Equality With or Without Degree
Reflections on Dante's vision of equality
For there is no other heaven - the hierarchy admitted, there is, it seems, no hierarchy at all; no higher or lower; all is here, in the first. "Only," and as if (lover-like) Beatrice exerted herself to explain to her lover, she seems to use an intense metaphor - "only - they have a sweet life differently, by feeling more or less the eternal breath" (per sentir piu e men l'eterno spiro (IV, 36)). The swifter ardour of that sweet immingled life is all the difference any can know; passion is their law, not place. Anything else is democracy intoxicated with itself, the moon-lunacy of equality without degree, as without equality degree is sun-madness. Even in this world, even outside love, one does not envy Caesar or Shakespeare or the God-bearer; existence is equal, function hierarchical; at every moment the hierarchy alters, and the functions re-ladder themselves upward. To know both - to experience and to observe both is perfect freedom.
From Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice
Understanding how to take equality is one of the most important challenges of both political philosophy and morality.
As Arendt observed there is a grave danger that the ideal of equality will be corrupted into some kind of enforced normality - what I think Williams might call "equality without degree." If we say equal, but think normal, then all those of us who are 'too different to be equal' will be at risk.
The challenge is to combine equality and degree.
Williams is exploring Dante's picture of heaven - which is (whether or not you believe in heaven) a useful intellectual exercise. In heaven there must be a fundamental equality - can you imagine yourself as somehow envious, proud or demeaned in heaven. There can be no pretence that we are 'better' in heaven. But we cannot all be the same - that would be hell.
Dante imagines heaven as a hierarchy of multiple perfections - the hierarchy seemed problematic, even to Dante himself; but it is then revealed as a way of understanding the beauty of our diversity.