Justice: rough, and getting rougher

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century, containing fragments of Plato's <i>Republic</i>.

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century document containing fragments of Plato’s Republic.

“Compassion is the radicalism of our time,” I read on Facebook recently. And whose words were they? I wasn’t surprised to find they’d come from the Dalai Lama, who elsewhere goes so far as to assert that compassion provides the basis of human survival.

Perhaps, then, Pope Francis is a radical, too. He’s certainly saying some of the things espoused by that other high-profile radical, Jesus.

Occupying my thoughts lately: the relationship between justice and compassion; I’ve been trying to break through the innumerable cognitive impasses that loom up every time I try to come to some understanding of the chaos that is our world. But I find myself shaking my head and parroting Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

The myriad issues around crime and punishment, original sin, human nature – and whatever else might have just come to your mind – are all well beyond the scope of this post. Or are they?

In Plato’s Republic, the cynic Glaucon posits that justice is a social contract between people who are roughly equal in power. According to that theory, justice operates on the basis that “no one is able to oppress the others, since the pain of suffering injustice outweighs the benefit of committing it.” (Wikipedia: Glaucon) But there’s a hollow ring to all such claims. In matters of justice, the “roughly” far outweighs the “equal”.

Glaucon told Socrates that “people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched,” explains William Saletan, reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 title, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “No man would be just if he had the opportunity of doing injustice with impunity,” says Glaucon, arguing that the just man would do the same as the unjust man if both had the power to get away with injustice exempt from punishment. (The story Glaucon tells to illustrate his reasoning has to do with an invisibility ring (see Wikipedia: Republic (Dialogue)).

In my view, justice is a creation of human societies and cultures, not the outworking of some universal harmony, divine command, or natural law. Furthermore, I come down firmly on the side of those who argue that justice is the creation of some humans, not the creation of all humans (see Wikipedia: Justice). Thrasymachus, another of Plato’s characters, argues that “justice is the interest of the strong – merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people” (Wikipedia: Justice).

Jonathan Haidt’s book has, as Saletan says, made a significant effort to “[challenge] conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum.” Amazon.com describes Haidt as the co-developer of Moral Foundations theory, and of the research site YourMorals.org , adding that his research aims “to help people understand and respect the moral motives of their enemies.” Beyond understanding and respect, however, what can we do?

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have different intuitions about right and wrong, Haidt says. And he makes a crucial contribution to a burgeoning debate by “[showing] how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings” (see Amazon blurb). And, cutting short another long story, our gut feelings have been trained by what another reviewer calls “brute evolution” (see Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Tuesday 7 May 2013).

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells me that “Western philosophers generally regard justice as the most fundamental of all virtues for ordering interpersonal relations and establishing and maintaining a stable political society.”  But then, stirring a dash of Schopenhauer into the stew, I call to mind his assertion that “Compassion is the basis of morality.”

What I am interested in – and, to me, this is crucial – is not how to reason, argue, or persuade someone to vouchsafe “justice as a right” for this or that disadvantaged or disenfranchised group. That simply isn’t about to happen, as far as I can see. Rather, I’m seeing “justice as a possibility”, arising not out of gut feelings or sentiments, knowledge of right and wrong, or anything moral, but out of the same source from which Jesus pulled the Sermon on the Mount.

That is possibly what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he wrote: “I say more, the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; / …” (see “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame“,  undated poem, c. March–April 1877)

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (The Dalai Lama)

In the end only kindness matters.

Doing as you’ve been done by

golden rule

golden rule

. .

“… ardent feminists … seem so bent on treating men the way they have taken exception to being treated by men.” (klewso, 11 March 2013, commenting on Destroy the Point by Helen Razer)  

Jesus made no copyright claim in respect of the Golden Rule (see Matthew 7:12). In his view, it succinctly sums up the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets. We also have Socrates on the subject: “Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.” And his words carry the imprint of the Vedic tradition: “This is the sum of duty. Do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you.” And although there are those who – for a range of reasons, semiotic and otherwise – take issue with the Golden Rule, it is nevertheless widely accepted as valuable and worthwhile.

Monsieur Klewso’s comment actually begins: “What I find most intriguing about ardent feminists …” Perhaps ‘intriguing’ is not, in fact, the most accurate description of his response to being bad-mouthed; it certainly doesn’t describe my response.

Razer herself pulls no punches: “Women are not nicer. Women are not a civilising influence. Women are just as capable of avarice and stupidity as anyone. … Women are not gifted, either socially or biologically, of anything special. If we believe that they are, then we must also accept the possibility that the gender could be marked with unpleasant characteristics.” (Destroy the Point)

In a more recent post, Razer asks: “Why should we think masculinity is all bad? It is a simple question but WHY are we still trying to privilege ‘feminine’ qualities over masculine ones when so many feminine qualities are shit?” (Paglia, Pugilism and Pants-less Threat, 08 January 2014)

There seems to be a growing public taste for rudeness, vulgarity, profanity, and other forms of verbal abuse – atheists and ‘fag-hating’ fundamentalists, ardent feminists and so-called ‘everyday people’ alike. And it seems to have arisen from the the same source from which we dug up “zero tolerance”, “war on terror”, “rape culture” …

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Helen Razer’s post, Destroy the Point, first appeared on her own blog, Bad Hostess, on 09 March 2013. It was republished two days later by Crikey

The Socratic and Vedic versions of the Golden Rule (together with an interesting and wide-ranging selection from other sources) are to be found on GoodReads

The “golden rule” image appears in an article titled, Hurting Others Causes You Pain: Golden Rule Validated, under the banner, “NLP Discoveries with Mike Budrant”, on Psych Central.  

But wait … there’s myrrh!

But wait ... there's myrrh

But wait … there’s myrrh

The Christian holy day known as Epiphany “[commemorates] (at least in western tradition) the visit of the Magi and Jesus being revealed to the Gentiles” (from Finding a New Way Home) is celebrated on 6 January. According to timeanddate.com, “It commemorates the first two occasions on which Jesus’ divinity, according to Christian belief, was manifested: when the three kings visited infant Jesus in Bethlehem, and when John the Baptist baptized him in the River Jordan. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches emphasize the visit of the Magi when they celebrate the Epiphany. The Eastern Orthodox churches focus on Jesus’ baptism.”

All history is redaction – ie, it re-frames and retells our “old, old story” in such a way as to please the current audience. The past is perpetually being re-examined and reinterpreted.

Recent memes appearing on Facebook – but not including this one from catholicmemes.com – have commented on what three wise women would have done. One version asserts that they would have “asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole … and there would be peace on earth.” (From mickiemuellerart.com)

I don’t think so! (Especially that last bit.)

Another version of the meme adds that “Three Wise Feminist Women would have … lobbied King Herod for gender equality.” In its lower right corner, the image carries the wording: Destroy the Joint. But, according to Helen Razer, “Destroy the Joint misses the point”.

My back is up, my hackles on end. If there is to be anything more than talk of gender equality, then it is blatantly obvious that the faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses of humankind will be owned (and owned up to) by all.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is said to have been born on 29 September 1571 and to have died on 18 July 1610, although Wikipedia has question marks beside both of these dates.

Arrogant, rebellious and a murderer, Caravaggio’s short and tempestuous life matched the drama of his works. Characterised by their dramatic, almost theatrical lighting, Caravaggio’s paintings were controversial, popular, and hugely influential on succeeding generations of painters all over Europe.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Supper at Emmaus (c 1600), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Two of Jesus’ disciples were walking to Emmaus after the Crucifixion when the resurrected Jesus himself drew near and went with them, but they did not recognise him. At supper that evening in Emmaus ‘… he took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight’ (Luke 24: 30-31). Christ is shown at the moment of blessing the bread and revealing his true identity to the two disciples.

The majority of the text presented here is adapted from the National Gallery web-site.

The image reproduced here comes from the Betty Baroque blog.

See also Wikipedia’s article on Caravaggio.

The fundamental tendency of matter

Legion (cover)

Legion (cover)

The human brain, three pounds of tissue, held more than a hundred billion brain cells and five hundred trillion synaptic connections. It dreamed and wrote music and Einstein’s equations, it created the language and the geometry and engines that probed the stars, and it cradled a mother asleep through a storm while it woke her at the faintest cry from her child. A computer that could handle all of its functions would cover the surface of the earth.

The hundreds of millions of years of evolution from paramecium to man didn’t solve the mystery, thought Kinderman. The mystery was evolution itself. The fundamental tendency of matter was toward a total disorganization, toward a final state of utter randomness from which the universe would never recover. Each moment its connections were becoming unthreaded as it flung itself headlong into the void in a reckless scattering of itself, impatient for the death of its cooling suns. And yet here was evolution, Kinderman marvelled, a hurricane piling up straw into haystacks, bundles of ever-increasing complexity that denied the very nature of their stuff. Evolution was a theorem written on a leaf that was floating against the direction of the river. A Designer was at work. So what else? It’s as plain as can be. When a man hears hoofbeats in Central Park, he shouldn’t be looking around for zebras. (William Peter Blatty, in Legion [pp104-5]) 

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Originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1983, and subsequently turned into what Rinker calls “a more than satisfactory sequel … Exorcist III (which, mercifully, has nothing to do with Exorcist II: The Heretic).” Legion appeared in a Tor paperback edition in 2011 (Tom Doherty Associates, New York).

White lily

But Shakespeare also says, ’tis very silly / To gild refinèd gold, or paint the lily. (Lord Byron)

white lily (12 Jan 2012)

white lily (12 Jan 2012)

Visiting a friend’s garden after a spell of gentle summer rain, I was fortunate to capture these pristine blooms early in their flowering season. My internet research suggested that they might be a variety of Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum), but – judging from the various photographs I have viewed on the web – this name appears to refer to a number of variant forms.

I have long associated these demure white trumpets with Easter – despite their appearance in florists’ windows in time for Christmas, during our New Zealand summer.

white lily (12 Jan 2012)

“The lily was a popular flower in ancient Jewish civilization and is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments,” (according to a journal recording the meanings and legends of flowers – see http://www.angelfire.com/journal2/flowers/l.html).

Among Christians, it is a symbol of chastity and virtue. “Through its association with the Virgin Mary, it also became the symbol of virgin martyrs and saints.”

“In ancient Greek and Roman marriage ceremonies, the priest placed a crown of lilies garnished with ears of wheat on the brides head, as a symbol of purity and abundance.” (Read more at http://www.angelfire.com/journal2/flowers/l.html.)

Incidentally, for many New Zealanders, the proper Christmas lily is the Royal Lily, Lilium regale – but I much prefer the pure white flowers in my friend’s garden.

PS: The flowers I photographed are, in fact, Lilium longiflorum (see the comment from Barbara below).