In historical European society and in all other pre-modern societies that had agriculture, the dominant way of thinking about social relations was that of hierarchy or degree. In this way of thinking, everything in the world, from God or the gods downward, was organized hierarchically. This was true whether speaking of the natural world, the animal realm, or human society.
The human social order was founded upon the idea of a set of ranks or degrees, from pope and emperor at the top to beggars and peasants at the bottom. This was thought to be essential as well as natural. The alternative to hierarchy, or degree as it was called, was disorder and chaos. This belief was expressed by Shakespeare in the speech by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida that begins, “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark! What discord follows.”
This belief in hierarchy was qualified by the Christian teaching of all being equal in the sight of God (the point being that next to the majesty and virtue of God the difference between emperor and serf or saint and reprobate was so insignificant as to be non-existent) and by the belief that while there was a hierarchy everyone had a part to play in the scheme of things and all parts were of equal importance. “A place for every man, and every man in his place” was the essential idea.
Although all roles and kinds of living were important and equally vital to the continued life of society (medieval Europeans were well-aware that without the food produced by peasants everyone would starve) this did not mean that they had equal worth or esteem. A central part of the notion of degree was the idea that some kinds of life were inherently better than others. They were not only more valuable but more virtuous and more dignified (in the Roman sense of that term, meaning among other things prestige, respect, and status).
Some kinds of occupation or ways of living were elevated and noble and brought dignity; others were base and common and brought low status with them. The life of the cleric was conventionally given the highest status followed by that of the aristocrat and warrior. This was reflected in the traditional division of society into the three orders of clergy, aristocracy, and the Third Estate (everyone else but formally composed of peasants, artisans, and traders).
This apparently simple tripartite ranking of ways of living was actually very complex and detailed. Each of the three orders was in turn made up of a whole set of ranked occupations and levels. Interestingly these did not correlate in a simple way with wealth. A poor cleric or noble had a much higher status than a wealthy commoner for example. One important aspect of the system was that trade and commerce and particularly speculative trading and money lending were seen as particularly morally dubious and dishonorable. They were tolerated as vital and necessary but seen as stigmatizing in many cases (and often reserved for minorities, particularly Jews).
Another very important part of the system of degree was that most status was ascribed rather than acquired. That is, it came from either the inherent nature of the role or way of living one followed, or it came from birth. The two were interconnected because most people were born into a particular status and position in society, at all levels of the social scale (the clergy were the major and obvious exception because of the rule of celibacy, but they mostly came from the upper levels of society). There were always “new men” who rose in rank and status, but they were exceptional.
Generally, honor or repute and dignity did not come from your own actions or character but from the position you had in society, usually by birth. You could enhance it by your actions, and you could certainly lose it through base or improper behavior, but there was no idea that people could be judged purely by “the content of their character.” It was status that came first, while your actions could only qualify it. In addition, it was relatively easy to lose or stain honor, more difficult to enhance it, and very difficult to acquire it if you were not born to it.
This was the almost-unquestioned view in European society as late as the middle of the 17th century. (It was also found in all pre-modern civilisations even when they differed sharply from European society in other ways. The Ottoman Empire and Tokugawa Japan, for example, both viewed social order in very similar ways.)
This was one of the central features of traditional society that came under attack from the emerging and early liberal movements in Europe, from the middle of the 18th century onward. The classical liberals rejected the hereditarian and inegalitarian view of society just described and attacked the institutions that embodied and upheld it.
We can observe early expressions of this critique in people like the Levellers and Locke in 17th-century England, and in Spinoza in the Netherlands, but the full flowering of this attack on the established way of thinking came in the late 18th century. Against the notion of degree early liberals asserted a new and different social ideal that we may call the principle of liberal equality.
The foundation of this new social idea had two foundations or starting points. The first was individualism. Here the idea was that all human beings (initially men in fact but subsequently women as well) should be judged as themselves, on the basis of their speech, behavior, and actions rather than on the basis of their birth and antecedents or the inherent nature of their occupation. It was the individual human being and their conduct that mattered, not their place in some hierarchy of value.
The second was even more revolutionary and is still not accepted even today. This was the idea of social and moral equality. This is more than legal equality (which classical liberals also advocated of course). The idea is that all ways of making a living that do not involve theft or fraud are equally honorable and dignified. All jobs if well done are virtuous and bring dignity to those performing them, no matter how menial or trivial they may appear to be. All ways of making a living are of equal moral value and should have and bring equal social standing. There should be no difference in social standing between a president and a refuse collector for example.
This went beyond the demand for legal equality and opposition to institutions such as slavery and serfdom. It meant an attack upon a whole range of social institutions and practices. It meant for example rejecting the idea that certain kinds of dress were appropriate only for people of a particular social rank, or for people in certain occupations. (These kinds of distinction were enforced throughout Europe by sumptuary laws, many of them incredibly detailed.)
It meant rejecting a range of formalities of speech, deportment, and rules of social intercourse that reflected distinctions of worth and status between people that had nothing to do with their actions. Some of these have survived to this day in some places, notably the distinction between familiar forms of speech (used between equals and intimates) and formal ones (used by the inferior to the superior but not the other way around).
At the time however, language was only a small part of a mass of social rules with elaborate conventions about matters such as when and how deep to bow or take off your hat and to whom. In this new way of thinking, people should be polite and respectful to others but in an egalitarian way with the demands of politeness being the same for all. This also meant rejecting the idea of honor in which one’s moral standing and reputation depended not on your actions but on your social position or the view others had of you. One result of that was that the idea of dueling became ridiculous because your reputation could not be affected by what others did or thought of you but only by your own actions.
This was in other words a radical doctrine, that challenged one of the dominant ways of thinking in traditional society. The idea that someone in a common or menial trade should be on an equal social footing and given the same respect as someone in a traditionally noble or elevated position struck most people at the time as ridiculous.
The idea of liberal equality first appeared among radical Protestants, notably Quakers and Unitarians, and latterly among Methodists. (It was Quakers who were the first to do away with the distinction between formal and informal kinds of address.) It then spread and became more widespread. Its success can be seen in the repeal of sumptuary laws and the decline of practices such as dueling. Gradually the assumptions of degree were replaced by the assumption of liberal equality. This took a long time, however, is still not complete, and in more recent times has gone into reverse with the reappearance of the old idea in a new guise, that of meritocracy.
It is important to realize that liberal equality is equality of social status and esteem, not of income or condition. It is distinct from the kind of radical egalitarianism that found expression in the French Revolution and can be traced back to Rousseau and others. The point here is that to this way of thinking a working man of low income should be accorded the same social respect as a millionaire. Social esteem in other words is not connected to income or wealth. The other vital thing to grasp is that this is not the same as the contemporary idea of meritocracy.
What though of things such as Jefferson’s reference to the “aristocracy of talent”? By that Jefferson did not mean the contemporary idea of merit established by a competitive assessment process. The natural aristocrats that he spoke of were for him the people in all occupations and ways of living who had particular qualities of personal excellence and character. He hoped that they would be recognized by all as the natural leaders of society, no matter how economically menial their work might be.
The kinds of people he was thinking about, and the qualities they had or acquired, were the subject of many popular works, such as Dinah Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman or the many works of Samuel Smiles. The point was that these qualities were not incompatible with wealth but also did not require it, and could be found in all kinds of roles and social positions. They did not have to lead to wealth, people like Smiles and Jefferson thought, to be recognized by society at large.
All of this had social and political implications as well. It meant that there was not a clear or distinct governing class, much less a hereditary one. It meant that there could be and should be no distinction between high politics and popular. All should take part in discussion and debate, and the ideal was that those recognized as having the best qualities of character and judgment would be the leaders, regardless of what they did for a living.
It also meant what Scots called “the democratic intellect,” the idea that high culture and academic discussion should be open to all, regardless of what they did, as both consumers and contributors. This found expression in many things but particularly the great culture of autodidacticism that was such an important part of both middle- and working-class culture at the time.
The idea of liberal equality is one of the core beliefs of classical liberalism and individualism. It is taken for granted or even forgotten, but it remains one of the most radical ideas of liberalism and perhaps the most subversive of the traditional way of thinking. Its triumph is far from complete, and today it faces new challenges. All the more need to both assert it and practice it.