Gottfried in a Nutshell #7

What is justice?

In summer 1703, Electress Sophia had an apartment prepared for Leibniz, which was located in the orangery guest chambers of her summer residence Herrenhausen. And so it came to pass that the philosopher and the absolutist ruler George Luis - Elector of Hannover and future king of England and Ireland - had a remarkable conversation in the midst of young orange trees and box hedges, which Leibniz later recorded in writing. They discussed nothing less but the question of justice: What is justice? Is justice solely achieved by acting in accordance with a law?

Leibniz replied: Not necessarily, "since laws are enacted by people and if these people lack wisdom or goodwill, laws can be quite inadequate". In response to the ruler's question, the philosopher stated that justice was no secular law of a sovereign, which can be arbitrary, but a God-given eternal truth. Leibniz elaborated: "Just like the nature of things possesses a divine order, whose eternal truths are numbers and proportions. Thus, the law is an eternal truth". Justice would still exist if there were no worldly laws. Therefore, a law can be unjust, not law itself.

Leibniz, a scholarly Doctor of Law, manifested his ambitions as a progressive legal reformer early on. At the age of twenty, and by order of Elector Johann Philipp von Schönborn, he set out to prepare a modern recodification of private law - a revised version of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, the body of law of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian. Although he never quite enjoyed performing everyday legal duties at court in Hannover, which included "reading court records, passing judgement, and on some occasions preparing political reports by order of the sovereign. [...] However, the generous sovereign has graciously agreed that I do not need to dedicate all of my time to state affairs, leaving it up to me to decide if I wish to stay away from sessions, as often as I deem necessary in order to complete other assignments. [...] In fact, I prefer not to be condemned to the Sisyphean task of judicial proceedings, which very much resemble the endeavour of rolling a boulder up a hill."

Leibniz's ambitions lay in much larger and more universal dimensions. His mission was to act as a political advisor at the heart of power, politics and absolutist leadership. He was particularly passionate about natural law, the rational state system and the keeping of peace under international law. In the conversation that took place in the Great Garden, Leibniz summarised this as "Iustitia est caritas sapientis", "justice is the practised philanthropy of the wise (la charité du sage), or kindness towards others conveyed through wisdom". According to Leibniz, even great rulers should act justly in accordance with this commandment, by making a special effort to ensure the welfare of all people.

Leibniz considered justice to be closely connected with freedom. In the course of the conversation, they also discussed whether slavery in England could be tolerated. Thomas Hobbes, one of the most celebrated American experts in constitutional law of his time, had made a considerable amount of money from slave trade in Carolina (USA) and approved of the "absolute right of the master over the slave". For Leibniz, this was a delicate issue. England held slavery trade rights and his interlocutor was bound to ascend to the English throne. In light of this, Leibniz's answer is even more remarkable: Slavery is wrong, "since it will always be true that another law will prevent the abuse of the law. It is the law of intelligent souls, which are naturally and inalienably free." It is the "commandment of equitableness, which demands taking equal care of the well-being of others, just as one would expect others to; as well as the commandment of human kindness, which demands that we make a special effort in order to advocate other people's happiness."

Times of crisis, such as the current coronavirus pandemic, demonstrate the importance and complexity of the search and pursuit of justice and freedom. It may be easy to agree on "bonum commune", public welfare, within a society; however, implementing public welfare as a guiding principle in political, economic and social actions is much more complicated and complex and also requires constant readjustments. Justice must be practised by everyone; for example by acting considerate in our everyday lives, or through prudent political decisions and laws implemented by responsible heads of state. Leibniz's thoughts on justice continue to be valid to this day. Through his unique position in the inner circle of the House of Brunswick, he promoted 'modern' ideas deviating from a monopoly of power held by an absolutist ruler such as Louis XIV, towards a state acting in "the interest of all". In 2021, caring about the "happiness of others", just as Leibniz strived to do, is more important than ever.

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Dr. Ariane Walsdorf
Communications and Marketing
Dr. Ariane Walsdorf
Communications and Marketing