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Of all the basic concepts of social, economic, moral and political philosophy, none is more
confusing and baffling than the concept of equality because it figures in all other concepts like
justice, liberty, rights, property, etc. During the last two thousand years, many dimensions of
equality have been elaborated by Greeks, Stoics, Christian fathers who separately and collectively
stressed on its one or the other aspect. Under the impact of liberalism and Marxism, equality
acquired an altogether different connotation. Contemporary social movements like feminism,
environmentalism are trying to give a new meaning to this concept.
Basically, equality is a value and a principle essentially modern and progressive. Though the
debate about equality has been going on for centuries, the special feature of modern societies
is that we no longer take inequality for granted or something natural. Equality is also used as
a measure of what is modern and the whole process of modernisation in the form of political
egalitarianism. Modern politics and modern political institutions are constantly subjected to social
pressures to expand opportunities equally irrespective of ethnicity, sexual identity or age. Equality
is a modern value in the sense that universalistic citizenship has become a central feature of
all political ideologies in modern industrial democracies. Again, equality can also be taken as a
criteria for radical social change. It is related to the development of democratic politics. Modern societies are committed to the principle of equality and they no longer require inequality as
automatically justifiable. The principle of equality enunciated by the American and French
revolutions has become the central plank of all modern forms of social change and the social
movements for the reorganisation of societies.


Before we discuss the meaning of equality, we must understand that equality is a relative
concept. The demand for equality has always been against the prevailing inequalities of the
times. The existence of social inequalities is probably as old as human society and the debate
about the nature and cause of inequalities is an ancient topic of political philosophy. In classical
Greece, Aristotle in his book Politics distinguished three social classes and noted the significant
difference between citizens and slaves, men and women in terms of rational and civic capacities.
Participation in the Polis was restricted to the citizens only. Similarly, in our Hindu Society,
according to the classical text, the society was divided into four (varnas) categories: Brahmin,
Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudras. All rights and duties were based upon this classification.
During medieval feudalism, legal privileges were based upon status and birth. In short, different
types of inequalities have been long enduring, giving rise to the notion that inequality is inevitable
in social relations. In fact, the pre-eighteenth century teachings argued that men were naturally
unequal and that there was a natural human hierarchy. Different ideologies justified inequality
on grounds of superior race, ancestry, age, sex, religion, military strength, culture, wealth,
knowledge, etc. According to Turner, inequality is multi-dimensional and the elimination of one
aspect of inequality often leads to the exaggeration of other aspects of social, political and
cultural inequalities. In fact, all human societies are characterised by some form of social
inequalities in terms of class, status, power and gender. While studying the concept of equality,
the contradiction between equality as a general value of modern society and inequality at a
practical level, as a fact of all human societies must be kept in mind.

Struggle for Equality
If inequality has been a universal phenomenon, protest against the inequalities based upon
privileges and birth had also been voiced right from their emergence. Thus in the history of
western political ideas, the doctrine of equality is practically as old as its opposite. For example,
the most prominent star in the Greek philosophy was Zeno who founded the Stoic School and
supported equality among men. The Stoics concluded that all human beings possess reason and
thereby all mankind is differentiated from other animals and is united. Humanity does not admit
of degree. As such all men are equal as men. The Stoic philosophers gave the idea of universal
brotherhood and they were opposed to slavery. The promulgation of the law of the people by
the Roman Empire was another way in which the Romans attempted to give effect to the
principle that all men are equal and as an extension to that, they conferred citizenship both on
the individuals and entire communities. The climax was reached in 212 AD when a notable edict
of Emperior Caracalla conferred citizenship of Rome upon all free inhabitants of the empire.
Similarly, St. Paul said to Gelatians ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor
free, there is neither male or female, for year are one in Jesus Christ’. From the fifth to the
fourteenth century, the demand for equality was a cry against serfdom, medieval gradations or
rank and hereditary nobility and the equality for career opportunities in the church. From the
15th to the 17th centuries, the cry for equality was against the landowners’ status and religious
intolerance and was raised by Puritans, Levellers, doctrine of natural rights and John Locke.
Simultaneously, the movements of Renaissance and Reformation raised a powerful voice against
the legal privileges of the clergy and nobility based upon birth and demanded equality by birth.


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