This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the Stoic virtue of Justice is and how you can apply it in your life.
Definition Of Stoic Justice
Stoic Justice comes from the Greek term “dikaiosyne” (δικαιοσύνη). The definition of the virtue is thought to precede the Stoics and can be found in the teachings of Plato.
Plato’s definition of the virtue of Justice is as follows:
The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.
These definitions are perhaps somewhat abstract and antiquated, but their practicality can be clarified by Justice’s subdivisions of piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing.
In his book The Quest for Character, the modern Stoic author Massimo Pigliucci provides the following succinct definition of his own which gives further clarity:
Civic-minded strength that makes healthy community life possible; it includes fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork.
What the Stoics Said
The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, although not a Stoic himself, admired Stoicism and wrote extensively about its principles, particularly in his work On Duties where he has the following to say about Stoic Justice, which he introduces as “the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed”:
The first office of Justice is to keep one man from doing harm to another, unless provoked by wrong; and the next is to lead men to use common possessions for the common interests, private property for their own.
…Since, as the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for man’s use; and as men, too, are born for the sake of men, that they may be able mutually to help one another; in this direction we ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, man to man.
The foundation of Justice, moreover, is good faith; — that is, truth and fidelity to promises and agreements.
Here we can see that Justice isn’t just one thing. As Cicero explains, it encapsulates things like keeping people from being harmed, contributing to the common good, and good faith.
In Seneca’s 95th Letter to Lucilius, we get a further sense of how Stoic Justice is focused on our responsibilities toward others:
It is indeed worthy of great praise, when man treats man with kindness! Shall we advise stretching forth the hand to the shipwrecked sailor, or pointing out the way to the wanderer, or sharing a crust with the starving? Yes, if I can only tell you first everything which ought to be afforded or withheld; meantime, I can lay down for mankind a rule, in short compass, for our duties in human relationships:
all that you behold, that which comprises both god and man, is one – we are the parts of one great body. Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships. She established fairness and justice; according to her ruling, it is more wretched to commit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped.
…Let us possess things in common; for birth is ours in common. Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.
How Can I Practice Stoic Justice?
Returning to Cicero’s On Duties, we find useful advice on how to use Stoic Justice to guide our actions.
He skillfully provides part of this advice in the following passage by defining the opposite of the virtue:
There are… two kinds of injustice — the one, on the part of those who inflict wrong, the other on the part of those who, when they can, do not shield from wrong those upon whom it is being inflicted.
For he who, under the influence of anger or some other passion, wrongfully assaults another seems, as it were, to be laying violent hands upon a comrade; but he who does not prevent or oppose wrong, if he can, is just as guilty of wrong as if he deserted his parents or his friends or his country.
Marcus Aurelius would later echo this sentiment in his Meditations, writing to himself that injustice is “the outcome not just of action but often of inaction as well.”
The key thing to remember is the Stoic belief that we all have a duty to one another. Yes, it’s a great start to refrain from harming others, but we must also engage in our communities by helping those who need it.
As Cicero goes on to say, and as will be useful for us to remember today, if we want our actions to be just then we need to regularly apply our capabilities to the needs of others:
There are some also who, either from zeal in attending to their own business or through some sort of aversion to their fellow-men, claim that they are occupied solely with their own affairs, without seeming to themselves to be doing anyone any injury.
But while they steer clear of the one kind of injustice, they fall into the other: they are traitors to social life, for they contribute to it none of their interest, none of their effort, none of their means.