Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (III)

...continued from Part II:

Before I do that, however, one more rather aphoristic observation on another point of the ancient doctrine of justice which, so it seems, should surely arouse more curiosity than it usually does. I mean the name by which the fundamental act of justice is generally named. Its name is: restitutio, a restoration, then, a giving back, a reparation, a “making-good-again.”

One might ask: What does this “again” actually mean? Yes, when someone gives something back which he unjustly took for his own, or when someone compensates, or tries to compensate, for damage or an injustice he inflicted on someone else—we then speak of restitutio, of making good again; this is a clear case. But according to the ancients the giving of what is due always has, in every case, the character of restitution; surprisingly so, one thinks. But in reality this same surprise is hidden in the common phrase according to which justice consists of giving to each man what is due to him. Schopenhauer posed the question: “When it is his, why must someone first still give it to him?” How (in other words) can something be “his” and at the same time be something that must be given to him, and so obviously something that he has not yet come to possess or no longer has?

The realization of justice really does seem to presuppose that the state which is actually proper to the essence of human community, which for that reason can also be considered the original or “paradisiacal” (so to speak), does not exists (or: no longer exists), that it has been upset and must therefore be restored after the event. That upsetting must not necessarily be understood as the infringement of one’s rights. Every human action “upsets” in a certain sense the condition at a certain time, the static condition of balance. Goethe, to whom is attributed the saying that “[t]o become a man means learning to be unjust”—Goethe says (in Elective Affinities): “A man may withdraw from life into oneself as much as possible, but before he knows it, he has become a debtor or a creditor.” But inasmuch as this happens (that men, simply by being active, continuously contract debts with each other), the challenge comes ever closer to us, to “restore” the condition of balance by rendering and paying what we owe.

Yet it is not to point out these more or less trivial and obvious facts that I lay my finger on the concept of restitution. Rather, I wonder whether this concept, upon which the ancients insist with an odd exclusivity, might not imply a certain, very general idea of the form of all historical action, namely the conviction that in human society the state of everyone being quits with everyone else, of a complete balance of demand and payment, i.e. of justice, can never be definitively “set up” once for all; that rather this state must always be restored “anew,” iterato; that, in other words, the reductio ad aequalitatem, which occurs through restitution, is in principle an unending task. By this we are to understand that what on first appearance is so unimpressive, that the lack of finality, the provisional, the makeshift, constant repairs and patch-up jobs simply belong to the essence of man’s historical activity and to the fundamental condition of the world he has been entrusted with, whereas the militant assertion of exactly defined plans or from final eschatological orders, whereby justice on earth should be established and produced once for all, must of necessity lead to inhumanity (which in fact has been clearly confirmed by mankind’s not inadequate experience).

This is, one will admit, an all-encompassing view of the world and history, a conception of a certain explosive relevance today. But it is precisely this conception, I believe, which lies hidden behind the old, perhaps all too harmless, pedantic-sounding teaching, according to which the fundamental act of justice possesses the inner form of restitution, of making good again.
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