Harrison Middleton University

Working Definition of Justice

Working Definition of Justice

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


July 23, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion revolved around ideas of justice. We focused on two pieces of literature, one excerpt from Thucydides and the other a letter written by Simón Bolívar. Both pieces introduce ideas of justice which deserve a second look in comparison to our understanding of justice today. Thanks to the participants of July’s Quarterly discussion which, as always, helped to enlighten my understanding of these texts. Since all definitions of justice appear to be partial at best, this post incorporates ideas from the dictionary, Thucydides, Bolívar, and our Quarterly Discussion group.

According to Merriam-Webster, justice is: “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” Obviously this definition depends upon ideas of “just,” so I looked up that as well. Merriam-Webster defines “just” in a handful of ways, most importantly: “having a basis in or conforming to fact or reason;” “conforming to a standard of correctness;” or “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good.”

The Quarterly Discussion began with “The Melian Dialogue,” an excerpt from Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War. In this dialogue, the Athenians and the Melians seem to approach justice from opposite sides. Each side utilizes a definition of justice that best suits their desired outcome. For example, the Athenians, being the superpower of their day, state that “the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.” In other words, justice does not even relate to this case because the Athenians are by far the stronger power.

The Melians, a small and fairly defenseless island, reply that in speaking of brute strength, the Athenians are actually ignoring justice. Instead of using force, they ask the Athenians to “maintain a principle which is for the good of all.” The Athenians ignore the questions of what is good for all, replying instead that, “Your hostility injures us less than your friendship.” By this they mean that since strength is the Athenian way, they cannot choose anything other than strength. They must always appear strong, not friendly. Furthermore, the Athenians state that “The most successful people are those who stand up to their equals, behave properly to their superiors, and treat their inferiors fairly.” Clearly, the Athenians believe themselves to be acting “fairly” by offering any sort of dialogue at all. Therefore, they present the only two options as they see it: either submit to being ruled by Athens or risk annihilation.

The Melians, however, view the Athenians as tyrants. They claim that independence is a natural and just right of all humans. The Melians are understandably concerned by the Athenians military presence. This force inspires them to state: “[T]he military preparations which you have already made seem inconsistent with it [quiet discussion]. We see that you have come to be yourselves the judges of the debate, and that its natural conclusion for us will be slavery if you convince us, and war if we get the better of the argument and therefore refuse to submit.” They view the Athenian position as imposing strength rather than justice. From the outset, they view any discussion with the Athenians as a losing proposition. In fact, neither party actually listens to or hears the opponent’s side, most likely because it is not in the best interests of their own side. Reading ‘“The Melian Dialogue” as recorded by Thucydides is exceedingly frustrating. Neither side acknowledges, or even respects their opponent’s ideas. In fact, neither seems to hear the opposing side. (Check back on this blog next Friday for more on “The Melian Dialogue.”)

We compared Thucydides’s text with the “Letter from Jamaica,” by Simón Bolívar. In this letter, Bolívar explains that Spanish rule has removed all independence and autonomy from America. He calls for the removal of Spanish rule, and the introduction of a republic which would allow the peoples of America to rule themselves. In Bolívar’s mind, his cause is “the most just…and most noble.” He writes, “Generous souls always interest themselves in the fate of a people who strive to recover the rights to which the Creator and Nature have entitled them, and one must indeed be wedded to error and passion not to harbor this noble sentiment.”

Furthermore, he continues to explain how a monarchy would not suit the Americas. He continues: “Republicans, because they do not desire powers, which represent a directly contrary viewpoint, have no reason for expanding the boundaries of their nation to the detriment of their own resources, solely for the purpose of having their neighbors share a liberal constitution. They would not acquire rights or secure any advantage by conquering their neighbors, unless they were to make them colonies, conquered territory, or allies, after the example of Rome. But such thought and action are directly contrary to the principles of justice, which characterize republican systems; and, what is more, they are in direct opposition to the interests of their citizens, because a state, too large of itself or together with its dependencies, ultimately falls into decay.”

Bolívar calls for the need to inspire “peace, science, art, commerce and agriculture.” He also wishes for the Panama Isthmus to be similar to the Isthmus of Corinth, in which Greek travel and commerce finally became available and accessible. However, in a letter of such high hopes, he also adds in this astonishingly practical idea: “I say: Do not adopt the best system of government, but the one that is most likely to succeed.” Some members of the quarterly discussion expressed the notion that not only government, but justice too, is a practical issue. As a result, humans should pursue the best possible outcome from their immediate situation, but perhaps not the ideal answer since the ideal may be out of reach.

However, I believe that justice must participate with both the high ideal of justice and a practical level of applicability. I do not pretend to know how this could be achieved other than on a day to day basis and in as many of our small actions as possible. Bolívar’s “Letter from Jamaica” offers high ideals and high hopes about what is just and fair. While neither of these readings comes to a decisive and clear definition of justice, they offer important points that help us to better understand justice in all of its applications.

Many thanks to those who spent time discussing these important historical writings.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Skip to content