The Just City (Interactive Reading of Karen Swallow Prior 4/12)

The Just City (Interactive Reading of Karen Swallow Prior 4/12) September 9, 2018

Justice with Mercy

When I was a boy I saw a slogan that stuck with me: “No justice, no peace.” That was true and as I got old the truth kept growing. Justice with mercy (God have mercy!) is the way to peace: “Know justice, know peace.” My own unjust acts were made real to me partly through reading as great books showed me where I missed the mark.

What is justice? Republic is one place where I keep finding part of the answer. Karen Swallow Prior (KSP) has written a luminous book reminding us that novels are especially good at changing us and making us better than we were. Great stories educate our souls and when it comes to justice, our guide selected Tale of Two Cities.


Don’t run.

Many students are forced to read Tale of Two Cities in high school and all that Dickens on a deadline means that this side of Muppet’s Christmas Carol no more Dickens.* Recall that as a child many of us hated coffee, but as our taste matured we learned to like new things. Dickens can grow on you: give him one hundred pages. There will be no book report to write. The first one hundred are hard for many, Dickens slowly builds his story, so that the last one hundred pages make you wish there were one hundred more.

KSP Looks for Justice in Dickens and I Wonder

KSP wants justice and her focus is justice in the community:

Justice, therefore, can be understood as the virtue of a community, the harmony of all the souls that form it.

This is a classical and Christian concern, though oddly some people think “social justice” is a modern or even Marxist thing! Go read the prophet Amos, the epistle written by James, anything Plato wrote, or Dante and reconsider. A society of broken people will produce an imperfect society and sometimes the whole is worse than the parts.

As KSP argues, this does not eliminate our need to heal our own souls. In a just state, one that is generally wholesome, a person could still be broken. Nobody now alive has ever lived in a just state, so our brokenness comes from without and within. We make wrong choices (at least I have) and society (unthinkingly) does harm to us systematically.

Tale of Two Cities shows how injustice, individual and systematic, can produce more injustice or call forth the best of us. The times are extreme and:

A Tale of Two Cities is a story of extremes and of the havoc wreaked by such extremes. . .

This is true of the tale and the excess of power used is frightening and a prophetic warning to every time, perhaps particularly our time.

Yet KSP goes further:

Excess, the novel shows, was both cause and symptom of the perilousness of the times. It was an age of superlatives, of disproportion, of absolutes, and of absolute power. Absolute power by its very nature is unjust, for it lacks the relational proportionality that defines justice.**

This does not seem right, at least from a Christian perspective. God is, after all, just and His power is absolute. He is omnipotence linked to omniscience and so achieves omnibenevolence. This ability is active, but also restrained. God who could do many things, oft does not do anything. He allows us free will and then the ability to complain about His restraint in using His power when we make messes using that free will badly! God has absolute power, but uses it justly.

Even if the use power referred to here is limited to humankind, I am unsure what KSP means.

No human has absolute power, though humans can deploy power as if they did or at least had the omniscience to make it just. Perhaps KSP means that any human that believes he can wield absolute power will be unjust. Error cannot begat justice and the claim to godhood is bound to go badly for any human.

Perhaps, KSP means by “absolute power” the use of power and power alone to solve a human problem. When a person faces a problem and has power, using only power or even the maximum power a government might give a person seems as if it will rarely result in justice. Yet I am not (quite) convinced that such power even then should never be used, or cannot be used, justly. When faced with a man who says he is a god, say a Stalin, could I use power (and only power) to stop him?

I think so. God keep us from such a rare choice.

When faced with utter disproportionality in the use of power, it seems reasonable to see power used in reaction to balance the scale. There is even a Star Trek TOS episode that suggests this . . . As I do what I always do going from the nearly sublime (Dickens) to the nearly absurd!

Sorry KSP.

Dickens, History, and a Complaint

Perhaps growing up reading Dickens’ Childs History of England makes me sensitive to Charles Dickens’ whiggery run amuck.

Certainly, KSP is not responsible for Dickens’ reading of history and she (correctly) notes that Dickens sees the excess of the French Revolution coming from the evils of the Old Regime. He is certainly condemning (by implication) the injustice of his own Britain and warning about what might come if gross injustice continues.

KSP has Dickens just right, but Dickens is dangerously wrong about the French Revolutionary period.

That (probably) does not impact KSJ’s argument about justice, I don’t think it does, but I am wary. Dickens conflates hundreds of years of French (or English) development with every injustice done over hundreds of years with the intense, immediate injustice of the French Revolution. The idiotic savants of the French Reovlutionary period murdered the amiable Louis XVI, not Louis XIV. They choked off progress that was happening. The Revolution was made possible by the very liberty that was organically growing up in France. The ideologues that spurred on the streets of Paris to barbarism had no excuse.

This is not to say that the France of Louis XVI was a just state. It was not, no state is just, but there was a clear progression toward a better nation. The Revolution set France back and ended in the tyrant Napoleon who excercised more power than the Bourbons ever had.  Robespierre and enablers like useful American Toms, Paine and Jefferson, did not (contra Dickens) meet power with power, but used liberty coming from a changing situation to become tyrants.

Dickens was right to attack social ills in Paris and Britain, thank God it helped change Britain. Tale of Two Cities is a great novel, but Dickens near contemporary, Anthony Trollope, wrote a novel Le Vendee, with a more nuanced historical perspective on the period of the French Revolution. Trollope sees the Revolution as a tragic response of ideologues who run to ruin using power.***

The justice system of Louis XVI France was not “an abysss of despair.” It was the best justice system France had ever had. It was bad, by today’s standards, but one hell of a lot better than the one established by the contemporary critics. They butchered Louis XVII, the young dauphin, in order to put the crown on a tyrant.

This is not criticism of KSP. She is dealing with Dicken’s novel and in Dickens all the harms of one thousand years fall on the beautiful hapless Marie Antionette. KSP is right: we can learn from Dickens anyway.

KSP points to Reverend King as a good example of justice responding to centuries of injustice and this is just so. King had no patience with people who simply wanted to let “progress” continue at a snails pace. King rightly wanted to move the system along, but King was also not (even at his death) as radical as others like Malcolm X****.  Of course, he was not the sanitized King of our national holiday either, he fought for justice boldly, but he was no revolutionary.

Dickens is right in Tale of Two Cities that injustice (real in his own Britain) will breed injustice. He warned that “Ignorance and Want” would destroy England (particularly Ignorance) in Christmas Carol. He was wrong on the cause-effect of the French Revolution, because the Revolution also had fallen into the hands of ideologues. God saved England from such a simplistic notion of their own situation. England was Ignorance, becoming less so, but surrounded with ideologues who would sell quick solutions to both ignorance and want. England needed patience and change.

This hard.

Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are both examples of change agents who wished to avoid doing more harm than good, more Trollope than Dickens. If we wish for justice, then reacting to social injustice proportionately is vital. Dickens demonizes the late seventeenth century old regime too much, so softens the injustice of the Revolutonaries. France before the Revolution was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, Dickens is right there, but was a better time than the Revolutionaries created.

The worst of Louis XVI regime was decaying and changing for the better, Robespierre’s terror was concentrated evil.

KSP balances out her analysis with Dr. King and other thinkers. She transcends Dicken’s reading and understanding of justice and that is another merit of her book. 

Justice (Cultural) and Justice Legal

A strength of KSP anyalysis is her reminder to me that justice is both personal and cultural. No justice in me, not peace. No justice in society, no societal peace.

Thank you KSP. Social justice and individual justice inform each other. God help anyone who hears about  a biconditional relationship and fears for one of the conditionals. Justice in a broken world, KSP argues, will be both. If a reader immediately fears she has missed either personal or social justice, the listener needs a more basic book than KSP has written. He needs to learn to think well before he can learn to read well.

KSP has written a book that ranges (in one chapter!) from Plato to post-moderns. To quibble seems hard, yet I shall, lest I miss a chance to be corrected. KSP writes:

The impossibility of pure disinterestedness is why justice is considered the hardest virtue to attain and why Aristotle declared (naively, I think we moderns must say) that the law, not individuals, is justice and that just individuals must obey it. It is also why Augustine, more wisely, says that “a law that is not just does not seem to me to be a law.”

This is just so. I stopped here and attended to my own life.

Then I thought: Aristotle did not get this wrong. Aristotle agrees with Augustine.


For a Greek of Aristotle’s era, the translation “law’ is unfortunate. By law, a Greek meant “law, custom, culture.” The “law” of a Greek in a city-state culture was the “world view” that surrounded him. Aristotle could agree with Augustine, indeed is where Augustine got his ideas, that law that is not just is not law if by law one means merely the opining of the government.  I suspect what Aristotle meant was this for an individual citizen, disagreeing with the worldview of his city state rarely will be good. The citizen is so formed by that reality that his disagreement will (most often) amount to special pleading for his particular quirk.


Even if I am right, this only leaves KSP’s central point stronger: the law passed by government is not the same as justice. Obey a bad law, segregation in the 1950’s South, and we are bad. She is prophetic when she says:

The novel’s vision exposes the truth that prolonged systemic injustice inevitably bears the bitter fruit of violence.

In Which KSP Deepens My Understanding of Heroism

This chapter is good enough reason to buy this book.


Lay readers (like I am) tend to easy heroism. I have always thought Sydney Carton as good without question. No more. KSP has changed my mind. She says:

Justice avoids both selflessness and selfishness. Only when one attains this virtuous mean can one be just within oneself, and within one’s community, for justice is about giving everyone his or her due: oneself, others, and God. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Scripture admonishes (Matt. 22: 39). Implicit in this command is the idea that one must love oneself and that one cannot love one’s neighbor properly without such love. One cannot love one’s neighbor properly if one loves oneself too much—or too little. In an important sense, then, the virtue of justice begins with justice toward the self. On the surface, selflessness seems to be an unmitigated good, especially in an age in which selfishness is rampant. Yet the good of selflessness has limits. Consider the instructions given before every airplane takeoff that in the case of an emergency requiring use of an oxygen mask, anyone wanting to assist others must put a mask on oneself first. Taken to the extreme, selflessness is not less of self (which is generally good to a point) but the erasure of self (which is not good within any understanding of the intrinsic value of each human being).

Carton does the best he can to be just, but the society is so defective that he can only be fair. The Orthodox call this ”economia”. . . Doing the best one can to be just in a broken world. KSP showed me that the sacrifice of Sydney Carton is the best that can be, but is not good.




Sometimes heroic sacrifice is needed. My priest died protecting his flock from persecution from other Christians at an American University. That’s not what Carton did and KSP showed me why:

Sydney Carton is self-effacing to a fault. His selflessness is not in proper proportion with healthy self-regard. He loves himself too little and therefore struggles through most of the story to love others well. An underachieving, drunken lawyer, Carton describes himself as “a disappointed drudge” and “a dissolute dog who has never done any good, and never will.” He says, “I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.” Unable to love well with his life, he can love only with his death.

Just so.

I realized reading this that as a person who started badly and as a depressive that Carton is a temptation. Carton did right in his context, but self-hatred is not virtue.

I had to stop reading and think about this. I must not do it. Having been wrong is not excuse for hatred. In God’s good grace, Carton’s vice of self-loathing is allowed to be used for virtuous ends that redeem Carton’s life. Thank God. The self-loathing is not the point, the love for others that also motivated his actions is:

But justice is less like finite land and more like the wildflowers that grow there, continually spreading as they bloom and re-seed themselves. Justice—like beauty—is rooted in infinity.

We are learning justice with KSP’s help, what larks! And what peace.

Buy the book.


This will be a twelve part series: Introduction, Prudence, Temperance, Justice,

*I admit to always liking Dickens, but then I was an odd youngling.

**Highlight mine.

***Trollope is Dickens near-equal. This is not one of his best novels. His perspective is more balanced than Dickens historically, though his execution in this particular book is inferior. For the best of Trollope read The Way We Live Now or Small House at Allington. 

****Malcolm X was evolving before his assasination under the influence of African leaders and Islam.

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