Thursday, August 12, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (IV)

...continued from Part III:

Now, in a few closing remarks, we must speak of justice’s limits. Even “restitution” which is always renewed does not suffice in certain significant cases, according to the ancients, to realize a just order even for a moment. Justice simply is not enough to keep man’s world working. Once again it must be said: In this thought there is an entire world view, a belief that penetrates to the roots of man’s communal life, as well as not just between one man and another. One element of this world view could be formulated in the following way: There are debts which by their very nature cannot be paid. There is a creditor, and a debtor, and a debt; but the debtor cannot satisfy it. And precisely when he wants to, when he (in other words) is just; when he, as the classical definition states, has the constant will to give what is due to those with whom he has to deal—precisely then he will realize his impotence especially keenly. And when someone asks further, what kind of relationships in concreto entail such unpayable debts, he receives the answer: those relationships which support our very existence.

It will not much surprise anyone that the ancients speak here in the first place of man’s relationship to God. This naturally lies beyond the topic at hand. However, it is worth it to consider man’s relationship to God for a moment; for in that relationship is realized the paradigm of a debt that in principle cannot be satisfied.

Although the great teachers of Christendom (of course) never said that man is simply nothing before God, it is nevertheless an obvious truth for them that everything which could be due to man from God is preceded by a gift. And this gift can in no way be satisfied and “made good again.” (This is a figure of speech in my hometown of Münster: when someone does another person a favor, he is then asked: “How can I make this up to you, how can I make this good again for you?”)

Now this gift (of mere existence, the donum creationis) we can in principle never make up to God. It is absolutely unthinkable that man could turn to God one moment and rightly say: Now we’re even! To be even means: to have paid off one’s debts. Being even is the state at which justice aims. One can say: Justice, strictly speaking, does not appear in man’s relationship to God. In men’s relationships among each other there is also something just like that (about which we will speak in a second). But we should stay just a little longer with the paradigm of man’s relationship to God. Here it becomes quite clear that and how something else must take the place of justice when it cannot be achieved, an attitude that could be something like a way out, a makeshift aid, a replacement.

The ancients have a name for this attitude which, in man’s relationship to God, makes its appearance when justice cannot be achieved: religio; I am leaving the Latin expression untranslated for a reason (because the world “religion” would immediately provoke or encourage a swarm of inevitable misunderstandings); it is not the phenomenon of worship, dogma, and church that is meant; what is meant, rather, is religio as an attitude of man toward God. The logical connection, the link to the topic of “justice” is this: only when someone on the basis of his relationship to God has recognized and “realized” that there is a discrepancy he simply cannot get rid of, which consists of a debt, a debitum, which by its very nature cannot in principle be settled or paid off—only then and because of this can the inner structure of the religious act (adoration, dedication, sacrifice) become at all understandable, much less able to be carried out. What perhaps also becomes understandable (or more understandable) is the quality of the exuberant and excessive, which according to purely rational observation is the so-called “kookiness,” which as a matter of fact is proper to all religious acts. Why, like the Greeks, should we pour the first sip of wine out of the chalice onto the ground or into the sea—even though maybe only this one glass of wine is still available and even though the gods obviously do not profit from it?! This seemingly “irrational” behavior stems from embarrassment and helplessness: a man knows that it is impossible to do what actually must be done, and for that reason he makes the “impossible” attempt, in some symbolic way, “to do enough,” to do satisfaction, by pouring away, burning, or destroying something valuable, for example, in a sacrifice.
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