The Declaration of Independence: A Misogynistic Mash-up of Greek Philosophy and Roman Law


Stuart WordPress photoRegardless of political identity in America there seems to be an almost religious reverence for the Declaration of Independence (DI).  By far the most quoted sentence from it is the one that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Though it is hardly ‘self-evident,’ the history behind the words in these two clauses betrays the fact that they constitute a misogynistic mash-up of Greek philosophy and Roman law.

First, the Greek philosophy in the first clause.  Precisely because of how often this portion of the DI is quoted (perhaps most memorably by Martin Luther King), the idea that there are ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident’ may seem–self-evident.  From the perspective of the history of Greek philosophy, however, such an idea is as problematic as it is peculiar and for that very reason can reliably be traced back to one source: Plato.  The most likely direct source is the introductory section of an ancient Platonic commentary on Greek mathematical methodology.

Though relatively obscure today, it was a much admired work in the Renaissance and for a few centuries thereafter, influencing a wide range of disciplines, including law.  As a consequence of that influence law was conceptualized more geometrico (in a geometric manner), with legal documents drafted (as they often still are today) with a list of ‘defined’ terms first followed by the propositions to which they relate.  Similarly, judicial decisions still slavishly follow a quasi-mathematical methodology, ‘applying’ law to the ‘facts’ of the case, as if plugging numbers into an equation, with everything set out in a sequence of paragraphs identified by a combination of Roman numerals and arabic letters (‘as applied’ in Hobby Lobby (see the majority’s penultimate paragraph)).

All that said, how is the ostensibly neutral sounding ‘self-evident truths’ misogynistic?  I argued in a prior post Plato was a misogynist, but that hardly can be taken to mean every idea he had is misogynistic.  This is not the place to attempt a full analysis of the issue, but a line of argument can be suggested.  Assistance comes from the mathematical world from which the idea ‘self-evident truths’ derives.  A well-known, but little understood phenomenon, is that in general women do not participate in mathematics or disciplines involving the application of mathematics nearly to the degree that men do.  Some scholars argue this relates to the fact that to the extent mathematics is taught as primarily an expression of abstract, disembodied truths it privileges a masculine perspective.

Now for the Roman Law in the second clause.  What gives this language away as being plainly misogynistic is not the use of ‘men,’ which it could be excused was being used, as it commonly was in English until well into the 20th century, as a generic term for ‘humans,’ but the fact that the entire clause looks suspiciously similar to a maxim from Roman law.  “All humans are born free” is an accurate translation of the Latin of a maxim from the introductory section of a treatise that would have been known to every 18th century lawyer.  The language of that maxim, though, could not have been signed off on by men who were either misogynists or slave owners (or both (Abigail Adams saw no difference: see the final paragraph of the portion of her letter to her husband dated 3/31/1776)).  It seems as if someone tweaked the language to make it more palatable for such men.  Instead of gender neutral ‘humans,’ there is ‘men,’ and instead of ‘free,’ there is ‘equal.’

The use of the word ‘equal’ is especially telling here.  ‘Equal’ entered the modern legal lexicon via the Romans, for whom equity (aequitas, ‘the state of being balanced’) was vital as a legal principle.  As such it is (as it was originally) a relative term: the very antithesis of an absolute ‘self-evident truth.’  To use it without qualification as is done here is as absurd as thinking that loading only one side of a fulcrum scale accomplishes anything meaningful.

The Romans understood the issue with brutal frankness (I am generalizing from the writings of the Roman jurist Ulpian).  A slave’s value could be weighed by (equated with) the economic value the owner could be expected to derive from him–or her.  Otherwise slaves were in effect worthless (pro nullis).  This may (and should) seem uncomfortably familiar: the grim calculus of life insurance settlements and court ordered money damages derives directly from Roman slave law.

Given this legacy it may come as a surprise that the Romans knew better than to attempt to assign a monetary value to the life of the owner of slaves, the dominus.  That is because they conceived of such an owner as having the power (freedom), in principle at least, to do whatever he willed.  To value such power monetarily or define it conceptually appears to have never occurred to them.  To do so effectively would be to limit the limitless.  Nevertheless, the Romans were aware that the dichotomy between the calculable value of a slave and the incalculable value of freedom derived from man made law.  From the perspective of the law of nature, they reasoned, because all humans are free, they are equal: their value cannot be measured monetarily or defined conceptually.

It is ironic that beginning by boasting of ‘self-evident truths,’ the DI thus bungles so badly stating what to the Romans was very much analogous to a self-evident truth.  It might seem that what follows salvages things: the DI’s ‘Creator’ of the inalienable right to, among other things, liberty.  In my next post I will address this issue.  For now I will offer but a brief preview: if, as it would seem, freedom as both a legal and theological principle derives from the law of nature, the DI should have not ‘Creator’ but ‘Creatrix.’

Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.



Categories: Activism, Scholarship, Sexism, Textual Interpretation, Uncategorized

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18 replies

  1. Great post. I have been thinking about related issues in my previous post on becoming our own authorities and in my upcoming one on my Colonial heritage.

    Truths cannot be “self-evident” unless (following Platonic tradition) they are self-evident to all reasonable men or better to all reasonable people. If reasonable people disagree, then truth cannot be self-evident, but must be relative to standpoint and context.

    I might want to argue that all reasonable people should agree that all people have the equivalent value, but in fact they don’t agree on this. Unless we want to count the founding fathers and scores and scores of other so-called reasonable people as being unreasonable.

    I think it is very important to deconstruct the Declaration of Independence because it is held to be “self-evident” not only that certain values are self-evident but also that they are worth “fighting for” and must be “fought for” with weapons and armies not only at home but in foreign countries.

    If truth is not self-evident, but contextual, then it might not be so self-evident that what “we” think is truth must be imposed on others through wars that “we” fund and fight.

    Thanks.

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    • Thank you. I look forward to reading your upcoming post on your Colonial heritage. As it happens I lived in Lexington Massachusetts for several years as a boy and my impressions from that experience have been very much on my mind as I have been analyzing the Declaration of Independence and reading A. Adams’s letters. As for self-evident etc: eventually I hope to say more on that when I write more about the Greeks of Southern Italy I discussed in my earlier post on Plato and misogyny.

      Carol: Somehow I initially posted my reply to you out of sequence (as a comment on the article rather than a reply)–sorry about that–not sure how that happened.

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  2. I’ve always held that Thomas Jefferson and others co-drafting this declaration held to a social epistemology rather than a platonic one: “We Hold…. these truths to be… self-evident.” In other words, without their society holding the truths (not the Truth), then they would not be truths. If the early American men, these founding fathers, are doing this, then their “holding” is much more aristotelian, isn’t it? To confess one’s group together “holds” a notion is sort of like “presuming” or “assuming”; it’s Aristotle’s “premise” in a logical Barbara syllogism or his “enthymeme” in a rhetorical syllogism. The reality is conditioned on the line of reasoning or on the agreeable persuading. In the case of the colonialist men, like Jefferson who owned African men and women, the “we hold” is sort of an “in your face” to King George III. It;s an announcement to the world that he does not hold these truths to be necessary in his kingdom.

    By the way, Aristotle, the student of Plato, is the real misogynist; F. A. Wright rightly notes in 1923: “In every department of civilized existence the influence of Aristotle must still be taken into account, and his judgment of women’s positions in society–a view sincerely held and on the whole most temperately expressed–has had far more effect on the world than have the idealist theories of Plato.” Aristotle is also an elitist:

    First-wave feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton acknowledged Aristotle’s influence. She wrote: “Aristotle could not conceive of any form of government without slavery. Modern writers on social science cannot imagine any kind of civil or domestic government without the subjection of woman.”

    We would do well, as we read the Declaration of Independence, always to recall how Cady Stanton and her co-drafters of the Declaration of Sentiments read the Jeffersonian text. In the Declaration of Sentiments (signed by a few men, feminist allies, including former slave Frederick Douglass), there’s this statement:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.”

    When you say Martin Luther King Jr. “most memorably” memorably quotes the Declaration of Independence, I’m guessing you’re thinking of his I Have A Dream speech? He also quoted it in letter from a Birmingham Jail. Dr. King could have held to the more inclusive language of Cady Stanton and of Douglass; that is he could have use the more inclusive language.

    When third wave feminists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards write “A Manifesta” (not a Manifesto) they do quote the Declaration of Sentiments. In my humble opinion, this is not a bad thing to do.

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    • Thank you for your comments.

      Regarding M.L. King: yes I am referring to the I Have a Dream Speech–I was not aware of the letter to which you refer. Thanks for letting me know.

      I am not familiar with F.A. Wright’s work on Aristotle. It seems to me it would be difficult to defend the assertion he makes regarding Aristotle. I made my case for the significance of Plato’s misogyny in an earlier post and there are back up notes to that on my blog/website on Sappho (http://studysappho.blogspot.com/) that you might find of interest.

      Thanks also for the information on Stanton. The Declaration of Sentiments language you quote does not fix the problem with the language of the Declaration of Independence I analyze as it uses ‘equal’ in the same problematic way.

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      • Thanks for the reply.

        Here’s from Dr. King’s letter (a series of rhetorical questions):

        “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

        I read your earlier post and your other notes. Wright’s work is on “Feminism in Greek Literature from Homer to Aristotle”; add the htt ps : // to archive.org/details/feminismingreekl00wriguoft and you should find it online and free. He compares Plato and Aristotle substantially and supports statements such as this one (on page 202): “Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman’s real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his [sexist, bigoted, female-fearing] prejudices, was opposed.” Aristotle rejected the dialectic of Plato’s Socrates and taught separationist, binary, logic. By this logic, females were (mis)understood as botched males.

        (Also check Sister Prudence Allen’s “The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 B. C. – A. D. 1250” for a thorough study of how Aristotle formalized misogynistic, gynephobic sexism in ways that Plato and his epistemologies never achieved.)

        Well, of course, the language of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t fixed by the more inclusive language of the Declaration of Sentiments.

        Likewise, the language of the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen was not fixed by Olympia de Gouges, who used more inclusive language re-write this first declaration, instead, as Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne.

        Woman in the USA was not granted even suffrage (as Cady Stanton declared for her) until the right to vote came nearly a century later in 1920.

        And de Gouges lost her head to the guillotine. Language is problematic, and who can fix it?

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  3. Aristotle may have “said” that women were misbegotten males, but in situating reason and the “end” of life outside the material world, Plato was saying that birth into this world through a woman’s body is not good enough, is a shadow of real life, and so forth. As I said in She Who Changes, this is “matricide.” If I had to choose the method of the one or the other, I would choose Aristotle hands down.

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    • Why does it matter whose sexism is worse?

      But some in “Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle,” especially Carol Poster, cannot abide Aristotle in the least. Sister Prudence Allen is much more careful in “The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 B. C. – A. D. 1250″; and Plato in her book is not nearly as bad. Didn’t Plato at least say the soul (the Psyke), even his own presumably, might be “female”? Aristotle wouldn’t ahve that of course. Why does it matter that we suss out which hated and feared women more?

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  4. Thanks for this post, Stuart. Your ideas are very interesting, and marvelously challenging as a prompt for discussion. Just to disagree with one statement, where you say:

    “To the extent mathematics is taught as primarily an expression of abstract, disembodied truths it privileges a masculine perspective.”

    In the last 300 years or so, beginning in the 18th century, women in America have involved themselves very deeply in a craft which might be defined creatively as exactly that — a mere expression of abstract ideas. Oddly that very craft of quilt making is practiced almost exclusively by women. Some of the most famous names for the mathematically abstract geometric patterns used in patchwork quilts include: “Century of Progress,” “Midsummer Night” “Corn and Beans,” “Symmetry in Motion,” “Girl’s Joy,” Grandmother’s Dream,” “Hands All Around,” Nocturne,” “Yreka Square,” “Enigma Square,” and “Duck Creek Puzzle.”

    Just reading through the design names, the mind flashes with that same heightened awareness that Plato experienced in his great vision at the temple of Eleusis, and where he says: “one must needs understand the language of Forms, collecting many sense impressions into a unity and remembering a knowledge we beheld aforetime.”

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    • Thank you Sarah.

      I appreciate your comment but I do not think I disagree with you–perhaps I just did not explain myself as well as I should have.

      The idea of quilting and analogous activities (sewing clothes) as applied mathematics has been identified as a distinctively feminine form of mathematics (see p48 of the work by Fiona Walls that I provide a hyperlink to under ‘some scholars’).

      I have started to write about the idea of an intuitive mathematics that nonetheless can be analyzed in abstract terms (ie the geometric patterns you refer to with those names I had never heard of before now (thank you for that)) in connection with Sappho (see the section of Sappho & Science on my Sappho blog). In addition to being a metrical virtuoso (such musical ability plainly correlates with mathematical knowledge on some level) she also clearly was involved in choreography and that would have naturally led to needing to ‘solve’ mathematical/geometrical puzzles. Line dancing that is evident in early Greek art did not just ‘happen’ but must have required a considerable amount of planning, teaching and rehearsing. Not only are a variety of patterns implicated–not just ‘square’ dancing but circles and triangles–but the patterns would of course be in motion and morphing from one shape into another and interacting with other such shapes (ie one line of women/girls and one line of men/boys at a wedding). For example, it seems to me that the pythagorean theorem is something that Sappho or perhaps any choreographer would intuitively have known by measuring how one ‘square’ of dancers (the ‘c’ square) can fit within another square of dancers (the ab square) as they spin in one direction or another.

      I hope that helps clarify what I was trying to get at.

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      • Thanks Stuart, a truly helpful response. I see what you are looking for in the abstract played out in the real world, like the line of dancers, and not just a formula. That’s why the names of the quilt designs have so much life in them, I suppose, I hadn’t thought of that before, thanks. Lots of interesting stuff at your site too, and I agree Sappho was indeed a night owl.

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  5. I loved this post. I look forward to your next one. As an aside, I can’t help but think of the vast disparity in the wages, bonuses, and benefits of modern day CEOs and the multitude of workers beneath them in the same terms as the Romans saw the value of a slave and the incalculable value of the dominus.

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  6. I actually surprised myself and read your piece in its entirety. I don’t agree with all your arguments, but I truly enjoyed your word choice analysis and getting a better picture of what these 18th century lawyers were using as textual references. Enjoyable!

    Given your extensive Greek and Latin knowledge, I was wondering if “misanthrope” is specific to hating men (i.e. as misogynist is specific to hating women) or whether misanthrope just refers to all humans, regardless of gender. Is there a male-specific “mis-” word?

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    • Thank you and I certainly do not expect agreement and welcome criticism.

      Anthropos in ancient Greek was a male noun but gender neutral in meaning: ‘humans.’

      So a misanthrope is an equal opportunity hater.

      Misandrist (though not used much in English (perhaps there is an implicit social commentary in that fact)) is the word you are looking for.

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  7. I am sure you are familiar with Robert N. Bellah’s “America’s Civil Religion” which supports your point of religious reverence for the country and its origins.

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    • I am now thanks to your comment. I have already listened/watched part of a video of a lecture he gave that is on youtube. Although neither is around to ask about it, I could not help but notice he received his undergraduate degree from the same college at roughly the same time as my father. So perhaps there is a bit of karma in your calling him to my attention.

      ________________________________

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