Anyone who claims to take seriously the theological witness of the past cannot avoid the fact that Christians, until recently, considered social and political inequality to be not a necessary evil, but a good in itself. Inequality, they thought, is natural to human civil society and, when properly ordered, is a higher, more complete, arrangement than one of social equality.
If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve posted a few articles on Christianity and inequality (see here, here, here, and here). I list more quotes here, especially more from Calvin. I have also included quotes from Thomas Aquinas, non-theologians and philosophers on inequality.
Augustine (354 – 430)
Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. Domestic peace is the well-ordered concord between those of the family who rule and those who obey. Civil peace is a similar concord among the citizens. The peace of the celestial city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God. The peace of all things is the tranquility of order. Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place. (City of God xix.13)
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274):
Under the question “Whether in the state of innocence man would have been master over man?,” he writes (Summa Theologica 1.96.4):
But a man is the master of a free subject, by directing him either towards his proper welfare, or to the common good. Such a kind of mastership would have existed in the state of innocence between man and man, for two reasons.
First, because man is naturally a social being, and so in the state of innocence he would have led a social life. Now a social life cannot exist among a number of people unless under the presidency of one to look after the common good; for many, as such, seek many things, whereas one attends only to one. Wherefore the Philosopher says, in the beginning of the Politics, that wherever many things are directed to one, we shall always find one at the head directing them.
Secondly, if one man surpassed another in knowledge and virtue, this would not have been fitting unless these gifts conduced to the benefit of others, according to 1 Peter 4:10, “As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another.” Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 14): “Just men command not by the love of domineering, but by the service of counsel”: and (De Civ. Dei xix, 15): “The natural order of things requires this; and thus did God make man.”
For the question, “Whether men were equal in the state of innocence?” he writes:
Equality is the cause of equality in mutual love. Yet between those who are unequal there can be a greater love than between equals; although there be not an equal response: for a father naturally loves his son more than a brother loves his brother; although the son does not love his father as much as he is loved by him.
The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men. Inequality might also arise on the part of nature as above described, without any defect of nature.
A properly ordered hierarchical social order has greater beauty than a collection of equals. This is consistent with Aquinas’s view that “divine goodness” is communicated “more perfectly” by “diverse things” (Summa Contra Gentiles , III, 97)
God, through His providence, orders all things to divine goodness as to an end; not however in such a manner that His goodness increases through those things which come to be, but so that a likeness of His goodness is imprinted in things insofar as it is possible, for indeed it is necessary that every created substance fall short of divine goodness, so that in order for divine goodness to be communicated to things more perfectly, it was necessary for there to be diversity in things, so that what is not able to be perfectly represented by some one [thing] is represented in a more perfect manner through diverse things in diverse ways.
John Calvin (1509 – 1564):
When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here, on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum — which is a part of ecclesiastical polity. (Commentary on 1 Cor. 11:3)
The last things to be observed is, that the Lord enjoins every one of us, in all the actions of life, to have respect to our own calling. He knows the boiling restlessness of the human mind, the fickleness with which it is borne hither and thither, its eagerness to hold opposites at one time in its grasp, its ambition. Therefore, lest all things should be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings. Every man’s mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not be always driven about at random. (Institutes III.x.6)
No one will ever devote himself to doing what belongs to his place [in society or the social organism], until we have learned that we were not created for ourselves, and also that we cannot be sustained, unless others extend us a helping hand. And, once we have learned this, we must still come back to what we observed before: this natural order did not come about by chance; rather God reveals His will by it, and means to test our obedience to see if we will submit to Him. Without this reverence, we will only cooperate begrudgingly, and will always be enraged when it comes to serving our neighbors. When, however, we perceive that it is God who yokes us together, teaching us that it is not without reason that he has been pleased to join us together in this way, then we should be disposed to receive the yoke He sets upon our neck, and willingly serve them whom He obligate us to serve. (Sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:14).
“Regarding our eternal salvation it is true that one must not distinguish between man and woman, or between king and a shepherd, or between a German and a Frenchman. Regard policy however, we have what St. Paul declares here; for our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to mix up nature, or to abolish what belongs to the preservation of decency and peace among us….Regarding the kingdom of God (which is spiritual) there is no distinction or difference between man and woman, servant and master, poor and rich, great and small. Nevertheless, there does have to be some order among us, and Jesus Christ did not mean to eliminate it, as some flighty and scatterbrained dreamers [believe].” Calvin (Sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:2-3, see above link)
Every one who goes beyond the limits of his calling provokes the wrath of God against himself by his rashness. Let every one therefore be satisfied with his lot, and learn not to aim at anything higher, but, on the contrary, to remain in his own rank in which God has placed him. If God stretch out his hand, and lift us up higher, we ought to go forward; but no one ought to take it on himself, or to strive for it from his own choice. And even those who are raised to a higher rank of honor ought to conduct themselves humbly and submissively, not with any pretended modesty, but with minds so thoroughly depressed that nothing can lift them up.” (In comments on Isaiah 14.13)
It is the Lord’s peculiar work to divide people into their respective ranks, distinguishing one from another, as seemeth good to him, all men being on a level by nature. (On Psalm 87)
Now we know for what end God would have rank and dignity to exist among men, and that is, that there might be something like a bridle to restrain the waywardness of the multitude. (Lecture 26 on Hosea)
Since Isaiah reckons this confusion among the curses of God, and declares that, when the distinction of ranks is laid aside, it is a terrible display of the vengeance of God, we ought to conclude, on the other hand, how much God is pleased with regular government and the good order of society, and also how great a privilege it is to have it preserved among us; for when it is taken away, the life of man differs little from the sustenance of cattle and of beasts of prey. (On Isaiah 24:2)
Meanwhile, the political distinction of ranks is not to be repudiated, for natural reason itself dictates this in order to take away confusion. (On Numbers 3:5)
Celebrity of name is not in itself condemned; since it is necessary that they whom the Lord has adorned with peculiar gifts should be preeminent among others; and it is advantageous that there should be distinction of ranks in the world. (On Genesis 6:4)
Hence as the world will have an end, so also will government, and magistracy, and laws, and distinctions of ranks, and different orders of dignities, and everything of that nature. There will be no more any distinction between servant and master, between king and peasant, between magistrate and private citizen. (On 1 Cor. 15:24)
“Let us suppose all to be on one equal level, what would such anarchy bring forth? No one would wish to yield to others; every one would try the extent of his powers, and thus all would end in prey and plunder, and in the mere license of fraud and murder, and all the passions of mankind would have full and unbridled sway. Hence I have said, tyranny is better than anarchy, and more easily borne, because where there is no supreme governor there is none to preside and keep the rest in check.” (on Daniel 4:13-16)
God does not delight in changes, or elevate in mockery to a lofty station, those whom he has determined immediately to throw down. It is rather the depravity of men that overturns the state of things, because nobody acknowledges that the disposal of every one is placed in His will and power. (On Luke 1:52)
In a well-ordered society the distinction between master and servant must be observed. In like manner, no public government can be lasting without the transactions of commerce; and therefore, when the distinction between rich and poor has been taken away, every scheme for gaining a livelihood among men is destroyed. (On Isaiah 24:2)
It is God who appoints and regulates all the arrangements of society. (On Ephesian 6:5-9)
Servants must also be cognizant of their rank and station; and everyone must apply himself in the thing which he has been called. It certainly accords well with Christianity that the rich man should enjoy his wealth (provided, of course, that he not devour everything without attending to the needs of his neighbors), and that the poor man should endure his station patiently, and beseech God, not desiring more than is proper. (Sermon on 1 Cor. 11:11-16)
I acknowledge, indeed, that there is not enjoined upon us an equality of such a kind, as to make it unlawful for the rich to live in any degree of greater elegance than the poor; but an equality is to be observed thus far — that no one is to be allowed to starve, and no one is to hoard his abundance at the expense of defrauding others. The poor man’s homer will be coarse food and a spare diet; the rich man’s homer will be a more abundant portion, it is true, according to his circumstances, but at the same time in such a way that they live temperately, and are not wanting to others. (Commentary on 2 Cor. 8:15)
For the system of proportional right in the Church is this — that while they communicate to each other mutually according to the measure of gifts and of necessity, this mutual contribution produces a befitting symmetry [belle harmonie], though some have more, and some less, and gifts are distributed unequally. (Commentary on 2. Cor. 8:14)
We have seen already, how that to live well with men, we must obey our superiors. For it is the first thing that God commands us in the second table of his law: because the mean in descending from him to men, is to honor those whom he has set over us. Indeed when we speak of men, there is some equal fellowship: for we come all of Adams race: we be all of one kind: and all this imports an equality among men. Nevertheless forasmuch as it has pleased God to set certain degrees: we must hold us thereunto, and keep that order, so as the party which has any preeminence and dignity, may be acknowledged for such a one as is to be honored. And in this case we must not allege, why is he more esteemed than I? For that comes not of any worthiness that is in one more than in another: but of Gods will, who will have them so honored to whom he has given any preeminence. (Sermon 37 on Deuteronomy 5)
Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600):
Without Order there is no living in public Society, because the want thereof is the mother of confusion, whereupon division of necessity followeth; and out of division destruction…If things and persons be ordered, this doth imply that they are distinguished by degrees: for Order is a gradual disposition. The whole world consisting of parts so many, so different, is by this only thing upheld; he which framed them, hath set them in order. The very Deity itself both keepeth and requireth for ever this to be kept as a Law, that wheresoever there is a coagmentation of many, the lowest be knit unto the highest by that which being interjacent may cause each to cleave to the other, so all continue one. This order of things and persons in public Societies is the work of Policy, and the proper instrument hereof in every degree is Power. (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book VIII, Section 2)
William Perkins (1558 – 1602):
The common good of men stands in this, not only that they live, but that they live well, in righteousness and holiness and true happiness. And for the attainment hereunto, God hath ordained and disposed all callings, and his providence designed persons to bear them. (see here)
The whole [political] body is not the hand, nor the foot, nor the eye, but the hand one part, the foot another, and the eye another; and howsoever in the body one part is linked to another, yet there is a distinction betwixt the members….In every society one person should be above or under another; not making all equal, as though the body should be all head and nothing else; but even in degree and order, he [God] hath set a distinction, that one should be above another.
Althusius (1563 -1638)
Concord is fostered and protected by fairness (aequabilitas) when right, liberty, and honor are extended to each citizen according to the order and distinction of his worth and status. For it behooves the citizen to live by fair and suitable right with his neighbor, displaying neither arrogance nor servility, and thus to will whatever is tranquil and honest in the city. Contrary to this fairness is equality (aequalitas), by which individual citizens are leveled among themselves in all those things I have discussed. From this arises the most certain disorder and disturbance of matters. (Politica 6.47)
It is inborn to the more powerful and prudent to dominate and rule weaker men, just as it is also considered inborn for inferiors to submit. So in man the soul dominates the body, and the mind the appetites…Thus, the pride and high spirits of man should be restrained by sure reins of reason, law, and imperium less he throw himself precipitously into ruin. (Politica 1.38)
John Winthrop (1587 – 1649), in his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, says,
GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.
1st Reason. First to hold conformity with the rest of his world, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of his power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole; and the glory of his greatness….
3rd Reason. Thirdly, that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.
Francis Turretin (1623 – 1687)
Afterwards a distinction and ownership of goods was justly introduced with the authority of God, to prevent controversies, to restrain external violence and to afford certainty to inheritances and make a distinction in conditions (without which human society could not exist)….Nor if the law of nature makes all men equal with regard to nature does it follow that they are equal with regard to qualities and external condition. (Institutes, 11.2.19)
Scholar of puritanism, Perry Miller, writes (The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry, pg. 116),
The fundamental Puritan conception of social cohesion [is] articulated in a hierarchy of classes.
RL Dabney (1820 – 1898):
The right of suffrage and eligibility to office is not an inalienable natural franchise, but a function of responsibility entrusted to suitable classes of citizens as a trust.” Civic Ethics
Quotes from non-theologians:
Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797):
The happiness…found by virtue in all [social] conditions… [is] the true moral equality of mankind, and not in that monstrous fiction, which, by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality, which it never can remove; and which the order of civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it must leave in an humbled state, as those whom it is able to exalt to a condition more splendid, but not more happy. (Reflections on Revolution in France)
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859):
True dignity in manners consists in always taking one’s proper station, neither too high nor too low, and this is as much within the reach of a peasant as of a prince. In democracies all stations appear doubtful; hence it is that the manners of democracies, though often full of arrogance, are commonly wanting in dignity, and, moreover, they are never either well trained or accomplished. (see here)
G. W. F. Hegel (1770 – 1831):
Men are made unequal by nature, where inequality is in its element, and in civil society the right of particularity is so far from annulling this natural inequality that it produces it out of mind and raises it to an inequality of skill and resources, and even to one of moral and intellectual attainment. To oppose to this right a demand for equality is a folly of the Understanding which takes as real and rational its abstract equality. (Philosophy of Right, 200)
At first (i.e. especially in youth) a man chafes at the idea of resolving on a particular social position, and looks upon this as a restriction on his universal character and as a necessity imposed on him purely ab extra. This is because his thinking is still of that abstract kind which refuses to move beyond the universal and so never reaches the actual. (Hegel, Phil of Right, 207.)
John Ruskin (1819 – 1900):
If there be any one point insisted on throughout my works more frequently than another, that one point is the impossibility of Equality. My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others; and to show also the advisability of appointing such persons or person to guide, to lead, or on occasion even to compel and subdue, their inferiors, according to their own better knowledge and wiser will. (Unto This Last)
Inequalities of wealth, justly established, benefit the nation in the course of their establishment; and, nobly used, aid it yet more by their existence. (Unto This Last)
Fisher Ames (1758 – 1808) (American Founding Father):
A democratic society will soon find its morals the encumbrance of its race, the surly companion of its licentious joys…. In a word, there will not be morals without justice; and though justice might possibly support a democracy, yet a democracy cannot possibly support justice.
John Adams (1735 – 1826):
Nature, which has established in the universe a chain of being and universal order, descending from archangels to microscopic animalcules, has ordained that no two objects shall be perfectly alike, and no two creatures perfectly equal. Although, among men, all are subject by nature to equal laws of morality, and in society have a right to equal laws for their government, yet no two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue, or ever can be made so by any power less than that which created them.