There is a long tradition, which Pagden seems to still hold to but which Davies and I seek to overturn, of seeing considerable continuity between the democracy of the Greeks and that of our own day, and among the urbane, cosmopolitan debates among literate non-nobles that could be found in the streets of Athens, the Roman forum, the chocolate shops bordering plazas in the republics of Renaissance Italy, Dutch and British coffee-houses, or the meeting halls of today’s think-tanks and policy institutions in Washington, Brussels, or Tokyo. Similarly, there is continuity seen from the secular philosophizing of Aristotle to that of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Spinoza, or of formal mathematics and physics from Euclid and Archimedes to Galileo and Newton.
In support, I would note that Greco-Roman political institutions were very strongly predicated on class, which tended to be determined by birth, and thus were far removed from modern political institutions. As all of us here are no doubt aware, the deme in “democracy” did not originally embrace all of the people. A deme was a hereditary neighborhood association of people of the highest political class. This was a fairly large class, and independent of wealth, but excluded many all the same. Both resident aliens and slaves outnumbered citizens, and no one saw anything terribly problematic about it. And, of course, no women of any class ever voted or had any formal participation in political life.
Likewise, Roman technology often seems a forerunner to the modern engineering culture — but was it? My sense is that wherever the Romans could, they exploited slave labor rather than developing the new power sources that signal modernity. Even their most notable engineering achievements, like the aqueducts, did not employ anything more than the power of gravity. Developing the fossil-fuel/steam/steel triad would require not only precise, systematic measurement (which the Romans certainly sometimes had), but also a felt shortage of labor, which they do not seem to have had for any length of time. In periods of successful conquest, slaves were plentiful, and in periods of military retreat, long-term capital projects were off the table. The Romans weren’t first and foremost engineers. They were urbane, literate plunderers.
Many point to Christianity as the historical force that challenged the ancient world’s inegalitarianism. There is quite a bit of truth to this, but it’s possible to push the case too far. Many ideas that are crucial to the modern political synthesis are nowhere to be found until the seventeenth century at the earliest, and even during that era, the far more typical Christian politics was not John Locke’s, but that of the lesser-known Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and court preacher to Louis XIV. Bossuet’s Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture made the case that the most natural Christian polity — indeed, the only properly Christian polity — was an absolute monarchy, because the king was an image of God on earth. Christianity certainly taught that there was an inherent dignity to all people, regardless of social station, but it was quite reluctant to challenge the idea of social station itself.
Yet egalitarianism is undoubtedly a part of the modern synthesis. Egalitarianism is not, as has sometimes been argued, best understood as a revolt against nature. Rightly understood, it is a key part of obeying nature, and thereby of commanding it.
Egalitarianism is a key part of the political-technological synthesis, because it indicates a willingness to acknowledge the potential contributions of anyone in society, or indeed, of anyone in any society, to the engineering culture that has gained increasing mastery over the natural world. Modernity needs neither slaves nor masters, but innovators, and we can’t possibly know in advance where these come from. Egalitarianism rightly understood is an agnosticism about human potential, and a willingness to be convinced. This is an approach to work and technology that is exceedingly difficult to find in Rome or Greece, or indeed anywhere before the modern synthesis arose.