Equality, in today’s Western discourse, is an over-used word that means different things to different people. Equal treatment before the law is almost invariably meant (the marriage equality debate), and oftentimes issues of economic justice and access to resources deemed necessary are meant by it, but some conservatives argue that equality serves as an excuse to confer unearned and undeserved privileges on people and that there is no such a thing as equality. Some people are more intelligent than others; some are wealthier than others. Some are skilled at some things, others are skilled at other things. It’s clear that we are not all the same.
Cultural relativism also adds another layer of confusion of values to this notion of equality. Much of or culture has come to embrace religious privilege to the point where all religions are believed to have equal dignity or to be equally worthy of respect, but it’s clear that not all religions and cultures share the same views and values, and that some religions are far more violent and/or superstitious than others; some are more progressive and others are more regressive. Islam teaches jihad (war against the infidels) whereas Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism teaches ahimsa (non-violence). The Bahá’í Faith claims it accepts scientific insight whereas aboriginal shamanism and creationism are radically anti-scientific.
As to the truth-value of their claims, it’s also clear that they make mutually contradictory supernatural claims and that there is massive fraud going on in religion. Religion is not the way to discerning reality and to the study of nature.
And curiously, while religion has profited handsomely from the culture’s insistence on equality, it is in religion that we find most of the artificial notions of inequality that plagued humanity throughout its history: the Hindu caste system; the Muslim division of the world between Islam and the infidels; the Quran’s ordering husbands to beat their wives if they disobey; Christian repudiation of women and gays; Old Testament and Book of Mormon celebration of racism and legitimization of slavery, etc.
Some have argued that equality as an ideal is self-evident and have even enshrined equality in the founding documents of countries (“all men are created equal”), producing national mythologies that are meant to have specific consequences in society and its collective psyche. The irony and hipocrisy of these well-meaning ideological constructs lies in the fact that many of the American founding fathers owned slaves and that women originally didn’t have the right to vote, so that the doctrine in practice meant “all white men are created equal”. It’s clear that not only were we not created, but that we were also not created equal; and that non-religious doctrines have also spread false notions of equality and inequality.
What exactly is meant by this discourse? Is there, instead, a notion of equality that we can find in nature and that is free of cultural corruption?
If we root our discourse in nature and look at humans as natural beings, we find that we all need similar things. We are all equally mortal, we all equally need shelter, safety, food, and other people. It is by concerning ourselves with what is natural and necessary (which, in Epicurean parlance, is known as the doctrine of the chief goods) that we find human relations and experiences that meet the many dictionary definitions of equality:
: the same in number, amount, degree, rank, or quality
: not changing
: the same for each person
: of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another
: identical in mathematical value or logical denotation
: like in quality, nature, or status
: like for each member of a group, class, or society
: regarding or affecting all objects in the same way
: free from extremes
: tranquil in mind or mood
: not showing variation in appearance, structure, or proportion
It’s most often in our natural limits and needs that we find our universally natural equality, our common denominator, and it’s at the table that we most often unite as equals and joyfully share with other humanity. Notice that religion and economics and nationalism, while proclaiming that they unify us, have always been divisive, but on the other hand things like food (and sometimes good, pleasant music) have universally united people, sometimes very different from each other, in one place, in one shared mind, and in one experience.
The Public Tables Passage in the Humanist Bible
In the book of Acts, from AC Grayling’s Humanist Bible, there are narratives related to several heroic secular Lawgivers from antiquity. The book includes an interesting passage on the Spartan custom of public tables, which was instituted via an ordinance by Lycurgus:
The third and most masterly stroke of this great lawgiver, by which he delivered a yet more effective blow against luxury and the desire of riches, was the ordinance he made that they should all eat in common, of the same bread and meat, and should not spend their lives at home lying on costly couches at splendid tables delivering themselves into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks to fatten like greedy brutes and to ruin not only their minds but their bodies which, enfeebled by indulgence, would stand in need of long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work and, in a word, as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick …
For the rich, being obliged to go to the same table as the poor, could not make use of their abundance, nor so much as please their vanity by looking at or displaying it. The common table ordinance in particular exasperated the wealthier men.
Acts 5:1-10, Good Book: a Humanist Bible
The passage then goes on to relate how the mobs of the wealthy attempted to stone Lycurgus the Lawgiver as a result of the Common Table ordinance and he had to flee for his life into the marketplace and eventually “Alcander struck his face with a stick and put out one of his eyes” (verse 14). Alcander later was exposed to public shame and went on to become one of Lycurgus’ “most zealous admirers“.
The next chapter of Acts goes on to explain how this tradition of the Common Table had various names which were related to words like philitia because it was an opportunity to make friends, or phido because “they were so many schools of sobriety“. The public tables are referred to as “schools of temperance” where citizens learned to “converse with pleasantry” and where all members had to be agreeable to each other. The cooperative way in which the tradition was organized and observed is explained.
Implicit in the narrative is the view that a huge gap between rich and poor has demoralizing effects on society and creates mutual hostilities between citizens. There are many other examples of this in the Humanist Bible, including the beginnings of an uprising against the bankers in Acts 19 which today seems almost prophetic.
But the purpose of the public tables was not just to manufacture a space where the hostilities between the social classes could be assuaged. It was also to create community, to foster friendship, and the public tables even had didactic value. People learned proper etiquette, philosophy, and social skills.
The Epicurean Oath of the Table
The public tables tradition is reminiscent of the feast of reason that was established by Epicurus in his last will as the only shared cultural tradition to be celebrated by the Epicureans on the 20th of every month.
And from the revenues … make separate provision for … the meeting of all my School held every month on the twentieth day to commemorate Metrodorus and myself according to the rules now in force. – Epicurus, in his Last Will
Anyone that understands Epicurean contractarianism knows that the only way in which a rule can be in place is by it being established as part of the social contract. An oath was taken on the core tenets of Epicureanism by converts. The responsibilities that Epicureans owed each other and their larger community all emerged from their oath of allegiance to the communal covenant. There is no other way for there to exist “the rules now in force” that are mentioned by Epicurus. Elsewhere, Philodemus in On Piety mentions that Epicurus is said to have warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”.
And so the Epicureans’ feast of reason had a precedent in Lycurgus’ ordinance of the public tables, and it’s likely that the underlying reasons and the uses for both traditions may be somewhat similar.
When people eat together, they share relatively as equals and build community. A sense of intimacy and familiarity emerges in circles of friends who have a habit of dining together with some frequency. Because there will always be and always has been universal demand for food as one of the basic necessities of our species, it is a natural place to experience philanthropy and humanism, to evaluate the universal concerns shared by all people and to engage in philosophical discourse.
We also know that when Philodemus taught Epicureanism to wealthy Romans, there were awkward situations that resulted from the Epicurean practice of frank criticism. These awkward moments are likely to have frequently taken place within the context of the egalitarian, communal setting that was the monthly celebration on the twentieth. Experiments in community-building are always likely to test social boundaries, particularly when partnered with frank criticism.
It is in our shared breath, our shared life, in our mortal identity as natural beings with natural limits that we are all equal. As I’ve said before, nature gives us no choice. Rich or poor, religious or atheist, male or female, gay or straight, we all must eat, must age, and must die, but of all these activities, dining is the most communal. It is at the public tables that we all have the potential to understand our natural equality.
Luis Granados has written Happy Twentieth!, a testimonial piece for The Humanist on how he celebrates the 20th. He proposes that celebrating the 20th with close friends is a more intimate alternative to Sunday Assemblies for non-religious people.