Brett Williams's Reviews > Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement

Equality by Default by Philippe Bénéton
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it was amazing

Enlightenment ideals perverted

Sounding much like Alan Bloom, Bénéton opens with the pleasant but passionless nature of his law students. We find in Bénéton’s argument the success of Enlightenment social philosophy so complete that we no longer debate the fundamental basis of its products. Nor, he claims, do we see just how perverse they have become over time. The vital questions at stake since Aristotle, wrestled with by the Middle Ages, contested by Hobbes, Locke and Jefferson, are now blasé matters of mere opinion and taken for granted - “whatever.”

Like Louis Dumont’s Essay on Individualism, Bénéton’s book is really an essay on the spin-offs of Enlightenment’s central idea of individualism, in this case, equality. Bénéton argues the evolving radicalization of this notion has not unified and elevated us, but separated and isolated us. Equality is no longer due to an essential human essence – what the Stoics called a “divine spark.” Instead, equality means that no one is better than anyone else, with a celebration of petty differences, none of which could be so vital as to raise one over another. Our ideals, claims Bénéton, have become hollow, without substance. His best work is in showing the toxicity of modern relativity and the void it has created in all those once-high-minded ideals, now paid lip service.

Bénéton shows us one reason for our confusion is that those who set the trajectory for modernity severed from the ancients, did not and could not build a solid foundation for moral action based on reasoned arguments. (This very much depresses me.) Every attempt from David Hume to John Rawls has been a patch, striving to fix what they broke. As we now see, and Bénéton laments, none have worked, hence, the slow motion decline of Western philosophical terrain. At least if we define that terrain in terms of an agreed morality, proper and worthy human values, and any hope for belonging. If, on the other hand, morality is antiquated, there is no such thing as a proper definition of the human, much less proper values, and belonging is just another word for oppressive responsibilities, then we’re doing very well.

What did work was morality grounded in human nature or religion. And worked so well that the ancients adhered to their foundation for moral action and behavior with as much challenge of that foundation as whether or not to take another breath. How they were able to cherry pick between the moral and abject immoral, especially that of their religions, while still maintaining that foundation, remains a puzzle to this reader. Bénéton doesn't say. This puzzle makes one wonder if, despite our obvious and frequently pathetic ills, modernity isn’t so bad after all. Or, maybe it is. Bénéton certainly make a strong case for that.
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Reading Progress

January 30, 2015 – Started Reading
January 30, 2015 – Shelved
February 15, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 18, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Rachel (new) - added it

Rachel Y great review! how did u find out about this book?


message 2: by Brett (last edited Dec 02, 2015 08:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brett Williams Rachel wrote: "great review! how did u find out about this book?"

Thanks Rachel. Usually I find books by their reference in other books. If a reference sounds interesting, I often buy it to further investigate the author’s thoughts. Unfortunately I can’t find where I first saw Bénéton. Assumed it was New French Thought: Political Philosophy, as that’s been a rich source of great references, but don’t see Bénéton there. Anyway, he’s one of a group of fine French philosophers of modernity (post Foucault et. al.), peak among them Chantal Delsol, Marcel Gauchet, Pierre Manent, and Gilles Lipovestsky. If you ever get a chance to read Bénéton, would like to get your thoughts on it. Thanks again. B.


message 3: by Rachel (new) - added it

Rachel Y the fact that you referenced alan bloom really caught my eye, since i found his thesis to be so compelling - and the fact equality by default is so highly rated. i'm starting a new job soon, so once i have some extra income, i will certainly buy this and let you know! i'll also check out new french thought - sounds great.


Brett Williams Congrats on the new job! With more $ for good books.
And so delighted you liked Bloom. I have all 7 of his books (that I know of), 3 down, 4 to go.


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