The first essay, “The Idea of Equality”, is a masterpiece of clear, organized and relentlessly objective thinking. By “objective” I mean free of the prejudices of the time. That cannot be said for other essays in the book, which are dated and, compared to “The Idea of Equality”, superficial. For example, the second piece, “Varieties of Intelligence”, depends on Jung’s personality types, introvert and extravert. The third essay, “Education”, promotes a flash in the pan (the essay is from 1927) educational system called Daltonism which, as described, can only be seen – considering the realities of kids and their schooling – as Utopian. But “The Idea of Equality” is for the ages; especially our age, in which a plethora of faltering new democratic experiments and old democracies suddenly gone dysfunctional, have caused democracy’s place at the pinnacle of political systems to begin to wobble a little.
The best way to take in Huxley’s marvelous argument, point by careful point, is, of course, to read the essay. It’s also the most pleasurable way, with the prose style, the systematic ordering of theses, the wit, the logic, all synthesized into a of structure of ideas as beautiful and gratifying as a great symphony.
I would just cut and paste it here, but it is 30 pages long and besides, I couldn’t find it in Project Guttenberg or anywhere else on line. Proper Studies doesn’t seem to be available as an e-book either, although “The Idea of Equality” may be tucked into one of the downloadable books of Huxley’s essays, none of which lists a table of contents.
Let me try to summarize it, point by point, with enough quotations (in umber) to, I hope, prompt you to go and find Proper Studies at ABE Books ($15-$20) or elsewhere. (The enumeration is my own, not Huxley’s.)
1) That all men are equal is a proposition to which, at ordinary times, no sane human being has ever given his consent. A man who has to undergo a dangerous operation does not act on the assumption that one doctor is just as good as another...But when, in a democratic country, we think or act politically we are no less certain that men are equal. Or at any rate – which amounts to the same thing in practice – we behave as though we were certain of men’s equality.
2) Politicians and political philosophers have often talked about the equality of man as though it were a necessary and unavoidable idea.
3) However, the notion of human equality is of recent growth, and so far from being a directly apprehended and necessary truth is a conclusion logically drawn from pre-existing metaphysical assumptions ...such as the Christian doctrines of the brotherhood of men and their equality before God. But men’s equality before God does not imply their equality among themselves. Compared with an infinite quantity, all finite quantities may be regarded as equal. There is no difference, where infinity is concerned, between one and a thousand.
4) The 18th century writers who supplied our modern political democracy with its philosophical basis did not turn to Christianity for the doctrine of human equality, being almost without exception anti-clerical.
5) Instead they turned to the ancient philosophers. The idea of human equality can be traced back to Aristotle. Aristotle was hardly a democrat, being a slave-holder. In his political philosophy he affirmed that some men are born to be masters (himself, it went without saying, among them). But it was a fundamental tenet of his metaphysical system that...individuals of one species are the same in essence.
6) “Such [intellectual] inconsistencies are extremely common, and are generally made in good faith... A man who thinks and behaves as an open-minded and unprejudiced scientist so long as he is repairing his automobile, will be outraged if asked to think about the creation of the world except in terms of the mythology current among the barbarous Semites three thousand years ago; and though quite ready to admit that the present system of wireless telephony might be improved, he will regard anyone who desires to alter the existing economic and political system as either a madman or a criminal.
7) In the Middle Ages, the feudal and ecclesiastical hierarchies served their purpose of government and seemed, to all but a very few, necessary and unquestionable. Whatever is, is right; feudalism and Catholicism were. But the system broke down after the Reformation and the Renaissance. Feudalism and ecclesiastical authority lingered on, but as the merest ghosts of themselves. They had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to be, and not being, they were wrong.
8) Enter Descartes who, following Aristotle and the Scholastics, claimed that “what is called good sense or reason is equal in all men.” He had no interest in politics, but simply was propounding a theory of knowledge.
9) In 18th century Europe, with the rise of the middle classes, absolute monarchy and the ineffectual remains of feudalism were unsuitable as forms of government. Being unsuitable, they therefore seemed utterly unreasonable and wrong. Middle-class Frenchmen wanted a share in the government.
10) Here is the crux of Huxley’s argument. Men are not content merely to desire; they like to believe that when they want something, it is not merely for their own personal advantage, but that their desires are dictated by pure reason, by nature, by God Himself... Practically all political theories are elaborated, after the fact, to justify the interest and desires of certain individuals, classes, or nations. Taking their cue from Descartes’ idea that all men are equally reasonable, les philosophes concluded that all men have an equal capacity, and therefore an equal right to govern... Nature herself demands that government be organized on democratic principles. Thus middle-class Frenchmen had the satisfaction of discovering that their desires were endorsed as right and reasonable, not only by Aristotle, St. Thomas, and Descartes, but also by the Creator of the Universe in person.
11) Of course, some reason had to be found for the inequalities that everywhere were obvious. If Jones, they argued, is an imbecile and Smith a man of genius, that is due, not to any inherent and congenital differences between the two men, but to purely external and accidental differences in their...circumstances. Under the influence of Helvétius, who wrote that “intelligence, genius, and virtue are the products of education,” and Locke’s notion that the mind is a tabula rasa, les philosophes agreed that inequalities of intelligence were due to inequalities of instruction.
12) Looking at the vice and abject superstition that surrounded them, les philosophes concluded that they were the fault of the kings and priests who had created the social environment... Why priests and kings, who, as human beings, were themselves naturally reasonable... should have conspired against their fellows...was never adequately explained. The democratic religion, like all other religions, is founded on faith as much as reason.
13) We know now that the theory that all men are equally reasonable is entirely untenable and that mental idiosyncrasies are inherited in exactly the same way as physical idiosyncrasies.
[Here Huxley devotes a section to refuting the Behaviorists, who do (or did) hold to the nurture-not-nature theory. He debunks Behaviorism, or at least believes he does, by pointing out that the Behaviorists’ hypothesis is...based almost exclusively on small children, and that in the same way that inherited physical traits only gradually appear with age so, it is to be assumed, do mental traits. To study human psychology exclusively in babies is like studying the anatomy of frogs exclusively in tadpoles.]
14) From a section entitled “Democratic Pot and Catholic Kettle”: Pots have a diverting way of calling kettles black, and the prophets of democratic-humanitarian religion have...from the 18th century... denounced the upholders of Christian orthodoxy as anti-scientific. However, the doctrine of Original Sin is, scientifically, much truer than the doctrine of natural reasonableness and virtue. Original Sin, in the shape of anti-social tendencies inherited from our animal ancestors, is a familiar and observable fact... The theory and practice of the [hieratical] Church is based on observation and experience. The humanitarian democrats who on the strength of their belief [that men are equal] distribute votes to everybody can claim no experimental justification.
15) Discontent and desire for change are not in themselves enough to drive men to action. They require a cause which they can believe to be absolutely, and not merely relatively and personally, good. By postulating (quite gratuitously) the congenital equality of all men, by assuming the existence of certain "natural rights" (the term is entirely meaningless)... the discontented are able to justify their discontent and... communicate it by means of easily remembered intellectual formulas to their less discontented fellows.
16) The invention of transcendental reasons to justify actions dictated by self-interest, instinct or prejudice would be harmless enough if the justificatory philosophy ceased to exist with the accomplishment of the particular action it was designed to justify. But once it has been called into existence, a metaphysic is difficult to kill. Men will not let it go, but persist in elaborating the system, in drawing with a perfect logic ever fresh conclusions from the original assumptions.
In this case, the assumptions are that reason is the same and entire in all men, all men are naturally equal...naturally good as well as naturally reasonable; that they are the product of their environment and that they are indefinitely educable. The main conclusions derivable from these assumptions are the following: that the state ought to be organized on democratic lines; that the governors should be chosen by universal suffrage; that the opinion of the majority on all subjects is the best opinion; that education should be universal, and the same for all citizens. The primary assumptions...are almost certainly false; but the logic with which the metaphysicians of democrat deduced the conclusions was sound enough.
17) Thus logic demanded that the changes in the existing institutions should be, not small, but vast, sweeping and comprehensive. Those who rationalize their desires for the purpose of persuading themselves and others that these desires are in accord with nature and reason find themselves persuading the world of the rightness and reasonableness of many ideas and plans of action of which they had, originally, never dreamed.
Notions which for one generation are dubious novelties become for the next absolute truths which it is criminal to deny and a duty to uphold... Their children are brought up with the whole philosophy (remote conclusions as well as primary assumptions), which becomes...a part of the mind... For most people, nothing which is contrary to any system of ideas with which they have been brought up since childhood can possibly be reasonable.
18) Some systems of intellectual prejudices...seem merely reasonable, and some are sacred as well as reasonable. Generally, prejudices about non-human subjects, such as astronomy, fall into the former category. Any new idea which contradicts the findings of contemporary astronomy strikes us as absurd. But it does not strike us as morally reprehensible.
19) Huxley outlines how this was not always true, how Copernicus and Galileo were considered immoral and, later, Darwin even more so.
20) The prejudices in favor of democracy belong to the second class; they seem, to those who cherish them, sacred as well as reasonable, morally right as well as true. Democracy is natural, good, just, progressive, and so forth. The opponents of it are reactionary, bad, unjust, anti-natural, etc. Democracy has become sacred dogma. As such, it is accepted even by those whose material interests are harmed by it.
(Huxley forgets this insight in his fourth essay in the book, “Political Democracy”, in which he warns against demagogues because they play on the public’s self-interest. As history proved about 15 years after these essays appeared, the worst demagogues are those whose politics are presented as sacred dogma, beyond self-interest.)
Huxley sums up: In the beginning is desire; desire is rationalized; logic works on the rationalization and draws conclusions; the rationalization, with all these conclusions, undreamed of in many cases by those who first desired and rationalized, becomes one of the prejudices of succeeding generations; the prejudice determines their judgment of what is right and wrong, true and false; it gives direction to their thoughts and desires; it drives them into action.