Justice, Holiness, and Tautologies

Justice, Holiness, and Tautologies


In the Protagoras, Socrates asks if justice is itself just or unjust. To assert that just men are just is nothing more than a tautology and tautologies lead nowhere. To go further and ask whether justice is just may lead to a tautology but this is a treacherous path that may land us in a paradox and we’re veering close to territory where barbers shave themselves. To accept that justice is just will simply assert a tautology and no interesting premises can follow from a tautology. The only point of such a useless question is to snare the respondent in difficulties.

Justice and holiness are the virtues most mentioned. Justice is ordinarily applied to human beings and their laws. It is in relation with one another that men and women are considered just, and the hermit, the outcast, the solitary, and the marooned are neither just nor unjust. The term just may be applied to the laws of man but not the laws of nature. It is because they are written by men that laws and decrees may be just or unjust. The laws of gravity or magnetism are neither just nor unjust.

The holy is much wider in its application. Persons, places, plants, physical objects, names, letters, and numbers may all be considered holy. A great many things may be holy but not everything. Socrates asks Protagoras whether justice is holy or unholy and whether holiness is just or unjust. To assert that holiness is just or justice is holy isn’t tautological but it makes little sense. The just is a narrower property than the holy because fewer types of things may be considered just than may be considered holy. A man may be considered holy and just but while a spring, or a tree, or an ibis may be considered holy they cannot be considered just. And while men may be thought both just and holy, their laws may be considered just but the laws of men aren’t considered holy. To be considered holy, laws come down from the gods but holy laws cannot be framed by human legislators.

There is an intersection between the just and the holy but the terms don’t align. How much more mischief will result when we try to ascribe justice to holiness and holiness to justice. Protagoras won’t assent to describing justice itself as holy or holiness as just, but even though he balks, he doesn’t back out and go on the attack. Some terms are simply not related and have nothing to do with one another. Socrates might ask whether binomials are carnivorous or herbivorous. If we deny they’re carnivorous, that doesn’t mean that we’re asserting they munch grass. The terms carnivorous and herbivorous apply to animals and have nothing to do with number. Whether that’s solely by convention or in the attribute itself, it’s equally true in either case.

Protagoras has refused to go along with the predications Socrates has set before him and so Socrates advances a new argument. When men are acting wisely or correctly, they are controlling their actions. Protagoras agrees to this. Next, when they are acting foolishly, they are not controlling their actions. Protagoras assents. Yet Socrates is again defining the terms of the argument in a fashion in line with his own thinking and advantageous to his own position. Wisdom is reason restraining and governing the passions.

There’s a joke about a man who’s the greatest villain alive, but fortunately for humanity, he’s also the greatest fool. The point of the joke is that this is a happy accident but not a necessary correlation. Some villains possess incredible patience, assiduity, self-control and in these ordinarily commendable qualities they match our greatest saints, sages, and benefactors. However, many villains are drunken, impatient, garrulous, and undisciplined and because of these faults, their schemes are thwarted or miscarry.

Whether Socrates or the joke is correct may best be left to the judgment of psychology and criminology but it is clear that the two visions of the nature of evil are incompatible. Protagoras is led to another impasse and in his frustration he points out that good and bad are taken in many senses. He enumerates examples of things that are beneficial to animals but not to men, to the roots of plants but not to the shoots or leaves, to be rubbed on the skin but not to be swallowed.

Protagoras hasn’t gone on at great length but Socrates accuses him of making long speeches and prepares to leave. The listeners beg him to stay but he protests that while Protagoras may be proficient in giving short and concise answers and in delivering long, splendid speeches, he, himself, cannot follow these lengthy orations and is skilled only in briefer expositions, comparing Protagoras to a great runner who must hold himself back so that Socrates may keep up with him. Plato makes Socrates gracious in his refusal but he has Alcibiades break in to protest that Protagoras drones on so that everyone forgets what is at issue and he can evade the question.

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