Thinking about the situation in the Middle East, it occurs to us that all the disasters there occurring are attributable to a deeply held sense of justice.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks a young man, Polemarchus by name, to say what justice is. “Oh that’s easy, Socrates,” Polemarchus replies, “everyone knows that justice is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.”
Of course it was a broader variant of the retributive lex talionis. For, whereas “an eye for an eye” focuses only on repaying evil, the classical definition given by Polemarchs includes returning good.
It was a so widely held formula as to be taken for self evident. At the end of his days, Sulla, the Roman dictator, said he died a happy man; for their had been neither a favor nor an offense he had not repaid in full. And the streets of Rome had run with blood on account of his repayments.
In reply to Polemarchus, Socrates undertook to confuse the young man with the illogic of his self-evident definition. The gist of the proof was simple enough: the worst thing you can do to a man is make him worse than he is; if he is poor, poorer, if weak, weaker, if intemperate, even less in control of himself and, ultimately, if unjust even more unjust than he was to begin with.
The marvelous thing about Socrates is that he could say in a few sentences what it took Emmanuel Kant several — very tedious volumes — to figure out. Polemarchus was no Kant, and he immediately saw the reductio ad absurdum -- the "heteronomy" -- of his self-evident definition
And so, Socrates concluded, “as has been clearly shown, the injuring of another can be in no case just.” I agree with you, said Polemarchus. (Republic, Bk. I.)
However, unlike the more primitive definition of justice given in Deuteronomy, the classical formulation given by Polemarchus and applied ever so perfectly by Sulla, points to a deeper issue beyond the “objects” of good and evil — that is beyond tits and tats.
During his Socratic lesson in confusion, Polemarchus remarked, “I think, Socrates, that we had better correct an error into which we seem to have fallen in the use of the words 'friend' and ‘enemy.’”
The stumbling had occurred when Socrates pointed out that in many cases “a man who is ignorant of human nature” will have “friends who are bad friends, and in which case he ought to do them harm; and, likewise, he will have good enemies whom he ought to benefit.”
What this part of the conversation indicated is that the classical concept of justice depended not only on the balancing of “good” versus “evil” but just as much on differentiating between “friend” and “enemy.” In other words, doing good depending as much on who the recipient was as on the act of doing good; otherwise one might end up doing good to an enemy, which would be terribly unjust.
As much as we may deny it, Sulla's concept of justice remains as operative today as when the streets of Rome ran with blood. The only difference between Obama, Netanyahu, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Roman dictator is that Sulla dispensed with the high-sounding justifications. Although we have found all sorts of sophisticated ways to label the “us” and the “them,” whether we talk about “illegal immigrants” or “anti-social elements” or “terrorists” or “heretics” or “Gentiles,” the paradigm at work is one of differentiation.
Once a differentiation is drawn between the one and the other, “justice” inevitably follows. The reason for this is that even if it is supposed that the “others” wants the same things “we” do — health, happiness and chocolate cake — the fact that “they” want these goods for themselves excludes “our” having those same good things. The only way to avoid this absurd antagonism of making an enemy out of someone who wants and pursues the same things as we do is to dispense with the differentiation between us and them. And dispensing, to either share the goods between us or collaborate together toward attaining them.
In this way it can be seen that a Just man can have no enemies. Conversely, the more enemies a man has the less just he proves himself to be.
What these preliminary remarks demonstrate is that the Middle East is caught in the fomes of justice.
The entire disaster, from Israel’s murderous blasting of Gaza to the brutal beheadings and discriminate slaughters of ISIS, including all the disastrous conflicts in between are due to differentiations between “us” and “them” and, really nothing else.
Despite all the learned analyses in think tanks of the Left and of the Right, the conflict in Asia Minor has nothing to do with oil or water or land. Oil will be sold on the market no matter who owns it. The West simply cannot argue that it needs to seize the oil in order to insure supply, since no one is going to seize the oil in order not to use (i.e. sell) it.
Likewise water is either used or disperses into the sea and land is either cultivated or grazed or lies useless. But in these two cases, more imminently than is the case with oil, there is a deficit of resources meaning that there is not enough for everyone.
The scarcity of a “good” — particularly of a necessary good — does create a problem. But it is a distinct kind of problem than the one created by a spurious solution based on drawing a line between those of us who get to have the resource as against those of them who don’t. Fighting over resources does not solve the problem of scarcity but actually avoids the problem by committing a “justice” — i.e. doing harm to the enemy — by depriving the other of a needed good, thereby rendering him worse off than before and, as a consequence, more embittered, desperate, angry and hostile.
All the learned and hard-nosed geopolitical stuff is a lot of murderous nonsense not worthy even of Polemarchus who was, at bottom, a well meaning youth. It is more the salivating spew of a Thrasymachus. In the end, all the murderous tours et retours de l’amour propre that are engulfing the region like a whirlwind are born of the blindness of seeing distinctions between self and other.
In this respect the Jews are quite as bad as the Muslims, since Judaism and Zionism are both predicated on maintaining a demarcation of differentiation between “us” the “chosen” or “persecuted” and “all of them.” The same demarcation inheres in Islam with its concept of Jihad, “against Infidels.”
But although these two Abrahamic cults may be paradigmatic offenders, the propensity exists in all humans who from time immemorial have been shedding blood over lines drawn in sand. Even Christianity which ought to know better has all too often fallen disastrously short of its own better concepts of injustice.
For injustice exists when it rains on the just and unjust alike and who is Man to command the rain to cease?