Sunday, January 22, 2006

Lactantius and Egalitarianism

A cursory reading of Divinae institutiones may lead one to believe that Lactantius is a strict egalitarian. However, a deliberate perusal of his magnum opus reveals that the Lactantian understanding of equality (aequalitas) or fairness (aequitas) lends itself to certain nuances that may be at odds with strict egalitarianism. The belief that all humans are socially unequal was prevalent in antiquity. While the Stoics espoused the conviction that all humans are fragments of God or fellow cosmopolites, it appears that no ancient secular writer reprimands legal or social inegalitarianism, as does Lactantius in Divinae institutiones.[1] The Christian Cicero sorts out justice in terms of piety (pietas) and equity (aequitas).[2] His construal of equity (aequitas) as equality (aequabilitas) indicates, “Lactantius is sailing in uncharted waters.”[3] Advocating a form of equality in which humans are arithmetically on the same footing seems progressive, even avant-garde.[4] However, other passages found in the Lactantian corpus possibly demonstrate signs of inconsistency regarding his view of aequitas.

First, Lactantius censures Plato’s theory of an ideal utopian republic since it eschews private property in the name of facilitating economic parity among philosopher-rulers.[5] The political views of Lactantius resemble those of Aristotle, who considers collective ownership unfeasible and detrimental to the polis (Politics 1261b34). Nevertheless, one might ask whether it is genuinely possible for equality to obtain in a society that allows ownership of private property. Non-collective ownership certainly allows personal freedom and responsibility to flourish.[6] But Garnsey and Humfress maintain that the ownership of private property does not seem conducive to socio-economic equality.[7]

[1] Garnsey and Humfress, Evolution of the Late Antique World, 204.

[2] DI 5.15; Epitome 60; Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 213; Allen Verhey, Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture, and the Moral Life (Cambridge, UK and Grand Rapids: 2002), 465.

[3] Garnsey and Humfress, Evolution of the Late Antique World, 204.

[4] Ibid. 205.

[5] DI 3.22: “Non rerum fragilium sed mentium debet esse communitas.”

[6] See Dewey's remarks on democracy.

[7] Evolution of the Antique World, 204.

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