“Injustice” vs. Responsibility

After being convicted and condemned to death by a jury of hundreds of his fellow Athenians, Socrates, awaiting execution, was offered a chance to escape from prison and live in exile. He rejected the plan, primarily on the grounds that by choosing to live in Athens his whole life, to marry and raise his children there, and to practice his preferred way of life (the philosophic) in and, in a sense, for Athens, he had tacitly agreed to live by the laws of Athens, come what may.

This was by no means to imply that he agreed with all aspects of those laws, or of the society from which they sprang. Needless to say, he believed that his conviction on charges of impiety and corruption of youth was illegitimate. Nevertheless, granting the inevitable imperfection of all things human, he knew that he had long since cast his earthly lot as a citizen of Athens, and hence was now obliged, as a matter of dignity, philosophic integrity, and justice, to abide by the decision made about him in accordance with those laws, even though the result seemed a most unfair one.

Life is often unfair, of course, from a human point of view. We do not always get what we deserve, whether desert be assessed from our own perspective, from the perspective of the common understanding of our time, or even, we might hope, from the perspective of Ultimate Truth — though who among us can be certain of that? But insofar as we are rational adults, we also make choices in life on the understanding that human things are indeed imperfect, and hence that vicissitudes will not always fall in our favor, even when we are convinced that they should. That is to say, when life, which sometimes takes the form of other men, does not favor us, we must take into account more than just our feelings of the moment in judging the ultimate justice of the situation. We must also account for the choices we have made, perhaps a lifetime’s worth of choices, which brought us to the position in which we now suffer the unfair outcome or condition that so disturbs us.

In other words, what “disturbs us” is our problem, since being disturbed by something is by definition a subjective response. We could just as easily have responded to the same situation or predicament with equanimity. We could have said, at the very least, “I chose to live in a way that, given the inherent imperfection of things, and the myopia of all human vision (collective social vision most of all), contributed to — perhaps even invited — my current predicament, and specifically the judgment under which I am presently restrained. To resist that judgment and predicament now, after having long fostered the internal conditions, and accepted the external ones, that brought me here, is in effect to resist myself — that is, to strain against a net I helped to weave.”

I reflect on these matters of spiritual exaltation today, as I read the all-too-earthly news of an American women’s soccer player who refuses to sing the national anthem before games, in protest against something she calls “inequality.” Asked what would have to happen in America to change her mind about singing the anthem, she answers, incoherently:

It would take criminal justice reform. It would take the huge inequality gap that we have to be much better. It would take a lot of progress in LGBTQ rights. We just have such a disparity in this country in so many different ways, inequality in so many different ways.

America has allowed this person, following her lifetime of choices, to become the privileged lesbian star of its World Cup soccer team, which role she revels in with great pride and much personal benefit, no doubt. Yet she apparently feels unable to live with herself without taking a stand against America on the world stage, until such time as her nation makes “a lot of progress” on every ill-defined “inequality” and “disparity” she imagines she sees, or has been told she sees by people more manipulative and cleverer than she. (I wonder how she will feel in a few years, when her beloved social justice has progressed to the point of allowing men who “identify as” women to wipe every biologically female soccer player out of the upper echelons of her sport.)

Socrates was condemned to death by Athens for living a life far worthier than the lives of his judges; arguably the most admirable life any Athenian ever lived. And yet he refused, even at that moment of ultimate “injustice,” to ignore the many ways that Athens had made his peculiar way of life possible in the first place. In other words, he refused to deny the virtues of the society that had condemned him, virtues of which he took the fullest advantage for his whole adult life, even while challenging his fellow citizens to change themselves and their community in essential ways. He rejected the temptation to deny any responsibility for his life and his political fate, precisely at the moment when such a denial would have seemed most justifiable and pragmatically beneficial. He refused, that is, to live as less than a man, less than an independent individual — a free soul — merely for the sake of issuing a satisfying whine about “injustice,” as though he were powerless.

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