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To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice #1


The word Justice as it has been beautifully said, has a lofty but tragic sound. It has enkindled noble passion and inspired the practice of the finest generosity. Yet, it also reminds us of great wrongs and of widespread destruction and suffering. So much so that the whole history of mankind could be written under the heading: The battle of Justice.

Among the problems besetting us, in our topics of conversation or in the newspaper headlines, there is hardly any one unconnected with justice. Problems of authority and government, elections and human rights, taxes, death penalty, armed robbery, bribes and political corruption, hoarding, social security, cost of living, freedom of information, free education. Every one of these topics is at the centre of an acute debate and controversy. All are immediately related to the idea of justice.

The study of the virtues embodies the questioning of thinkers and philosophers, trying to cast light on the true image of man, the idea of the good man. Classical and medieval philosophers inquired thus at length about the rank of the virtues. Theirs was not simply a theoretical exercise, typical of the scholastic mind. On the contrary, through their questioning and, much more through their answers, we can appreciate the moral trend of the age.

Many people in Germany, for instance, still remember, as Pieper reminds us, the loudspeakers resounding to the praise of heroism, action, commitment and gallantry. The decisive virtue here was clearly fortitude. A puritanical society, on the other hand, would put the emphasis on temperance and sobriety; a Buddhist culture would exalt self-control, leading to self-denial. And so on.

However, as Cicero states clearly and without reservations, it is because of their justice that men are called good. Classical wisdom, in fact, followed by the great teachers of Christianity, has made it clear that justice is superior to the other virtues. Cicero in fact concludes: The brightness of virtue shines above all in justice. A dictum that St Thomas fully agrees to and incorporates into the summa. Aristotle, in his Nichomedian Ethics, praises justice in a moving poetic manner, rather unusual of him: Neither the morning star nor the evening star are as glorious as justice. In this way, classical wisdom confirms divine wisdom, as shown in the scriptures, where the word justice is used over eight hundred times. Thus, the just man becomes the prototype of the good man, of the holy man.


To show the preeminence of justice, Aquinas looks first at its object, as justice not only establishes order within man but among men, that is, it goes beyond the individual good, seeking the good of the other. It is here precisely that the efficacy of the good in its higher form is revealed as it belongs to its very nature to pour itself out, to be “diffusivum sui”. Like joy, it is not enclosed in its own source but it has to expand, to radiate. The better a thing is, the more does it diffuse its goodness to remote beings. The good of reason is simply the good of man and justice is its proper fruit. True enough, this good belongs essentially to prudence, which perfects reason, but it is justice that realizes it. The other two virtues are not ordained to realize the good immediately. They are not yet good in a univocal sense: they are made good as they moderate the passions, so that man may not be led astray from the goal of reason, away from the truth. They are not yet doing good. They simply create the indispensable basis for the proper realization of the good.

We are now able to see why Aquinas not only says that justice has its seat in the will, he also adds that through justice the will is applied to its proper act. Justice is the human good. St Augustine offers also this splendid description: Justice is that ordering of the soul by virtue of which it comes to pass that we are no man’s servants but servants of God alone. For through justice we fulfil the purpose for which we have been made.

The primacy of justice also appears obvious when seen from a negative viewpoint. Among the moral virtues stands out the use of the right reason in justice, which resides in the will. This is why the bad use of reason appears in a particular way in the vices contrary to justice. The greatest corruption of order in the human sphere, the most authentic perversion of the human good, is called injustice. Humanity’s ultimate perversion is not found therefore in the lack of moderation, revealed in the bearing and gestures of those overcome by it. It is revealed in injustice, which can be dissimulated as it has its seat in the spirit.

If we try to measure reality by its approximation to the ideal of justice, we soon realize that, out of the many names that unhappiness has in this world, none is as approximate as injustice. We are not surprised when Aristotle undertakes the study of the main forms of justice, by first describing the different types of injustice. Those in fact are closer to our experience. The many forms of injustice make quite clear the many forms of justice.

By contrast, today’s common language has become impotent to describe the different types of injustice so well known to classical moral doctrine. This is a clear symptom of the sterility of this field in contemporary man’s conscience. Expressions like calumny, slander, malign aspersions, false judgements, backbiting, tale-bearing and the rest, are now scarcely intelligible to most people in their proper meaning.

For instance, tale-bearing, the spreading of evil reports about another and to his friend, for that matter, is something lost in adult speech. This is what happens, for instance, in things like keeping malice. Its special violation of justice is not just spoiling somebody’s good name but destroying a friendship. More serious because a friend is more valuable than external goods: without friends nobody can live. A friend is better than honour; it is better to be loved than to be honoured. We have also lost the name for derision, that is, to ridicule somebody, to shame him, to make him blush, to put him on the spot.

  • To Every Man His Due: The Battle for Justice # 2
    The word Justice as it has been beautifully said, has a lofty but tragic sound. It has enkindled noble passion and inspired the practice of the finest generosity. Yet, it also reminds us of great wrongs and of widespread destruction and suffering.