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.

From Flickr, Creative Commons License

Subject, Quasi-Object, Object

Posts in this series. Bruno Latour uses words in ways that are not always clear. Discussion of unusual usages of words may appear in earlier posts.

We Have Never Been Modern is Bruno Latour’s effort to define the nature of modernity. Latour looks back in time to a point where we can see the beginnings of modernity. [1] The point he chooses is the 1660s, shortly after the end of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle had a war of words over their respective conceptions of society and science.

The air pump was a recent invention, and Boyle and his associates spent a lot of time and money improving it. Boyle used the air pump to conduct experiments on air and air pressure. He described the methods and results in a a 1660 book, an early example of the scientific method.

Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651. The book is usually thought to be the first on political philosophy, an effort to understand the nature and structure of human society as a human construction, not a divine creation. He offers his ideas about the best way to organize society.

Each man wrote on the subjects covered by the other, according to Latour. But eventually people focused on Hobbes as a student of society and ignored his abstruse science. Boyle’s methods became the model for science, and his writings on politics and society were ignored. Nature and society became two separate things. Society doesn’t change the laws of nature, and nature doesn’t impact the structure of society. Society is about people, and science is about things. Latour identifies this as the decisive step to modernity, separating it from previous societies he identifies as premodern.

The distinction between nature and society has endured to the present. The two poles of our thinking are society, culture, people, the state on one hand; and nature, things, objects, on the other. [2] In order to study these separate topics, we are constantly involved in the process of purification, as Latour calls it. Science tries to rid the object of all traces of the subject. People studying society try to erase all traces of objects from their studies.

At the same time, we are engaged in a different process, which Latour variously calls hybridization, mediation, or translation, [3] This is our constant creation of new objects made up of elements of society and nature mixed together. We have made a vast number of these things that don’t fit the two categories of nature and society.

An air pump is a thing, but it talks to people about other things. Not everyone can hear it speak: only specially trained people are able to comprehend the message. Today there are instruments like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so vast that they are hard to comprehend, staffed by 17,500 people, using thousands more computers, detectors, and other pieces of equipment. The LHC tells specially trained people things about fundamental particles. The air pump and the LHC are tools to study nature, but they also change us and they change our understanding of nature, and society as well.

Hobbes’ theory helps us understand and work with government and power, but there were entities that exercised power outside the government in his time, including the Church of England, masters, guilds and others. That’s true now, when we have enormous corporations which organize the production and distribution of vast amounts of material goods and services; giant universities; enormous churches; and more.

Latour calls all these objects and entities hybrids or quasi-objects. I understand a quasi-object as a node which focuses the efforts of people and other objects and at the same time changes the people and the other objects and is changed by them. It is something in itself, but its existence and its meaning depend on human action. Here’s an explanation by Levi Bryant:

Quasi-objects are objects that are neither quite natural nor quite social. … [T]hey are operators that draw people together in particular relations as well as drawing people into relations with other nonhuman objects while being irreducible social constructions in the semiotic [and?] in the humanist sense.

Quasi-objects do not fit neatly into either society or nature, but are composites, featuring some of the attributes of each. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Large Hadron Collider. It is the node around which many people gather to work at their projects. Some use it to think about dark matter. Some use it to confirm the existence of the Higgs Particle, some fix the electro-magnets, some run the massive electrical plant that supplies the power, some clean the floors and some watch the budget. There are various kinds of governance, for example, the group that decides who gets to use it, and the group that decides what upgrades to add.

The LHC cannot be understood as a physical object, nor as a social construct. It is a quasi-object.


This distinction, between society/culture, science/objects, and quasi-objects is central to an understanding of this book. In future posts I’ll look at some of Latour’s analysis of modernity in terms of these categories. For now, two brief points.

1. One aspect of this distinction seems to be that we understand society through Hobbes’ lens, as organized around human beings and their society. Politics, economics, and other social sciences study parts of society. Each of them focuses on human beings, and ignores the objects with which humans construct society.

We understand science through Boyle’s’ lens, as the investigation of material things. Physics, chemistry, biology, math, all are focused on understanding the rules of operation of the physical world. To do this we isolate the object under study, and erase all traces of human society from it and the process of studying.

Neither of these lenses enable us to come to grips with quasi-objects, because each leaves out important aspects of quasi-objects. As a result, moderns have ignored quasi-objects, allowed them to proliferate, and ignored the consequences of ignoring them. Mostly we simply allow quasi-objects to come into existence with no thinking or planning. Our general rule is that people do stuff, and then we deal with the consequences, pleasant or unpleasant, through law and regulation or through the courts. Two obvious examples: Elon Musk is throwing random satellites into space and no one stops him from clouding our ability to look into the starry night. Southeastern Australia caught fire.

2. As Latour says in Sec. 1.2, “… America before electricity and America after are two different places; ….” In the same way, America with cell phones is a different place than America without cell phones. Those differences are how we recognize a quasi-object.

[1] I offer a rationale for this approach in the Introduction to this Series.

[2] The subject-object distinction has been a fixture of philosophy since the ancient Greeks. I read Latour to say that premoderns did not use that distinction, leaving it to academic speculation where it belongs.

[3] These words have a technical meaning, to which I may return in a later post.