Saturday, May 26, 2007

Political Sophistry

You've heard the slogan, no justice, no peace. Sounds pretty convincing, doesn't it. Of course! If I don't get justice, just look out world! It's understandable. Justice is like food -- we hunger for it, and starve without it. But just as there is famine in the world, there is hardly any justice. That's not me being bitter. It's just the nature of things.

Political philosophy seeks to address these sorts of problems. If only there were some system that more perfectly addressed the needs of congregated humanity. So we consider wise old John Locke, who more than any other single individual shaped the modern conception of democracy. The US Constitution would not exist, in any form, without him. Seminal. His approach is summed up in his epigram, Where there is no law, there is no freedom.

Let us imagine some rustic paradise wherein each man labors for his own bread and enjoys the fruits of his own fields. How pleasant and how fair. But wait! What's this? Alas! We find our irenic idyll of sylvan bliss cruelly shattered by dire reality. Some blackguard has spied out the fact that yon neighbor has many fine pigs, and his dark and bilious heart is suffused with malice and greed. By cover of night he steals into his hapless neighbor's paddock, through the lockless portal of his abode, creeps through the darkened rooms unto his very bed, and cudgels the very picture of innocence to death that he might take for himself the coveted shoats. Oh, the fiend!

In other words, there are no societies that don't need laws. People are scum. There is no absolute freedom. Where the rights of one impinge upon the rights of another, freedom must be restricted. It is law that ensures whatever freedom is possible. Everything is a compromise.

There is a modern corollary to Locke's formulation, which takes the form of no justice, no peace. You will have seen it chanted by Palestinians, or scrawled on placards, or shouted during riots. It seems to be a justification for civil unrest, militancy, and terrorism. Surely when laws become oppressive -- as would be the case when lawmakers fail to address the needs of society and instead tend only to their own greed and bigotries -- this corollary is both understandable and inevitable. Reasonable self-defense is an inalienable right, and untrammeled oppression leads to eventual genocide.

The line that demarks reasonable from irrational is rarely drawn in black and white, however. Perceptions are distorted by emotion. One of the biblical proverbs goes something like, A man seems right, until his neighbor steps forward to speak. That's what wisdom is, though -- discerning between plausible but inconsistent testimonies. In the light of such ambiguity, the modern corollary of no justice, no peace may take on an ominous overtone, whereby any merest slight is an excuse to unleash the very chaos that laws, and by extension justice, would seek to restrain.

Well. Pope John Paul II added his own addendum to this rather anarchical modern corollary, in his 2002 address for the World Day of Peace. That sainted pontiff coined the following apophthegm: No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness. Well. That seems pretty wise. It short-circuits the self-indulgence of unilateral action, and defuses the implied threat in no peace. Indeed, there is a way that John Paul brings the argument full circle, back to Locke.

What is justice? Hard to say -- sometimes neighbors don't step forward to speak. What is forgiveness? A sidestepping of justice, toward another balance, between mercy and grace. Justice is an appropriate response, an appropriate punishment, for wrongdoing. After the debt has been paid, there is no further claim on the penitent; there is no need for forgiveness. But justice is rare. We need to forgive this imperfection of the world, in which there is so little justice.

That’s what old John Paul had in mind. It all boils down to wisdom. Laws should be wise. The exercise of freedom should be wise. The pursuit of peace should be wise. The expectation of justice should be wise. Law sounds so much like justice, and freedom sounds so much like peace, yet when we formulate these concepts into slogans, one leads to a reasonable approximation of a just society, while the other leads to rioting and suicide bombers. Odd. It must have something to do with wisdom.

When we are faced with the fact that wisdom is even more rare than justice, where does this leave us? Forgiveness is not justice. Odd, isn’t it, how we have so little power over justice, and so much power to forgive, yet forgiveness too is more rare than justice. There it is, wisdom and forgiveness, both more rare than justice. But that's where we're left. If we would have peace, we must be wise, and forgive. It is the only thing in which we are truly free.

All this, though, is political philosophy. Philosophy is a waste of time. It's as if expecting that the proclamation of a World Day of Peace could possibly, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, make a difference or have a meaningful positive effect. But maybe that's just me being bitter. Maybe I should think of some injustice, and forgive it. What a rare thing that would be.


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