Saturday, September 17, 2005

Justice and Relationality

Plato's Republic is one of my most important spiritual guides in life. Those who have only a passing acquaintance of this book may be surprised. The book is such an important classic that, I'm afraid, it gets more often summarized than actually read. And I would be the first to admit that it is difficult to read, and at places seems outrageous and bizarre. But the more I re-read it and meditate on it, the more impressed I am at not only the skill of writing and organization, but also the profundity of thought.

Sometimes I wish that my life were such that I only had to teach one course at a time, and that I could teach a single book in this course -- I would teach Plato's Republic. We would work through it slowly and reflect on it every step of the way. It would be an amazing experience for us all.

It addresses so much that is so important: human nature; virtue; wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice; harm vs. benefit; the nature of regret; the role of music, art, and literature; the role of women in society; what constitutes a good education; youth and age; what an ideal society should look like; the different kinds of corrupt society; whether there is life after death; how to live life well; the nature of goodness.

While I wouldn't say I agree with it all (and it is hard to say anyway what that means, because it is hard to interpret what points Plato was really trying to make in his dialogues, since they were written as dialogues), I do agree with many of what I regard as Plato's main points, and I certainly believe that he raises really powerful and important questions -- still highly relevant for us today.

My latest realization about the discussion of "justice" in the Republic is that Plato is really articulating a theory of the best way for us to be in relation to each other. So justice, for Plato, is the fundamental virtue of relationship.

Socrates in the dialogue argues against defining justice in terms of "giving each his or her due." And I think that maybe the deepest reason he argues against this kind of definition is that it is presumptuous of anyone to claim to know what others "deserve." The definition that comes through as the one Socrates supports is one that initially seems odd: "to do your work and not someone else's."

(My students often shake their heads with disbelief when we reach this point. "Look!" I say enthusiastically, "they do come up with a definition at last! People keep thinking that Plato never puts forth definitions he seems to agree with, but here it is -- they all rest content with this and move on to other topics! There is a definition!" The students are astonished because they were starting to conclude that this is just one of those concepts that is "undefinable" or "up to each person's own opinion."

But they stop me and say, "But that's not the right definition!"

"I think it's a great definition!" I reply.

They don't believe me. They think I'm playing another Philosophy-Teacher trick!

A lively debate ensues...)

While this definition initially seems odd, disappointing, too simple, maybe just plain wrong, as soon as you ask yourself the question, "what is 'my work'?" you begin to approach the depth of this concept.

What is "my work"? What is "work"? What is our work in this world?

What does it mean to "do someone else's work"?

What does it mean not to do someone else's work?

These questions are not easy questions.

Sometimes close relationships in life can become difficult precisely because they involve ways that the boundaries between one's own work and someone else's work get blurred. Sometimes people lay claim to each other in very inappropriate ways, but they can do this in very subtle ways and so it can be hard to realize what is going on.

What's worse is that our culture encourages us to be controlled and to control each other in ways that are very disrespectful and problematic. But it is all so subtle that we do not realize what is going on, and we regard it as "normal." We live in a critical culture. We think we are fit to pass judgment over others -- we think we know what others "deserve." We think we demonstrate our worth by the keenness of our criticisms of others. Making fun of others is regarded an acceptable form of "entertainment."

I think Plato's definition of justice (yes, I do think Plato really liked that one) is very profound and worth meditating on. I also think it expresses the essence of respectful relationships, even love.

What is love? It involves a kind of attention to others that is perceptive and accepting: the ability to see into the goodness of others' souls, and to address that goodness and call it forth more fully into being.

In good, healthy, loving relationships, people appreciatively call forth that goodness from each other. A person who loves someone else can help the other find their true work in the world, and can call them to that work and support them in doing this work. This is loving because we are grateful for feeling valued and appreciated for who we most truly are. And we feel a sense of fulfillment from offering our best to the world. So we feel loved when others help us to do this.

Love is, of course, more than this as well -- but I am more and more convinced that this is a very important part of love: nurturing each other's growth.

Our work in the world is more than just our jobs (in some cases, our jobs may not be our true work in the world). "Our work" is: all that we have to give.

It really is "unjust" if one is blocked or prevented from doing what they feel called to do in life. It is a violation of respect to meddle and "do someone else's work" instead of letting them find their way. Also, you let yourself down if you try to be who you are not (that is another way of "doing someone else's work" instead of your own).

And, finally, it may be most unjust of all to try to force someone else to do work that is not truly their own. People usually try to force others in this way when there is work to be done that they don't want to do themselves. In some cases, it is their own work, and they should do it, and would benefit from doing it; other times, it is true that it is not their work, but it is still wrong of them to assume that they know whose work it is, and then to try to force that other person into doing it.

Of course we are interdependent beings and we need each other's help all the time. So, it is reasonable to have expectations of each 0ther, and it is fine and good to ask for help and to make requests of each other. What's problematic is insisiting that we know best what others must do, and trying to coerce them into obedience.

In reading about peacemaking and nonviolent action, the distinctions between persuasion and coercion, requests and demands are very important distinctions. Making requests and trying to persuade are okay -- they leave the other with choices. It is a mark of respect to let others have choices when we try to call them to action: that way, if we are wrong about what "their work" is, they have the chance to tell us so. It is making demands and being coercive that are problematically disrespectful -- and unjust.

So, it is worth meditating on this concept: justice is doing your own work and not someone else's.

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