We are following a line of least resistance in staying true to my goal of writing a weekly message after a long and inexcusable absence. The path laid out for me was set down by Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. In her book On Reading Well Professor Prior examines twelve formative virtues traditionally admired in our western culture by showing how they are defined by philosophers and theologians and dramatized by the authors in twelve works of fiction. This gives me the opportunity to relate those insights by way of these messages and to add my own comments of dubious value.
One caveat professor Prior makes is that her choice of books to illustrate each virtue may be done as a counterpoint; the trait becoming meaningful to us, the reader, by way of the protagonist’s truly adverse behavior – Jay Gatsby being the poster child of conspicuous consumption in a study of the virtue of temperance. I, on the other hand, learn best from positive examples so am likely to offer, as I do this week, a literary work, which prompts us to aspire to be like people who bear the trait well.
Here’s the thing, though. This week I also find myself in a position to quibble more about the Professor’s presentation than with any other discussion about virtue we have covered thus far. For instance:
Quibble #1 – Justice is not a virtue; it’s an outcome. A moral person is just, but we lack an acceptable word in the English language to go along with prudence, temperance and courage. So we settle for justice to fill our vocabulary gap, because we view the word justness as awkward and eschew the word righteous as having only a religious application.
Quibble #2 – Professor Prior writes at the outset of her chapter that “Justice is the morality of the community.” My take is that justice is the measure of the morality of the community. It is an indicator of an entire society’s version of emotional intelligence.
Quibble #3 – Most of Professor Prior’s presentations on each of the virtues begins with the classical definition of the virtuous trait based on Greek or Roman philosophers, supplemented by the thoughts of Christian theologians. Then she applies their perspective to the plot and characters of a prominent literary work. What’s missing is any reference to ancient Hebrew philosophy, a system which is very applicable in this case as the Hebrew Scriptures have a lot to say about justice.
The topic dominates the writings of Israel’s prophets. The lack of justice is identified as the cause of the nation’s punishment by exile under the Assyrians first and the Babylonians second. Justice was the equitable application of God’s law in any dispute regardless of social status or wealth. The true measure of a just system was based on how decisions impacted three of the least powerful classes in the Hebrew society; orphans, widows and aliens.
This reflects the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted by Prior from his Letter From A Birmingham Jail: “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” That King’s thoughts mirrored those of the ancient Hebrews is appropriate since he served as a Baptist minister and a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Professor Prior’s selection as her literary choice for discussing the virtue of justice is Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. His is a cautionary tale as he parallels the injustices of the British legal system with that of 18th Century France, whose abuses led to the French Revolution and the era known as the Reign of Terror. Think of a guillotine being used as a source of entertainment, if you haven’t read the book or seen the 1935 film version, starring Ronald Coleman, and you’ll get the idea of how vengeful and unjust the era was in its attempt to correct the abuses of the aristocracy the revolutionaries replaced.
So here is my Quibble #4: I find the book an odd choice for the topic of justice. While it does follow the Professor’s pattern of choosing great literature to illustrate a virtue by showing us what it is not, I would say that this story is more about redemption than justice. Legal proceedings are a major part of the storyline, but justice is never truly served in either the institutional settings of dubious virtue or in the personal relationships of the principal characters. Justice of the most primitive sort is only meted out in fatal conflicts between the victims and their oppressors.
Dickens’ protagonist is the reprobate Sydney Carton. He does achieve redemption at the story’s end by making a Christ-like sacrifice in subjecting himself to execution by guillotine in place of the innocent man he resembles. The validity of his Messianic gesture is affirmed by his articulation of a vision of better times for those he loves, giving a young female victim the courage to face the end with him. His soliloquy ends, before the metal blade consummates his sainthood, with the well-known words, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
As an interesting aside, it strikes me as an chilling coincidence that while Dickens was penning his masterpiece on the prevailing injustices of both the 18th Century French and English societies, Victor Hugo was preparing his manuscript on a similar topic, the injustices taking place in 19th Century France, to be published in 1862 under the title Les Miserables. Justice is obviously hard to come by.
My alt suggestion for a more positive impression of the search for justice is Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The children, Scout and Jem, occupy center stage in this compelling drama, but the person who prominently displays a just character is their father, Atticus Finch. He is Plato’s virtuous man. Prudent, temperate, courageous and just he takes an unpopular stand when he agrees to defend a black man, Tom Robinson. Tom’s supposed offense is the attempted rape of a white woman, made all the more onerous because the story is set in the deep south of the Jim Crow era.
It is a rare feat that in a popular story, the hero loses. But it is an honest outcome. Justice is not attained, but it is clearly identified as a credible choice lost beneath the prevalence of bigotry. That we are still dealing with the cries of racial injustice voiced by groups such as Black Lives Matter, makes it evident that the unintended message of Les Miserables remains the same; justice for the poor is hard to come by.
The prophet Isaiah voiced the words of God for laying the foundation of a moral community: “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line.” (Isaiah 28:17) Righteousness remains the standard by which justice is measured.