Minos, the strict Inquisitor, appears
And Lives and Crimes with his Assessor hears,
Round in his Urn, the blended balls he rowls;
Absolves the Just and Dooms the Guilty Souls.
— Virgil’s Aeneas VI, 582/5, transl. Dryden
The word Justice numbs me because this virtue shines when practiced in secret and rusts when preached in public. Politically, it has become a call for redistribution and even of retribution, rather than for acting righteously and wisely. It is also a rhetorical call for social and economic activism, coming at times from a speaker who ignores the nature of his audience or the motives of his listeners. A call for gratutitous sharing of opportunities and of resources is an appeal for charituous beauty, which ought not be confused with justice. The human condition is not equitable but a human may choose to act christophorically. Such terms could find entry in our language to denote what needs to be said.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, “You are right…” dates from Shakespeare’s time, whereas “I am right…” dates from 1961, the moment of a major cultural paradigm shift — the dawning of the Me-Generation. The word Justice does not sit well on the tongue of a speaker who declares he is in the right; if he acts as solicitor for the plaintiff, he cannot in addition be the judge nor should he indiscriminately target for defendant a public that is alien to his cause. To those who pontificate about justice before congregations I would say:
Let us pray: that we may stop passing the buck to the Lord while behaving like flies on the wall, that we may cease crying for peace abroad while spreading misery at home, that we may refrain to beg for lifeboats before learning to swim, and that we may stop whining for justice while longing for our pound of flesh. Let us pray to the Lord.
Cicero used the term justitia when speaking of ones duties towards the gods and ones parents, Tertullian with regard to weights, measures and regularity, Terence as an attribute of honesty and goodness and Cornelius Nepos implying moderation. (See Benoist & Goelzer Latin-French Dictionary)
According to a Jewish lore, there are “36” unknown righteous people on earth, on whose account God has mercy on humanity. We shall never find out who and how widespread they are (the number 36 constituting a mystical cipher rather than a measurement). They operate inaudibly, invisibly, unacknowledged and without much ado, whereas those who govern, rule and dispense judgement are in the limelight, though frequently of ephemeral relevance.
In Medieval and Renaissance Christian art, Justitia is depicted as a woman who holds a pair of scales in one hand and a lowered sword in the other. According to Hesiod, she is the daughter of the Goddess of Divine Law and sister of The Seasons, Peace, Good Order, and The Fates. She is sometimes blindfolded as she is to be impartial, or armed as she must be effective. At the Last Judgement, Michael the Archangel, styled “defender in battle”, holds the scales, on which the gravity of each soul is weighed against its merits. This motive comes to us from ancient Egypt, where the lord of death weighs on a scale each soul against a feather; should the feather prove heavier, merit outweighs the fault and redeems the soul.
A contemporary statue of Justitia in Vera Cruz, Mexico, shows a very different image: she holds the book of the law high above her head and the scales well below. She is endowed with wings because she is ubiqitous and nude as she is glorious. She looks to the right and, kicking off in flight, still has one foot resting on the globe. The message of this provocative presentation is: if Justice is beautiful to behold, we shall abide by her. To speak abstractly of virtues without depicting them in sound or image is often a lost effort. Our spirits are addressed through the senses, as many artists know and moralizers tend to forget. See what Shakespeare has to say about this in The Merchant of Venice (II.6)
Beshrew me, but I love her heartily: For she is wise, if I can judge of her; And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true; And true she is, as she has prov’d herself: And therefore, like herself, wise, fair, and true, Shall she be placèd in my constant soul.
Were we to be as righteous as we desired, we would have to master our drive for self-preservation in order to redeem our conscience. Though it is possible to achieve perfection in playing a musical instrument or in handcrafting a diesel engine or in chiselling a statue, one can never come even close to our ideal of justice because every judgement is based on the choice of a lesser evil and verdicts can unleash a chain of events over which we have no control. Some verdicts, in fact, unleash a chain of never ending tragedies.
When is my being right the beginning of my wrong? When did I win the battle but lost the victory? When was I consistently better than others but became haughty in the process? When was the law on my side a license to crush my rival.
“The very laws of justice”, observed Montaigne, “cannot subsist without a certain admixture of injustice” and, quoting Plato, added “Claiming to remove all obstacles and inconveniences from laws is like cutting the head of Hydra, that mythological serpent whose multiple heads grow back”.
Before invoking justice, one needs to distinguish: What is legal and legitimate, What is legal but not legitimate, What is legitimate but not legal, What is neither legitimate nor legal.
Most of our infractions against justice may be totally legal but equally illegitimate. A fisherman, proud of his catch of an enormous hake, posed for photographs while letting the fish writhe in agony. He was taken to court but the judge promptly dismissed the case because the fisherman had no legal obligation to put the fish out of its misery and the fish had no rights under the law.
In his book Avertissement aux Propriétaires (Warning to Proprietors), published in 1848, P.-J. Proudhon told of a merchant who bought up all the producers of charcoal that supplied the bakers and, bundling these suppliers into a monopoly, raised the price, following which he floated the company on the stock-market. What was apparently perfectly legal, was in Proudhon’s view, as the entrepreneur had enriched himself at public expense without giving anything in return, clearly not legitimate.
A convict without means, rotting away in the death-row of a prison for allegedly having murdered another man, was found guilty by a jury after having been assigned on the cheap a drunken lawyer who did not even bother to confer with his client. The procedure of the trial was deemed to be correct, therefore legal; but the condemnation was not legitimate because the incompetent defense counsel was an alibi that suited the prosecution and made easy work for the jury. Where the cost of justice is way beyond the means of a defendant, process of law becomes a travesty.
The historian Henri Pirenne, told of a pious bishop from France, who in medieval times purchased a chalice on a visit to Constantinople. Having been told on his way home that this chalice was exceedingly valuable, he retraced his steps in order to pay an additional sum of money, as his conscience dictated. This was neither law-compelling nor legitimate, nor economically justified; but it was a gratuitous act of fairness by a man of singular integrity who, having bought at an agreed price and discovering later that he had obtained what he considered too much value for his payment, aspired to correct the seller’s fortune.
I have been told of a merchant in Calcutta, who bought mining interests for the small pitance of $5000, Two days later he returned to the seller and complained that on afterthought he had paid too much. He renegotiated the price and brought it down to $3500. When asked by a consternated friend why he did this, he replied: “I know I bought it dirt cheap; but had I agreed to his price from the onset, he would have thought me a fool; and that would have flattered neither him nor me.” Given the reasoning, this act was perfectly legal and legitimate, though not honourable.
Simone Weil defined justice as a constant admission that another person may be entirely different from what we read in him. Maître Philippe de Lyon, a renowned healer, once promised to heal a man on the condition that he entertained no evil thoughts about others for two weeks. The patient found the challenge too demanding, upon which Maître Philippe asked him to try for at least two hours.
Dies Irae, dies illa, Solvet saeclum in favilla: Teste David cum Sibylla. Day of Wrath, that very day — all to ashes will decay — David King and Sibyl say. This powerful song of the Christian Middle Ages is the cornerstone of the Office for the Dead. Quid sum miser tunc dicturus, Quem patronum rogaturus: Cum vix justus sit securus? What shall I, poor sinner, bray — on that fearful judgement day — when saints, trembling, melt away? Most of our ancestors lived in fear of judgement; the Day of Atonement, coming at the end of time, would be a day of retribution, not of mercy; the white sheep would be separated from the black, ripe fruit from the rotten, saint from sinner. The ancient Egyptians already visualized the souls of the dead appearing before a high court of celestial judges. But in recent history a futuristic vision of judgement and damnation or salvation faded from the conscience of man who succeeded in manufacturing hell with system and science. The Day of Wrath could come when some insignificant maniac, carried to power by a public relations mafia, lights a little match. If this could be an expression of Divine Will, no sage will ever be able to answer.
Some 3500 years ago the painters of the Egyptian tomb of the boy prince Khae-Monaset, son of Pharao Ramses III, in Luxor, depicted a scene where the deceased prince is led by Hathor, goddess of beauty and love, and by Isis, goddess of wisdom, to the garden of eternal bliss. Having died at the age of nine, the boy was apparently exempted from judgement. Or could it be that during a brief moment of history female compassion rated higher than the abstraction of male judgement?
The guide remarked we could save our purchased photography rights for more interesting tombs. For me, this motive was more significant than the scene of judgement in the tomb of the renowned Ramses II. What I observed was a vision more maternal than the drama of Dies Irae. It was one of compassion overcoming judgement.
When Dante, though often vindictive, wept when contemplating human misery in Hell, his guide reprimanded him for questioning God’s justice. Perhaps there may come a time when emancipated consciences reprimand us for failing to question.
Poets and composers, painters and sculptors have depicted the supreme Judge on the Day of Wrath. They may have forgotten the words Jesus spoke: “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me, should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judges him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.” (St. John 12.46-8) Therefore we are our own judge, prosecutor and defendant in one. We who have received and imbibed the word cannot cloak our conscience with figleaves; for by doing so, we try to fool God.
In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan, who set his reigning brother Prospero afloat in an unmanned vessel and is about to murder and usurp the power of his sovereign, being reminded of his conscience, replies:
Aye, sir; where lies that? if t’were a kibe, ‘Twould put me to my slipper: but I feel not This deity in my bosom: twenty consciences, That stand t’wixt me and Milan, candied be they, And melt ere they molest!
Where conscience is lacking, justice can be no more than retributive. Antonio, however, was led to repentance by Prospero, whom he had grieveously harmed but whose transformative magic was greater than Antonio’s power of debasement. In the bard’s ultimate play, justice is shown not as an act of retribution but as true alchemy of the soul.
Copyright: Wolfgang Somary 2011