Equality: The History of an Elusive Idea

The definitive history of the idea of equality—and why we’re so ambivalent about it  On Sale November 14, 2023

Learn More

Equality is in crisis. Our world is filled with soaring inequalities, spanning wealth, race, identity, and nationality. Yet how can we strive for equality if we don’t understand it? As much as we have struggled for equality, we have always been profoundly skeptical about it. How much do we want, and for whom?  

Darrin M. McMahon’s Equality is the definitive intellectual history, tracing equality’s global origins and spread from the dawn of humanity through the Enlightenment to today. Equality has been reimagined continually, in the great world religions and the politics of the ancient world, by revolutionaries and socialists, Nazis and fascists, and postwar reformers and activists. 

A magisterial exploration of why equality matters and why we continue to reimagine it, Equality offers all the tools to rethink equality anew for our own age. 


“Fascinating,”―Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“Sweeping … thought-provoking … keenly reasoned,”―Becca Rothfeld, Washington Post

“An important examination of the past, present, and future of a key concept of political thinking.”―Kirkus

“A meticulous and thoughtful account.”―Publishers Weekly

“Ideas of equality have a long and chaotic history—long before modern political battles and institutions made the rise of equality possible. At a time when the march toward equality seems so fragile and uncertain, this fascinating and refreshing book is more necessary than ever. A must-read for all citizens interested in the past and future of equality.”―Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century

“Darrin McMahon once again delivers a brilliant intellectual history of one of humanity’s most important and least understood ideas. Sweeping, incisive, and provocative, Equality is nothing short of a masterpiece.”―Daniel Gilbert, author of the New York Times–bestselling Stumbling on Happiness

“This is an essential book for thinking about the most pressing issues of our time. We instinctively react against inequality yet have confused and conflicting ideas about how to make equality a reality. McMahon explains why equality remains so elusive.”―Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights

“In this ambitious book, McMahon places equality at the center of human history, showing us how elastic and unruly the concept is and illustrating struggles over its meaning continue to be central touchstones for our contemporary moment. This intellectual and political history is a critical resource in our age of inequality.”―Adom Getachew, author of Worldmaking after Empire

“McMahon’s Equality is a remarkable book full of penetrating insights, good humor, and hard truths. By subjecting this supposedly ‘self-evident’ idea to historical scrutiny, McMahon uncovers the many different ways in which human beings—as strongly status-conscious creatures—have imagined equality from prehistory to the present day. What emerges is not only an elusive idea, but a strikingly ambivalent one. Equality may be more at home with hierarchy and exclusion than modern egalitarians care to admit. Yet McMahon argues that to maintain its power—and promise—in an unequal world, one must first confront equality in all of its complexity. I count myself convinced. There is no better place to start than with his wonderful book.” ―Teresa M. Bejan, University of Oxford

“McMahon’s Equality is a magisterial and path-breaking history of the dialectic of equality and inequality, which has always been and remains today indispensable to understand the history of humanity. The author’s fine-tuned analysis demonstrates that equality-thoughts are always ambiguous and polysemic. Concepts of equality can be deployed to enlarge the community of equals but also to exclude categories of people from equality. McMahon’s history of equality runs from the palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to the present time, taking in the interaction of status, class, gender, and race. The concluding essay, fittingly named ‘The Crisis of Equality,’ discusses the struggles for and against equality in our time.”―Siep Stuurman, author of The Invention of Humanity

Divine Fury: A History of Genius

Divine Fury: A History of Genius, Basic Books, 2013

Learn More…

Selected Comments and Reviews

“[An] erudite and engaging history of genius…McMahon is refreshingly unafraid to embrace the mythic dimension of his subject as part of its true importance, an approach that offers to deepen, not undermine, our appreciation of genius.” —The New York Times

“A deeply researched history of the idea of genius in the Western world.” —The Wall Street Journal

“An engaging survey of the history of genius in European culture…McMahon tells the history of genius with verve, wit and insight, and his book is a pleasure to read. Divine Fury makes innumerable fascinating connections and weaves many threads into a coherent narrative spanning 2,500 years. No theoretical statement could vindicate a revived history of ideas so well as this exemplary work…a superb book that judiciously blends celebrations of genius with cautionary tales.”—Nation

“There have been many studies of the idea of genius, but a signal virtue of this new account is its comprehensiveness. Rather than start in the 18th century, when the modern idea of genius emerged-as an exceptional quality located not in God but in man-or with the 19th-century Romantic poets’ exaltation of genius as a kind of ‘divine fury’, McMahon . . . begins with the ancients, contrasting the Roman notion of ingenium with varied interpretations of genius in modern times. Crucial to the change in meaning of the term was ‘the waning of mimetic aesthetics,’ the idea that art was imitation rather than creation. Uniqueness and creativity became the hallmarks of genius from the 18th century on: ‘The man of genius has a way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking,’ wrote Diderot, ‘unique to him alone.’ McMahon concludes by examining the not always happy fate of the idea in our times. VERDICT This exceptional intellectual history is too densely written to appeal to the casual reader, but it’s a gem of a book to be widely read by scholars in many fields, not just in the history of ideas.” —David Keymer, Library Journal more comments and reviews

Book Reviews

Happiness: A History

Happiness: A History, Atlantic Monthly Books, 2006
browse book on Amazon — | — visit Publisher’s site

Selected as one of The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of the Year for 2006.

Selected as a 2006 Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews title.

Learn More…

Selected Comments and Reviews

“Excellent history” —The Economist

“From Herodotus and Aristotle through Locke and Rousseau down to Darwin, Marx and Freud. The musings on happiness of these and dozens and lesser thinkers are lucidly presented in fine, sturdy prose that is ? a delight to read.” —The New York Times

“Erudite and detailed without being pedantic, Happiness: A History is lively, lucid, and enjoyable. Although McMahon neither promises nor delivers the secret of happiness, his book can bring readers the satisfaction of intellectual adventure.” —The Washington Post

“Richly researched and splendidly readable.” —The Times Literary Supplement

“[A] masterful meditation…. This is a deeply philosophical book that quietly raises fundamental questions on the scale of: Is life worth living? At the same time, Happiness: A History is a scintillating course in the history of ideas that invites us to consider paintings, poetry, even the plaster mask of Beethoven. His text is grounded in a series of gracefully written commentaries on a cast of immortal excogitators including Aristotle, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mill, Marx, Darwin and Freud. . . . Superb.” —The Los Angeles Times

“A heavyweight study” —The New Yorker

“McMahon’s impressively researched, beautifully written book offers a treasure trove of ideas on the topic, all accomplished by the author’s insightful commentary, and arranged so as to establish an overall storyline.”. —The Wall Street Journal

“A rich and intelligent book” —The Boston Globe

“A gracefully written narrative of the evolution of thinking on happiness.” —Financial Times

“An engaging stroll through the ages . . . McMahon elegantly expedites the discussion of happiness. . . .” —Entertainment Weekly

“Beautifully written” —The Scotsmen

“[An] Exhilarating book” —The Guardian

“A masterly trawl through Western philosophy” —The Sunday Herald (Glasgow)

“An unprecedented history of the philosophy of happiness, the energy and verve with which [McMahon] runs through this important subject is admirable.” —The Independent

“Fascinating and Inventive.” —Scotland on Sunday Review

“A stimulating read, the kind that sets your mind hopping.” —Houston Chronicle

“A bright, authoritative and, for a work as rigorously academic as this, quite accessible history . . . If you want your happiness to be virtuous and utilitarian, pick up McMahon’s Happiness.” —Saint Petersburg Times

“Darrin McMahon’s history of happiness is the first work I know of to chart the development of the idea from its ancient to its current forms; masterful and engaging. His excellent work may stimulate us to take stock of ourselves and the paths we have trod in pursuit of happiness.” —The Christian Century

“A remarkable achievement for a young scholar. Rarely have I encountered such an ambitious work of historical writing that is at once so instructive and entertaining. Throughout, McMahon strikes just the right balance of seriousness and irony, of sympathy and detachment, capturing that elusive combination of nobility, cupidity, and futility that has always attended the human quest for earthly contentment.” —Commentary

“In this eminently readable work, McMahon looks back through two thousand years of thought, searching for evidence of how our contemporary obsession [with happiness] came to be. From the tragic plays of ancient Greece to the inflammatory rhetoric of Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, McMahon delves deeply into the rich trove of texts that elucidate and confirm the development of Western notions of this elusive ideal. Throughout McMahon leads the reader with strong, clear thinking, laying out his ideas with grace, both challenging and entertaining us in equal measure.” —Publishers Weekly

“A thoughtful book on a subject of enduring significance, which modern philosophers have imprudently abandoned to the scribblings of charlatans and mountebanks [McMahon] writes with grace, wit, and just the right blend of intellectual sympathy and moral skepticism.” —Tony Judt, author of Postwar

Book Reviews


Happiness: A History, in English (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006). Paperback, 2007


  • in Holland in Dutch translation as Geluk: Een Geschiedenis (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 2006)
  • in Spain, in Spanish translation as Una Historia de la Felicidad (Madrid: Taurus, 2006)
  • in the UK as The Pursuit of Happiness: A History from the Greeks to the Present (London: Allen Lane, 2006) and paperback 2007
  • in Brazi, in Portuguese, translation as Felicidade: Uma Historia (Sao Paulo: Editoro Globo, 2007)
  • in Italy in Italian, translation as Storia della felicità d’all’antichità a oggi (Milan: Garzonti, 2007)
  • in Serbia in Serbian, translation as Istorija srece (Belgrade: Geopoetika, 2007)
  • in Korea in Korean, translation with Sallim Publishing House (Seoul, 2008)
  • in Taiwan in Chinese, translation with Athena (2007), and on mainland China with Shanghai Joint Publishing Company (2009)
  • in Greece in Greek, translation with Enalios (Athens, 2009)
  • in Portugal in Portuguese translation as Uma Historia da felicidade (Lisbon, 2009)
  • in Turkey in Turkish translation with E. Yayinlari

Enemies of the Enlightenment

Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity Oxford University Press, 2001
visit Publisher’s site

Learn More…

Selected Comments

“Enemies of the Enlightenment is, simply put, the most exciting and important book on the French Revolutionary era to appear since the bicentennial. Required reading not only for students of the French Revolution, but for anyone interested in the creation of modern political culture.” —Carla Hesse, University of California, Berkeley

“Sophisticated and vividly written, consistently even-handed and lucid, a major contribution to our understanding of the intellectual history of the revolutionary era.” —Sophia Rosenfeld, Journal of Modern History

“Books on the anti-philosophers or the Counter-Enlightenment generally sound like the complaints of crotchety conservatives. Darrin McMahon’s books is a splendid exception. It is alert, astute, evenhanded to the protagonists of the past and aware of their implications for the polemics of today. It is a book to make you think.” —Roy S. Porter, late author of The Creation of the Modern World: The British Enlightenment

“Beyond its chronological breadth and the relative novelty of its subject, this book has much to recommend it. Well-written and deeply researched, it takes up important historiographical questions. McMahon’s work answers Roger Chartier’s question about whether the existence of the Enlightenment was merely a fragment of the revolutionaries’ imagination.” —Jack Censer, Journal of Social History

“A well-written study…of an early culture war that will not be unfamiliar to us today — a war of mutual simplification and caricature spiraling downward into suspicion and hate….Presents a useful genealogy of a brand of conservatism that remained influential through the mid-20th century, and, more pressingly, a rough template for a host of counter-Enlightenment ideas that are with us still today.” —Wall Street Journal

“[I]n this sophisticated deconstruction of conservative opposition to the Enlightenment, McMahon…re-envisions intellectual history from 1750 to 1830 as an ideological dialectic foreshadowing the culture wars of our own time and helping to define modernity.” —Publishers Weekly

“Nastily delicious and decidedly well-written” —Don Herzog, Political Theory

“This well-researched and beautifully written study applies insights of recent Enlightenment historiography to the heretofore neglected area of the anti-philosophes.” —Choice

“McMahon’s work … will force revisions both of established views of, and new challenges to, the French and the European Enlightenment.” —Cecilia Miller, Times Literary Supplement

“An excellently researched and elegantly written study . . . . Using the theoretical and methodological tools forged in the last three decades of enlightenment scholarship, McMahon enriches our understanding by broadening the focus of inquiry to include names of largely forgotten men and women from varying geographical and confessional backgrounds whose opposition to the values of the Age of Enlightenment helped to define an intellectual movement. What we are looking at in this important study of the dialectics of Counter-Enlightenment is, in fact, the genesis of the European political Right from its last decade of the ancient regime to the postmodernist era.” —The Historian

History & Human Flourishing

The Humanities and Human Flourishing series publishes edited volumes that explore the role of human flourishing in the central disciplines of the humanities, and to what degree the humanities can increase human happiness.

Learn More…

This volume examines the relationship between history and human flourishing and, more broadly, investigates the ways in which the arts and humanities are related to human well-being. The essays here represent the efforts of a varied and distinguished group of professional historians to consider a deceptively simple question: what is the value of history for life? Each author asks in what ways historians, their work, and the objects of their inquiry might contribute to human well-being and how they might be encouraged to do so.

History, in this volume, refers not just to the past writ large, but also to the discipline and practice of historical inquiry, along with the production and consumption of works of historical representation. Thinking of history in these ways, the contributors address a wide variety of subjects in connection to issues of well-being, considering history across time and place as a vocation, a source of the sublime, a site of play, and a repository of meaning with surprising analogues to religious experience.

Overall, History and Human Flourishing uses personal experience, insight into the professional and scholarly world of historians, and a variety of historical periods and approaches to highlight the value of studying history in discussions of human flourishing. The essays in this volume identify history and the historical craft as tremendous potential resources for human well-being and of vital importance for our times.

Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History

Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History Oxford University Press, 2013
edited with Samuel Moyn
visit Publisher’s site

Learn More…

Selected Comments

“At the crossroads of many disciplines, intellectual history has emerged as a vital stimulus to the humanities as a whole. Shedding the residues of cultural condescension, European intellectual history in particular has come to be an endlessly renewable resource for creative thinking across the globe. As this lively volume amply demonstrates, it has a bright future in the hands of a new generation of gifted practitioners.” —Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley

“Over thirty years have passed since the last major attempt to reassess the field of modern European intellectual history. In light of the seeming eclipse of some orientations (such as Marxism), the reformulation of others (such as psychoanalysis), and the newer turns in the field (from the linguistic to the postsecular and the global), the time is certainly ripe for a new assessment. This volume will hold a key place in further efforts to ‘rethink’ the field both as a collection of significant contributions and as a focal point for constructive, critical debate.” —Dominick LaCapra, Cornell University

Genealogies of Genius

Genealogies of Genius, palgrave macmillian, 2016
edited with Joyce E. Chaplin
visit Publisher’s site

Learn More…

The essays in this volume seek to examine the uses to which concepts of genius have been put in different cultures and times. Collectively, they are designed to make two new statements. First, seen in historical and comparative perspective, genius is not a natural fact and universal human constant that has been only recently identified by modern science, but instead a categorical mode of assessing human ability and merit. Second, as a concept with specific definitions and resonances, genius has performed specific cultural work within each of the societies in which it had a historical presence.

Includes some of the leading intellectual and cultural historians internationally, including Janet Browne, Lennard Davis, and David Bates.

Lays out a template for studying genius, an enormously influential idea that has somehow eluded much historical study.

Examines genius in a marvelous array of historical contexts, from Bolshevik Russia to Victorian England to the transatlantic slave trade.