Commentary Magazine

Pluralism Ancient and Modern

The punch line of the old Soviet joke goes, “If everything is so good why is everything so bad?” About pluralism we may ask, If it is so popular why is it so unpopular?

For pluralism’s critics, its popularity is one of the worst things about it. Pluralists, for their part, could easily believe that they have less to fear from criticism than from a seeming conspiracy of silence. Not until its third edition (1961) did Webster’s International Dictionary add a definition of “pluralism” that accords with what reasonably well-educated Americans, for at least a generation, had probably first thought of when hearing or seeing the word: something about different groups living in one place. Six years later the Random House Dictionary was still blackballing the upstart. Its two definitions are those of the Oxford English Dictionary: philosophical, in contrast to monism; and ecclesiastical, like a theme in a novel by Trollope, referring to a clergyman’s holding more than one benefice. That is easier to understand in a 19th-century British dictionary than a 20th-cenutry American one.

Under “pluralism” the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1933) spoke of municipal and economic interests, not of groups constituted by difference of origin, and thirty-five years later the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences was little different. In the early years of this century Israel Zangwill gave us a metallurgical figure for America, the melting pot: not melted itself, a melting pot melts together the metals poured into it. Disagreeing, Horace Kallen offered a musical figure for the cultural pluralism he wanted to encourage: a symphony, or symphony orchestra, which uses rather than suppresses the diversity of sounds and instruments, and cannot even come into being without that diversity. The International Encyclopedia mentions Kallen once—on psychoanalysis. Its index lists many things beginning with “cultural,” including “cultural morphology” and “cultural relativism,” but not “cultural pluralism” between them.

About ethnic or cultural pluralism, silence; about interest-group pluralism, distaste. For example, in the Journal of Politics (1977), a writer refers matter-of-factly to “the conservatism of pluralism in politics (and research).” The International Encylopedia of the Social Sciences agrees: “. . . the pluralist position . . . may be viewed as a conservative reaction against the presumed effects of a mass society.” If a reaction, why not reactionary? The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson writes a book against pluralism that he calls Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse (1977).

Is “the power structure” still the prevailing cant for “the ruling class”? Pluralist scholars have shown that power in America is not a single and undivided structure. Therefore they must be conservative, defenders of the ruling class.

Another reason for damning pluralism as conservative can be seen in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences’ “stalemate . . . deadlock . . . inaction.” When you have to get everybody’s consent how can you get anything done? You are a city planner. You have fed the problem to the computer a dozen times and the answer always comes out the same: that moth-eaten old tree must go. Do they let you go ahead and get rid of it? Neighborhood preservationists and woodman-spare-that-tree sentimentalists and Environmental Protection Agency red-tape artists won’t let you. Or you are a minority-recruitment dean. You do not need a computer, you know that justice requires a blind eye and a thumbed nose to that reactionary aptitude-test stuff. Do they let you do what needs to be done? Ethnics and meritocrats and Jews start yelling about quotas and reverse discrimination. If it were not for the courts, which, thank Heaven, are a House of Lords still sheltered from that great beast the people, the obstructionists might block us good guys in our pursuit of justice. Change is good, pluralism slows change, therefore pluralism is bad.

That “the pluralist position . . . may be viewed as a conservative reaction” we are told at the beginning of the last paragraph of the International Encyclopedia‘s article. At the end we are told that “political pluralism as an ideology has lost most of its explicit apologists and only lingers quietly as a submerged, inarticulate ingredient of Western liberalism.” This does not imply that Western liberalism itself has kept most of its explicit apologists. And how do you distinguish between Western liberalism and democracy?

Nor does pluralism fare much better at the hands of historians. Two well-received studies of colonial New York—Michael Kammen’s Colonial New York (1975) and Douglas Greenberg’s Crime and Law Enforcement in the Colony of New York (1976)—find that it was worse off than other colonies in such things as crime because it was more pluralist, more diverse and heterogeneous.



The late Greek idea of the cosmopolis, the world city, is transparently not pluralist. The earlier, classical polis, though everyone understood it to depend on a division of labor among its inhabitants, was not much more pluralist. From Aristotle to the Founding Fathers, and beyond, faction was the nightmare of political thinkers. Aristotle taught that to avoid faction citizens must intermarry (1280b) and have a common descent (1303a). He took it for granted that all would worship the gods of an established cult (1329a).

The pluralism Aristotle accepted without regret was that which arose from the very nature of the polis, its being small enough for citizens to know each other. Since each polis had to be small, there had to be many poleis. Unbroken peace was therefore impossible, if not actually undesirable, not only between Greeks and barbarians but also between Greeks. From polis is derived polites, “citizen,” and from this in turn is derived politikos, “political—having to do with citizenship, or statesmanship, or public affairs.” Bios politikos is “political life.” When Aristotle uses this expression (1265a, 1327b) he means, not at all disapprovingly, “expansionism, imperialism.” He advises how to site a polis advantageously for offense as well as defense (1326b f.).

With Jews and Christians, the word that resounds in their Bible—the key word, the word of power—is not “many.” It is “one”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The Bible is monist.

It is from Isaiah 2 (and Micah 4) that lovers of peace, even the peace-loving UN, take a verse of promise and hope: “. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;/nation shall not lift up sword against nation,/ neither shall they learn war any more.” Everybody used to know, but in these well-educated days few know, what precedes this apparently uncontroversial, universalist sentiment as its necessary condition:

And many peoples [Micah: nations]
    shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the Mount of
    the Lord, to the House of the God
    of Jacob;
that He may teach us His ways
and that we may walk in His paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the
    Law [Torah], and the word of the
    Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations
    [Micah: between many peoples]
and shall decide for many peoples
    [Micah: for mighty nations afar
    off]. . . .

It is only when the peoples and nations are one in seeking and heeding the one God of Jacob that they will find peace.



Micah enlarges famously on those agricultural metaphors: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree/and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken.” There follows a verse that many modern Jews have loved to cite as proof of the Bible’s tolerance and pluralism: “For all the peoples walk/each in the name of its god,/but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God/for ever and ever.” No pre-modern Jewish tradition supports the modern Jewish understanding of this verse. Rashi contents himself with the Targum attributed to Jonathan b. Uzziel: “For all the peoples will go to destruction because they have worshipped their idols, but we shall trust in the Word of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” Ibn Ezra: “. . . they will walk each in the name of its god, until the people of the [Jerusalem] Temple instruct them. . . .” Qimhi: “. . . they will walk each in the name of its god . . . until King Messiah turns them to the good way. . . .” So even Ibn Ezra and Qimhi, who here as usual are less anti-Gentile than Targum Jonathan and Rashi, understand Micah’s toleration of the Gentiles’ worship of any god but the true God as Jefferson and Lincoln were to understand the toleration of slavery by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: the thing was tolerated because it was thought to be “in the course of ultimate extinction.”

If Haman was not pluralist, neither were Mordecai and Esther. Haman’s argument against tolerating the Jewish people is that though dispersed, it is unassimilated—meforad— with unique laws and customs. Among the reasons for doubting the Book of Esther’s historical worth is that such advice from a Persian minister to his king would have been unconstitutional, as tending to subvert the polity. The book is true to history in that it knows the Persian king was the ruler of a multinational, polyglot, pluralist empire: “one hundred and twenty-seven provinces . . . all the peoples who are in all the provinces . . . every people in its own language.” If the Jews were unique in their fashion, so were the others, each in its own fashion. Yet nobody says this to counter Haman. The author does not take the diversity of the others seriously. For him, in effect, there are only two groups, the Jews and everybody else. His happy ending is that the Jews slew their enemies, that “many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews”—mityahadim— and that Mordecai replaced Haman as prime minister. Hence we celebrate Purim. Purim is biblical.

Hanukkah is not biblical—or rather, it is not in the Hebrew Bible. Since the Rabbis had little regard for the Maccabees/Hasmoneans, even the first book of Maccabees, written in Hebrew, has come down to us only because it was translated for Greek-speaking Jews. Nowadays we like to say that Hanukkah is a festival of religious freedom, by implication pluralist. Did not the Maccabees rebel because Antiochus had decreed “to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up its customs”? But it was not to champion the pluralist right of distinctiveness for all that the Maccabees rebelled, it was to preserve Jewish distinctiveness. Their enemies were less the Syrian Greeks than the Jewish assimilationists—huioi paranomoi, “lawbreaking children” of Israel—who had incited Antiochus to issue his decree. These “led many astray” when they urged the Jews to “come to terms with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many evils have befallen us.” Victorious, the Hasmoneans did not recognize a religious freedom of those Jewish lawbreakers to break the Law, nor did they recognize a religious freedom of Idumeans not to be coerced into Judaism. (Herod was of Idumean stock.)

Christianity inherited this from Judaism. In Ezekiel (34 and 37) we read: “I will save My flock. . . . And I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he shall feed them. . . . I will make them one nation . . . and one king shall be king over them all. . . . My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd.” But the shepherd king is only the vicar of the master Shepherd, God: “. . . I, I Myself will search for My sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock . . . so will I seek out My sheep. . . .” The echo of Ezekiel in the Gospel of John has had effects of some consequence on the history of Christendom: “one flock and one shepherd”—“pastor” is Latin for “shepherd,” a bishop carries a crook—and “that they may all be one.”



Though modern thought breaks not only with biblical religion but also with classical philosophy, and though Jefferson has little more use for Plato than for “priestcraft,” he does not break with their dislike of pluralism. Like Lincoln after him, Jefferson was regretfully convinced that American whites and blacks could not live together in friendly or even peaceful equality. Both Jefferson and Lincoln held that all men were created equal—not in body or mind but in what was decisively more important, heart. For both this was scientific, a fact of human nature that the “candid” must acknowledge and only the perverse could doubt. (That is what they meant by a self-evident truth.) For Lincoln, human equality was additionally, or alternatively, a somewhat religious “proposition,” or tenet: scientific truths are not “tested” in battle, and we do not “dedicate” ourselves to them. (See Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, by Garry Wills, and Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, and American Constitutionalism, edited by L.P.S. de Alvarez.) Both Jefferson and Lincoln were sure that only in Africa could black people be free to pursue their happiness and as a “People . . . assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”—no more and no less than what the Declaration of Independence claimed for the nascent American people on this continent. A “separate and equal Station” for black individuals in America would not do.

So little could two of the greatest Americans, let alone Presidents, think of racial pluralism. Jefferson went farther. Not dissenting from the Enlightenment’s populationism, he nevertheless opposed any substantial immigration from Europe. For a bigger and better Virginia he looked to the natural increase of the Virginians themselves, though it would be slower. Immigration would mean a republic flooded by newcomers untrained in republicanism, and that was too high a price to pay.

William Penn has been cited as an exception to the inveterate fear of pluralism: “Many Inquisitive Men into Humaine Affairs have thought that the Concord of Discords hath not been the infirmest basis Government can rise or stand upon.” (Did Kallen read this?) Maybe Penn had the Aristotelian mixed constitution in mind.



After this recital, perhaps the question should be reversed. If pluralism is so unpopular why is it so popular?

What other choices are there? Granted that the friendly equality of whites and blacks has proved to be if not impossible then difficult enough, should the white majority deport the black minority? Could it? With what horrors would we have to be visited before such rhetorical questions became actual? And if whites and blacks are ever to live together free and equal, and friendly, what is that if not pluralism? People who are truly free and equal determine for themselves how distinctive they wish to be—how groupy—and how undistinctive. In India the British raj forbade the Thugs to adhere to their group and to follow the Thug way of life. The Thugs were a criminal association, their way of life was murder and robbery, and murderers and robbers cannot persuasively assert a right to do what they do because that is how they pursue their happiness. But if a group is not inherently wicked or harmful, no one should have the right to penalize those taking part in its life. Of course, this naive idea is only a piece of Western liberalism.

High-minded men and women have long lamented that most people do not know what is really good for them. The best examples are British. The socialist Webbs and Shaw did not pretend that they were also democrats. In their weakness for despotisms that proclaimed themselves benevolent the Webbs and Shaw took an example from ancient philosophers and modern philosophes, and set an example for their own successors. Intellectuals can be more gullible than common folk about despots’ claims to benevolence. Perhaps that is because common folk are less given to fancying that soon their turn will come to be the despots—benevolent, it goes without saying.

Naturally, that does not dispose of the matter. Democracy is notoriously absurd. We are learned, wise, good. They are ignorant, foolish, bad. How can anyone seriously maintain that the vote of one of us should count for no more than the vote of one of them?

There is no need to deny the follies and sins of pluralism/Western liberalism/democracy. When they do not make us cry they make us laugh. But again, what else is there? In our century, malevolent despotism.

Anyway, whatever we may think of the theory or the ideology, the fact of pluralism will not go away, because diversity will not go away. As with mountains, so with differences: while old ones are being leveled new ones arise. In 18th-century England the aristocracy said “port” and the merchants “port wine” until the merchants caught on and began to say “port,” too, whereupon the aristocracy switched to “port wine.” Blue jeans were supposed to put an end to distinctions of dress, and now connoisseurs of blue jeans can spot a thousand new distinctions.

France has been a highly centralized state since Napoleon’s minister of education could look at his watch and know what was being taught in every classroom in the land, yet de Gaulle was to ask in exasperation how anyone could be expected to govern a country that insisted on producing 300 kinds of cheese. It is likely that France is more pluralist now than at any time since literacy and military service turned peasants into Frenchmen, in the last century.

A Jew who says the obligatory blessings will always have occasion to praise Him “who varies His creatures.”



The Jewish relation to all this is not simple. Are we talking of the Judaic tradition(s)? Or are we talking of people descended from people whose lives were willy-nilly enclosed within Jewish tradition and community but who may themselves be Judaic not at all and Jewish very little, at least consciously? Jews by imposition, by inertia, by choice?

Classical Jewish monism is anthropological as well as theological. That is nothing to be ashamed of. Would we welcome a pluralism that denies a common origin for all the human race? Rabbi Ishmael held that the most basic verse of Scripture was “. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself . . .” (Leviticus 19:18). Very nice. Rabbi ‘Aqiva, who died a martyr with the “One” of the Shema on his lips, preferred the first of those tedious begats, “This is the book of the generations of Adam” (Genesis 5:1), because from it we learn that we are all of one descent and that consequently none of us may vaunt his lineage over another’s. Bravo!

Even for pious Jews, Judaic anti-pluralism has no more binding force than Judaic ignorance of democracy. Maimonides on the laws of kingship is close to Ezekiel on a king of the house of David as shepherd and the people of Israel as the sheep in his charge. That does not obligate our pious to abjure democracy—or constitutional monarchy, or any other system of government tolerably free of bloodshed, rapine, and oppression. The tradition’s influence is more indirect than that, it is in the background.

In the foreground is the historical experience of the Jews. Russian Jews used to tell a wry story. In their synagogues they were compelled to offer up a prayer for the czar. Some would say only what sounded like the prayer, which besought God to grant the ruler long life and yatzliah (“prosper”) his enterprises. Instead they would mutter yasriah (“cause to stink”), finding in spiteful cleverness some consolation for their impotence. Exceptionally, a certain rabbi of the old school would say the prayer both correctly and fervently. Once he explained why: “Always wish long life to the czar. The next one will be worse.”

That is, Jews used to be conservative, fearing change. Their condition might be wretched, but they expected change to make it more wretched still.

Jews were expelled from England, France, and Spain, but not from the Holy Roman Empire as a whole or Italy as a whole. They fared less badly in the Hapsburg empire than in its successor states, less badly in the Muslim Ottoman empire than in neighboring Muslim Persia. (They came late into the Russian empire.) In modern France the law and institutional arrangements, not to speak of the national ethos, were more anti-pluralist than in Great Britain. Arguably, this worked to produce greater constriction and discomfort in the French than in the British Jews. American pluralism has helped American Jews. For pre-modern Jews and most modern ones, therefore, history taught that pluralism was generally good for the Jews.

There were, however, two types of modern Jew who disliked pluralism. The first type was indifferent to “the lesson of history,” not so much because historians themselves now doubt there is such a thing in any practical sense as because his passion was to make everything new, to throw into the garbage bin of history the past as it survives in the present. A Jew like that hated the very mentality which equated less bad with good. Especially did he hate to hear something praised as good for the Jews, since, as was to be expected, of all the parochialisms he detested Jewish parochialism most. He wanted a world free of religion, that sinister and noxious falsehood, and free of nationality. No more sects, no more tribes, one undivided humanity—that is the world as it should be. What has pluralism to do with the world as it should be?

Paul, an earlier Jew impatient with Jewish narrowness (as explicitly hallowed in the Morning Blessings), had said: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The revolutionary modern Jew only substituted a different ending: “. . . for we will all be one in the Revolution.” If all Jews had listened to Paul, there would still be Greeks, and male and female, and even slave and free, but no Jews. What if all Jews had listened to Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, and Stalin had been gentler?

The second type of anti-pluralist Jew was of those who wanted to identify themselves with majority chauvinism and were unkindly called more Prussian than the Prussians, more Polish than the Poles, and so on. Many of these had themselves baptized.

To judge by their names, the two historians who find that colonial New York paid a high price for its pluralism are Jews. That is not enough to put them in the anti-pluralist camp. They may have found what any other honest and competent historians would find, and sensible pluralists will agree that pluralism has its costs. Who would rather try to govern Northern Ireland, or even Belgium, than Norway?

So most Jews are pluralist but some are not. Predictably, both pluralism and anti-pluralism have been called Jewish tricks. According to Oliver C. Cox, a black sociologist, the Jews seduced black people into the “black is beautiful” dead end in order to make it seem that pluralism was something more general and respectable than a cover for “immemorial Jewish tribal exclusiveness” (“Jewish Self-interest in ‘Black Pluralism,’” Sociological Quarterly, 1974). According to Harold Cruse, a black intellectual, assimilationist Jews seduced black intellectuals into the dead end of color-blind Communism in order to make it seem that revolutionary universalism was something more than an escape hatch for people who had had enough of being Jews (The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 1967).



Modern Bible scholars find the tale of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) easy to understand. It is mostly etiological, explaining our many languages, Babylonian temple architecture, and the name Babel. The classical Jewish exegetes find the tale hard to understand. Since oneness, monism, is good, why should the builders of the city and the tower be punished for wanting to remain one people with one language? The problem is so acute that Ibn Ezra, against the entire weight of the tradition, feels compelled to solve it by dissolving it. He denies that Scripture condemns the builders’ desire. On “one people” (11: 6) he comments: “For they had one religion; because it is from difference of religion that there arise strife and spite”—qin’ah we-sin’ah, recalling a phrase in Rav’s “habitual saying” about the contrasts between this world and the world to come (Berakhot 17a)—“as also from difference of language.” Spinoza with his civil religion and Zamenhof with his Esperanto were to say much the same thing.

The greatest of the rationalist exegetes, Ibn Ezra, normally insists on the plain sense of Scripture, but here his rationalism prompts him not only to ignore tradition but also to deny the plain sense of the text itself. He tells us that God’s scattering of the builders of the city and tower was neither punishment nor curse but blessing, since He had ordained that the human race should spread out over the earth (Genesis 9: 1): “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’” As for the “tower with its top in the heavens,” that is no more to be understood literally than Canaan’s “cities great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 9: 1).

In the Midrash the point of the tale is precisely that the tower was to reach to heaven. Those presumptuous men—led by Nimrod, according to some—built their tower to invade heaven. Their punishment was dispersion, ceasing to be one people with one language.

But this created a new problem. The builders of the city and the tower—the Generation of the Dispersion, dor haflagah (or ha-pelagah?)—were punished far more lightly than the Generation of the Flood, which was utterly destroyed. Yet was not the crime of the Generation of the Dispersion more grievous? The Generation of the Flood had not gone so far as actually to prepare war against God and His angels.

The Midrash’s solution is no less monist than Ibn Ezra’s. The Generation of the Flood robbed and killed each other, while the Generation of the Dispersion lived in unity, peace, and friendship. The latter’s sin was great—what the Greeks would have called hubris. But their virtue was also great—they loved one another. Instead of destroying them, therefore, God merely dispersed them. (So highly does the Holy One, blessed be He, value peace and so greatly does He reward the pursuers of peace.) The unity of the Generation of the Dispersion was in itself not bad but only premature, so to speak. When the time is ripe, when our unity is for a good purpose, God will approve.

Of the past it is written (Genesis 11:7),
“Come, let us go down, and there
    confuse their speech.”
And it is written (Psalm 55:10[9]),
“Destroy, O Lord, and divide [pallag] their
language, for I see
    violence and strife in the city.”
But in the future He will “restore to the
peoples a pure speech, that all of
them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).

Rav said there would be no procreation in the world to come, and Jesus had said there would be no marriage. There will be no democracy: only Abraham and Moses will be Abraham and Moses, and even the angels will not be archangels. And there will be no pluralism: “The Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord shall be one and His name one” (Zechariah 14:9). That day is the day when the Messiah comes. In Jewish exegesis the judge in Isaiah and Micah, like the shepherd in Ezekiel, is God’s vicar, the Messiah.

Just as marriage and procreation are too earthly for the world to come and are only for this world, so democracy and pluralism are only for this world.

Time enough to be hoity-toity about democracy and pluralism when the Messiah comes.

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