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On the Reception of Good Men Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 19 April 2010

In a passage reminiscent of Plato’s two brothers in Book II of the Republic, Cicero asks us, in his De Re Publica III, to perform what philosophers call a “thought experiment.” “Imagine that there are two men,” he tells us, “one a paragon of virtue, fairness, justice, and honesty, and the other an outrageous ruffian.” This is not a difficult exercise. Here is the kicker, however. In this imaginary country, people are misguided. They believe that the “good man is an evil, villainous criminal, and that the bad man . . . is a model of honorable propriety.” The objective distinction of good and evil remains what it is. The citizens’ subjective perception is such that they praise evil and punish the good. Something ominous looms within this consideration. Yet it seems familiar to us.

In more “democratic” terms, Cicero continues. “Since this is the unanimous opinion, the good man is attacked, seized, imprisoned, blinded, convicted, chained, branded, expelled and beggared, so that everyone feels, quite rightly, that he is the most wretched man alive.” The bad man, however, is “praised, courted and loved by one and all. Every kind of public office and military command is showered on him, as well as riches and wealth from every quarter. . . . He will have the universal reputation of being the best man in the world, who deserves everything good that fortune can give him.” The contrast between the two men and the reaction of the people is graphic.

We now understand that the good man really is a good man; the bad man really is bad. But the good man is maltreated by the people and thought to be wretched. The bad one is praised and happy. We gradually appreciate the dimensions of the issue. Next, Cicero turns to us: “Now, I ask you, who could be so mad as to doubt which of these two men he would prefer to be?” We are not to be naïve here or “mad.” All of us, he thinks, “prefer” to be the bad man. Does this same principle apply to states? Of course. “No country would not rather be an unjust master than a just slave.” Injustice rules.

Philosophers, no doubt, read these passages in the light of Socrates. Christians read them in the light of Christ. Athens killed Socrates. The Romans executed Christ in Jerusalem. We moderns, I suspect, read these passages in Cicero as contemporary politics wherein what is just is often legislated out of existence and what is unjust praised as the solution to our human problems. Cicero’s “thought experiment” haunts us. Is it possible that such a “reversal of values,” to use a phrase from Nietzsche, exists, even among us?

We see our secretary of state go to Canada to urge that their foreign aid include more abortion funding than they want to grant. We also see the Catholic Church under fire because some of its clergy do not practice what they preach. Here we have the moral standard, as it should be, used as a principle to examine disordered actions.

Yet something strange is found here. The crime of pedophilia is one in which the moral law and the civil law agree. But statistically most of the problems do not arise from this source. They arise from what borders on homosexual “rights” about which connection we find much silence.

The civil law should not legislate all things to which the good man is obliged, Aquinas tells us. What happens when the civil law itself legislates what is against natural law? We quickly return to the “thought experiment” and soon discover that the only reason things are “wrong” is because they are legislated to be wrong. They might as well be legislated to be right. Indeed, the central issue among us turns out to be exactly the problem of Cicero’s experiment. What is wrong is praised. Who rejects what is wrong is vilified. Cicero’s “thought experiment” is rather closer to our reality than we care to admit.

Is it possible that we fashion our habits or laws against our good? This possibility is an assumption of our civilization and the subject of its deepest dramas. Should we not “construct” our polity so that the people “do what they want?” It all depends on what they want, of course. Can there be a difference between what they “want” and what they “should” want?

Would most people prefer to live in an unjust polity even if it kills the just man? Evidently, they would. What does this mean? Basically, we need to have good men among us even if they are reviled and hated for telling us that we and our laws do not affirm what is the good for all of us.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at GeorgetownUniversity, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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