Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Problem of the Four Brothers

Written by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

ONE of the themes of the Brotherhood Campaign [the Brazilian Bishops’ annual charity drive] invited all Brazilians to reflect upon the maxim: “We are all brothers, we are all equal.” To such reflections, I dedicate my words of today which, regardless of their merit, at least have the distinction of being a column published in a Brazilian newspaper with a very large circulation.

From the outset, I knew the task would be difficult. By heartfelt sentiments that spring from the innermost being, by that special discernment – tacit though it may be – that senses the simple, sublime, great truths of life, and by the mark impressed on him by Christian tradition, the Brazilian is convinced we are all equal and brothers. This is illustrated by the profound historical reality of Brazil’s miscegenation, which is based on the equality and fraternity of the races.

Undoubtedly, the mentors of the campaign realize this. Accordingly, their objective does not lie in repeating worn-out clichés, but in evoking forgotten aspects or correcting poorly understood ideals of equality and fraternity. Only then would they be telling the public something new in respect to these themes.

Having resolved my preliminary perplexity, I searched for something “new” that could be said. It was not long before I recalled some clues.

Equality, fraternity . . . what is the missing word? Ah, it is liberty. Thus my mind reconstructed the trilogy of the French Revolution. And, at the same time, an amalgam of images tumultuously sprung to mind – the divinely luminous teachings of the Holy Gospel, the crystal clear concepts of Roman Law, the medieval guilds, the lyrical tirades of Rousseau, the sarcasms of Voltaire, the blood of the infamous Madame Roland, crying out on her way to the guillotine: “Liberty, liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!”

* * *

Nothing grand, nothing sound, nothing lasting has been constructed in cul­ture or civilization without liberty, equality and fraternity based on justice. Yet the greatest crimes of recent centuries have been committed precisely in the name of unrestrained liberty, absolute equality, and an indiscriminate fraternity.

We need not return to the French Revolution to demonstrate this point. We need only consider the raging son to whom it gave birth; communism, a son who today engulfs the land in violence.

More often than not, the immediate executors of this violence do not under­stand the hazy philosophical and economic lucubrations of Marx. Rather they are moved by a more basic rationale that we could outline as follows:

a) All men are brothers;

b) A brother should desire that his brothers possess every good that he himself has;

c) Therefore, total equality is the natural consequence of true fraternity;

d) Accordingly, all inequality is unjust;

e) Thus, the brother who is a victim of injustice has the right to ask and even demand equality in the name of fraternity. The final consequence of such fraternity is pandemonium, if not indeed crime.

It seems to me that those who have allowed themselves to become entangled in this sophism might learn something by reflecting on the nature of genuine fraternity. Such reflection would also reveal one of the most vital aspects of the Brotherhood Campaign.

* * *

The heart of the problem outlined above is a question readily demonstrable by the following example.

Imagine a family with quadruplets, all boys. The lads are exactly alike in appearance, tastes, personality and intellect. Among them reigns complete equality.


Imagine yet another family, also with four children. But these children differ in sex, age, capability, intelligence and personal appearance. Yet they know how to make these differences complement each other and work together by means of their strong mutual affection.

Now ask yourself this: In which of the two families is the fraternal relationship more ideal? In other words, is this fraternity the result of total equality? Or does it rather spring from a basic equality tempered by an extensive range of diverse, hierarchical values?

Having posed the problem, there came to my mind a phrase of Maurois from his biography of Disraeli concerning a group of this British prime minister’s friends: “As all true friends, they appear to be quite dissimilar.”

Friendship has much in common with fraternal love. Both stagnate and die in the stifling monotony of complete equality. On the contrary, they live, grow and yield abundant fruit in a climate of proportionate and harmonic inequality. With this, the communist corollary between total equality and perfect fraternity topples to the ground. Genuine fraternity does not unleash class warfare and the bloodshed of brothers. Rather it gives rise to constructive cooperation and harmony.

This conclusion, so eminently logical, seems to me of such importance that it should not be left undefended by the support of various citations. I find this support in pontifical documents.

Let us listen to the great voice of Pope Leo XIII: “Once again We declare this: The remedy for these evils will never lie in the subversive equality of the social classes, but in this fraternity, which, without detracting anything from the dignity of the social position, unites all hearts in the same bonds of Christian love.”1

And here we find the lamentations of Pius XII: “Brothers are not born nor do they remain completely equal: Some are strong, others weak; some intelligent, others incapable; one might be abnormal and it could even happen that he might become undeserving. It is, therefore, inevitable that a certain physical, intellectual and moral inequality exists in the same family. . . . To lay claim to an absolute equality of all would be the same as to pretend to give identical functions to the diverse members of the same organism.”2

And, finally, we read the so-often quoted John XXIII, who cites the words of Pius XII: “In a people worthy of such a name, all the inequalities that derive not from chance, but from the proper nature of things, inequalities of culture, of possessions, of social position – without prejudice, be it well understood, to justice and mutual charity – are, in an absolute sense, not an obstacle to the existence and to the predominance of a true spirit of community and fraternity.”3

1. Allocution of 1/24/1903 to the Roman Patriarchs and Nobles [back]
2. Allocution of 4/6/1953 to a group of the faithful [back]
3. Radio Message of Christmas, 1944; Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram of 6/29/1959 [back]

This article was originally published in the Folha de S. Paulo, on February 26th, 1969.

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