Bearing Justice

by | 10 Feb 2011

Dominoes - Simon CorderThe ‘domino effect’ is a remarkably crude mechanical metaphor which once again implicitly informs mainstream characterisations1See for example: of the revolutions in play in Tunisia, Egypt, and to a lesser degree Algeria.  The assumption of a spatially linear series of cause and effect, pleasing as it is to the relaxed mind, serves at once to localise the event and offer the possibility of containment ‘over there’.  ‘Over there’ is a very important place; among other things, an event over there will not cause an event over here unless a series of events in between also occur.  Over here must wait its turn, just like the Attic Greek sense of taxis (order), and all will be done to keep the event of over there where it is. The phrase ‘domino effect’ also occults a further assumption – the name ‘domino’ deriving from the Latin dominus and probably referring to the priests of Venice with the black robes with interior white lining.  The master, the sovereign is held in his atomic void above the multitude of people, varying only according to external shocks and the swerve of his inclination.  But what if our dominoes contemplate the great game not from within the void, but upon a sea, a sea capable not only of eddies and currents, but also of great contractions, tensions and oscillations around equilibria.  Here no one domino is safer from toppling than another.  Forces may pass from the first to the last by deep convections, bypassing the mediate terms.  What the law regards as remoteness of cause becomes shockingly effective; it is according to such logic that justice moves.  And under this logic we start to question whether our tiles, so simple in their binary garb, are as claimed constitutive of our world or merely the last expressions of it.  Under what conditions does this justice operate?

It is in the thoroughly adverse works of Plutarch that we the following doctrine represented as a standard Stoic position: 2De communibus notitiis 1068 F.  The following translations are drawn from Schofield, M., The Stoic idea of the city, 1991, p.98ff.

If a single sage anywhere at all extends his finger prudently, all the sages throughout the inhabited world are benefited.  This is the job they assign to friendship; this is how, by the beneficial acts common to sages, the virtues are brought to fulfilment.

Plutarch continues: 31069 A

the amazing benefit which sages receive from the virtuous motions of one another even if they are not together and happen not even to be acquainted.

These declarations are not isolated to Plutarch.  We find in the Eclogae, in the third principal division of Stobaeus’ account of Arius Didymus’ exegesis of Stoic ethics, the following: “They say that all goods are common to the morally good, inasmuch as someone who benefits his neighbour also benefits himself.”  This, we might say, is the imperial position. 4Ecl. II 93.19-94.1 In its apparent conformity with Platonic and Peripatetic sensibilities, it is an uninteresting statement, inflected, however, by the following note:

They say that goods are common in another way.  For they think that everyone who benefits anyone whatsoever receives equal benefit due to this very thing, and that a morally bad person either is benefited or benefits.  For benefiting is sustaining in accordance with virtue and being benefited is undergoing a process in accordance with virtue.  5Ibid. II 95.3-8

This points us to a further and fuller statement in the same text that indicates the acceptable ‘imperial position’ is not a position proper to the early Stoa 6Ibid. II 101.21-102.3:

All goods are common to the morally good, and evils to the morally bad.  For this reason one who benefits someone is also benefited himself, and one who harms also harms himself.  All the morally good benefit each other, even if they are neither friends of each other at all nor kindly to one another nor approved of or accepting (due to neither being known nor living in the same place).

It is the repeated assertion that spatial proximity is of no relevance to the matter of acting rightly which is so intriguing about a position which is attributable to Chrysippus and presumably Zeno of Citium.  It is also the fact that such a doctrine so utterly outrages common sense that ensures its propagation by Plutarch.  The modern’s problem, and opportunity, is to actually fit together from the surviving fragments a theory which actually supports these contentions.  For we see here expressions of theory of the continuum in which events are explained as syntheses of causes, rather than as effects, and in which these syntheses bind together parts of the continuum so that tensions form and modify the passage of other causal chains.  Even space itself has the potential to become expression, and in so doing the possibilities of sumpatheia open up.  Certain intensions are so constituted as to become impervious to fate; they no longer metamorphose under transformation.  Furthermore, being so disposed to express the necessity of the whole, they begin to express and augment occurrences of right, or justice, wherever they occur.  Thus Johnny Christensen writes: “every region of space and time, however small, may, if we wish, be considered as a field.  Thus, in principle, for every differentiation D at region R, there will be some, however small, differentiation, di, at any region rj, in the world”7An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, 1962, p.37.  This is the sumpatheia pantoon, the Doctrine of Universal Interaction.  To my mind there is a sense of conceptual but not actual levels across which certain interactions occur as if they were proximate but according to a far more convoluted geometry.  The cosmic city may be regarded as such: a city incapable of Euclidean representation for its ‘wise’ citizens are drawn diversely from those across countless ‘legal’ cities.  It is for us to attempt to open its gates to all.

It is a matter in these fragmentary texts both of interactions at a distance but also an ethical commitment to augmenting the diverse expressions of the good, the right, the just, so that they burst forth with renewed vigour in any region of the world.  This is to belong to a city which haunts every other, and that even now strives to become manifest.

  • 1
    See for example:
  • 2
    De communibus notitiis 1068 F.  The following translations are drawn from Schofield, M., The Stoic idea of the city, 1991, p.98ff.
  • 3
    1069 A
  • 4
    Ecl. II 93.19-94.1
  • 5
    Ibid. II 95.3-8
  • 6
    Ibid. II 101.21-102.3
  • 7
    An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, 1962, p.37


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