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The Hidden Area of Stoic Justice

The virtue of Stoic justice is a multifaceted one. I have been reflecting on Stoic justice a lot lately because it is something that has always interested me. To the Stoics, there are many different uses of the term "Justice." From my observations, there are three senses of the use of the term that I wish to address in this post:

  1. Justice as acting like a rational being

  2. Justice as doing our duty for the rest of humanity

  3. Justice as using/treating objects with their intended use

Acting Like a Rational Being

Since humans are made with the increased capacity to use reason and logic, it comes with the responsibility to accomplish good in the world. Many people think that this only means that we should work to spark a massive paradigm shift within our society. While there is definitely a time and place for that action in Stoicism, the Stoics also observe a simpler version of our duty as humans: we need to always work to make the best decisions possible with the brain power we have. This insight is where the foundation of the Stoic practice of "living according to Nature" originates.

Marcus, for example, talks about this type of personal and simplistic duty many times in the Meditations. In Book 4, he writes, "You have a mind? Yes. Well, why not use it? Isn't that what you want - for it to do its job" (13)? Seneca also gives a blunt observation that, "We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability" (Moral Letters 116.8). With these two examples, the Stoics realize the moral duty we have as humans to live as rational beings that are able to make good decisions (not just toward others but toward ourselves as well).

Justice Toward Others

Perhaps the most obvious discussion about Stoic justice revolves around this sense of term: doing good deeds for other people in order to make the world a better place. However, at the same time, it is also a common misconception that Stoicism is only an inward-looking philosophy with no consideration for philanthropy. It is in this sense of justice that people can work toward a societal shift.

Marcus views humans as fellow citizens of the world (Meditations 4.4). Seneca also talks about this type of global citizenship in Moral Letters 120.12. In working together for the betterment of each other and for the universe as a whole, the Stoics are proponents of holistic global progress (i.e., cultural, ethical, legal, etc.).

Justice with Using Objects

The facet of Stoic justice that is almost entirely ignored is the idea that there is a correct way to act as well as a correct way to use certain objects. While this idea is implied by many of the Stoic writers, it is most evident in Marcus' introspections in Meditations. A great example of this ignored dimension of Stoic justice comes from 8.11: "What is this fundamentally? What is its nature and substance, its reason for being? What is it doing in this world? How long is it here for?" Even though we do not know what object Marcus refers to with certainty, the questions he asks himself provide us of a glimpse of the importance of analyzing objects to discover (or remind ourselves) of its intended use. By doing so, we ground ourselves with not only a more objective view of the object, but we also guard ourselves from faulty impressions which may lead to exaggerations or catastrophized thinking.

Another example of where this sense of justice comes into play occurs in the opening chapter of the Discourses of Epictetus when he talks about the faculty of reason: "For what else is it that tells us that gold is beautiful? For the gold itself is doesn't tell us. It is clear, then, that this is the faculty that has the capacity to deal with impressions. What else can judge music, grammar, and the other arts and faculties, and assess the use that we make of them, and indicate the proper occasions for their use? None other than this" (1.1.5-6, emphasis mine). According to Epictetus, not only do actions or objects require a particular use, they also have a proper time and place.

This side of Stoic justice has the potential to give us a lot of additional insight about how to practice true justice. Of course, it is important to focus on how we have a duty to use our unique thinking capabilities as well as our duty to treat others with compassion. Additionally, it is wise to make sure that we are evaluating different actions and objects in order to discover the true and proper usage of those actions and objects.