THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A Matter of Principle

A few years ago, we published a book about military history.  At the request of the publisher, it was written in a “popular” style, that is, in “story” form with very few footnotes, explanatory sidebars instead of appendices, that sort of thing.  Some people thought it was a very good book introducing them to obscure but important battles they had never heard of.

Footnotes are fun!


Others sneered that it was clearly not the work of a professional historian (which it never claimed to be), that (unspecified) facts were wrong, it was badly written, and had no footnotes.  Other others pointed out that the complainers were finding fault for the book not being what it never claimed to be, and so on, back and forth.

Naturally, when we published a semi-scholarly article on how some strange, complicated, and very confused ideas have influenced modern religious (“Church”) and civil (“State”) — as well as domestic (marriage and family) society — society, we got complaints that there were too many footnotes, and the article was written at too high a scholarly level for the ordinary reader.  The complainer claimed that he or she (we really couldn’t tell which) preferred his or her (or its?) discussions on philosophical principles to be succinct and lucid . . . which we thought we had done.  The problem, of course, is that we were attempting to show how principles had been distorted and misapplied, not present a philosophical treatise . . . and even a mere philosophical treatise on a seemingly straightforward point can get extremely complex.

"Am I simply complex, or complexly simple?"


Yes, we agree with the need for lucidity and succinctness . . . up to a point.  Principles must be clear and straightforward, as well as self-evident, at least when referring to first principles.  Matters get more complex, however, when dealing with 1) application of the basic principles, 2) exceptions, and 3) errors.  A quick glance at Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (or any of Aquinas’s other treatises) illustrates this.  G. K. Chesterton related in his sketch of Aquinas (Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”, 1933) an anecdote about a woman who read Aquinas’s treatise on the simplicity of God and remarked that if that was God’s simplicity she certainly didn’t want to know about his complexity.

Things can therefore get extremely complicated when real life intervenes and messes up all the neat and tidy theories.  Take justice, for example.  The fundamental principle of justice is to render to each what each is due.  That sounds simple enough until we try to apply it in the real world.

Not quite good as gold.


For example (to take an example of an example), in commutative justice, the justice of contracts, a debt of five dollars must be paid with five dollars or the value thereof.  A five-dollar bill is obviously worth five dollars and settles the debt . . . or does it?  In the United States from 1862 to 1878, a five-dollar bill was not considered as having the same value as gold or silver coin in the amount of five dollars.  Earlier, when private banks of issue were not connected by a central bank (as was the case from 1837 to 1863), a five-dollar bill from Bank A was highly unlikely to have the same value as a five-dollar bill from Bank B.

Or take the problem of adjudicating the law in the Roman Empire before Justinian’s codification.  It was a principle of Roman law that a case be judged according to the law of someone’s tribe or nation.

Now, this is not a religious treatise, and we are saying nothing regarding the claims of Judaism or Christianity, or even the Roman state religion.  We are using this only to show how a presumably simple court case got extremely complicated due to politics, religion, and the application of some presumably simple laws.

Politics as usual.


We refer to what seems to most people today the bizarre complexity of Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate.  The facts seem straightforward.  Jesus was a Jew accused of breaking a Roman law against proclaiming oneself a king without the approval of the Senate and the People of Rome: Senatus Populus Que Roma, SPQR . . . now you know where that comes from.  Judea was a Roman treaty state and therefore could not name a ruler without the official sanction of Rome unless so stated in the treaty.

According to the New Testament, the charge that Jesus was setting himself up as an unauthorized king in defiance of the treaty was a political charge cooked up by the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees whose real offense in their eyes was that Jesus was breaking a religious law, viz., claiming to be the Son of God.  Now, the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees could easily have sentenced Jesus to death and executed him on religious grounds . . . if they wanted to turn the people against themselves, which was the last thing they wanted or could afford if they wanted to stay in power.


The solution?  Get Jesus accused of a political offense, which was Roman jurisdiction and, if sufficiently serious, a capital offense.  The Romans would take the blame for executing Jesus, and the people’s ire would be turned against the Romans, who would then need the help of the existing power structure, i.e., the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees, to keep order, thereby securing the ruling class in their wealth and privileges.

To do him a little (very little) justice, Pilate seems to have seen through the game the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees were playing.  He told them to take care of it themselves, whereupon they reminded him that they had no law to condemn a man to death for political crimes; it was in Roman jurisdiction.

Pilate, however, was already none too popular with the people, if we believe the hints in the New Testament, having previously put down some kind of religious rebellion that got merged into politics — recall the allusion by Jesus about the Jews whose blood Pilate “had mixed with their sacrifices” — and could not afford to upset Tiberias Caesar or the Senate by whose grace he himself held power.  Thus, the moment he heard that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate instantly tried to palm the case off on to Herod, who had jurisdiction in purely Jewish affairs.


Herod, however, had his own problems, not the least of which that, even as an authorized king, he had to step very carefully so as not to offend the people, the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees, or the Romans . . . and he was already in hot water over his admittedly unwilling execution of John the Baptist on presumably religious grounds.  In any event, Herod realized that Pilate was trying to get out from under a politically dangerous situation and stock him, Herod, with it, and so sent Jesus back to Pilate.

And all that was for a simple accusation that according to the New Testament wasn’t even true, and that the official judge — Pilate — admitted and then let the falsely accused Jesus be executed, anyway.  And if you think that is complicated, later Roman law is filled with opinions in which judges had to decide first which law code applied before they could even try the case, e.g., a Gothic Roman committed what would have been a minor offense under Gothic law in a Burgundian Roman town against a Frankish Roman who considered it a major offense under Salic law.  Which law code applies?


That is just what happens in attempting to apply a recognized principle.  Allowed exceptions become even more complex, e.g., the matter of usury.  Usury means taking a profit where no profit is due, so a loan of money as money should not bear interest, where a loan of money for investment must bear interest as the lender’s just share of profits from a productive enterprise as a fundamental right of private property.

What about a loan of money to the government to permit the government to keep functioning?  No one will voluntarily lend to government unless the loan bears interest, but government is not a productive enterprise (or isn’t supposed to be).  An exception is therefore allowed for necessary loans to the government under the principle of double effect.  Since taking a profit is not objectively evil, and the common good would suffer extreme, possibly irreparable harm if the government cannot function due to lack of money, lending to government at interest is permitted as the lesser of two evils.

What about unallowed exceptions or errors?  That is the case with the “New Things” of modernism, socialism, and the New Age.  Fundamental principles themselves are changed or reinterpreted to mean something new and often revolutionary.  Forms of justice are abolished or redefined, while virtues are merged and confused.  To explain or even deal with the situation effectively, it is often necessary first to discover the error, understand it, then “back out of it” before getting to the correct principle and applying it.  This is far from succinct and lucid, but absolutely essential if one is attempting to understand the real world which is far from neat and tidy, rarely permitting a clear and simple application of a basic principle.