First Among Equals

  • Mar 20, 2023, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
  • Mar 21, 2023, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
  • Mar 22, 2023, 4:30 pm6:00 pm
Guyot Hall 10



Event Description

Teresa Bejan, Professor of Political Theory and a Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford

Series Overview: First Among Equals

As a defining premise of modern political thought, equality often commands more allegiance than investigation. Yet the idea that human beings are equal is an ancient one, with deep roots in Roman Law and Christianity. This lecture series explores how and why, in 17th-century England, this long-standing idea began to have profound political consequences—if not all of the consequences modern egalitarians expect.

Monday, March 20th - Lecture One: An Equal Commonwealth

This lecture examines the competing and often contradictory ideas about equality at stake during the English Civil War. All sides agreed that an “equal commonwealth” must be a balanced one, but they disagreed on how balance would be best achieved. While the Levellers argued that every Englishman should be respected as a peer or “Equall,” their critics worried that “parity” would over-balance the body politic and turn the world upside down.

Tuesday, March 21st - Lecture Two: Levelling

This lecture explores the idea of “levelling” in early modern England. While the so-called “Levellers” rejected the label, other groups embraced it. For instance, the Diggers pursued equality by reclaiming common land, while the early Quakers launched a systematic campaign of social disrespect. These fascinating and forgotten visions of equality challenge modern expectations of what a society of equals should look like.

Wednesday, March 22nd - Lecture Three: Blind Spots 

This lecture explores the “first among equals” problem in 17th-century England. While the Levellers, Diggers, and early Quakers were committed to the equality of human beings, their visions of a society of equals remained profoundly hierarchical—for instance, with respect to women and the enslaved. Modern scholars often dismiss these and other exclusions as blind spots. But the woman known as “The First English Feminist,” Mary Astell, saw them as evidence of deeper difficulties with equality as a relational ideal.

Each lecture is from 4:30 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.

Teresa M. Bejan is Professor of Political Theory and Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford. Professor Bejan’s research brings historical perspectives to bear on questions in contemporary political theory. She has written extensively on themes of free speech, civility, tolerance, and equality in historical contexts ranging from ancient Athens to 20th-century analytic political philosophy. In 2021, Professor Bejan was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in Politics, which celebrates early career researchers who have already achieved international recognition and have exceptional future promise. 

Her first book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (2017, paperback 2019), examined contemporary calls for civility in light of 17th-century debates about religious toleration. It defended an ideal of ‘mere civility’ consistent with American free speech fundamentalism derived from Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Her current book manuscript, entitled First Among Equals, explores the fascinating but forgotten history of equality before modern egalitarianism. Her next major research project is the Clarendon edition of John Locke’s Letters on Toleration.

Professor Bejan has also published peer-reviewed articles in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Political Theory, History of Political Thought, and more. Her Special Forum on “The Historical Rawls” (co-edited with Sophie Smith and Annette Zimmermann) was published in 2021 in the journal Modern Intellectual History. Alongside her academic work, Professor Bejan writes regularly for popular venues, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.


Lecture Series
Charles E. Test, M.D. '37 Distinguished Lectures Series