Politics and Evil
March 13, 2012
Here is a question that has occurred to me recently more than once: How is it that those humans who set out to eradicate evil end up creating more of it?
It was once pointed out to me that in Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Politics that injustice comes to sight before justice. Could it be that injustice is more prominent than justice? Hence, it could be that we don’t have to look for injustice; it finds us soon enough. But justice is another story. We have to look for it and we don’t even know it when we see it. Justice is not, in this way, like what Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography: We don’t know it when we see it.
Of course, this in no way helps to answer the question posed above. But it might provide a clue. All political projects, all political actions, involve injustice. Take this as a given, as a natural law, if you will. To see why it is a possibility, try to think of a political project, of a policy that does not involve injustice. You will discover that it is very hard to do that. Our criminal justice system, any criminal justice system results in injustices being committed, willy nilly as it were.
Now, if this is the case, if in fact all political projects involve injustice, are unjust to some degree, then the greatest political projects involve the greatest injustices. You say you want to “police” the world? Well, be my guest but recognize that such policing will involve great injustices; that is, to police the world you will have to engage in great injustices. There is no way around this phenomenon. Perhaps one of the most interesting demonstrations of this phenomenon occurs in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates undertakes to construct the perfectly just society and ends up committing the most egregious injustices, such as suppressing the poets and poetry, endorsing communism of women and children, and banishing every one over the age of 10 from the city.
And, of course, in his real life, Socrates could see all too clearly that the Athenian quest for greatness, its quest to have and be a great empire, one to be remembered through the ages as if it were immortal, led to injustice. He could not have been surprised by his trial and its verdict. Perhaps Socrates was more surprised by the fact that he was allowed to live until he was 70 years old. But Socrates also saw what these injustices did to the souls of the Athenians, who sought to lay up wealth and power and beauty while ignoring their souls. A politics of greatness, which the Athenians and we Americans take for granted as desirable, is deadly for the human soul as understood by Socrates. And hence as a result of seeking to be great, humans commit great misdeeds and great injustices. A politics of goodness seems more humane, even or especially more human.