‘Unfinished justice’ and charity

Bradley J. Birzer’s on Russell Kirk’s “unfinished justice”:

When Russell Amos Augustine Kirk passed away in April 1994, he had begun what would have become, most likely, a rather large book. While it might not have joined the ranks of The Conservative Mind or The Roots of American Order in size, it almost certainly would have joined them in stature and importance. For years, Kirk had wrestled with the meanings, essences, and development (or perversion) of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. While he firmly believed in the objective truth of each, he knew all too well how current problems and democratic or totalitarian moods might manipulate and distort the original meanings. Just as Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Academic Freedom were each “prolonged essays in definition,” so, too, would be his book on justice.

If we, a people living in the midst of an ideological age, might find our way back to the origin of one of the most important words in our language and in civilization, we might very well be able to restore its original meaning and, equally important, begin to debate how best to implement it in this fallen world. … Unfortunately, Kirk passed away before completing his work. Indeed, not even an outline of the book remains extant. …

Kirk had already written extensively on justice, but he had done so in the context of American constitutionalism and politics, affirming James Madison’s very Aristotelian notion that the end of all government is justice. Kirk had dealt with issue most directly in his 1957 primer for military personnel, The American Cause. In the early 1980s, he had also written on the meaning of the virtues as a whole, and he had, importantly, given several lectures to the Heritage Foundation on the nature of justice in particular. It would not be far-fetched to assume and presume that these speeches would serve as distinct chapters in Kirk’s final book on justice. This, after all, was how Kirk often wrote his books—first as pieces, then, masterfully, stitching them together as a whole. …

In our time, so cynical and devoid of respect for the ancients, modern Americans might very well scoff at citing Socrates or Plato or Cicero to establish a definition of justice. Yet, Kirk continued, because justice is rooted in nature and because in its perfection transcends all time and space, one can innately observe virtue in the actions of wise women and men. Such observation of our heroes and those we admire might be the best teacher in our current day, serving as reminders of what has always been true, but lost, forgotten, or mocked. … Kirk’s words intentionally fit the Socratic definition of justice: “to give each person his due.”

As Kirk—and every conservative before and after—understood, “to give each person his due” is not to make all men one, but rather to acknowledge the unique gifts and talents bestowed upon every person by God. The only equality we share is equality of original sin. It is our excellence that makes us unique as humans, and, therefore, allows us to know what “to give each person.” For those we encourage in their gifts, we do so as justice, but with charity. For those who fail, we encourage with justice, but also in charity.

That Kirk died in the middle of his project does not make it less important. Perhaps quite the opposite is true. “Justice” should never be left in the demented minds and hands of Rousseau and Rawls. Rather, through imagination, we must understand a true justice, a Socratic justice, a Judeo-Christian justice, one that does give each person his due, but always in the name of charity. Charity does not replace or conquer justice; it fulfills it.

In C.S. Lewis’s “Till We Have Faces“, his retelling of the Greek myths of Cupid and Psyche, there’s a bit of dialogue toward the end where Orual, Psyche’s sister, asks her tutor something like, “Shall I not expect justice from the gods?” To which her tutor replies with something like, “Goodness, child, we should hope not!” To receive a pure and untempered justice, in other words to receive really everything that we deserve, would be more than anyone could really bear. Which explains Birzer’s commentary about charity fulfilling justice.