(with apologies to Douglas Hofstader and his Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid)
Achilles: Hi Tortise, it’s a nice day for a jog, eh?
Tortise: Ah, Achilles it’s grand to see you. What’s that scroll you have there? Are you reading? You? The fleet footed killer of men?
Achilles: Yes, this scroll washed up in a amphora at the seaside. It’s a translation of some sort of Independence document. Listen to this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Doesn’t that have a poetic ring to it?
Tortise: Ah yes, whimisical fanciful doggerel has such a way of noodling in your cobwebs.
Achilles (Agog): Huh? But it’s so poweful. Doesn’t it ring a chord deep in your soul? That phrase has been used as a founding creed of one of the greatest nations on earth.
Tortise: Hmm. Ringing a chord? Well, no. It just doesn’t make sense to me, perhaps you could enlighten me
Achilles: What do you mean, “It doesn’t make sense?” I’d be delighted to try to explain.
Tortise: You mean … you understand it?
Achilles: Of course.
Tortise: Well, then perhaps you could explain what is meant by, “all men are created equal?” Does that mean, I am your equal in a footrace. Perhaps today then I might tie you in our foot race?
Achilles: No silly, it doesn’t mean equal in running abillity. I’m still the fleetest of men, and I think it takes a slow man not to beat a tortise in the dash bearing shield or not.
Tortise: Ah. Then equal … in what way?
Achilles: Well, not equal in ability, equal in a moral sense.
Tortise: Equal in the eyes of God (or the gods) or equal in the eyes of men?
Achilles: Well, my mother and the gods certainly do not regard all men equally, and I suspect that the God worshipped by others as well might follow a like pattern. Equal in the eyes of man certainly is the thought.
Tortise: Ah, I understand you now. So you would view all your neighbors as equal in a moral sense?
Achilles: Yes. You get it now.
Tortise: Well, I think I do. We are all morally equivalent in each others eyes. That gives you the same or equal moral obligations toward all?
Tortise: So, then, your children and parents are just the same to you as the stranger you pass on your morning consitutional walk?
Achilles: Well, no.
Tortise: Ah, then some are more equal than others? [ed: apologies to
Achilles: No. It’s not that I’m supposed to personally regard them as equal, just as a matter of Law. The polis regards each man as an equal.
Tortise: So, let me get this straight. The “Law” regards each man as equal, when at the same time no individual is expected to do the same, neither equal in ability, nor dependence, nor worth. I’d suspect that there is some difficulty then getting this “Law” thing, inasmuch as it is not some magical entity but a institution consitututed of and by Men to be somewhat problematic. If men do not and might not be expected to regard each other as equals, might we suspect that an institution of men might behave similarly.
Achilles: You are, alas, right in that guess.
Tortise: Is it perhaps fanciful to imagine our Institutions to be better then us as individuals.
Achilles: Alas, history it seem bears you out.
Achilles: No! I still refuse to grant you that.
Tortise: How is that?
Achilles: It is a wonderful sentiment … a dream.
Tortise: Ah, you mean it’s a thing to which men should aspire? Well, not actually it seems a think to which men aspire but their Law. A thing which no man is expected or willing to believe or even aspire to on an individual basis, but as a collective should regard as good.
Achilles: Exactly. It’s not doggerel, it’s a Myth to Live By.
Tortise: It seems the prospect of basing a polis on a misapprehension of human nature has been tried before, with varying success, witness Mr Marx. Well, it seems I’m glad to be a tortise and not a man. Being a man seems so confusing. I might wonder what an government so instituted by men might look if one eventually transpires to not be based on fallacious thinking, but truth?
Achilles: Another dream of yours perhaps?
Tortise: Or at least doggerel.
Achilles: Well, I’m off to the races, see you there!
Tortise: Of course, but I’ll not entertain hopes of being your equal.