Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Is “Justice” an Aesthetic Notion?

Victor Kocay


Current debates on the subject of social organization and social justice often revolve around preconceived notions of what is just and what is fair. It is not always obvious, however, how these notions are determined. This article explores the relation between justice and beauty in the context of different "world events" such as Antiquity, the advent of Christianity, the French Revolution and World War II. Specific texts from these periods are used to underscore the importance of aesthetic notions such as beauty and harmony for the formation of opinions concerning social and individual justice. Referring to different historic periods makes evident that the beliefs that serve to determine what is and what is not just change as society evolves. And to the extent that "justice" ultimately concerns the relation of the individual to society, it must in some way be founded on the opinions and beliefs concerning the role or the function of the individual in society, where harmonious relations seem to be the objective, and where the notion of social harmony describes an adequate and acceptable relation of the individual to society.


In a recent work entitled Global Justice, Charles Jones defends what he terms a cosmopolitan approach to international aid programs, basic needs and individual rights. He makes the case for the “universal protection of basic human rights” (231), and defends his argument against claims that such protection is “utopian”. He begins by assessing the notion of rights. He differentiates, for example, between negative rights (the right not to be tortured) and positive rights (claims to material sustenance). He asserts that basic rights do exist, and then enters into the intricate relations that ensue between competing forms of individual allegiances, for instance, to other individuals, to communities, to nation-states. The concept of distributive justice that Jones makes reference to derives from A Theory of Justice, the seminal work by Rawls. Jones: “like John Rawls, I take justice to apply to the “basic structure; the main social, legal, political and economic institutions which have such a dominant impact on the life prospects of individuals”(7). Jones’ argument is constructed as the answer to four questions concerning the nature of justice: 1) what is justice? 2) what does justice require? 3) to whom is justice owed? 4) to whom should the duties of justice be assigned, and how much of the burden of justice should each individual or collectivity bear? It is not the purpose of this paper to take up the claims that Jones makes, nor is it my objective to pronounce judgment on the level of success of his achievement. Throughout his work, however, it is apparent that Jones is leading towards a moral position as regards human rights and the duties of rich, industrial nations to help alleviate the pain and misery of individuals living in poor, underdeveloped countries. Jones attempts to defend his position using rational arguments but the arguments are not presented as a path to follow so much as they are designed to encourage others to follow the path that Jones himself has chosen and to justify that choice. As Jones claims, quoting Chris Brown, “the extent to which communitarian as opposed to cosmopolitan thought is convincing seems to depend more on the ‘gut’ feelings of individual authors than on the processes of reason and argument” (19).

The question to be addressed then is the following: what is this ‘gut feeling’ that apparently is so important in the context of justice and in dialogues concerning basic human needs and rights? Now for Rawls, as Jones points out, the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society (96); but Rawls is much more specific when he states that each person has an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others (Rawls, 60). This is essentially the first principle of justice following Rawls’ notion of “justice as fairness”. In what can perhaps be described as a bold strategy, Rawls expresses his theory of justice in parallel with the three claims that represented the rallying cry of Republicans during the French Revoluton, that is “liberty, equality, fraternity”. For Rawls, individual liberties must be enhanced by fair opportunity (equality) in a system in which advantages for the well off must also be advantageous to the less well off (fraternity). Without presenting Rawls’ theory of justice in detail, without attempting to justify or to criticize his claims, it is fair to say that the application of his theory to society must also, as it was the case for Jones, involve some sort of ‘gut feeling’ as to what is fair and what is not fair. Although Rawls presents an ‘original position’ whereby individuals enter into association free of bias and individual interests for the good of society, this position is only hypothetical, and large discrepancies in wealth and possibilities are compatible with Rawls’ notion of justice as fairness.

In A Theory of Justice Rawls makes a passing reference (201) to an essay by the Swiss born, French writer, Benjamin Constant, an essay written in the years following the French Revoluton, and in which Constant takes up the notion of liberty in ancient societies as opposed to the notion of liberty current in modern society. Although Constant contrasts the notion of liberty in which the individual achieves freedom by means of association with a social group with the more modern notion of liberty as freedom from political influence, this distinction is not a satisfactory reflection of Constant’s views on liberty. If Constant’s essay has attracted the interest of scholars in the field of politics and justice, [1] it is most likely because of the article’s conciseness and because the distinction between different notions of freedom is of interest to contemporary scholars. It is misleading, however, to emphasize the importance of this essay for Constant’s thought without considering the more thorough arguments and positions developed in the context of his work on religion. Further, a more accurate assessment of his position with regards to justice and individual rights can be found in his commentary on the works of the Italian author, Gaetano Filangieri. Constant’s commentary was published in two volumes in 1822 and 1824, when Constant was at the height of his political and intellectual career. Moreover, he follows Filangieri’s arguments closely, responding as it were point for point to Filangieri’s remarks, making Constant’s own position on the concept of justice more accessible.

According to Constant, Filangieri errs in that he has too much admiration for ancient societies that were able to maintain order in society. If ancient societies effectively maintained order, Constant claims, it was at the expense of progress and development. Now progress is a key notion in Constant’s works, although Constant does not use the term in the positivistic sense that would develop subsequently. For Constant social progress involves moral relations between individuals. Progress is more a showing of greater respect for individuals and developing individual talents than it is the technical advancement of society or the production of a more sophisticated state apparatus. And the major force of progress in society, according to Constant, is not defined or institutionalized authority, but rather, it is in the opinions of the populace that social progress finds its initiation and can be measured (I, 4). In this sense, the notion of opinion is central in the context of a society which shows respect for individual liberties, and for Constant, opinion is the “assent given to principles believed to be true” (II, 287). [2] But opinion is not fixed. It progresses as it were, it evolves and changes. When punishments are considered to be too harsh, people react adversely and make claims for more just treatments of individuals at the hands of the justice system. When laws are deemed to be unjust people are motivated to seek changes in legislation. In addition, it must also be stressed that “opinion” is not another term for self-interest. As Constant says, the “opinion of a people is the result of each individual opinion, separated from the private interests which in every case pervert it and which, coming together in this common centre, enter into conflict and mutually cancel each other out” (II, 290). It may of course be impossible to achieve unanimous support for the transcription of any opinion into law, but this does not prevent nations from formulating laws. Practices such as capital punishment, abortion and euthanasia are good contemporary examples of the difficulties that law makers encounter when public opinion is divided, and when opinions are strongly maintained. It is clear, however, that the term “opinion”, although somewhat vague and subject to change, is more philosophical than the term “gut feeling”. At the very least it ties individual concerns and beliefs to principles that affect the entire society and which can be defended, although opinion too, in the end, could well be founded on a “gut feeling”.

Justice may be about the “basic structure of society”, to use the phrase coined by Rawls, but ultimately it involves the relation of the individual to society. The basic structure of society might well be just if, for example, it were the product of a benevolent God who shaped society as it is shaped for a determinate reason. Having no knowledge of such a cause for society, however, individuals must decide for themselves whether or not the basic structures of society are fair. In the case that they are considered to be not fair, it is thus imperative to understand in what way they are not fair and to consider changes that would rectify the problem. The relation of the individual to the society is thus not passive, nor is it simply demographic. To the extent that the individual can hold opinions relative to the principles or basic structures of society, he or she is instrumental in the defining relation between individuals and social structures. Now opinions can be rationalized, or justified in a manner of ways, but it is not always obvious why people hold the opinions they do. For some, capital punishment represents “closure” and fairness; for others it is simply a form of revenge, and not of justice, and constitutes a barbaric and reprehensible practice. Given the number of countries that have banished the practice in the twentieth century, it would appear that opinions are gradually shifting against the use of this form of punishment. A similar scenario occurred through the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries over the issue of slavery, a form of social practice that has been all but banned as a legitimate social structure.

Now the relation of the individual to the society is evidently complex. From the perspective of the relation of the whole of society to an individual as a member or as a part of society, it is clear that we are in fact dealing with an aesthetic notion. The relation of the parts of a work to the whole has been central in aesthetics from classical times, although this relation is no longer defined mathematically, as were the proportions to be maintained, for example, in a work of classical sculpture representing the human form. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the opinions formed and that people maintain, the “gut feelings” referred to in Jones’ work and in contemporary literature on the notion of justice, are more the reflection of aesthetic concerns than they are a sort of mathematical model to be implemented in order to assure that the parameters of a just society are respected.

Although it would be feasible to continue this line of argumentation in an abstract or rational way, it is perhaps more revealing to consider actual texts from different historical periods. If it can be argued that the form of justice or the idea of justice prevalent in a given society coincides with other notions that people hold to be relevant, in the form of opinions, then the aesthetic character of the notion of justice will be that much more explicit. I thus propose to consider four historical “events” that mark important stages in the development of human society and thought, where the term “event” refers loosely to the social form of a given period. The four events to be considered include Antiquity, the rise of Christianity, the French Revoluton, World War II and the holocaust. Now, it is perhaps not possible even under ideal conditions to give an adequate explanation of these events, and in the context of this paper such is not my objective. It is possible, however, to consider basic structures underlying these events, events that are all different in character, yet manifest similarities from the perspective of social harmony and justice. Antiquity is here defined as a more or less fixed social form over a period of time. The rise of Christianity, however, marks a new beginning, or at least a change in perspective which occurred over a period of a few centuries. The French Revoluton and World War II, by contrast, are short, violent, and very destructive events. They differ in the sense that the French Revoluton in some ways marks the culmination of the Enlightenment and the end of the beginning of what is known as the modern era, whereas the notion of humanity and the social institutions developed by modern society are seriously questioned by the havoc of World War II and by the breadth of the holocaust in particular, that is, by the systematic destruction of specific groups of human beings. Throughout the study of these events, the focus of attention will remain the rapport established between the individual and the social group.

All of these “events” therefore involve the notion of justice, or more precisely, of injustice, for in all cases the institutional forms of society are questioned, and at times blatantly disregarded. This means that in all of these “events” the individual’s role in society is important, as it is in our judgment of these events. Our reflection on the “events” of history thus follows a similar course of development as the formation of a judgment pertaining to works of art. Essentially, the aesthetic values of the work or art derive from the relations that hold between the parts of the work and the overall work itself. [3] Works that are judged favorably seem somehow to appeal to our sense of proportion and balance, and the events of history show that the notions of balance and proportion have been equally as important for past societies.

In order to consider the importance of aesthetic notions such as balance, proportion and harmony with respect to social forms, it will be necessary to limit my perspective and to refer to specific texts from the different periods. On the subject of Antiquity, Plato’s Symposium, The Apology of Socrates, and the Crito are important texts that demonstrate not only the relations between justice and beauty, but also help to understand the relation between the individual and society in ancient Greek society. Equally, St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans”, a minutely analysed text in itself, speaks to the rapport between justice and beauty at the advent of Christianity. The works of Benjamin Constant and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau are exemplary texts from the period of the French Revoluton. Rousseau published The Social Contract in 1762, before the Revolution, while Constant published his works in the period immediately following the Revolution. And on the subject of World War II and the holocaust, Hannah Arendt’s work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, has proven to be of considerable importance in the context of relations between the individual and society, particularly from the perspective of race relations.


Although Plato makes similar arguments in the Republic, it is in the Symposium that the subject of beauty is most precisely engaged. The text is divided into several monologues, all of those present at the symposium or banquet compose in turn a eulogy of the god of Love. The account of Love that is probably most representative of Plato’s views, and of the most importance here, belongs to Diotima, as recounted by Socrates. Diotima, a “woman from Mantinea”, the only woman whose views are expressed in the Symposium, begins by rejecting the notion that Love, the god of Love, is good and beautiful. She claims that love is the desire for the beautiful and the good, and that whosoever desires these things is not in possession of them. In the context of Plato's’ dialogue, and given the historical period, the status of the god of Love must be considered. This explains in part Diotima’s starting point, but this part of Plato’s reasoning is of less concern in contemporary discussions. It is important to note, however, that for Plato, as Diotima says, “beauty, elegance, perfection and blessedness are characteristic of the object that deserves to be loved” (204c). Beauty and love, or desire, are thus associated in Plato, in the sense that beauty belongs to the object that is desired. Further, possession of the beautiful object makes the possessor happy, as when the lover of “good” things achieves the things he desires (205a). According to Diotima there are different kinds of love, however, where love is basically a desire for beautiful things, that is, the “desire to have the good forever” (206a), for surely this would make people happy forever. It would be pointless to pursue the enquiry beyond this point according to Diotima for happiness is the good that is desired by all human beings. For some people, the expression of love is an attempt to obtain immortality for themselves by producing children. Others are more “pregnant in mind” and leave behind works they produce or deeds they accomplish in an effort to gain immortality. For Diotima, this latter form of “children” is preferable to having human children because they provide immortal fame and remembrance (209c).

It is important, however, that young people be initiated into this cult of the beautiful. According to Diotima, the initiation begins with an attraction to a beautiful body, mimicking in a sense a natural, sexual desire. Love is a form of desire, a desire for beautiful things according to Plato. But the desire for a beautiful body must be overcome. It must become more abstract such that the passion for just one body will dissipate and become a desire for all beautiful bodies because all beautiful bodies can be loved equally. At this point in the education of the young the beauty of the mind reveals itself to be more valuable than that of the body. Subsequently, love of the mind, becoming increasingly abstract, develops into a love of ideas and a “boundless love of knowledge” (210d). On the most abstract level, beauty is no longer considered as belonging to a particular object, but as a form. It is at this point that Diotima attempts to define beauty. She does so in two ways. She says, 1) that beauty always is, and does not come into being or cease, decrease or diminish, and 2) that beauty is not relative, nor is it limited to any specific object or part of an object. It is always “in itself and by itself, always single in form” (211a). Diotima ends her speech on the nature of love with the following passage, again, as recounted by Socrates. “So what should we imagine it would be like, [...] if someone could see beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not cluttered up with human flesh and colours and a great mass of mortal rubbish, but if he could catch sight of divine beauty itself, in its single form? Do you think [...] that would be a poor life for a human being, looking in that direction and gazing at that object with the right part of himself and sharing its company? Don’t you realize [...] that it’s only in that kind of life, when someone sees beauty with the part that can see it, that he’ll be able to give birth not just to images of virtue (since it’s not images he’s in touch with), but to true virtue (since it’s true beauty he’s in touch with). It’s someone who’s given birth to true virtue and brought it up who has the chance of becoming loved by the gods, and immortal – if any human being can be immortal” (211c-212a).

Now Plato’s account of beauty, and love, poses many problems for the student of Plato. For example, the association of desire for beauty and sexual desire, although it may be valid, is not explained by Plato, at least not in Diotima’s account of the stages of the  “aesthetic development” of youth. [4] Further, it is not clear why the love of one body should transform into a love for all beautiful bodies, and hence to a love of the mind and of ideas and knowledge. Rather than describing a natural chain of events, it would appear that Diotima is setting out a possible and desirable progression in the education of the young, the goal being to instill in young people a desire to produce beautiful things and thereby to achieve immortality. Further, the term “beauty” remains somewhat abstract in the Symposium, and in Plato’s texts in general, in spite of the precise definition formulated by Diotima. A person educated in the right manner, “viewing beautiful things in the right order and way [...] will catch sight of something amazingly beautiful in its nature” (210c) and this is the objective of the education process. And it will be understood that beauty always is and that it is not relative. [5] In this way Plato arrives at the contemplation of beauty itself, an ideal form which participates in objects of the world but which, in its pure form, is in itself divine. To be able to see beauty “with the part that can see it”, is to be able to produce beautiful and therefore good and therefore virtuous things. Indeed, it is to be able to produce virtue itself.

The question then that must be asked concerns the relation between beauty and justice. To answer this question it is helpful to turn to the most obvious example of the workings of justice itself for Plato, and that is the condemnation of Socrates, followed by Socrates’ reaction to the verdict. It is not necessary to recount the Apology for it is well known and readily accessible. In his final discourse of the Apology, Socrates explains the poor defence that he produced on his own behalf in order to counter his accusers. He states that he would rather die with his convictions than “weep and wail” and “stoop to servility” in order to preserve his life. He requests of the jurors, however, that they remind his children often, as he frequently reminded the citizens of Athens, that goodness must be placed above all else, and that although they themselves are good for nothing, they must not neglect the important things. If his jurors do as he requests, he and his children will have “had justice” at their hands. The final line of the Apology –  “[w]ell now it is time to be off, I to die and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God” – revisits the ambiguity of death, but also implies that happiness does not necessarily coincide with life.

Putting aside all beliefs in God or in immortality, it must be stressed that according to the arguments made in the Symposium, Socrates cannot but accept the verdict of his jurors. In the Symposium Socrates explains the notion of love, as it was told to him by Diotima, the “Mantinean stranger”. By means of the contemplation of the beautiful, itself a state that is only achieved through education and intellectual effort, individuals can produce not only beautiful and good things as reflections of virtue, they can also produce virtue itself. In a sense, Socrates has himself followed this path in life, as is evident from his relations with Alcibiades and his love of virtue and wisdom. In order to believe his own convictions and to follow the path of virtue, he must be convinced that his efforts have led him to contemplate the beautiful, the divine, and that his own productions are worthy of immortality. Although it is possible to err, the accusations brought against Socrates do not concern one specific action but call into question his entire philosophy of the good and the virtuous. Renouncing his beliefs in order to please his accusers would be equivalent to renouncing who he is. It would be a rejection of the importance of beauty not only from the perspective of virtuous productions, but also in the context of justice itself.

Socrates is of course well aware of his predicament. In the Crito he explains his refusal to escape from prison, to flee the injustice of his accusers, and to save his life. He claims that he must obey the laws and accept the verdict of the jurors. In the Crito Socrates introduces the voice of the Laws of Athens. The Laws speak for themselves in a sort, as parents. And the Laws claim, to paraphrase, that to escape would be unjust because it would imply the destruction of the Laws and would violate the agreement between Socrates and the Laws. By agreeing to live in Athens, Socrates has also agreed to abide by the laws of Athens. These two aspects of what constitutes justice and injustice have been the focus of several critics. [6] On the one hand Socrates is again respecting the rationale developed in the Symposium. By means of the contemplation of the beautiful, Socrates has been led to produce virtue and to educate others in the pursuit of the virtuous and the good. Accepting the reasoning of his accusers would imply the rejection of all that he has sought to achieve. He has helped to make Athens what it is and cannot possibly change his mind and claim now that he in fact has not followed the path of virtue and beauty in the past. On the other hand, Socrates cannot simply flee from the city in which he has lived his entire life and continue to enjoy the freedom that the city allows. As Socrates claims in the Crito, the stigma of a law-breaker would follow him wherever he went. Constructing the argument that the Laws would make, Socrates states “[a]s for yourself, if you go to one of the neighbouring states, such as Thebes or Megara which are both well governed, you will enter them as an enemy to their constitution , and all good patriots will eye you with suspicion as a destoyer of laws. You will confirm the opinion of the jurors, so that they’ll seem to have given a correct verdict – for any destroyer of laws might very well be supposed to have a destructive influence upon young and foolish human beings” (53b-c).

On a more general level, this argument coincides with the understanding of freedom in ancient Greek society. As J. de Romilly points out, the ancient Greeks were free citizens to the extent that they belonged to the city-state. This meant that they were able to trace their ancestry in the city to the founding members and free citizens of the city. Without this ancestry, without the protection that the city-state could provide, freedom as they knew it was not possible, for without the city-state that protected them they would not be able to defend themselves against their enemies. [7] In the case of Socrates, living in a foreign city, he would not have the same ancestral rights as in Athens, although he would probably have the protection of citizens of his host city. To be free in a political sense, as well as in a philosophical sense, Socrates must accept the verdict which issues from the practice of Athenian law. Given that his decision ultimately rests on philosophical principles, principles which derive from a desire for beauty and the contemplation of the beautiful, it could be argued that Socrates in fact dies for beauty, a beauty which is not relative nor purely subjective, but which constitutes an ideal form and a reflection of the divine. For Socrates, beauty is a reflection of the divine, the means by which we recognize the divine.

The Advent of Christianity

Because of the reference made to the divine, the relation between beauty and justice established by Plato’s texts can be seen as a form of religious experience, at least from the perspective of the individual’s participation in the divine, and considering the equation in the Symposium of the form of beauty with the divine. Furthermore, since both writers deal with the concept of respect for the law, it is evident that Plato’s texts have a certain affinity with St. Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans”. Although the Mosaic law of which St. Paul speaks is ultimately the law of God (as opposed to the laws of Athens), it is in the context of adherence to the law that St. Paul addresses the Romans. That is to say that although the question of beauty is not St. Paul’s primary focus, both Plato and St. Paul deal specifically with the relation between the individual and the society of which the individual is a member, a relation formulated in the context of law and justice. For Plato, as was customary in Antiquity, individual freedom derived from the individual’s adherence to the city-state. It was the city-state that made freedom possible. For St. Paul, freedom, or salvation, likewise derives from living under the law, and it is the law that establishes the community. The law in this case is not the law of a city-state, however, but the law of God. Although similar, it would appear that the notions of community and freedom have become more abstract at the time of St. Paul for they have transgressed the confines of a political and military organization.

The text of the Epistle, the “first great work of Christian theology”, according to C.H. Dodd (9), has been thoroughly studied by scholars. In itself it presents several problems. There are, for example, different versions of the text, and the order of the chapters has been the subject of much debate, as has been the translation and interpretation of specific terms. Further, it is not known for certain when the Epistle was composed, nor to whom it was addressed specifically, although scholars generally situate the date of the Epistle at about 59 A.D. and speculate that the Church of Rome included both Jews and Gentiles for Christianity was introduced into Rome in about 49 A.D. The message of Paul’s letter is quite simple, however. He claims that being a Jew means to live under Mosaic Law. The symbol of adherence to the faith, in men at least, is circumcision, but according to Paul, circumcision itself is not enough to show faith in God. This required respect for the Law, and on this level, Gentiles too could be “Jews” if they respected the Law, instinctively or otherwise. Paul recognizes that it is the Law itself which creates sinners (126) for the law stipulates what one shall and shall not do, and he notes that there are two types of vices, sensual and anti-social (this latter includes the sins of a ruthless tyrant for example). In the end, however, Paul stipulates that “all who sin outside the Law will perish outside the Law, and all who sin under the Law will be condemned by the Law”(2.12), but what is most worrisome for Paul, as C.H. Dodd remarks, is to fall out of God’s hands and to be left to oneself (55).

Now the law is the law of God, and God is native to the human mind according to Paul (1.19-20). In a sense, Mosaic law does not differ profoundly from the natural law of the Stoics, but represents a more precise, more complete law. In any case, the pagan’s obedience to the law of nature is similar to the Jew’s obedience to the law of Moses (Dodd, 61). Further, if pagans respect the law of Moses, instinctively, even without being aware that they are respecting the law, then they are the same before God and would be acquitted on Judgment day, just as would be a Jew.

In his letter to the Romans Paul is not so much preaching conversion to Christianity as he is presenting his own discovery of faith in God. Previously, his faith was not the real thing, he claims. Faith could not be simply an external respect for the law. Through Christ he had now a radical trust in God leaving no place for human merit (44). From this belief in God, from his faith in Christ, derives his conviction that the moral life of a Christian man is self-dedication to God (200). In addition, if there were only one God, that God had to be the God of Jews and of Christians. This meant that only Christianity represented a consistent monotheism. The discrepancy between the two religions was only apparent, for the “thou-shalt nots” of Mosaic law which restricted human activities but did not indicate how one should act, were covered by the Christian precept, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”; however, in addition to outlawing certain types of behaviour (at least implicitly) the Christian precept also gave a positive indication of how to conduct oneself with respect to others. From the Christian perspective love, agapé, or brotherly love, was the fulfilment of the law. Paul: [l]ove never wrongs a neighbour; that is why love is the fulfilment of the law” (13.10).

Evidently the notion of justice associated with that of agapé differs markedly from the notion of justice underscored by the example of Socrates and his respect for the laws of the city-state. As critics have pointed out, the term “agapé” was little used in pre-biblical Greek, but became a central concept of Christianity. According to Dodd, agapé represents an activity of a divine nature, the goodness of God towards the undeserving. It is a religious experience, as it were, an experience of love as the expression of human nature, an indwelling energy, the gift of spirit that can triumph over evil. As Paul points out to his Jewish audience, those who sin “outside the Law will perish outside the Law, and all those who sin under the Law will be condemned by the Law”. Justice is still an explicit expression of Mosaic law but simple adherence to the letter of the law is insufficient and leads to vanity (Dodd, 85). It is through Christ that Paul has found faith in God. It is through Christ that God’s righteousness is revealed, not as Truth or as a form of law, but as salvation and redemption. [8] Through Christ God is “vindicating the right, redressing wrong, and deliviring men from the power of evil” (41).

As it was the case for the Mantinean stranger in the Symposium, immortality is the desired goal, or more precisely, for Plato immortality in the form of works or deeds is the ultimate goal, whereas for Paul and Christian theology, it is eternal life in Christ that is desired, and this is the result of a final redemption, that is, the righteousness of God [9] . For Paul death is of the body and the spirit lives on in Christ because, by means of faith, Christ lives in man. Although the form that immortality takes in Plato and in St. Paul’s letter is quite different, in both cases the notion of love is central. For Diotima, for Socrates, love is a desire for beautiful things, and these are good things. With proper education this desire can be focused on a love of knowledge and the contemplation of the divine, that is, beauty itself. For St. Paul also love participates in the divine but whereas for Socrates love is a part of human nature, for St. Paul, although love belongs to human nature, it is the gift of spirit, it is the divine in man: the experience through which we know love implants love in our nature (205). The divine is not merely an object of contemplation but a part of man. On the other hand, agapé is love without jealousy or egoism, similar to the love of which Diotima speaks, a love emancipated as it were from any particular thing or person. For Diotima, it is the contemplation of beauty that marks the highest point of human experience, a sort of communion with the divine. For St. Paul, this state of communion is reserved for prayer, for prayer according to St. Paul, is the divine in us appealing to God (150).

The French Revoluton

In his work entitled Le Désenchantement du monde, Marcel Gauchet argues that the era in which profound religious beliefs represent the foundation for the structure of social institutions ends with the Enlightenment. As Gauchet points out, this does not mean the end of religion as a force in society, nor does it negate the importance that religious experience can have for individuals. Rather, when Gauchet speaks of the “disenchantment” of the world, he is referring to the demise of religion as the organizing principle of society, or, to borrow a phrase from Rawls, the “basic structure of society”. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in particular writers and philosophers reflected readily on the organization of society and on the principles of justice that described the relations of individuals to society. As opposed to the notion of the grace of God, the notion of a contract between members of a society, that is, as the organizing principle of society, in actual terms, or to describe the hypothetical beginning of social organization, became increasingly prevalent. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract is a well known example of this change in perspective. A less well known example can be found in the work of Benjamin Constant who transposed in a sort the discussion of the original contract onto the level of constitutional law. The focus for Constant remained, however, the relation between the individual and the state.

In chapter 6, Book II of The Social Contract Rousseau asserts that “all justice comes from God, who alone is its source” (80). Unfortunately, this source of justice is not readily accessible for human beings. As Rousseau laments, “if only we knew how to receive it [justice] from that exalted fountain, we should need neither government nor laws” (80). Rousseau acknowledges that there is a sort of universal justice which springs from reason but any such form of natural law requires “covenants and positive laws to unite rights with duties and to direct justice to its object” (81). In civil society, according to Rousseau, “all rights are determined by law” (81). This means that the people as a whole makes rules for the people as a whole, for justice is meant to be reciprocal. The notion of the people as a whole making rules for the people as a whole describes Rousseau’s notion of the “general will”. It also describes the foundation of civil society as distinct from the state of nature. In the latter, actions are the consequence of impulse and instinct. In the former, justice is the rule of conduct and it is only with the advent of a civil society that man acquires moral freedom “which alone makes man the master of himself” for freedom is the “obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself” (65). The concept of freedom thus explained resembles that upon which Socrates founds his argument in the Crito for accepting the verdict of his accusers and jurors. Rousseau does not expound on the notion of freedom at this point, but his notion of the general will remains ambiguous in this context. On the one hand, it is by ascribing laws for itself that a people can know freedom from impulse, instinct, and the arbitrary use of power. On the other hand, the general will, as a notion upon which social institutions are founded can be rather authoritarian as chapter 7, Book I, makes clear, even if this chapter is somewhat anomalous in the work itself. In this chapter, Rousseau states that “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free” (64). [10] It may be that Rousseau is simply pointing out that moral freedom depends on the individual’s participation in the whole, or that the individual must learn to renounce impulse and instinct as acceptable modes of behaviour in favour of the law, in the same sense that we school children to believe that physical violence or bullying is wrong. In a sense, by restricting their impulsive behaviour we “force” children to be free. Nonetheless, this passage in Rousseau’s work can only be troublesome from the perspective of minority rights in contemporary debates on justice and the participation of minorities in society.

It is clear, however, that Rousseau rejects the notion of divine intervention as a foundation of civil society. His criticism of religious practices and beliefs is developed especially in chapter 8, Book IV of The Social Contract, a chapter entitled “The Civil Religion”. And as he says in chapter 7, Book II, throughout history the founders of nations have appealed to divine intervention so that the people, detecting in both the laws of nature and the laws of the state the same hand of creation, freely obey and “bear with docility the yoke of the public welfare” (87). For Rousseau, it is important not to confuse religion and politics simply because the one serves as the instrument of the other, particularly at the birth of nations (88). What is most important for Rousseau is the constitution that determines the organization of the state and the role of the individual with respect to state institutions. Rousseau: a “strong and healthy constitution is the first thing to look for because (among other things) the strength which comes from good government is more reliable than the resources which large territories yield” (92).

In Book III on the forms of government, Rousseau distinguishes three different meanings of the word “will”. These are: 1) individual will, 2) the collective will of the magistrates, and 3) the will of the people or sovereign will, that is, the general will. He adds that in a “perfect system of legislation” the individual will would be non-existent, the collective will of the magistrates would be subordinate, and the general will would always be dominant and function as the regulator of the other two forms of will. This is consistent with Rousseau’s remarks concerning the general will and with “forcing people to be free”. From various other comments in The Social Contract it is fairly obvious, however, that Rousseau did not hold an extreme position. As M Cranston points out, “[t]here is no resemblance between Rousseau’s republic and the actual systems of twentieth-century totalitarian states” (34). Moreover, the influence that Rousseau had on writers and philosophers such as Kant and Constant would indicate that his views were not necessarily reactionary. [11] The dissolving of the individual will in the general will represents nonetheless an extreme position, a “perfect system” according to Rousseau, in which the whole of society is an entity unto itself, if this is in fact possible. From the perspective of aesthetics, one could say that in such a case there is perfect harmony of the parts with the whole. The use of the term “harmony” makes apparent, however, the subjective character of the model, for it is the individual that judges the degree of participation in the whole. This is all very speculative, however. The central issue remains that of the relation between the individual and society and it is evident that this relation changes or varies from one society to another, depending upon the beliefs that people hold. And beliefs are founded on reason, on faith, on beauty. For St. Paul love is an expression of the divine in us, a code of conduct that coincides with respect for the law but which goes beyond mere respect. For Plato, love is a desire for good and beautiful things, where what is beautiful is also good. And as Rousseau says, it is “useless to separate the morals of a nation from the objects of its esteem; for both spring from the same principle and both necessarily merge together. Among all the peoples of the world, it is not nature but opinion which governs the choice of their pleasures. Reform the opinions of men, and their morals will be purified of themselves” (174).

As indicated at the beginning of this article, the notion of opinion is also central to Constant’s understanding of justice and of the relation of the individual to society. In an article frequently mentioned in the field of political history, [12] Constant compares and contrasts the notion of freedom in ancient society with that in modern society. As he states at the outset of his article, this distinction was current at the time, such that Constant’s objective was not so much to propound one form of freedom (modern) as opposed to a different form (ancient), but to underline the need for representative government. Towards the end of this article he stipulates that he is not renouncing either of the two types of freedom, but rather insists that is is necessary to “learn to combine the two together” (327), that is, in a representative government where citizens take their voting seriously.

Further, for Constant freedom is defined by the constitution, and the primary function of the constitution is to limit the arbitrary nature of the powers of the state, thereby allowing the individual to develop his or her talents with confidence, that is, free from the arbitrary constraints and unnecessary incursions of the powers of the state into individual, private affairs. For this reason, Constant is often referred to as a founder of modern liberalism but in today’s context this term is misleading. Constant believed that the constitution was the primary means for restricting the powers of government, and this of course implies greater freedom for individuals. In this sense, his thought represents a form of liberalism; however, it was essential for Constant not only that individuals be free from arbitrary powers, or abuses of power, but that they have the means to develop their talents to the best of their abilities. In this sense Constant was somewhat of a socialist for it was by means of social institutions that individuals could best develop their talents. [13]

Careful reading of Constant’s works, including his several volume treatise on religion, both from a structural and a historical perspective, reveals that a key notion for Constant is sentiment. [14] In addition to establishing principles that regulate relations between individuals and society, the notion of sentiment is also the foundation of social progress for Constant. It is individual sentiment that provides a motivation for social change. From the perspective of aesthetics, this is important because, for the first time perhaps, individual sentiments are acknowledged as a force for social change. Moreover, it is in the treatise on religion that the notion of sentiment is developed and explained, although perhaps not sufficiently for the notion of sentiment remains problematic in Constant’s writings. On the one hand, the term sentiment describes the individual’s reaction to the world. It is similar in this way to the Cartesian notion of doubt in that it is a negative reaction with respect to objects in the world, including social institutions, a reaction which, although negative, confirms the existence of the individual as an individual, that is, as distinct from other individuals. [15] On the other hand, the notion of sentiment is also a positive notion for Constant in that it manifests itself not only in the form of doubt but also in the form of individual deeds and productions. The expression of sentiment, a necessary expression of individual talents and capacities, is in a general sense a beginning, a creation or a presence of something that previously did not exist. The term sentiment thus has two distinct meanings. It includes a negative reaction (doubt) to the world as well as an affirmation of my own productive abilities (self-expression).

It would appear that Constant’s notion of sentiment implies that the “perfect system of legislation” envisaged by Rousseau could never exist, for the individual will could never dissolve as it were in the general will. Rather, the individual always recognizes him or herself as a being distinct from others. In order to realize Rousseau’s perfect system it would be necessary to destroy the individual, at least in Constant’s sense of the individual as a necessary manifestation of sentiment. The notion of sentiment, in both senses, as doubt and as self-expression, marks a profound shift from the beliefs of Plato and St. Paul. For Plato, individual freedom arises through adherence to the social group. For St. Paul, individual freedom, or salvation, derives from faith in God, through Christ, who redeems us for our sins. For Constant, individual freedom requires the regular functioning of the social unit according to a constitution that protects or liberates the individual from the arbitrary decisions of power, but freedom also requires the expression of individual sentiment. This coincides in a sense with the discovery of subjectivity as a fundamental force in the shaping of society. Following the demise of religion as a structuring force in society, it was recognized that social forms had to be not only organized and defended by human efforts, they had also to be created, that is, in accord with the opinions of the people, as Rousseau makes evident.

As enticing as Constant’s notion of sentiment may seem, it is not without difficulties. On the one hand, it appears to account both for self-identity and for the individual’s need for self-expression, that is, as an organizing principle of society. On the other hand, because it involves self-expression, it is also a motivation for change. As critics have pointed out, [16] this notion can lead to a kind of anarchy whereby individuals, in order to affirm their own identity, oppose and thereby seek to destroy social institutions. The individual is in a sense pitted against the social forms of society, by definition, as it were, as an inherent trait of individuality. Now it is true that social relations are founded in various institutions established at least in part by a constitution. The constitution thereby lends some stability to what would otherwise be a chaotic state. Constant speaks as well, however, of a natural morality that governs our conduct towards others, but it is the constitution that creates the political stability required for the development of individual talents. That being said, it is important to recognize that social forms do change. In fact, according to Constant, it is the refusal to change that led to the demise of rigid, authoritarian societies in the past. This is the general thesis of his treatise on religion which deals primarily with the structures of polytheism. Religious forms that were governed autocratically by a cast of priests, for example, eventually disappeared, in historical terms, whereas religious forms that were free to evolve and change as society changed, in large part due to their flexibility, but also due to the fact that they were not well entrenched in society, flourished with the society, and in this way played an important role in the human quest for happiness.

The problem arises when one considers the functioning and stability of society on the one hand and the need for change on the other, for change is not always easy and not always without costs. It would most likely be in the interest of governing bodies to maintain the social structures in which they acquired wealth and prestige. For this reason those who have power would in all likelihood use whatever means were at their disposal to oppose changes to basic structures. Those who seek changes would therefore eventually encounter the forces and the powers of conservative agents. This can lead to conflict and violence. The question then becomes, how does one measure the value of change with respect to the cost. For Constant the value of change is measured in terms of progress. If the changes sought and fought for lead to a better society, then they were worthy of the costs. If a revolution results in a stronger and more dynamic society that accords greater freedoms to individuals, then it was worthwhile. [17] Typically, however, Constant measures  progress in terms of morality. If the struggle against entrenched social forms leads to more sound morals, then the struggle represents a benefit for human beings. For example, the struggle against the use of human sacrifice in past societies resulted in the demise of this practice. More recently opposition to slavery resulted in its abolition, a desirable consequence from the perspective of morals and valid social practices. One could also include the end of Apartheid in South Africa as representing twentieth-century moral progress.

For Constant conflict is therefore not in itself wrong. At times it is even necessary, but it is inextricably linked with the notion of progress. When conflict is seen as a means to attain a desirable end for humanity, then it is acceptable. It must be stressed, however, that for Constant progress is not always linear. Conflict and war might destroy social institutions without replacing them with any acceptable social organizations, and this can result in a moral regression rather than in a positive development. Or following a period of conflict, a society might reinstate practices and institutions similar to those that were destroyed, meaning that the conflict and struggle were in vain. But in historical terms, Constant believed that progress was made. The advent of Christianity, for example, introduced a “kinder” form of morality, a much needed comfort for those who suffered. The abolition of practices such as human sacrifice and slavery are generally considered to represent positive developments. Further, when a social practice or institution is recognized as morally desirable, or alternatively as undesirable, the beliefs involved cannot be eradicated from our moral and aesthetic consciousness. The impact of Christianity cannot be abolished by the destruction of the Church. In a similar sense, the abolition of slavery as a form of social practice cannot be reversed. That is to say that barring some cataclysmic event that would return us to an age of innocence, we no longer tolerate the ownership of some human beings by other individuals. It might be possible for some despot or tyrant to reestablish the practice of slavery in a limited context, but in general this would be considered wrong and would be condemned. Although the enslavement of individuals was once believed to be a valid form of social organization, it can no longer be so considered for it constitutes an annulment of individual freedom, and one might add, is an affront to our own beliefs concerning freedom and social harmony. For Constant this implies that moral progress is possible and does exist, at least in the context of historical development.

It is of course easier to judge the events of history than to recognize the agents of social progress in one’s own age. Social strife could simply be caused by a few malcontents, for example, or it could be the beginning of important social changes. To a certain extent this depends on peoples’ beliefs, on their vision of society, and on the number of people who share this belief and this vision. For Constant the “vision” would involve greater respect for individuals and a “kinder” form of morality, but it is conceivable that the means used to achieve the end require hardship, violence and even death. So it is not clear from the outset that proposed changes resulting in conflict will eventually achieve the desired end. It is important to remember that Constant based his theory of “perfectibility” on the study of history. It is the historical method, only recently discovered at the time, that leads Constant to the observation that human society has progressed and continues to progress. Constant himself was not a “visionary” who fought to overthrow social institutions in order to replace them with different ones, as the Anarchists were wont to do in the course of the nineteenth century. He was active in politics, however, and as an elected representative in the Legislative Assembly of the French government, he frequently intervened, by means of speeches and press articles, on the behalf of individuals whom he believed to have been unfairly treated by the forces of law and order. That is to say that Constant continued to protect the freedom of individuals from the arbitrary use of power.

World War II and the holocaust

Since the time of Constant, the event that has most profoundly challenged our beliefs in the rational progress of humanity is undoubtedly World War II and the holocaust. If social progress were a valid concept, and if barbaric practices such as human sacrifice and slavery belonged only to past societies from which we had “evolved”, how could it be possible that a military and political organization could annihilate individuals en masse as a means to achieve its goals? On the one hand it would seem that social progress represented nothing more than the wishful thinking of some idealist or utopian thinker who had faith not only in human capacity for rational thought, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, in the vision of the beautiful, or of the divine order to which he aspired. On the other hand, the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany and the renunciation of the values it incarnated, perhaps indicates that Constant’s theory of social progress is sound, for he does not maintain that progress is linear but might also include regressions and aberrations. The “event” that World War II and the holocaust represent is much more complex, however, than a simplified version of a social progress theory would allow, but there are striking parallels to be made in so far as change and individual relations in society are concerned.

Hannah Arendt’s seminal work entitled, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in spite of its often vague affirmations and generalities, is an interesting work from the perspective of the rapport between aesthetics and the notion of justice. Arendt’s work is divided into three parts. In part I she deals with the rise of antisemitism. In part II she recounts the history of imperialism, and in part III she studies more closely the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany. She thus deals in turn with attitudes and beliefs, with political developments, and with the appeal that ideology can have for people wanting to belong to a social group.

Arendt defends the thesis that the holocaust is not simply the vision of an evil individual, but was made possible at least, by the beliefs and opinions that became current in nineteenth-century Europe. Although hostilities have occurred throughout contemporary history between Jews and non Jews, it was in the nineteenth-century that antisemitism as we know it began to develop. In her preface to part I, Arendt remarks that the “shift in evaluating the alien character of the Jewish people, which became common among non-Jews only much later in the Age of Enlightenment, is clearly the condition sine qua non for the birth of antisemitism, and it is of some importance to note that it occurred in Jewish self-interpretation first and at about the time when European Christendom split up into those ethnic groups which then came politically into their own in the system of modern nation-states” (xii). The Jews’ belief that they were the chosen people caused them to see themselves as different from other groups. Other groups in turn considered this “difference” as a defining trait, which implied that Jews could be considered as outcasts, in spite of their adherence to society and their often active participation in social institutions. This type of belief concerning the distinct character of the Jews therefore made it possible to consider them as non desirable, that is as less than human, which in turn made it possible to “legitimately” commit violence against Jews.

Racial tensions were accentuated throughout the nineteenth-century in the guise of imperial conquest. Imperialism involved the conquest of foreign lands by nation-states. This in a sense was a contradiction because the nation-state was founded upon the notion of a “homogeneous population’s active consent to its government” (125), whereas conquest for the sake of conquest lacked a unifying principle (unlike the Roman Republic which unified by imposing its law on conquered peoples). Further, when the “nation-state appeared as conqueror, it aroused national consciousness and desire for sovereignty among the conquered people, thereby defeating all genuine attempts at empire building” (127). “The only grandeur of imperialism”, according to Arendt, “lies in the nation’s losing battle against it” (132). In a sense, racist thinking developed hand in hand with the political organization of nation-states for the attempt to construct the notion of a people meant the exclusion of those who “did not belong” or who were “different”. In the age of imperialistic expansion nation-states not only acquired territories beyond their traditional boundaries, that is by military force, they also came into direct contact with different peoples. Arendt:  “[f]rom the very beginning, racism deliberately cut across all national boundaries, whether defined by geographical, linguistic, traditional, or any other standards, and denied national-political existence as such. Race-thinking, rather than class-thinking, was the ever-present shadow accompanying the development of the comity of European nations, until it finally grew to be the powerful weapon for the destruction of those nations” (161).

Totalitarian movements thus grew out of the quest for nationhood. People identified with groups that had similar racial qualities and shared similar interests, a recognizable language and a common history. This in part explains the pan-movements of the nineteenth-century that sought to unite all Germanic peoples, for example, or all Slavs etc. These movements also involved the exclusion, by negation, of individuals who did not share similar qualities. Individual identification with a mass society portrayed differing degrees of inclusion, however, from a loose association to total adherence. In the latter case the individual identifies totally with the movement, to the point that individual differences are not only weakened but in many cases rejected. The “total” society thus resembles Rousseau’s notion of the “perfect system of legislation” where the individual will dissolves in the general will which forces people to be free. It also parallels the idea of a religious community based on absolute faith. Now feelings of belonging and of racial distinction were underscored by the leaders of mass movements, individuals who played an active role in totalitarian propaganda. Eventually, individual talents were destroyed. Arendt: “[t]he consistent persecution of every higher form of intellectual activity by the new mass leaders springs from more than their natural resentment against everything they cannot understand. Total domination does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable. Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty” (339).

Totalitarian movements such as Nazism and bolshevism are developed and maintained by diverse means, according to Arendt, but perhaps most importantly by propaganda and fear. It is by means of propaganda that the movements seek to win the commitment of individuals, and the movement protects those that aspire to belong. At the same time it instills fear in the mind of resisters and individualists who can be purged from the movement and who’s dissenting voices are thus stifled. Arendt speaks of the propaganda as the creation of a fiction that allows people to escape a meaningless and often difficult life situation (352), thus emphasizing the need for creativity and for aesthetic values that govern our understanding of what constitutes harmonious social functions. To fully explore the richness of Arendt’s work would require a much more detailed account of her thesis, which is not possible here. It is important to mention, though, that throughout her work Arendt stresses the individual’s need to belong to a social group and to believe in a coherent theory concerning social organization – to the point of inventing one – in order to escape arbitrariness and to maintain a certain level of self-respect.


It is tempting to revisit here the notion of social harmony, so much a part of Plato’s thought, described in detail in the Republic, for the relation between the individual and society, a relation which in fact defines our notion of justice, ultimately must find some acceptable balance. As a part of society the individual belongs to the social group in some fashion, and yet remains an individual opposed by definition to the social fabric, even in the extreme cases of total dissolution of the individual will. As an autonomous person the individual must act of his or her own volition and will eventually perish as an individual. Total belonging, a form of “pure love” perhaps, is at best a fiction or an idealist vision of the  beautiful. On the other hand, the individual cannot survive in a situation where he or she is totally removed from society. The balance to be achieved between the individual and society can best be described as a social harmony, that is when the balance is acceptable, and as social discord when it is not. Resorting to metaphor to describe social situations is not, however, an insidious attempt to evade the question, but rather is a just description of the relation of the part to the whole, a relation that ultimately is characterized by the aesthetic vision of society. If people are of the opinion that social forms are just, society will exist harmoniously, and conflict and tensions will be minor. Where opinions hold that society is out of balance, that harmonious social relations have somehow been subverted, or perverted by special interests, unfair opinions or by some other form of individual expression, then a redress will be sought, in the name of justice, or in the name of aesthetics, for ultimately, as the texts considered have all indicated, the terms “justice” and “beauty” are of the same notion.

The four periods discussed manifest differing degrees of individual integration in the social fabric. Plato’s vision of the beautiful evidently includes respect for the law which allows us to be free, but, as the example of the condemnation of Socrates shows, the individual in a sense belongs to society. The objective of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is, at least in part, to open the congregation to all who believe and obey the law of God. He attempted as it were to include all human beings in one community based on faith. Plato and St. Paul share a belief in a transcendant divine, but whereas for Plato this is an object of contemplation, for Paul it is a part of human nature, albeit a divine part. Rousseau and Constant, although not entirely hostile to religious beliefs, consider rather the individual’s participation in the organization of the state from the perspective of large, populous states in which the direct political participation of citizens was not feasible. Constant in particular stressed the importance of individual liberties (the plural is important) not only as the defining traits of individuals, but also as individual, and therefore, social development. Although Constant has been wrongly referred to as an elitist, his notion of sentiment as an expression of individual creativity could be seen as benefiting particularly those individuals who possessed the means to cultivate and express their own sentiments. Finally, Arendt’s work on totalitarian ideology makes apparent the extreme situations that can develop when the notion of exclusion is practiced as a motivating factor in the political landscape. From the aesthetic perspective of the relations of the parts to the whole, it is important to note that excluded groups were considered somehow as not constituting a valid part of human society. They could therefore be “eliminated” from the society as a whole, that is, according to the vision of society propagated by the leaders of mass movements,. Now these are very complex notions and this short discussion cannot possibly present an entire aesthetic theory that would adequately explain them. However, the question of how a vision of society such as that shared by the perpetrators of the holocaust can be conceived remains problematic. These people undoubtedly believed that they were constructing a better society, in their own sense of the term, albeit a vision of society not shared by others, and most likely not shared by all of the followers of the movement; nonetheless, the consequences of the politics of exclusion can be disastrous. In an attempt to answer this question it is useful to consider an analogy. From the perspective of aesthetics and artistic production,  the artist understands or “feels” that his or her work is complete, that the desired affect has been achieved. This is of course an intuitive feeling, but with experience it can become rather precise. At a certain point in the production of a work, the artist considers that the relation between the parts of the work and the entire work as a whole has achieved a kind of balance, according to the artist’s intentions. The texts considered in this article, make it apparent that the vision of the individual in society is also the product of an intuitive judgment with regards the overall harmony of social institutions. On this level, justice, that is the relation of the individual to society, is an aesthetic notion, a construction founded on our beliefs concerning the social fabric and individual liberties.


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Bastid, P. Benjamin Constant et sa doctrine. Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1966.

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Constant, Benjamin. Commentaire sur l’ouvrage de Filangieri. Paris: P. Dufart, libraire, 1822, 1824.

______. “De la Liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes” in M. Gauchet. Textes choisis. Paris: Le Livre de poche, 1980. “The Liberty of the Ancients compared with that of the Moderns” in Benjamin Constant Political Writings. Translated by B. Fontana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

______. De la Religion. Arles: Actes Sud, 1998.

Davies, G. Faith and Obedience in Romans. A Study in Romans 1-4. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990.

Dodd, C.H. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. London and Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1959.

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Gauchet, M. Le Désenchantement du  monde. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1985.

Holmes, S. Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.

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Plato, “The Apology”, in The Last Days of Socrates. Translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant. Penguin Books, 1954, 1993.

______, “Crito”, in The Last Days of Socrates.

______, The Symposium. Translated by Christopher Gill. Penguin Books, 1999.

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[1] See in particular the works of S. Holmes and T. Todorov.

[2] Translations of passages from Constant’s Commentaire sur Filangieri are my own. This work has not been translated into English.

[3] Although the relation of parts to the whole is a central notion in aesthetic criticism and value theory, it is particularly developed in the work of the Polish philosopher and aesthetician, Roman Ingarden.

[4] In his introduction to the Symposium, C. Gill remarks that a “crucial question raised by this argument is whether Socrates – Diotima is still talking about ‘love’ in the same sense as most of the other speakers or rather about the underlying structure of human (and animal) desire and motivation” (xxvii).

[5] Plato’s text is somewhat ambiguous here. Beauty could be considered as a goal or as an object. As a goal to be achieved it represents a self-fulfilling process whereby it is the education itself that is a beautiful form. As an object of contemplation, that is, as distinct from the education process, beauty would be a kind of mysterious object that is not named. Without providing complete exegetical proofs, it would appear that Plato understands the term as the culmination, that is, as the recognition of the formal process of education itself. Socrates-Diotima : “From forms of learning, he [the individual] should end up at that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is” (49). In either case, the contemplation of the beuatiful would seem to have as a consequence a liberation from particular interests and corporeal desires.

[6] Cf. D. Bostoch.

[7] Romilly distinguishes between political freedom which involves respect for the laws, and democratic freedom which involves participation in the function of power, as opposed to protection from this power (45-75). This is similar to the distinction Constant makes in his essay on the the two forms of liberty (see references).

[8] As C.H.Dodd explains, the term “righteousness” in Paul’s letter combines the Greek notion of a moral attitude with the Hebrew notion of an activity such that God’s righteousness constitutes a divine act (38). More recently, G. Davies, discussing the significance of “Romans”, states that although the notion of faith is not new at the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans, that of righteousness is new, that is in the context of God’s righteousness in “his saving activity” (43).

[9] Following R. Pregeant, G. Davies (56) indicates that works and deeds are also important for Saint Paul: “but glory, honour, and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and for the Greek as well” (2.10).

[10] M. Cranston writes that there “is no more haunting paragraph in the whole of the Social Contract than that in which Rousseau speaks of forcing man to be free. But it would be wrong to put too much weight on these words, in the manner of those who consider Rousseau, whether early-fascist or early-communist, at all events a totalitarian. Rousseau is nothing so simple. He is authoritarian, but the authority he favours is explicitly distinguished from mere power; it is based on conscious and vocal assent, and is offered as something wholly consistent with liberty” (34).

[11] In his speech at the Athénée Royal in 1819, Constant refers to Rousseau as an illustrious philosopher, a “sublime genius, animated by the purest love of liberty”, although he adds that Rousseau “nevertheless furnished deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny” (“The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”, 318).

[12] Cf. S. Holmes and T. Todorov.

[13] On the subject of Constant’s position on the political spectrum there are several commentaries. Cf. Bastid, Baelen, Dodge, Holmes, Todorov, to name only a few.

[14] Cf. V. Kocay.

[15] In his journal Constant makes the identity of sentiment with doubt explicit. He states that “religious sentiment is very compatible with doubt, and is even more compatible with doubt than with any specific religion” (19 November, 1804).

[16] Cf. P. Thompson.

[17] It is important to remember that Constant wrote and published his most important works in the period immediately following the French Revoluton, which he refers to as “our happy revolution” (“The Liberty of the Ancients ...”, 309). In spite of the excesses of the Revolution , Constant considers the consequence, that is representative government,  as a positive and desirable political development.

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