When the TV series “Civilization” aired in 1969, host Kenneth Clark noted how our ideas of the desideratum had changed over time. If you had asked people what was most important to them, they would have said different things. Edward the Black Prince might have spoken of prowess. The fictional Princesse de Clèves would have said that honor matters most. But something changed in the 19th century, Clark said. People then, and in his day too, would have said that kindness matters more than anything. But today they wouldn’t say that. They’d say that what matters is justice.

Justice had a different meaning in 1969 than it does in 2023. Then it was principally the virtue of the state, in dispensing corrective and distributive justice. In the personal realm, the just performed their contractual obligations without cheating anyone. They paid the just price of things they bought and would refuse to take advantage of the known neediness of sellers who desperately required cash. When goods were parceled out, the unjust person was grasping and guilty of the vice Greeks called pleonexía. He would claim more than his fair share. Back then, personal justice was a matter of duties owed to others, and not of things to which one thought oneself entitled.




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