The Thinking Poet


Just Society 1995


Ronald R Cretchley

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary:-

JUST - Consonant with principles of moral right.

RIGHT - In accordance with what is just or good.

These definitions are tautological, and fare no better than the following attempt at enlightenment:- A viola is a kind of large violin.

A violin is a smaller version of the viola.

On the other hand, the definition:-

“A violin is a musical instrument with strings of treble pitch played with a bow" furthers our enlightenment provided we are conversant with the meanings contained therein. But if we search for further enlightenment from alternative definitions of “just” and “right” we tend to get into deeper water. For instance:- JUST-In accordance with reason, truth or fact. RIGHT-Agreeing with some standard or principle; correct, proper.

We seem to be in trouble from the very nature of these abstractions. Perhaps the reason for this is that they are axiomatic. An axiom, by definition is an established principle; a self- evident truth. The definition seems to be suggesting that what is just, what is right, depends upon an acknowledgement by the self of a criterion by which it is possible to distinguish truth. The philosophical waters become deeper, for we are now involved in the enigmatic question of concept acquisition. As Owen Barfield (1) puts it, we never do experience a world of pure sensation - William James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion”. “We convert the percepts into concepts, and moreover into systems of concepts, before we even know we have been hit by them. As far as our conscious experience is concerned, the perceptual world comes over its horizon already organized”. Who or what does the organizing is another question!

We call this activity, thinking, and accept the pre-conscious organizing of perceptual experience gratuitously. As Ernst Cassirer (2) writes: “Thought and its verbal utterance are usually taken directly as one; for the mind that thinks and the tongue that speaks belong essentially together. “The words “righteous” and “just” are from one single root in the Greek; they are different English renderings of the same Greek word.

Our Graeco-Judaic heritage gives us the concept of Absolute Truth against which all our affairs are measured. Absolute Truth is immutable; relative truth can only be expressed in words as a dim reflection of this Absolute. The phenomenal world, being a reflection of this Truth, may appear as an inverted reflection, apparently denying the Absolute which allows its negation.

Our bodies are symmetrical about a central vertical axis. The left or sinister side may be regarded as a reflection of the right. Most people are right-handed. For them it is instinctively right to employ the right-hand in pursuit of major operations such as writing, or, in an earlier age, wielding a sword. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps the left or sinister side became symbolic of that which is opposite to rectitude, so that “sinister” came to mean dishonest, unfair, corrupt, and evil.

In this preamble several ideas have been presented:-

(1) The axiomatic nature of the meaning of “just” and “right” suggests that it is revealed (it has “dawned upon us”) as an irreducible and self-evident truth.

(2) That traditionally this meaning embraces the idea of an absolute by which all our affairs are measured.

(3) That the phenomenal world “suggests” this absolute in the form of a dim reflection; a reflection which allows for the inversion of the absolute.

We have ample evidence of the “traditional” belief and its persuasive impact upon societies. To cite but two:-

(1) For centuries Chinese thought was dominated by a conception of the Tao or Way (3) “Before heaven and earth were created, there was that which is formless yet complete. Its name we know not; we call it the Way.” The duty of men and their societies was seen to be obedience to the Way.

(2) The Greeks conceived of the Logos or universal Reason; a pattern which orders all things in heaven and earth, and which can ensure the harmonious ordering of man and society. The law of God - the lex aeterna - it was believed, found expression in the lex naturalis. or natural justice as reflected in man’s reason.

Traditionally, religious thought comprehends Truth as a transcendent concept by which human kind is judged. In some form or other this conception has dominated thought and patterns of society for many centuries. It is only in the last few centuries that a marked change has taken place. Today, jurisprudence has become detached from theology and ethics. The anti-traditional view has always existed. What is new is its present profound influence world-wide exemplified by the dominance of rationalistic, materialistic, and humanistic ideas.

The relativistic view asserted by many today insists that truth is merely an expression of human nature. Truth, being a part of our make-up, is less than us, so that we can judge it. Now it is one thing to admit that every attempt made to attain absolute justice must fall short of its objective, and that we must be satisfied with an approximation to the ideal. It is quite another to argue that ethical principles have no absolute validity, and that they change in the shifting context of time and culture. Just as the rightness of right-handedness for the right-handed has meaning because there is a left-handedness by which it may be judged, so there can be no meaning in the notion of relative truth or justice unless there be an absolute to which it may be related. This century perhaps more than any other has shown us that there can be no redress for a powerless minority in a society governed by an arbitrary will that repudiates an impartial justice based upon an ideal.

Seeing the rightness of right is not a matter primarily of ratiocination but of revelation. Cicero believed that the philosophy of jurisprudence must be ultimately religious. I take this to mean that the major values of life: beauty, truth, goodness, love and compassion resist all attempts at definition, classification, and reduction.

If a just society is to be achieved, it seems we have two possible approaches: the traditional and the anti-traditional. Both have been tried; both have failed. Some might say that this is the result of our finite nature; that we are able to conceive perfection but unable to realize it.

If we accept that the perfectly just society is beyond our grasp, the question remains: which of the two tried approaches comes closer to achieving the just society?

It can be argued that both traditional and anti-traditional convictions are based upon revelation, faith, and imagination; key ideas, concepts, and imagery “dawn upon us” and vitalize the on-going imaginative process. That the procedure will be fruitful in unifying experience is an act of faith.

Both seek a correspondence between “an imagined world” and the “real world” of experience. The essential difference appears to be in the way we apprehend the “real world”. The traditional view is that of a higher order world or plane than that of the phenomenal. Everything in the latter is a symbol of the higher reality. The phenomenal world can therefore claim its reality only in so far as it is a reflection of the higher, and the higher can never be articulated in terms of the lower. The mainspring of human action is that which pertains to the higher, absolute revelation. Woefully, as history tells, perversion and corruption tarnish the vision.

The anti-traditional view is that of a single phenomenal world upon which any number of possible world orders, for example the Marxist, might be imposed. The mainspring to action is derived from a conceptual paradigm drawn from the phenomenal world and delineated by a methodology. Since the basic premises of the methodology acknowledge no absolute, anything goes. The best that can be hoped for, it would seem, is an occasional flowering of pragmatic success.

Accepting as fact the ineptitude and depravity that seem to have characterized human behaviour down the ages, the choice facing us might be put as follows: should we at least aim at a goal which, though seemingly beyond our grasp, has nevertheless perennially been seen to be desirable and worthy of our striving? Or should we try one methodology after another, each one founded upon a different selection of value criteria?

Society is a collection of individuals. What is achieved collectively is a function of the values that motivate the individual. There is more persuasive power derived from the spirit of an individual than from governments, tribunals, organizations and assemblies. The latter scarcely feature in the annals of history. What counts is the persuasive influence of a few individuals: Socrates, Lao Tzu, Jesus Christ, Marx, Hitler, .....

We should examine carefully the credentials of any would-be leader. The kind of society we have depends upon our vigilance.


(1) Barfield, Owen “Worlds Apart”, Faber and Faber Ltd., London 1963

(2) Cassirer, Ernst “Language and Myth”, Dover Publications Inc., New York 1946

(3) Lao Tzu “Tao TÍ Ching” (The Way of Life)