Justice: The Soul's Astonishment

Can your soul be astonished?  More to my point: Can our American souls be astonished?          

Here are reflections directed to 2012 presidential candidates, notably those who still retain a values-based outlook on life and wonder how they can be elected or govern if, as Christians, they are accused of imposing their faith on a nation now being defined as "post-Christian."

In all the blather about redistribution of wealth, fairness, and social justice, there lurks an underlying assumption about justice.  What justice are people talking about, and what should we be talking about?

Are the rich obligated to help the poor?  Is redistribution moral?  Should one be compelled to work and provide for one's own?  Should private ownership of anything at all be abrogated? Or, to epitomize the matter along the lines of the early fascism of Benito Mussolini, must everything serve the interests of society, meaning the State -- of which Mussolini, of course, was the talented, inspired guardian?

While our heritage regarding justice was fed by many small tributaries, the confluence of two main rushing streams forms the dynamic current that constitutes the meaning of justice in our heritage.  These are, first, the dialogue among the ancient Greeks about justice, beginning with Plato's Republic and his other dialogues and, second, justice as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition, notably in the messages of the biblical prophets.

The core issue in The Republic is Thrasymachus' contention (338, 344): I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.  He then rehearses the advantages of the unjust, arguing that the concept of justice is the shelter of the simpleton but that injustice is not malignity; rather, it is the exercise of discretion to further one's own interests.  Plato replies that no state, army, band of robbers and thieves, or any other gang of evil-doers could act at all if they injured one another (351)[.]

Apply this to Congress, and to state and local governance.  Whose interests are being served, and on what ground?  Have we been infiltrated by robbers and thieves whose mantra is the interest of the stronger (I won!)  Have a segment of the intellectual class created a framework which appears to validate their actions, in contrast to all we have known about justice from our forefathers and the founders of our nation?  Is that framework intellectually and morally viable, properly commanding our assent, or is it time for revolt because we have been conned by the redefinition of justice into what is, in fact, injustice?

Plato's appeal to a reality beyond us is what today's radical class rejects.  There is, Plato says, an intelligible world which transcends the world of our perceptions, which can be grasped only by reason -- a world of which our physical world and concepts are imperfect copies.  When we awaken to that world, our souls are astonished to be confronted by transcendent universals.  This happens by a process of recollection, a memory of things our souls once saw while following God -- i.e., pursuing truth.  These universals are not taught, says Plato; they are recollections, deeply embedded instincts which through inner longing invite us to transcend our imperfections and move from the perceptual to the intelligible realm.

Here Plato hints at the disaster of our modern reliance on what is purely behavioral: if there is not recollection -- reflection on that which is beyond us -- then we define ourselves purely in the terms of motor affective responses, of conditioning and brainwashing.  This is where the contemporary radical intellectual class are and want to bring us, along with the assumption that they are at the top of the pyramid, privileged to dictate what is best for all: here is a real brain, so let's follow him.

Next, Plato draws an analogy between the well-being of the individual and the well-being of the state.  Justice is the virtue of each -- virtue signifying ability to perform an intended function, not simply goodness.

The virtue of the soul is justice, meaning life lived where rationality (wisdom) supervenes and directs mastery of oneself (courage) and obedience only to rational impulses (temperance).  Hence the four classical virtues: justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance.

In a complementary way, the virtue of the state is justice, meaning that Plato's three analogous segments of society, each having its own predestined role, harmoniously function in the best interests of the state.

First, the virtue of the rulers -- the guardians -- is wisdom.  They are the bright ones.  Their destiny is to lead.

Second, the virtue of the Auxiliaries -- the troops -- is courage.  This is not courage expressed in episodic heroic acts, but mastery of self at all times and alertness to ensure fulfillment of the wishes of the guardians.  Their task is to maintain functionality.

Third, the virtue of the populace -- the masses -- is temperance, by which Plato means sobriety, uprightness, and obedience to the plans and wishes of the guardians.  In short, "temperance" means "fitting in" with the ideals and plans of the ruling class. 

Plato sums up the ideal of justice in the soul and justice in the state as follows:

Seeing then, I said, that there are three distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing ... And so of the individual; we may assume that he has the same three principles in his own soul which are found in the State[.] (Republic 434, 435)

What resides in the soul of each citizen is replicated in the affairs of state.

What Plato advocates as the Ideal State is in fact a closed society; it is the enemy of the American ideal and America's Constitution.  Plato's application of what justice is to the life of the individual and to society admirably encapsulates the intentions of the present American ruling class.

The legislation Barack Obama has rammed through Congress during the past months parallels the intentions and methods of the soft fascism of the past century: a society whose social policies are planned top-down.  Let it be clearly recognized that although they are in disarray at the moment, closed-society left-wing elitists during the past century have repeatedly found opportunity to impose their vision on the rest of society.

In our time, Karl Popper has been the most incisive critic of the closed-society model, whether Platonist, Marxist, or Socialist.  In his The Open Society and its Enemies (1945, revised 1950), he argued that one of the greatest revolutions in human history is the leap from the "closed society" model to the "open society" model, in which free individuals voluntarily associate in a democratic society -- a society committed to the defense of human freedom, meaning the freedom of creative initiative, entrepreneurship, and the arts of persuasion. 

Harmony -- "don't rock the boat" -- is the name of today's game.  Any questioning of the supreme ruler's wishes is deemed to be redneck, uneducated radicalism.  Increasingly, Americans are being subjected to regimentation which mischaracterizes the pursuit of opportunity and the right of private decision-making, all in the name of faux intellectualism and misbegotten behavioral science, which subverts key elements of the American Constitution.  We are now living through an era of planned mass subservience to a Ruling Class who have installed their own messianic figure in office.

While Plato's vision, including that individual acts that are just reflect participation in the idea of Justice, has had a profound influence on our understanding of justice as a transcendent ideal, his extrapolation of that into a closed societal model is inimical to the ideals of a modern, free society.

Sam Mikolaski is a retired Baptist theological professor.  His curriculum vitae and published work are on his website .