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Justice, Truth and Peace

By Dov Silberman


Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium

“Everything sounds more impressive when said in Latin”.

So to start this blog, here are three differing Latin legal maxims, with a little excursus on their history, each of which demonstrates a different approach to solving conflicts.  We then pose the question of which principle trumps the other – justice, truth or peace.  In my next post, I will present a Talmudic discussion on the same question, and which indicates that the three approaches represented different views of Jewish jurisprudential activism, going back a very long time.

I hope to have several posts, together with your comments, about the interaction and priorities of these three  principles – justice, peace and truth.

1. Fiat justitia ruat caelum   “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

This famous quotation, is supposed to have originated by an incident involving the Roman Consul Gnaeus Piso (58BCE).  Seneca in De Ira (on Anger) Book 1,Chapter 18.2 ” tells us:

“There was Gnaeus Piso, whom I can remember; a man free from many vices, but misguided, in that he mistook inflexibility for firmness. Once when he was angry he ordered the execution of a soldier who had returned from leave of absence without his comrade, on the ground that if the man did not produce his companion, he had killed him; and when the soldier asked for a little time to institute a search, the request was refused. The condemned man was led outside the rampart, and as he was in the act of presenting his neck, there suddenly appeared the very comrade who was supposed to have been murdered. Hereupon the centurion in charge of the execution bade the guardsman sheathe his sword, and led the condemned man back to Piso in order to free Piso from blame; for Fortune had freed the soldier. A huge crowd amid great rejoicing in the camp escorted the two comrades locked in each other’s arms. Piso mounted the tribunal in a rage, and ordered both soldiers to be led to execution, the one who had done no murder and the one who had escaped it! Could anything have been more unjust than this? Two were dying because one had been proved innocent. But Piso added also a third; for he ordered the centurion who had brought back the condemned man to be executed as well. On account of the innocence of one man three were appointed to die in the selfsame place. O how clever is anger in devising excuses for its madness! “You,” it says, “I order to be executed because you were condemned; you, because you were the cause of your comrade’s condemnation; you, because you did not obey your commander when, you were ordered to kill.” It thought out three charges because it had grounds for none.”

Piso felt that the strict letter of the law must be applied, regardless of how inequitable the consequences are.  Piso’s justice has also been used to support the proposition that judges cannot consider the effect on third parties or society which would occur as a result of their decision.

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, SL, PC 1705 – 1793

That phrase was used by Lord Mansfield in what is credited with being the first major case which started the cessation of slavery by refusing to send a slave back from England to Jamaica.  In Somerset v. Stewart (1772) Lofft. 1; 98 ER 499 at 509, after hearing the evidence, he stood the case down, encouraging the parties to settle the matter for the following reason:-

“….. But if the parties will have it decided, we must give our opinion. Compassion will not, on the one hand, nor inconvenience on the other, be to decide; but the law: in which the difficulty will be principally from the inconvenience on both sides. Contract for sale of a slave is good here; the sale is a matter to which the law properly and readily attaches, and will maintain the price according to the agreement. But here the person of the slave himself is immediately the object of enquiry; which makes a very material difference…… We have no authority to regulate the conditions in which law shall operate. On the other hand we think the coercive power cannot be exercised:… The setting of 14,000 or 15,000 men at once free, loose by a solemn opinion, is much disagreeable in the effects it threatens…. If the parties will have judgement, fiat justitia ruat caelum, let justice be done whatever be the consequence…… We cannot in any of these points direct the law; the law must rule us. In these particulars it may be matter of weighty consideration, what provisions are made or set by law…… An application to Parliament, if the merchants think the question of great commercial concern, is the best, and perhaps the only method of settling the point for the future. ”

They could not agree, so one month later, he gave judgement freeing the slave, noting

“…Whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say …..”

So important is this maxim considered, that it is written above the seven seats in the USA Georgia Supreme Court. It is also the motto of the University of British Columbia law faculty coat of arms.

2. Pax optima rerum – Peace is the greatest good

Motto of the Seal of the University Kiel, Germany, founded 1665, 17 years after the Treaties of Westphalia

Silius Italicus (26 – 101 CE) was a Roman consul, orator, and Latin epic poet, best known for the longest preserved poem in Latin literature, Punica, about the Second Punic War, in 17 books of some 12,000 lines, in which he wrote (XI,592):-

” Pax optima rerum…. Peace is the best thing that men may know; peace is better than a thousand triumphs; peace has power to guard our lives and secure equality among fellow citizens.”

This phrase has been credited to be the essence of the Peace of Westphalia Treaties signed in Munster and Osnabruck in Germany on 24 October 1648 which stopped the infamous Thirty Years and Eighty Years Wars in Europe. It created the concept of a sovereign state, non-interference in another’s domestic business and was the precursor to the development of free trade, international treaties and international law.

The memorial slab in the fireplace of the council chamber of the historic Town Hall of Munster, called the Peace Hall, bears the inscription: “Anno 1648: ‘Pax optima rerum, 24. Oct’.

We thus see that one view is that justice must prevail, the other that peaceful relations is the basis for any society to function.

So where does truth fit in? With that old legal adage –

3. Veritas est justitiae mater– “Truth is the mother of justice”.

Doesn’t this imply that justice is not justice if it is not founded upon truth. In other words, justice without truth is not justice.

What do you think – what is the relationship between truth, justice and peace?

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