Exodus and Illiberalism
The current June/July 2018 issue of First Things magazine includes my letter-to-the-editor in response to Patrick Deneen's April 2018 essay "The Ignoble Lie." In that letter I briefly draw attention to the fact that while I agree that Deneen is right in arguing that founding myths are of crucial importance in a people's self-understanding, I would propose a different founding myth than he himself does: the Exodus. I intend to extend this argument significantly in an essay for the 2018 issue of Fare Forward magazine, to be published in several months. For now, my letter-to-the-editor is as follows:
Patrick Deneen’s characterization of Plato’s noble lie, in an otherwise excellent essay, nonetheless overlooks one crucial feature of the story: the autochthony myth. Socrates says his citizens should be told that “the earth, which is their mother, sent them up. And now, as though the land they are in were a mother and nurse, they must plan for and defend it, if anyone attacks.” The opposite of this autochthony myth, perhaps, is the Exodus story, in which the inhabitants of the promised land, though they are a chosen people, nevertheless receive the land as a gift. This story also demands an ethical response—but not mobilization against foreigners. Instead, Moses informs the people that they are to “love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).
The Exodus story explicitly cautions us against the dangers of inherited privilege, of which the contemporary egalitarian invitation to “check your privilege” is merely an imitation. Moses warns:
And it shall be, when the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, . . . to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, And houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full, Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. (Deut. 6:10–12)
Deuteronomy’s response to the recognition of unearned privilege is not the well-intentioned yet ultimately futile attempt to empty oneself of those privileges (admittedly a practice with roots in Christian kenosis), but rather, the practice of the virtue of gratitude.
If the danger of unbridled meritocracy is that the elite will come to think of the misfortune of the poor as deserved, and likewise their own prosperity, then the danger of Plato’s noble lie—and John Winthrop’s variation on it—is that God has appointed the poor to their station, and they are therefore obliged to stay there. Plato’s story of the admixture of metal with souls is functionally a caste system, and Christianity has a storied history of opposing such systems wherever they may appear.
Christianity teaches both that God appoints us to our stations, and also that there is no prohibition against improving them as we are able. To bondservants, Paul recommends, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor. 7:21). This is the logic of the Exodus narrative applied to social stratification and inequality. Perhaps it affords a point of common ground with those egalitarians so eager to warn against the dangers of unearned privilege today.
Justin Hawkins New Haven, Connecticut