Reflections on Justice in the Present

Spiritual Atmosphere of Middle-Eastern Europe




Justice is the mathematics of humanity.

T. G. Masaryk

The heart of one who respects only the secular life becomes more and more hardened before the awareness of his or her own mortality.

Jan Patoka


I believe that this secular world, discovered by the Renaissance, will again cease to be the final limit of our desire.

Emanuel Rádl


When President Jimmy Carter entered the White House in the beginning of 1977, he began his inaugural address with a verse from the prophet Micah who recommends to every human being in any historical, political and existential situation three fundamental values: justice, mercy and humility (Micah 6:8) Carter raised one of the most powerful ideas of Western civilization, the idea of human rights, i.e., the natural right of man to live in freedom and dignity. By this act he opened, in the sphere of high politics, the final phase of the process that resulted in the fall of communist totalitarianism in the countries of the Eastern block.

At that time in Czechoslovakia an authentic human rights initiative set out on its road. Its name was Charter 77 and its philoso-pher, Professor Jan Patoka, saw the crisis of contemporary humankind more deeply and broadly than the boundaries of the Eastern world. He stressed the priority of ethics over politics, and the preference for morality over any pragmatic utilitarian calculation, because, as he said, "There is no morality for the functioning of society; morality exists in order for man to be a human being." At the same time he warned against placing confidence in ideology and technology and against believing in the expanding possibilities of affluence.

In Bohemia at that time, there began something which the world observed with attention, respect and perhaps hope. In those heavy times of political repression and moral corruption, in the conditions of an occupied and spiritually violated country, the idea gained strength that only justice and morality open the space for life in truth, freedom and dignity. The idealistic ethos of that time, that of preference for the spirit and values over secular powers and forces, was expressed in Carter’s dictum that "America is free not because it is rich and powerful, but it is rich and powerful because it is free."

Looking now from the perspective of the present, one thing is evident: moral idealism, after having led its adherents (one-time dissidents) to political triumph, is losing its strength; the very precious space of magnanimity and authenticity attained with great effort and sacrifice now is being closed once again. A new sort of pragmatist, self-conscious and assertive in the persuasion that they speak realism relieved of illusions about human beings, declares ethics to be a hindrance or occasionally a useful instrument. The spirit of the new ideology, whose divinity is described as something really superhuman, i.e., "the non-personal, non-directed, systematic mechanism of the Market", which calls one to subjugate oneself to its laws with no possibility of understanding its substance, this spirit of idolatry, was expressed in the thought of a clerk who represents the Czech republic in the International Monetary Fund. In very non-biblical, even anti-Micahean terms he wrote in Lidové noviny (The People’s Newspaper) on June 18, 1993, "It is probably the foremost advantage of the system of free enterprise that the material position of individuals and the distribution of incomes are not dependent on considerations of morality and justice." In other words, let the idealists think of morality and justice, practical people are to use their spiritual potentialities to maximase their profit because, according to this strange "philosophy", the meaning of life in the capitalist system is one’s material possessions.

If now the economy and state, reflecting a materialistic ideology, begin again to predominate the stronger is our duty to raise the question of justice, the more important it is to search the realm of values. Those who promise first bread and material prosperity, and only then human dignity and spirituality, usually fail — as history many times demonstrates — in both dimensions. This truth was shown in a very simple way by Dostoevski more than a hundred years ago. There is a moment in Dostoevski’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, when the oldest brother Dmitrij, suffering unjustly in prison, is tempted by the young ambitious intellectual Rakitin who visits Dmitrij and says: "Stop your vain metaphysical considerations about the meaning of life, guilt, suffering and God’s will and mercy; instead do something to improve civil rights or at least to stop the rise of the price of beef." Dmitrij’s response is very plain: "Well, but you — if you live without respect for God — will raise the price of beef as soon as you get it into your hands and you will earn one ruble for every kopek." Similarly, those who eliminate the idea of justice from the space of political and economic thought and who make economy the central issue of social life, consciously or unconsciously unleash an inhuman or finally anti-human strategy.




Besides the living, spiritually open mind, the greatest force of philosophy is its own tradition in which a certain permanence of the basic situation of the thinking spirit is manifest. For the sake of this invariability it would be difficult to submit philosophy to the principle of progress of the Enlightenment: we could hardly say that Hegel is a greater thinker than Heraclitus, Husserl than Plato, or that Heidegger reached a higher position on the road of wisdom than Kierkegaard. The scope of a thinker’s written works and the level of popularity in his or her own time is not significant. The basic value of philosophy is wisdom (sofia, sapientia, prudentia) which stands above that very variable entity called the spirit of the times (The Hegelian Zeitgeist or Weltgeist). It seems very probable that the difference between the duty to think against the spirit of the time and willingness to think in accordance with the spirit of the time is the difference between philosophy and ideology, the difference between looking for wisdom and sophistry. This is the fundamental distinction between a questing openness and a decided self-certainty. Nevertheless, it is true that not every openness becomes a love of wisdom and not every resoluteness ends in ideology and sophistry. Moreover, everybody who opens himself at the same time decides for something and thus every decision opens us for something. The question is rather our relationship to time and eternity, to death and immortality, to endedness and endlessness; the issue is our relationship to earth and to heaven.

In the history of thought we should hardly find a more archetypical confrontation of these two polarities of basic philosophical attitude than that between Socrates and Nietzsche: the first with his principle of care for the soul (epimeleia tés Dsychés), the other with his principle of the will to power (der Alle zur Macht). The substantial contradiction of these two can be expressed in two theses. For Socrates the greatest evil is to act unjustly and to leave this world with a soul devastated by acts of evil; for Nietzsche, it is to subdue the life of morality, which stands upon a distinction of good and evil and necessarily supposes the coming of futural justice and another time more perfect than this secular one. In Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, a rhetorician and politician named Kallikles raises against Socrates nearly the same arguments as would Nietzsche 23rd centuries later.

In the fourth century before Christ, Kallikles — according to Plato’s presentation — believes that "Laws are the work of weak people to deter strong and beautiful people from having more" and that "Nature itself shows that it is just that the better one has more than the worse one and the powerful more than the less powerful." (A similar opinion is expressed in the Old Testament Book of Wisdom where those who do not respect God’s law say: "Let our strength be they yardstick of virtue, since weakness argues its own futility." Wisdom 2:11). In the end Kallikles advises Socrates to leave philosophy and to perform instead "the beautiful music of deeds" with which one can win one’s own respect, social position and possession, while through philosophy in the rhetor’s opinion — one "dwells in an empty house". (Gorgias 483-486) Socrates is forced to defend himself with deeper considerations about what success and unsuccess really are and in the final stage of this dialogue he uses as the highest philosophical argument a story: he tells an eschatological myth that puts the highest judgement and the act of the highest justice into the world beyond the boundary of death where the genuine value of our lives and deeds will be clearly manifested. "That is, dear Kallikles," says Socrates, "what I have heard and what I believe is the truth." Note that at this very crucial moment myth and faith are the highest argument of philosophy.

Some suppose Nietzsche to be the philosopher in whose thinking the modern age reached its zenith and the postmodern era began. In any case, he expressed directly a terrible truth of the substance of the 20th century, and radicalized the idea put more modestly by the ancient opponent of Socrates. According to Nietzsche, the substance of life is a violent, powerful, unscrupulous, morally indifferent and wildly progressing stream of the will to power, whereas faith in the immortality of the soul is only an otherworldly illusion. After death — as Nietzsche’s alter ego, Zarathustra, states — there is no reward and no penalty because the soul dies just a little sooner than the body. Morality, according to this author, is a sign of degeneration (vital decline); the authentic life stands beyond the categories of good and evil and is a permanent conquest and overcoming of self. The meaning of the earth is not man, but superman, namely, he who understood and accepted the death of God and grasped eternity by courageously stepping into the circle of "the eternal return of the same" (die ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen). The last word of Nietzsche’s philosophy is then the circle of Hindu samsara, not the linear orientation of European history aimed at eschatological fulfillment.

The hardest word Nietzsche uttered to the heart of European civilization is his prophecy about the coming of nihilism, that is, the coming of an epoch after the loss of all transcendental horizons when Western history will collapse into low business, commerce, politics, intrigues and anxious efforts, all in the shadow of catastrophes, universal uncertainty, revolutions and wars. In this skeptical light Nietzsche also perceives Western democracy. Churchill considered it to be metaphysically the worst, but from the point of view of real possibilities the best. It is a form of government whose roots, according to Socrates, are in the spiritual value of faith in justice, for the accomplishment of which, however, this world is not the final boundary.

The English author C.S. Lewis, similarly to Masaryk, sees the substance of the conflict of democracy with totalitarianism to be precisely in the issue of immortality. Lewis leads his argumentation by a simple consideration: if endedness given by the limited temporal scope of the human sojourn on earth is the absolute destiny of man and if life after having fulfilled its time enters nothingness, then more permanent entities like state, civilization, society, culture, nation, historical order, political regime or any other supra-individual form have greater value and significance than man. On the other hand, "If Christianity is right", Lewis argues, "then an individual is not only important but he is absolutely important, because he is eternal, while the length of existence of state or civilization, in comparison with him, means nothing but a moment."





The loss of the value of eternity, the darkening of the metaphysical horizon of human life and the disappearance of the transcendental orientation of human culture can be seen as among the deepest characteristics of our civilization. A French philosopher, Julien Benda, sees the substance of this situation in the treason of intellectuals who, in the last few centuries, had begun to abandon their basic duty to think of things ‘sub specie aeternitatis’. Nevertheless, if eternity as faith in eternity is lost, then there is only one answer to the question about the meaning of human life, namely, maximization of profit, power, glory, riches and enjoyment. The second of the four cardinal values or virtues in Greek is called sófrosyné, in Latin temperantia; our equivalents are modesty, the simple life, self-limitation and humility. In a world limited by death, these are in the way and are affected by the odium of being nonmodern, reactionary or naive. If the substance of nihilism, as Nietzsche prophesied, is the loss of eternity, immortality and faith in justice, then the nihilistic world which some call postmodern (Francis Fukuyama has even coined the term post-historical) really has only one driving force, namely, the will to power. This is substantially a nihilistic principle, because the will to power requires nothing other than itself, nothing except its own growth and escalation, nothing more than its eventually self-destructive triumph. If the subject is in danger, then the will to power says: give me freedom or death — or more modernly "socialism or death" as per Fidel Castro.

In European civilization and perhaps in all world civilizations, there are deep-rooted positive values like charity, altruism, cooperation, solidarity, friendship, empathy and the ability to make sacrifices. For this reason the will to power cannot manifest itself in its authentic self-centered appearance, but only in the disguise of an intention to build general prosperity, a rational and practical world order, that is, in the disguise of vital interests and historical necessity. The will to power obviously must make unity out of plurality and it cannot cease in its endeavor to engage in its projects as great a number of people as possible. The declared goal of this process becomes prosperity, expressed in the slogan that the one who has the most toys when he dies wins. The basic instrument for attaining this goal is number. Values are degraded to prices, everything is numbered: money, people, natural and human resources. The mathematical obsession transforms even public opinion into a percent of election preferences. Even such unquantifiable values as political and moral responsibility are expressed in percentages. The party with more votes has more responsibility and thus more power. European politics since the French revolution has come to the conclusion — as the philosopher, V. BŤlohradský, once formulated it — that it is better to count human heads than to cut them off.

A number, as Heidegger notes, has principally a unifying power: for instance, three trinities so different as stars in the sky, apples on a tree or books on a desk can from a mathematical point of view be brought to a common denominator through one common number. This, however, can catch at most the quantitative dimension of some phenomenon; saying anything about its substance is beyond its ability. Thus a civilization based on numbering becomes, in spite of steadily more perfect computers, daily more empty and spiritually superficial. Finally it becomes a system of dominance of the greater numbers over the smaller. A person staring at a computer terminal becomes a genuine image of modern solitariness, an image of a being captured in the autistic circle of computing.

In the world dominated by numbers, the power of the fiscal bureaucracy grows because the pure essence of money is a number which, through the institution of credit, can increase and multiply itself. C.S. Lewis notes that three great civilizations, namely, the Old Testament Jewish one represented by Moses, the classical one embodied in Aristotles, and the Christian one represented by the great mediaeval teachers, all agreed in prohibiting usury or lending money for interest. Yet this is the principle which enables the contemporary economic system to function. Nevertheless, the assertion of money as morally pure, nearly almighty and above the natural world is successful in our present time. In the Czech lands today Vespasian’s ancient dictum that "money does not smell" (pecunia non olet) has even found its modern version in V. Klaus’s basic theorem of morally indifferent economism: "I do not know the notion of dirty money". The concept of money as a sensible and just instrument for the distribution of social property is rejected as a contamination of strictly economical thinking. But if something in human society ignores the principle of justice, the situation is similar to a strange, autonomous and unfriendly system beginning to act on a living organism. What can philosophy do in this situation in order to be faithful to its mission?




A basic duty, and also the greatest chance for philosophy, seems to be the endeavor to bring an impulse of spiritual magnanimity, to free the human mind from purely materialistic interests, and to ask higher, deeper and more general questions which can break out of captivity in anxious uncertainties, banalities and everyday sorrows. Socrates did precisely this when he first listened to the standpoint of any of his contemporaries, but he never remained at this level and he endeavored by asking about the highest good to direct the human spirit towards the truth that is a final and enduring goal for thought and for all human beings. "The substance of evil", says the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, "lies in its temporality, that it doesn’t aim at a final and eternal goal."

The generally shared philosophical creed of European thinkers since the Renaissance could become Nietzsche’s pathetic challenge: "Remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak about supra-earthly hopes." In the name of this idea metaphysics should be discreditated, idealism should be rejected, Christianity should be depreciated. The mission of philosophy should be limited — according to this radical earthly pathetism — to the task of uttering general and forever valid doctrines similar to Comte’s law of the three stages of the progress of knowledge: from theological fiction through metaphysical abstraction to the final stage of positive scientific knowledge. The essentially creative force of metaphysical desire ought to be wasted in the words of Jan Patoka in "constructions drawn from the green cathedra": the place of metaphysics and the higher spiritualities ought to be occupied by economy, politology, sociology and other practical sciences. In this situation the greatest enemy for philosophy becomes a politician, economist or scientist refusing to question the issue of meaning. All are strengthen by the Nietzschean ethos of "faithfulness to earth" and "contempt of supra-earthly hopes." All finally will be united in a silent agreement by the nihilistic current of the will to power. This current could wash away Europe in her authentic meaning as the headland of spiritual openness, eternity, transcendence and faith in justice. To face this danger, the philosophers can do only one thing: hold on to their mission, not let themselves be silenced, deceived and calmed, keep to their duty to question the genuine sense of often frivolously uttered notions, sentences and slogans.

To illustrate what I want to say let me take a small excursion. On August 25, 1993, Czech television presented a programme named "At the Invitation of Radio Free Europe;" the main subject was

the question: What does the idea "Return to Europe" mean for us?. One of the participants, a philosopher Václav BŤlohradský, tried to do his duty. He indicated that the motto "Return to Europe" is, for nations plagued by the experience of communism, just a mystifying sophism. Communism, he noted, was in a certain sense a legitimate child of the European tradition; he mentioned its roots in Plato’s vision of the ideal state, in Christian eschatology and doctrine of salvation, and in the thoughts of the French Enlightenment thinkers (illuminati). and of German romanticism. He also quoted Solzenitsyn’s words that the Russians became the first sacrifice of communism. BŤlohradský simply presented a broader historical horizon, pointing out the facts and opening up a space for deeper reflection.

It was interesting to see the faces of the economic ministers who were the other participants of the debate. Their assertive and self-conscious appearance dwindled the speech of the philosopher. The immediate reaction on the minister of commerce and industry was that of a fresh capitalist convert looking for a replacement of the devastated shelter of the communist party, the reaction of the expert without an authentic persuasion who probably would be quite willing to transform the Czech economy in accord with Islamic fundamentalism were the Shiites to be masters of Central Europe. Formally he accepted BŤlohradský’s statement with respect, but estimated it as high thinking not accessible to a practical man. But he showed no reaction to arguments that could help him understand his past and present ways. Having decided not to accept any deeper authentic question, he rode on in the assertive saddle of one who knows very well what Europe is, what we have to do and where it is necessary to lead people again.




Outside the canon of Nietzsche’s titanic order there are thinkers in every nation; among Czechs they include Comenius, Masaryk and Patoka. If we look for the identity of Europe in such thinkers, then we see that their faithfulness to earth does not mean betrayal of heaven; that their faith in justice has never given up in the face of the lamentable reality of time; that they aimed at eternity and at the same time could show right, adequate and concrete action; and that they could present in their thoughts and actions authentically enduring values. Our civilization can hardly invent any new value and add it to Christianity’s seven basic values, four classical (cardinal) values represented by wisdom, modesty, courage and justice and the three theological values of faith, hope and love. These values, as virtues established by perseverance and tradition, create the substance of Europe. They are the basic conditions for what an ecologist calls sustainable living and what Christians call eternal life. It is impossible to destroy, complete or transform this table of values. Nevertheless, it is possible to give a chance to their antipodes: stupidity, covetousness, cowardice, wickedness, scepticism, resignation and hatred.

There is something like a metaphysical decision for one or other alternative when a human creates his or her world. Approximated to the level of politics, a great deal of truth is contained in an idea of the philosopher, Karel Kosík: the idea of a metaphysical democracy that leads democracy above the level of social democracy where the issue is justice in the division of things necessary to human needs. The higher metaphysical level was also what Masaryk intended when he spoke of democracy as the life opinion according to which one founds, builds and creates a human world. But a human founding of the world has one problem: for a human being the world in some way is always already here; man did not create it nor does he direct it. The world has its great point alpha and its great point omega, its dawn such as its eschaton, its great and irreversible history, its future that very probably hides an essentially new quality. Nevertheless, by his decision man founds his world or, rather, his home on the shore of what is passing or on the side of what is eternal. In the limited time of our earthly sojourn we decide the question of eternity,

The strongest argument of the modern age against metaphysics, idealism and Christianity is unfaithfulness to this world, betrayal of earthliness, sacrificing the natural to the supranatural. Indeed, Plato’s parable of the natural world as a cavern of manacled captives in the twilight play of shadows, the sentence of Paul of Tarsos that friendship with the world means enmity with God, or Comenius’s principle of contempt for the world (contemptus mundi) — all these visions seem to express some substantial negative moment in relationship to what apparently is naturally given once and for all as the structure of human existence. The modern age responded to this metaphysical other-worldliness in the name of its "Positive" ideal by various projects of secular eschatology, i.e., by that unhappy idea that it is possible to establish a just world on the earth by only human forces. The fall of the communist totalitarianism, which represented perhaps the most extreme project of secular eschatology, has encouraged liberal thinkers to keep to the opinion that rejects the idea of justice in the name of the freedom of the individual, the idea of transcendental moral principles, and even just faith in the final victory of good over evil. Nevertheless, liberalism also has its metaphysics in its idea of the perpetual ages of everyday life in economic and political circles (from election to election, from recession to boom, from boom to recession). Liberalism has its vision of the world of a permanent human nature in that good and evil will struggle forever; and, last but not least, liberalism also has its divinity and present day liberals worship their velvety Moloch of the Markat. He is supposed to save the unity of the world from decomposition into the isolated interests of individuals, and he is supposed to assure a certain existence of justice in a sphere where thinking about justice in its universal human moral and spiritual meaning is almost prohibited.

Perhaps in confrontation with those who believe in the economy and adore the market and who would be called by Václav Cerný "rulers of the present moment", it is necessary to explore the old truth that the substance of Europe was created in difficult times by those who had a sense for the transcendental origins of human morality and who believed in a just world. The motive power of this faith was never prosperity nor duty, but a force which is inexorable in human life and transcends all the fatal real, objective necessities. The name of this force is hope.

their heart and through their language in Jerusalem, in the city of being.




1. Translation by Christian and Leslie Rook.

2. Stefan George, Poems, trans. Carol North Valhope and Ernsit Nlorwitz (New York: Pantheon Books, 1943), p. 239.

3. J. Pieper, Missbrauch der Sprache — Missbrauch der Macht (Zürich, 1970, p. 18.

4. Frontiere de la poésie (Paris, 1936), p. 22.

5. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York, 1953), p. 3.

6. R.P. Blackmur, "The artist as hero", in: Art New, 1961, September, p. 20.

7. "La crise du concept de literature", in: Nouvelle Revue française, February, 1924.

8. J.P. Sartre, on the literary courage of the Czech author Milan Kundera.