Parallels of Writing and a Pursuit of Justice
~ by Amy Morgan ~
In his book The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper shares Plato’s definition of Justice as “the virtue which enables man to give to each one what is his due” (Pieper 44). Pieper later paraphrases Thomas Aquinas’s explanation that justice assumes knowledge of “the truth of real things” (44) and explains that one path to injustice is to lose touch with truth. When we lose touch with truth, the question of “whether a man has his due or not” becomes entirely irrelevant. In such a muddle, how can one pursue the just life?
As a writing teacher, I am thankful for the neutral tool of writing. It slows us down, invites us to think and ask questions which the spoken word might rush past. Someone without a true conception of reality, but who wants to pursue truth and justice, can begin their pursuit as one begins the writing process. Ask the questions Aristotle offers us for Invention: What is it? What is it like? What do others say about it? And so forth. In investigating, we can gain knowledge. In ordering that knowledge, connections and relationships emerge. Generalizations are made, tested, corrected, sometimes set aside. Theses are queried, confirmed or dismissed. Trying one idea against another, can lead the humble, honest, thinker and writer step by step closer to truth.
Of course, in writing and in life, one in possession of knowledge or even truth must still choose to use it in the direction of either just or unjust action. Recently, I’ve been reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. As a young slave, Frederick Douglass’s master’s wife instinctively began teaching him his ABCs. When the master learned about this, he warned his wife against it, cautioning that a slave who learns to read will be “ruined”, lose any contentment with their condition and not be satisfied without escape. The master’s wife was commanded to stop teaching Douglass his letters. While the wife ceased to teach the child, Douglass became all the more determined. From his master’s “warning”, Douglass silently committed himself to learning to read. If literacy was the way to liberty, he would seek it out any way he could (Douglass 45-46) What a turn of events! The master spoke truth to his wife, with the unjust intention of keeping the young boy in bondage, but Truth had its own way and encouraged Douglass toward liberty, which “is his due.”
In bondage for at least a decade more, Douglass struggled not to lose touch with the truth that he was a man. Indeed, his masters denied that truth and sought to keep him and his brothers from it. Succumbing to the inhumane injustice of his brutalized condition, Douglass recalls his mindset as a desperate adolescent: “behold a man transformed into a brute!” (67) Fortunately, a dramatic encounter with an especially cruel master resulted in Douglass having a change of spirit. He declared that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” (73) From that point on, his mind was free though his body played the role of a slave for several more years. Augustine says that justice is an ordering of the soul so that “we are no man’s servants but servants of God alone” (Pieper 44). Thomas Aquinas similarly claims that “the mark of justice is to establish order among things” (44). How beautiful that Douglass, in contrast to the lie of his oppressors, was able to recognize the true order of his place in the universe: a man, beneath God and above beast.
Similarly, with our words, we can lose touch with truth, succumb to quarreling rather than reasoning, and in passionate tempers commit injustices. Even in comfortable circumstances, thoughts can spill out incoherently until ordered by the temperate judgement of reason. Slowing down to write provides opportunity to choose, test and order our thoughts. Frederick Douglass’s mind was ordered rightly to recognize his manhood; comparably, through the organizing act of writing authors come to know their own minds. As Francis Bacon quips in an essay “On Studies”, “Reading makes a full man, discussion a ready man and writing an exact man” (Bacon 42).
The virtue of writing is not only its ordering of ideas for the good of the author’s own search for truth. The writing process also orders thoughts into language and language into poetic chords that appeal to an audience. Suddenly, the author and her writing reach beyond themselves to serve an audience. Writing itself becomes a just act. Recall how Plato and Thomas Aquinas described Justice. Plato said that Justice is “the virtue which enables man to give to each one what is his due” and Aquinas explained that justice assumes knowledge of “the truth of real things” (Pieper 44). Through the patient labor of the writing process, an author can try to give an audience “what is [their] due”: some bit of truth to help them toward truth and justice.
After escaping to freedom and while beginning to make a life for himself and his bride in New York state, Frederick Douglass was invited to tell his story at a meeting of abolitionists. Reluctantly he did so. Why tell his story? The audience of just men and women knew that sharing the truth of Frederick Douglass’s experience could further understanding of and acts of justice. Frederick Douglas had come full circle. He began as a learner of truth: the truth of the power of literacy and the truth of his own humanity. These truths fueled his flight to freedom. Telling his story, he became a giver of truth, fueling others’ flight to freedom. A just man is not stingy, but generous, in giving to others what is their due (Pieper 110). This was the case for Mr. Douglass. He spoke, wrote and published the writings of others who wrote for truth and justice.
So, not only does the process of writing tune our minds toward clarity of truth and justice through honest and humble mental labor, but the published fruit of writing can also be an act of justice itself, spurring others on toward just living.
1. Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” Francis Bacon, A Selection of HIs Works. Warhaft, Sidney (Ed.). The Odyssey Press. NY. 1965.
2. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin Classic, 2014.Print.
3.Pieper, Joseph (1966). The Four Cardinal Virtues. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Amy Morgan earned her BA in liberal arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and continued her education with an MA in TESOL/applied linguistics at Indiana University in Bloomington. For over 18 years, Amy has taught English to speakers of other languages in the university, community, and private tutoring contexts. Additionally, Amy educated her own two children at home in grades PreK–8. When Amy’s not teaching, you might find her serving families who care for children in vulnerable circumstances, hosting international guests, reading aloud with her family or smiling at the antics of her backyard chickens.