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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Equality
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

One of the strangest shocks which the British traveller can experience occurs to him when he makes his first acquaintance with the American servant--especially the male servant. The quiet domineering European is stung out of his impassivity by a sort of moral stab which disturbs every faculty, unless he is absolutely stunned and left gasping. In England, the quiet club servant waits with dignity and reserve, but he is obedient to the last degree, and his civility reaches the point of absolute polish. When he performs a service his air is impassive, but if he is addressed his face assumes a quietly good-humoured expression, and he contrives to make his temporary employer feel as though it was a pleasure to attend upon him. All over our country we find that politeness between employer and servant is mutual. Here and there we find a well-dressed ruffian who thinks he is doing a clever thing when he bullies a servant; but a gentleman is always considerate, quiet, respectful; and he expects consideration, quietness, and respect from those who wait upon him. The light-footed, cheerful young women who serve in hotels and private houses are nearly always charmingly kind and obliging without ever descending to familiarity; in fact, I believe that, if England be taken all round, it will be found that female post-office clerks are the only servants who are positively offensive. They are spoiled by the hurried, captious, tiresome persons who haunt post-offices at all hours, and in self-defence they are apt to convert themselves into moral analogues of the fretful porcupine. Perhaps the queenly dames in railway refreshment-rooms are almost equal to the post-office damsels; but both classes are growing more good-natured--thanks to Charles Dickens, Mr. Sullivan, and Mr. _Punch_.

But the American servant exhibits no such weakness as civility; he is resolved to let you know that you are in the country of equality, and, in order to do that effectually, he treats you as a grovelling inferior. You ask a civil question, and he flings his answer at you as he would fling a bone at a dog. Every act of service which he performs comes most ungraciously from him, and he usually contrives to let you plainly see two things--first, he is ashamed of his position; secondly, he means to take a sort of indirect revenge on you in order to salve his lacerated dignity. A young English peer happened to ask a Chicago servant to clean a pair of boots, and his tone of command was rather pronounced and definite. That young patrician began to doubt his own identity when he was thus addressed--"Ketch on and do them yourself!" There was no redress, no possible remedy, and finally our compatriot humbled himself to a negro, and paid an exorbitant price for his polish.

Here we have an absurdity quite fairly exposed. The young American student who acts as a reporter or waiter during his college vacation is nearly always a respectful gentleman who neither takes nor allows a liberty; but the underbred boor, keen as he is about his gratuities, will take even your gifts as though he were an Asiatic potentate, and the traveller a passing slave whose tribute is condescendingly received. In a word, the servant goes out of his way to prove that, in his own idea, he is quite fit to be anybody's master. The Declaration of Independence informs us that all men are born equal; the transatlantic servant takes that with a certain reservation, for he implies that, though men may be equal in a general way, yet, so far as he is concerned, he prefers to reckon himself the superior of anybody with whom business brings him into contact.

It was in America that I first began to meditate on the problem of equality, and I have given it much thought at intervals during several years. The great difficulty is to avoid repeating stale commonplaces on the matter. The robust Briton bellows, "Equality! Divide up all the property in the world equally among the inhabitants, and there would be rich and poor, just as before, within a week!" The robust man thinks that settles the whole matter at once. Then we have the stock story of the three practical communists who forced themselves upon the society of Baron Rothschild, and explained their views at some length. The Baron said: "Gentlemen, I have made a little calculation, and I find that, if I divided my property equally among my fellow-citizens, your share would be one florin each. Oblige me by accepting that sum at once, and permit me to wish you good-morning." This was very neat in its way, but I want to talk just a little more seriously of a problem which concerns the daily life of us all, and affects our mental health, our placidity, and our self-respect very intimately. In the first place, we have to consider the deplorable exhibitions made by poor humanity whenever equality has been fairly insisted on in any community. The Frenchmen of 1792 thought that a great principle had been asserted when the President of the Convention said to the king, "You may sit down, Louis." It seemed fine to the gallery when the queenly Marie Antoinette was addressed as the widow Capet; but what a poor business it was after all! The howling familiarity of the mob never touched the real dignity of the royal woman, and their brutality was only a murderous form of Yankee servant's mean "independence." I cannot treat the subject at all without going into necessary subtleties which never occurred to an enraged mob or a bloodthirsty and insolent official; I cannot accept the bald jeers of a comfortable, purse-proud citizen as being of any weight, and I am just as loath to heed the wire-drawn platitudes of the average philosopher. If we accept the very first maxim of biology, and agree that no two individuals of any living species are exactly alike, we have a starting-point from which we can proceed to argue sensibly. We may pass over the countless millions of inequalities which we observe in the lower orders of living things: and there is no need to emphasize distinctions which are plain to every child. When we come to speak of the race of men we reach the only concern which has a passionate and vital interest for us; even the amazing researches and conclusions of the naturalists have no attraction for us unless they throw a light, no matter how oblique, on our mysterious being and our mysterious fate. The law which regulates the differentiation of species applies with especial significance when we consider the birth of human individuals; the law which ordains that out of countless millions of animalculae which once shed their remains on the floor of the deep sea, or that now swarm in any pond, there shall be no two alike, holds accurately for the myriads of men who are born and pass away. The type is the same; there are fixed resemblances, but exact similarity never. The struggle for existence, no matter what direction it may take, always ends in the singling out of individuals who, in some respect or other, are worthy to survive, while the weak perish and the elements of their bodies go to form new individuals. It soon becomes plain that the crazy cry for equality is really only a weak protest against the hardships of the battle for existence. The brutes have not attained to our complexity of brain; ideas are only rudimentary with them, and they decide the question of superiority by rude methods. Two lions fight until one is laid low; the lioness looks calmly on until the little problem of superiority is settled, and then she goes off with the victor. The horses on the Pampas have their set battles until one has asserted his mastery over the herd, and then the defeated ones cower away abjectly, and submit themselves meekly to their lord. All the male animals are given to issuing challenges in a very self-assertive manner, and the object is the same in every case. But we are far above the brutes; we have that mysterious, immaterial ally of the body, and our struggles are settled amid bewildering refinements and subtleties and restrictions. In one quarter, power of the soul gives its possessor dominion; in another, only the force of the body is of any avail. If we observe the struggles of savages, we see that the idea of equality never occurs to half-developed men; the chief is the strong man, and his authority can be maintained only by strength or by the influence that strength gives. As the brute dies out of man, the conditions of life's warfare become so complex that no one living could frame a generalization without finding himself at once faced by a million of exceptions that seem to negative his rule. Who was the most powerful man in England in Queen Anne's day? Marlborough was an unmatched fighter; Bolingbroke was an imaginative and masterful statesman; there were thousands of able and strong warriors; but the one who was the most respected and feared was that tiny cripple whose life was a long disease. Alexander Pope was as frail a creature as ever managed to support existence; he rarely had a moment free from pain; he was so crooked and aborted that a good-hearted woman like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was surprised into a sudden fit of laughter when he proposed marriage to her. Yet how he was feared! The only one who could match him was that raging giant who wrote "Gulliver," and the two men wielded an essential power greater than that of the First Minister. The terrible Atossa, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, shrank from contact with Pope, while for a long time the ablest men of the political sets approached Swift like lackeys. One power was made manifest by the waspish verse-maker and the powerful satirist, and each was acknowledged as a sort of monarch.

It would be like playing at paradoxes if I went on to adduce many mysteries and contradictions that strike us when we consider man's dominion over man. We can only come to the same conclusion if we bring forward a million of instances; we can only see that the whole human race, individual by individual, are separated one from the other by differences more or less minute, and wherever two human beings are placed together one must inevitably begin to assert mastery over the other. The method of self-assertion may be that of the athlete, or that of the intriguer, or that of the clear-sighted over the purblind, or that of the subtle over the simple; it matters not, the effort for mastery may be made either roughly or gently, or subtly, or even clownishly, but made it will be.

Would it not be better to cease babbling of equality altogether, and to try to accept the laws of life with some submission? The mistake of rabid theorists lies in their supposition that the assertion of superiority by one person necessarily inflicts wrong on another, whereas it is only the mastery obtained by certain men over others that makes the life of the civilized human creature bearable. The very servant who is insolent while performing his duty only dares to exhibit rudeness because he is sure of protection by law. All men are equal before the law. Yes--but how was the recognition of equality enforced? Simply by the power of the strong. No monarch in the world would venture to deal out such measure to our rude servitor as was dealt by Clovis to one of his men. The king regarded himself as being affronted by his soldier, and he wiped out the affront to his own satisfaction by splitting his follower's head in twain. But the civilized man is secured by a bulwark of legality built up by strong hands, and manned, like the great Roman walls, by powerful legionaries of the law. In this law of England, if a peer and a peasant fight out a cause the peer has the advantage of the strength given by accumulated wealth--that is one example of our multifarious complexities; but the judge is stronger than either litigant, and it is the inequality personified by the judge that makes the safety of the peasant. In our ordered state, the strong have forced themselves into positions of power; they have decided that the coarseness of brutish conflict is not to be permitted, and one ruling agency is established which rests on force, and force alone, but which uses or permits the use of force only in cases of extremity. We know that the foundation of all law is martial law, or pure force; we know that when a judge says, "You shall be hanged," the convict feels resistance useless, for behind the ushers and warders and turnkeys there are the steel and bullet of the soldier. Thus it appears that even in the sanctuary of equality--in the law court--the life and efficiency of the place depend on the assertion of one superior strength--that is, on the assertion of inequality.

If we choose to address each other as "Citizen," or play any fooleries of that kind, we make no difference. Citizen Jourdain may go out equipped in complete _carmagnole_, and he may refuse to doff his red cap to any dignitary breathing; but all the while Citizen Barras is wielding the real power, and Citizen Buonaparte is awaiting his turn in the background. All the swagger of equality will avail nothing when Citizen Buonaparte gets his chance; and the very men who talked loudest about the reign of equality are the most ready to bow down and worship the strong. Instead of ostentatiously proclaiming that one man is as good as another--and better, we should devote ourselves to finding out who are our real superiors. When the true man is found he will not stand upon petty forms; and no one will demand such punctilios of him. He will treat his brethren as beings to be aided and directed, he will use his strength and his wisdom as gifts for which he must render an account, and the trivialities of etiquette will count as nothing. When the street orator yells, "Who is our ruler? Is he not flesh and blood like us? Are not many of us above him?" he may possibly be stating truth. It would have been hard to find any street-lounger more despicable than Bomba or more foolish than poor Louis XVI; but the method of oratory is purely destructive, and it will be much more to the purpose if the street firebrand gives his audience some definite ideas as to the man who ought to be chosen as leader. If we have the faculty for recognizing our best man, all chatter about equalities and inequalities must soon drop into silence. When the ragged Suwarrow went about among his men and talked bluffly with the raw recruits, there was no question of equality in any squad, for the tattered, begrimed man had approved himself the wisest, most audacious, and most king-like of all the host; and he could afford to despise appearances. No soldier ventured to think of taking a liberty; every man reverenced the rough leader who could think and plan and dare. Frederick wandered among the camp-fires at night, and sat down with one group after another of his men. He never dreamed of equality, nor did the rude soldiers. The king was greatest; the men were his comrades, and all were bound to serve the Fatherland--the sovereign by offering sage guidance, the men by following to the death. No company of men ever yet did worthy work in the world when the notion of equality was tried in practice; and no kind of effort, for evil or for good, ever came to anything so long as those who tried did not recognize the rule of the strongest or wisest. Even the scoundrel buccaneers of the Spanish Main could not carry on their fiendish trade without sinking the notion of equality, and the simple Quakers, the Society of Friends, with all their straitened ideas, have been constantly compelled to recognize one head of their body, even though they gave him no distinctive title. Our business is to see that every man has his due as far as possible, and not more than his due. The superior must perceive what is the degree of deference which must be rendered to the inferior; the inferior must put away envy and covetousness, and must learn to bestow, without servility, reverence and obedience where reverence and obedience may be rightfully offered.

August, 1888.

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James Runciman's essay: Equality