrequent comments here with ‘Hmm’. I think there is cause. In this case ‘Natural Law’ seems to me to be a dangerous delusion. I don’t mean there isn’t such a thing – If I fall of a mountain I expect to get hurt, so that is law, but human law which governs inequality and fairness is human made, for reasons. Those reasons include historical evolution and accident but that doesn’t change the point, which is that we made it, so we can to do something different if we want. That is consistent with David Graeber’s anarchism (me – I go anarchist logic, like this, but pragmatic politics). It is also consistent with the most fundamental criticism of ‘free market’ ideology because all market arrangements are made by people for reasons, sustained by power, and are therefore changeable. There is nothing ‘natural’ about any market, any more than there is for my hatred of slavery. We are free to choose.

  20. HW3 says:

    I found this chapter grating. I accept that Kandiaronk was a real person who was paraphrased by his French interlocutor. But the rest of the dialogs were Europeans putting their own words into clearly fabricated natives mouths. I recognize they are laying a groundwork for incorporating indigenous views to Euro thought, but there is room for reference to present-day indigenous critique like Vine Deloria to check the authors’ interpretation of 17th C indigenous exchange.

  21. SAO says:

    Many of the Native American societies were in disarray when the colonizers and Europeans met them. The pilgrims settled in an abandoned village, complete with stores of corn to help them through the winter. The natives were decimated by disease. Then, as the colonizers settled, they were increasingly pushed into other tribes’ territory, creating strife.

    • Artemesia says:

      We sometimes underestimate the toll of disease introduced VERY early, by explorers before colonialists. As many as 90% of Native Americans were wiped out by measles and smallpox and tuberculosis — especially the first two, before colonization even began. Without this heavy toll of disease, the Indians would have been able to defend their territories more effectively.

    • Rayne says:

      Do you have a source for this: “Many of the Native American societies were in disarray” ?

      Well, pretty much a source for all of what you wrote would be nice. The U.S. has for too long been consuming whitewashed ‘history’ when it needs facts.

      • John Colvin says:
        The magnitude of the population loss is disputed, but many academics think it was tremendous:

        The European colonization of the Americas resulted in the deaths of so many people it contributed to climatic change and temporary global cooling, according to scientists from University College London.[76][77] A century after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, some 90% of indigenous Americans had perished from “wave after wave of disease”, along with mass slavery and war, in what researchers have described as the “great dying”.[78] According to one of the researchers, UCL Geography Professor Mark Maslin, the large death toll also boosted the economies of Europe: “the depopulation of the Americas may have inadvertently allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. It also allowed for the Industrial Revolution and for Europeans to continue that domination.”[79]

        • Rayne says:

          Thanks but I didn’t ask YOU for this. I asked SAO — who’s only left 16 comments here inside four years — to explain a specific reference. I’m so not putting up with “indigeous in disarray” characterizations without facts.

          You’ve only made three comments here so perhaps you’re not aware I’m of Hawaiian heritage, a people which lost between 85-90% of its population to Europeans’ diseases. That’s not contested especially when those diseases killed one of its monarchs.

        • John Colvin says:

          I did not mean to offend. I recall knowing something about your Hawaiian heritage, but wasn’t thinking about it when it responded. I was not aware of the magnitude of the losses suffered by the indigenous peoples of Hawai’i so (relatively) recently.

        • Rayne says:

          Within a 160-year window from the time of Captain Cook’s 1778 arrival in Hawaii to 1937, at least 80% died mostly from measles. I should have hundreds, possibly thousands of blood relatives but now I have about 100.

          Shulman, Stanford T et al. “The tragic 1824 journey of the Hawaiian king and queen to London: history of measles in Hawaii.” The Pediatric infectious disease journal vol. 28,8 (2009): 728-33. doi:10.1097/INF.0b013e31819c9720

          The Hawaiians weren’t “in disarray” when the Europeans arrived as an example. The Northeastern American tribes were dramatically affected by the infectious agents brought by European expeditions before the Pilgrims landed. The tribes weren’t “in disarray,” they’d been decimated by disease.

          Marr, John S, and John T Cathey. “New hypothesis for cause of epidemic among native Americans, New England, 1616-1619.” Emerging infectious diseases vol. 16,2 (2010): 281-6. doi:10.3201/eid1602.090276

          Makes me so angry that indigenous people are so carelessly labeled when it would have been far more accurate to say the Europeans were arrogant, negligent, and filthy — literally bringing disease-bearing rats with them. It’s a perfect example of the dominance of European thought that the indigenous are treated as the problem and not the other way around, and why decolonization of thinking is necessary.

  22. Honeybee says:

    Thanks for a stimulating more-than-just-Eurocentric point of view. Lately I have learned more about how middle New Mexico was the site of a fateful meeting between Hispanic Christianizing colonialists and a long-standing Puebloan culture that initially welcomed their visitors and then rose up against them and kicked their butts out – for a while. All long before the so-called American Experiment.

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