A sophisticated virtue filled with other virtues

One of the things I liked the most was to walk on the narrow, winding streets of the small village at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery. It is even better in the early morning, when the cobblestones are wet from the night dew. On that day, I was hoping to find open the shop of Loureiro, the shoemaker who loved books and wines. His shop was known in the region, either due to his mastery in sewing leather and his ideas, or to its unusual, unpredictable hours of operation that were solely at the discretion of the shoemaker. When I turned the corner and did not see his vintage bicycle leaning against the light pole in front of it, I knew I would find the shop closed. I passed by a newsstand close by and the vendor told me my friend had worked all night through and had just grabbed a paper and gone to a bakery not far from there. I rejoiced at the possibility of a good chat early in the morning while having hot coffee and fresh bread. Loureiro was seated at a table at the back and cracked a big smile when he saw me. Once we were comfortably seated, with a steaming cup and a slice of bread with the good cheese of the region melted on top, I asked him what he was reading in the paper. The cobbler said it was about retirement regulations for different professional categories. While some people faced great financial losses when they retired, others received a full pension and were not affected financially. There was a movement for the latter to match the former. This means that everyone would have financial losses. I said that the protests seemed fair to me. Loureiro looked at me for a moment, sipped some coffee and reasoned: “What if we reversed the logic? Rather than fighting for everyone to have their retirement pension lowered, wouldn’t it be more sensible to argue for everyone to receive the salary they earned when they were actively working?” After some seconds of silence, I admitted, somewhat embarrassed, that the cobbler was right. The claim should be for more money, not less; that it was for construction, not destruction. And he added: “Hence we fight for hope and are not moved by hatred.”

Once again I agreed with my friend, but I pondered that this did not detract from the fairness of the demonstrations. Loureiro once again gave me a new perspective: “This is an issue that has drawn my attention and that seems to me beyond the problem of pensions.” I asked what he was talking about, because I had not understood. The cobbler explained: “Apparently, justice is a simple virtue, so much so that we will hardly find anyone who declares himself unjust or unfair. We think we know what justice or fairness is. We believe that justice is a natural virtue that is innate to people; that it is very easy to give to each one exactly what they deserve.” I interrupted him to say that I had always had that feeling. The cobbler then expanded his thought: “In fact, it is not like that. Justice is a complex virtue and, as such, it needs other virtues to complement it. One needs to understand it and to know how to apply it.” He gave his coffee another sip and continued: “However, either because of our instincts, driven by ancient conditionings or by the shadows of selfishness and fear, we are used to think about our survival in the first place. We safeguard what we call “my rights” and only then we look at our sides. This is the heart of the problem about justice. Whenever I see someone emphatically claiming their rights, the first question that comes to my mind is how much selfishness is contaminating those words. Oftentimes we are unfair because we do not understand the depth of justice. Therefore, in order to understand it, it is necessary to make an effort to dive into its essence.”

I argued that this is why law schools exist, some of which quite famous for the academic training needed for the professional life of their students. Once again, Loureiro pondered: “I don’t mean only the knowledge of law. Laws are important tools for social balance, and necessary while most people need to have their primitive impulses under control.” I said that he was exaggerating. The cobbler shook his head and said: “No. While we still need laws to tell us what we can and can’t do, courts to apply punishments and prisons to segregate people, as a social body we are far from understanding the virtue of justice. I am not talking about legal codes, which are the perfect picture of the cultural reality of a society. Laws advance precisely according to the evolution of the people subject to them. The more we need laws, the wilder is our evolutionary state; laws show how unfair our daily relations are and how much external guidance we need. The need of laws is uncontroversial nowadays, as a mark of our spiritual childhood.”

He furrowed his brow and spoke with seriousness: “The wilder the beast, the thicker the bars of the jail in which it is kept.” He gave his coffee another sip and said: “We must learn how to live out of jail or without a leash. We must know more about justice.” He paused and then continued to explain: “When I talk about justice as a virtue, I am referring to our daily relations with the world, to the attitudes we have day-to-day, to how justice is present in the most ordinary daily situations and to how, without realizing it, we waste the chance of practicing it.”

I pointed out that the tone of his discourse was too melodramatic. He arched his lips in a discreet smile and said: “To put the illusion away is the first step to deal with the truth. And truth is symbiotically connected with justice. One does not exist without the other. Only by working with the truth it is possible to accept who we are not, understand our difficulties, and set aside selfishness that makes us believe we are special or superior. It is essential to understand that any right that one deems exclusive is useless because it is unfair; that any type of elite stems from an atavism based on the domination of other segments of society. However, it is very difficult to face the truth, because oftentimes, the truth reveals we are the ones who are unfair.” I interrupted him once again and said it isn’t difficult to understand the reality of the world and its many unfair relations. The cobbler retorted: “Yes, it is easy to point out many injustices that occur around the world. How about our petty, self-centered, everyday actions, our choices made out of revenge for the past sorrows that we hide under the fantasies of justice? I talk about how difficult it is to deal with one’s inner truth, which is elicited only when the soul is before a mirror. Only when one is true to himself, one is true to the world.”

“Sincerity, honesty, responsibility, prudence, patience, tolerance, firmness and temperance are virtues that support and make up justice as a virtue.” He became silent for a moment and added: “In addition to love, of course. Love is the virtue of virtues, because it is present in all other virtues. If selfishness is the poison of justice, love is the right antidote. Shakespeare said that ‘justice without love is not justice, it is revenge’. The difference lies in the fact that vengeance aims only at punishing; its intent is to give back to the other a suffering similar or worse than the one that has been inflicted. Justice, in turn, has, in the core of its sentencing, the greater goal of one’s education. While revenge aims at punishing, justice is concerned with rescuing. To that end, love is necessary. We must always bear that in mind when we make our choices or give our opinions, because they will set the path to the shadows of revenge or the light of justice.”

I asked Loureiro to go further in his explanation about the virtues that make up justice and give me an example of an action that would be clearly unfair. He furrowed his brow and obliged: “A good indicator that a relation is unfair is privilege. Where privilege exists, whatever its type or form, there is no justice. Privileges are ancestral vices rooted in the delusion of one’s personal superiority and are so culturally ingrained that oftentimes their existence goes unnoticed. But don’t worry so much about the privileges of other people; be concerned with giving up those that pertain to you. This is a peaceful way to evolve and change the world. Privileges are moths that eat the social fabric. The best remedy is sincerity.”

“Sincerity is the virtue related to the truth about yourself. Mistakes made by the ego from the fear of facing the contours of the soul are common; it denies its own essence. It ends up postponing the battle because it does not understand the trap that imprisons plenitude. Therefore, sincerity is a virtue very close to humility. Sincerity is the commitment to the truth that the person makes with himself. Sincerity does not allow the creation of social characters; it does not trade with illusion; it illuminates choices by showing the feelings that have prompted them. Sincerity is like a compass on the road of self-knowledge. It is the virtue of those who love the truth. Because of that, it is essential to the righteous. Only when sincerity is settled in yourself, you can be honest with the world.”

“Honesty is the virtue connected with truth in the relationships with others. It is the opposite of lie, fraud, undue advantage; it prevents the corruption of moral values. Note that the word ‘truth”, here does not mean ‘absolute truth”, but rather living in accordance with the ethical principles one is able to understand according to his level of awareness. Although it cannot prevent mistakes, which are innate to the evolutionary process, it rules out the lies, reflecting that an advancement has occurred. Honesty can be translated as keeping all relationships in good faith. It is an ally of simplicity because it does not accept artifices, equivocation, omissions or lack of transparency. No means no; yes means yes. For honesty to be whole, it isn’t enough not to lie, but to be committed to the details of the truth. And more, with the clarity of intents.”

When Loureiro was about to address other virtues that make up justice, his grandkids burst into the bakery and ran to their grandfather; a typical display of love and happiness in their encounter. The cobbler looked at me with a large smile on his face, as if saying our conversation would continue at another time. I nodded and smiled back, my way to say I agreed with him. Next came his daughter and son in law. They all sat at our table and our conversation diverted to other issues. Until one of the boys complained about his mother to his grandfather. He told him the mother had promised him a box of chocolates if he got all questions of the math test right. “And have you?”, Loureiro asked. The boy confessed he got only half of them right. However, the mother refused to give him half of the chocolate candy he was entitled to. The cobbler’s daughter interrupted him to say that that was not the agreement they had. The boy was upset with what he understood as a breach of contract. He said he had been wronged. The mother said the boy was twisting what they had agreed on. The grandfather said he was powerless to interfere, and that next time they should make themselves clearer on their intents: “What is not expressed can speak more than what is said.” But he suggested a compromise. He said that in that bakery they made a delicious drink, “perhaps the best in the world”, made with warm milk filled with chocolate shavings that melted in the mouth. The offering was accepted, and peace was restored. Loureiro looked at me, blinked an eye and whispered: “Do you understand, now?” I smiled in response. If love is the bridge of all relationships, justice is the pillar that supports them.

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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