There survives, however, in modern life a definite ideal from the days of the French Revolution. We are too far away to be terrified as our grandfathers were of the sansculottes, and one could hardly bring a shudder to the heart even of a country person by speaking of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In the modern ideal of equality, the ideal involved concerns the relation of one individual to another: for even though there was much said about the State by the theorists of the Revolution, it was generally conceived simply as a collection of individuals; and although revolutionary France set about the destruction of tyrants in other countries, there was no new conception expressed of the relation of these national groups of men to the other.5` What chiefly moved men to enthusiasm concerning the Rights of Man was a conception of the individual having freedom enough to develop himself and equality of opportunity as his basis for intercourse with others. All those changes which appear in date-
and-fact history as the English Revolutions of 1640 and 1688, and the French Revolution of 1789, were really motivated by the same ideal. There was the same vague and, in England, unconscious striving after the political equality of all adults, and the same indefinite and in part mistaken conception of the independent individual. This is the ideal which is called revolutionary, not indeed because it is more subversive of the orderly progress of civilisation than any other, but chiefly because of its embodiment in that French movement which is still called ‘par excellence’ the Revolution. It involves perhaps a kind of philosophical Individualism such as was common in the Enlightenment; it is as reckless a faith in the dictates of the individual conscience as was the faith of Immanuel Kant. But we should keep the word ‘Individualism’ as the name for a more modern ideal. And on the other hand, the revolutionary ideal implies much that is now connected with Socialism, but this also must be left for later treatment.
It must be our first task therefore to show what conception in modern politics belongs in the history of development by date of birth to the revolutionary period. This conception will probably be found in the modern view of the minimum requisite for human life in society; and if one word may be chosen as expressing the ideal it must be ‘Equality’. The implied opposite is a situation in which some men had much and most had too little. Of these ‘most’ also we may say that the little they had was dependent on the will of those who had much.
We are all agreed that there is no possibility of civilised human life without security for each man of food and clothing independently of the will of any other. That is to say, the position of the medieval serf on many estates may have been more fortunate than that of the modern agricultural labourer, but he depended for that position on the goodwill of the lord of the manor. Now we are not willing to leave to the vagaries of personal character the distribution of the necessaries of life among most of the inhabitants of a civilised country.
The modern conception therefore is based on the fact that, apart from the social position of any individual and apart from his necessities as a labourer
to make him fit for his labour, he must be first considered as a man. So obvious does this seem that we can hardly imagine a time when social caste was strong enough to obscure the fundamental likeness between all members of the same race; and we can hardly believe that even religious men once justified slavery as being good for the slaves, who would be well fed by their owners in order that they might do sufficient work for these owners. Thus we admit that every human being has a right, independently of the interests of any other, to food and clothing; or at least we allow it theoretically: for there may be some who would maintain that those who are without sufficient food and clothing should be left to ‘charity’6`.
Since, however, very many still are without sufficient food and clothing even for bare human life, the ideal is not realised. We are still moved to act by the conception that as far as possible all human beings should have sufficient for a human life. But if our action be simply charitable or the organising of charity, it is medieval even though we think it well that all the inhabitants of a civilised state should have the bare needs of life. We know indeed that in the Middle Ages distress was often relieved. There was of course abundant charity. The new ideal is implied in that small word ‘right’; and although the Church of the Middle Ages, preached almsgiving there was never any conception of the ‘right’ of each man to food and clothing. There is a vast difference between giving out of benevolence and supplying a legitimate demand. The Revolution did not ask for charity: it demanded the Rights of Man. We agree, presumably, at least in the vaguest sense, that each man has an equal right to the bare necessities of life; and perhaps the majority of political thinkers would agree that all men are politically equal. If that is so the Revolutionary ideal is still in some sense alive; for, although we have acquired a certain amount of equality, much more has yet to be attained and there are at least some who are working for this equality. There is no need to define the equal right of all men; since there may be much disagreement, for instance, as to whether real equality can co-exist with vastly different private incomes, or with inherited wealth, or with certain traditional
privileges. But the point is that whatever may be the precise sense given to political equality by different parties, all accept some form of political equality as desirable; and by that we mean, of course, equality of sane adults whom we may call men, not of lunatics, imbeciles, or children.
The fact remains that it is to the pagan Renaissance and not to the medieval Church that we must look for the source of that ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ which made the soul of the French Revolution. It cannot, of course, be denied that the Church and the ecclesiastical politicians had stated that all men were brothers whose Father is God. The fundamental difficulty to a real democracy was the addition of the statement that all men were thus ‘in the eyes of God’. This made the first statement ineffective, and it was reserved for the anti-ecclesiastical political thinkers of the Enlightenment to show that all men were equal ‘in the eyes of men’. What was true only to the mind of God was not true for political purposes; but when it was shown that men could themselves grasp, how all men were equal, then a new and splendid ideal was added to the tradition of Western Civilisation. The interests of all men had been considered by theorists long before their rights had been admitted, and even medieval political thinkers had not lost sight of a common humanity.
Thomas Aquinas7` was inclined to suppose that government ultimately resulted on ‘the will’ of the governed, and he certainly grasped the truth that it exists for the ‘good’ of the governed.8` But what was not clear in early times to the official teachers was that the people do not ask for their good to be considered as a sort of charity; it is no special virtue in a prince to consider his subjects. He exists for no other purpose; for such is their ‘right’.
As for the expression of the ideal in the days when it was first powerful some hint of the new conceptions respecting the relation of individuals may be found in Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’. In this great book the whole structure of society was based upon the conception that individuals unite together for self-preservation. They agree to transfer the power for self-preservation which is in each to a central government, which thus in origin rests upon the will of the
people, and exists for the equal benefit of all. Here was a principle which might justify discontent with existing governments, but it could not become a gospel of Revolution, because for Hobbes the government once established was for ever supreme. The transfer of power had been made. Thus we are still in the region of Renaissance sovereignty, and Hobbes is classed with Grotius in the ‘Contrat Social’9`; for although there was present in the work of Hobbes a clear conception of the origin and theoretical basis of government in the will of the governed, which is hardly to be found in Grotius, both held that the transfer of power deprived the people of even the theoretical possession of ultimate sovereignty. The theory of the origin of government, however, implied the idea of political equality among the many in whom rested the basis of sovereign rule.
The actual change in the political situation which made it possible for the ideal of equality to flourish on a soil of concrete reality was sudden in some countries and slow in others. In England the greater number of inhabitants gradually made their power felt from the sixteenth century onwards. Political monopoly of power had been corrected in the Puritan revolution and again in 168810`. A gradual approach was thus made towards the equalising of all adults in law and politics. But in France the old medieval situation was perpetuated until the great Revolution of 1789; and the strength of the ‘ancien regime’ made its opponents all the more violent, so that it is doubtful whether the crimes committed in the name of fraternity should be put down to the Revolution or to the long-established caste-system which made such a revolution possible.
The ideal of Rousseau may once more be considered. Meantime the change of ideas had begun, and the Gospel of theRevolution was found in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These have been so frequently and so well expounded that it will not be necessary here to do more than show how the fundamental idea of an equal humanity gave them force. The union of men in society as conceived according to the ‘Contrat Social’ is a union of equals who do not, as in the ‘Leviathan’, repudiate their equality by their act of union. Rousseau made a distinction between the government set up by a people and the
structure of society, or the relationships of the individuals. The only ‘natural’ union is, for him one in which the fundamental equality or brotherhood of all is preserved. ‘If the whole structure of society rests on an act of partnership entered into by equals in behalf of themselves and their descendants for ever, the nature of the union is not what it would be if the members of the union had only entered it to place their liberties at the feet of some superior power. Society in the one case (Hobbe’s) is a covenant of subjection, in the other a covenant of social brotherhood.’11` But this involves that ‘every’ form of government then existing, in so far as the people were not directly governing, even if they had given over their power willingly and it had not been snatched from them, was corrupt : it was a violation of the natural state and therefore of what was just.12`
‘Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains’ : these first words of the ‘contrat social’ are, as it were, the cry of pain from which the Revolutionary enthusiasm arose.It is of interest to notice the fierce antagonism with which Rousseau mentions the name of Grotius as of one who had riveted these chains :13` his name recurs frequently and Rousseau’s violence only shows how completely the Renaissance ideal had become obstructive. The family is the only natural society, all others are conventional. The State is indeed conventional in so far as it is the result of a free contract or pact, but it is by no means a loss of liberty for the 14,15. The natural inequality of men is thus recognised by Rousseau and placed in opposition to their political equality. What meaning, then, does he give to the new equality arising in the social pact ? There was a protest against class-legislation and privilege, and against the tendency of those who are naturally better endowed than others to consider only their own interests.
Such a tendency still exists, and the old excuse for it, that men are born more or less intelligent or powerful, is still sometimes used; but Rousseau is quite reasonable in supposing that its correction can only be made by enforcing the fact of ‘likeness’ between all men in so far as they are members of the State. To form a State, he argues, not only the intelligent or the competent enter the compact but ‘all’, both the intelligent and the non-intelligent. As parties to the
agreement all are equal though in other ways they are dissimilar ; this is the meaning of political equality. How to make this real it is difficult to say ; but equality is not a chimera. A government is established by the sovereign people for this purpose ;17` governments are of all kinds, and they tend to abuses,16` while what remains always unchanged is the popular sovereignty. Thus the statement (Book II, chap.i) that ‘Sovereignty is inalienable’ and is not given up even when a government is established, becomes the theme (Book IV) of the later thesis that direct government by the people is the only safe method ; kings, priests, and all governors are to be suspected, for their very abilities lead them to power and their power to the maintenance of a situation no longer willed by the governed.18,19.’