Social Justice in the Ancient World

By K. D. Irani; Morris Silver | Go to book overview

2
Social Justice and the Subsistence Economy: From Aristotle to Seventeenth- Century Economics

S. TODD LOWRY

Much of the literature from antiquity is concerned with the exploits of kings, chieftains, pharaohs, and emperors. Their power, however, was in part dependent upon the number and competence of their subjects. The establishment of stability and order in such authoritarian regimes was an absolute prerequisite to the irrigated agriculture and craftsmanship upon which they depended and can easily be confused with a system of justice. A modern concept of social justice, however, requires the implementation of some standard of "good" or "fair" rules of conduct toward the mass of the population. An important distinction in this formulation is frequently ignored. Security and stability in possessions and uniformly administered laws contribute to efficient planning and have the appearance of justice; but if such practices are based on the administrative purposes of authority systems, not on the assertable rights of the individual, we are then dealing primarily with order and not with justice in a modern sense.

In the Old Testament account of Job and his patient submission to the vicissitudes imposed upon him by his God, we find an idealized image of the committed servant for whom duty to superiors is the standard for virtuous conduct. Even when well treated, there is no presumption of rights in such a social setting. By contrast, we find in the ancient Greek world a clear formulation of a socioeconomic principle of prerogative that seems to have fueled a tradition that has survived and influenced modern thought. This tradition does not begin with the rather terse description of a subsistence economy found in Book II of Plato Republic and characterized as "a city of pigs" (II, 372d). Plato's society, with its natural division of labor, grew out of an administrative ordering of the variations in human capabilities. It was primarily a formulation of Plato's vision

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