The Virtue of Justice

'Aristotle with a Bust of Homer' by Rembrandt

Ah…March enters like a dewy lamb. Nice change from last year, when I had to wear my sailboat cufflinks for 38 consecutive days just to keep hope alive for sunshine.

…An admirable man once told me that he reads Aristotle’s Ethics every spring.

Book V of Nichomachean Ethics concerns justice. In one sense of the term, to be ‘just’ means to be virtuous, law-abiding, fair. It means “doing the right thing.”

There always is a ‘right thing.’ This is one of the metaphysical principles of morals. Doing right harmonizes us with the symphony of goodness which is infinitely greater than ourselves. But discordant notes also sound in this world: there are evil powers greater than us, and we, too, are not purely good. From this metaphysical state–i.e., that the right thing can be done, or not done–morals arise.

In this sense of the word justice, the ‘just’ person is prudent about doing right by others; he is temperate so as not to wrong others; he is brave for other’s good.

(Justice also has a more precise meaning. We will come back to that.)

Aristotle quotes one of the “Seven Sages” of Greece, who asserted: “Office reveals the man.”

To hold an office puts a person in a relationship with other people. An official bears the burden of responsibility for the welfare of others; therefore, he must be just. I think we can say that the primordial ‘office’ is parenthood. We show our true colors by how we treat those for whom we bear some responsibility.

This helps us perceive, I think, another foundation of morals. Our moral choices are framed by the particular responsibilities we have. In order to be a moral person, a just person, a virtuous person–in order to attain maturity as a moral individual–a person must be ready and willing to hear and follow a summons to particular responsibilities. To be a virtous youth is to be ready to take on an office. To be a virtuous adult is to be faithful to one’s office and its duties.

Perhaps I have bored you. Next week we will have the Big East tournament to keep us diverted.

Magnificent Place to Catch a Train

We cannot let this anniversary pass unremarked. This year is the 100th anniversary of the completion of Union Station in Washington, D.C. (The grand opening was October 27, 1907, but the building was not yet finished then.)

The building was designed by Daniel Burnham. It was built as part of the McMillan Plan for beautifying the capital city of the United States. Pierre L’Enfant had, at George Washington’s request, laid out a beautiful design for the city a century earlier, but L’Enfant’s ideas were not fully realized. The McMillan Plan, conceived at the turn of the twentieth century, brought L’Enfant’s original design to fulfillment.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, these two great teachers of right living list magnificence as one of the virtues of an upright man. Only those who are in charge of large public projects are able to practice this virtue. In order to execute such responsibility well, someone who controls large sums of money for the public good must attain magnificence.

Public money is spent well when it produces something not merely useful, not just efficiently put-together. Rather, something built for the public must possess elevating beauty. It must lift us up to the true dignity which the human race possesses.

We could catch trains in little demountable depots, as we did here in Washington through the 1980’s (after the failure of the ill-conceived National Park Service Union Station Visitor Center, which attracted more pigeons than people). It is not necessary for us to catch trains in a 100-foot-high double vault of marble and steel with coffered ceilings, Italian statues, and sculpted water fountains.

It is not necessary to have such a place for the catching of trains–but it IS magnificent to have one. It is fitting for a noble race, an upright people, a nation of grand ideals.

This fall is also the twentieth anniversary of the grand re-opening of Union Station after it’s decade of decrepitude. My father was very excited about it back in 1988, but I was too distracted by being a freshman at a New England College to pray much attention.

Then I had a pivotal experience of life. I came home from college on the train for Thanksgiving. Four months in the foreign territory of western Massachusetts had me miserable. Nobody there believed in God, and the sun went down at 3:00 in the afternoon.

But then, when the train arrived in Washington, I did NOT emerge into the graffiti-covered construction site that had been our train station for almost as long as I could remember. No: I stepped out into the newly re-opened Union Station, in all its pristine splendor.

I could not believe my eyes. The splendor of Rome itself had come to my hometown train station. I thought: This is where I belong. This grand city is my home. You can have Williams College.

Not long after, I told one of my Williams’ buddies: “You know, if some celestial power offered me a choice at this moment, either to live out the rest of my days on earth within the confines of the District of Columbia, with no opportunity ever to leave it, OR to have the freedom to go anywhere in the world–except into the city of Washington–it would take me all of one second to make up my mind. Give me my home turf.”

My days in New England were numbered. Before long, I was a student at the Catholic University of America. The rest is more or less a Washington-D.C. history. (I am allowed into the suburbs.)