Regardless 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.