The Virtue of JusticeDONALD DEMARCO
Sir Walter Scott has his bold hero, Arthur, speak like a saint or Father of the Church. Arthurís advice is timeless. We could use a novelist of the moral acumen of Sir Walter Scott in our own age.
Our understanding not only of justice but also of virtue in general is greatly impaired when we mislabel vice as virtue, and virtue as vice. Calling fair foul, as Shakespeare suggests, is a devilish enterprise. If the word is wrong, then the thought is wrong. And if the thought is wrong, then the resulting action is wrong. The correct naming of things is indispensable to correct thinking and correct acting. Before justice exists in action, it must first exist in word and thought.
There is a scene in Sir Walter Scottís novel Anne of Geierstein that eloquently and dramatically brings to light the insidious and unjust practice of calling vice virtue.
In the story, the brave young Arthur is riding in the company of Thiebault. The latter, a grandson of troubadours and a lover of ballads, sings one with great artistry for his traveling companion.
The ballad unfolds a rather sordid saga. A certain troubadour by the name of William Cabestaing is in love with Margaret, the wife of Baron Raymond de Roussillon. When the husband learns of the affair, he kills Cabestaing, cuts out his heart, and has it cooked like an animalís. He then serves it to his wife, but does not reveal its nature until after she has finished eating it. Margaretís response to this ghastly deed is stoic and sacrificial. She quietly explains that the food was so precious to her that her lips "should never touch coarser nourishment." She persists in her macabre decision and starves herself to death.
The ballad goes on to weave the rest of the story: "Every bold
knight in the south of France assembled to besiege the baronís castle, stormed
it by main force, left not one stone upon another, and put the tyrant to an ignominious
death." It is clear by his manner that Thiebault approves of Margaretís
suicide and the vengeance heaped upon her husband.
Arthur takes a decidedly different view of the matter. He admonishes his companion: "Thiebault, sing me no more such lays. I have heard my father say that the readiest mode to corrupt a Christian man is to bestow upon vice the pity and the praise which are due only to virtue. Your Baron of Roussillon is a monster of cruelty; but your unfortunate lovers were not the less guilty. It is giving fair names to foul actions that those who would start at real vice are led to practice its lessons, under the disguise of virtue."
Sir Walter Scott has his bold hero, Arthur, speak like a saint or Father of the Church. It is not just, Arthur is saying, to call vice by the name of virtue. But not only that, such philosophical injustice — a kind of injustice to being — inevitably leads to the practice of real vice. Philosophical injustice breeds personal and social injustice.
Arthurís advice is timeless. We could use a novelist of the moral acumen of Sir Walter Scott in our own time. Consider the current penchant for giving vice fair words: Vengeance is getting even, pornography is adult entertainment, sterilization is a way of getting fixed, abortion is merely a choice, and euthanasia is an act that is replete with dignity.
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, affirms that when
our conciences can call "evil good and good evil" (Is. 5:20), we are
"already on the path to the most alarming corruption and the darkest moral
Not long ago a particularly hard-headed business woman graced the cover of Fortune magazine. The following words ran alongside the image of her gritty and determined countenance: "The toughest Babe in Business — Darla Moore married Richard Rainwater, tripled his wealth, axed Boone Pickens, and pushed Rick Scott out at Columbia/HCA. Stay Tuned." The message is only too clear. If you want to get ahead, and receive the enviable plaudits of Fortune magazine, you had better be tough.
The business world finds it easy to praise heartlessness as being tough. Being just is not likely to catapult a fair-minded entrepreneur to the cover of a major success magazine. Nice guys, presumably, finish last.
Philosophical justice — naming things rightly in accord with what they are — is indeed a virtue. It is as delicate, however, as it is fundamental. And this is precisely why it must be taken seriously. It is easy to ignore or distort philosophical justice, while urging people to preach social justice from the housetops. But the truth is that there can be no social justice without giving vice its due by calling it vice, and without singing the praises of virtue for the plain fact that it is virtuous.
DeMarco, Donald. "The Virtue of Justice." Lay Witness (April, 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
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