Sense and Nonsense: Harsh Principles of Justice

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Justice,” I tell my classes, “is the harshest of the virtues. It is blind and relentless and in its own way inhuman.” If the world were built on justice alone, or even perhaps justice at all, it would be a terrible place. Fortunately, as St. Thomas says, the world is not so built. The world is built on mercy, not justice. Already inbuilt into the world is something that transcends justice and renders it less harsh, something that renders justice even possible.

Most of the ideologues of modern times, and there are not a few, build the world on justice. “Faith and Justice” and “Justice and Peace” have somehow become the religious couplets. No combinations have proved more unsettling and unfulfilling. Somehow we need to be saved from even justice, as Plato understood in his own way.

The other evening, I went to a performance of the Georgetown Student Symphony in Gaston Hall. Before the performance began, a student I had in class last semester sat down beside me. We had a nice chat. The course had been on Plato, and I had especially enjoyed that class.

After the symphony, on the way out of lovely Gaston Hall, the student, Luis Montero, mentioned that he was performing in the student musical Fiddler on the Roof that weekend. If I wanted tickets, I should call him and he would have them reserved so that I could pick them up 20 minutes before the show. That sounded worth doing.


My friends Dennis and Denise Bartlett have a son, Grant, in seventh grade who had participated in a version of Fiddler on the Roof last fall in junior high. I figured he and his brothers would enjoy seeing a college version. After considerable consultation about time and schedule with the other boys, we decided to go on the last Friday night of the show. The Bartletts were to come to dinner with the Community. We would go over to the show afterwards.

I call up Mr. Montero. He is out. I call him up again. Still no answer. I try to look up the information about tickets under “theater” and “drama” in the Campus Directory—can’t find it. I notice, however, that there is a sign giving the phone number for tickets on P Street before the small theater the students use. Great. I call the number. After a couple of rings, I get a machine. I know I am in trouble because machines “ain’t” human. Something that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The machine, under the guise of a happy student female voice, tells me, or I think it tells me, that “there are performances Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, that the Saturday evening performance is sold out, but that if you want to put your name on the waiting list, do so after the beep. Appear 20 minutes before the show. Names will be called in alphabetical order.” The thing beeps at me. I leave my name.

I call on Monday. I reserve five tickets from the machine for Friday. I was supposed to reserve six, as one of Grant’s friends. “H.C.,” is staying overnight. So I make a second call, patiently telling the machine my name and to request it to add one more ticket to my reservation. Surely the machine remembers my name. I feel eerie at being so polite to a machine.

I figure I have happily negotiated this technological age. The tickets will be waiting for me. No problem. All I have to do is show up 20 minutes early and pay for six tickets. The Bartletts and their boys will see the student musical, event of a lifetime, right?

Wrong. We arrive at the Poulton Theater 20 minutes before the eight o’clock show. I see there is a big list on the ticket office door. Many folks are milling around waiting for tickets. In Roman collar, known professor and all, I get to the box office. I ask for six tickets. Meantime, ominously, I see my name on the waiting list, about thirtieth on a list of forty. My Augustinian heart suspects the worst. I am sure I have “reserve” tickets, so all I need to do is pick them up.

The student ticket seller informs me this is not so. I am merely on the waiting list. She shows me a number of tickets left to be sold for the performance, whose initial orchestral tune-ups you can already hear coming from inside the theater.

Meantime, Paul, fifth grader, thinking he should be inside the show already, comes up and asks me if I am next. I tell him soberly that “we may not get tickets.” No clout here, only justice. The look on his face is one of “Oh, no!”

The girl at the counter seems to indicate that there will be tickets. She shows me the unsold tickets. I tell her of my reservation. No avail. The principle of justice is “first come, first serve” according to the recorded telephone’s will. Your rank makes no difference. Commutative justice. Even the President, even God, has to wait.

The girl begins to read the list at 7:45, after giving reserved ticket-holders, among whom I count myself, one last chance. She has a commanding voice. I do not think she was the happy voice I had spoken with on the machine. A number of no-shows seem encouraging at first, but not enough to help my cause. It begins to look more and more like we will not get in.

Denise has scouted in the meantime. She says, “no more seats inside.” The list gets down to about five from my name. We do not get in. Justice wins out. I am still quite convinced that I had legitimate reservations, not just “waiting list.” So I am annoyed and embarrassed that I have invited friends from distant Annandale to wait in line as a charming way to pass their Friday evening.

The ticket seller offers to put me on the waiting list for the next day. “But they are already here…. ” Others also do not get tickets. Full house. The orchestra begins. The boys look about forlornly. The pre-determined order of rule on the waiting list is observed—unless you cynically suspect that several names inserted on the waiting list were jumped higher. They are in pencil rather than felt pen, as if entered after the list was made up. But even so, you may not have made it. Late arrivals with reservations kept coming in to reduce supply. Supply and demand. The Principles of Justice. Quid pro quo. Reddere cuique quod suum est. Justice.

Justice was observed. No leeway for rank, clerical, academic, familial, stranger. Only the strict temporal order of calling in for waiting tickets is observed. I would never have invited my friends to the play, of course, had I thought that I did not have tickets. I think I have tickets because of the machine’s speaking to me. Injustice makes you mad. You think justice has been violated.

Principles of generosity do not seem to be evident. No one sees my plight with the obviously invited family, with three boys in grammar school, among myriads of students. No one offers me tickets out of charity. Why should they? Only principles of justice operate. I doubt if I would have done any differently.

Even if someone had offered me his tickets out of kindness, would it be just for me to take them, as there were others before me? Could the manager have said, “Well, we better take care of clerical professors with numerous guests because our answering machine did not speak to him clearly?” Then, if I got the tickets on this basis, the same process would have gone through the heart of the six who did not get tickets because of my justice or someone’s kindness. On the other hand, cannot we give away tickets that are ours without violating justice?

As I reflected on the situation, I figured that the machine must have told me, not that I was “reserving” six tickets, but that all performances, not just Saturday’s, were sold out. The waiting lists were for all upcoming shows, including Friday. I am not sure of this interpretation. It is not the way I heard the machine chatting with me. But I like to give machines the benefit of the doubt even when I don’t think they deserve it.

What did I learn? That the principles of justice, when they work their way out, are harsh. There is a certain inevitability about them. Your name does not get called in a lineal series of just choices. The principles of justice do not yield to rank or situation or to strangers in our midst. Is that why there is a New Testament as well as an Aristotle and the Old Testament?

What is the human response to this harshness of justice? The ticket-taker was a perfect embodiment of justice, after all. Well, I was quite annoyed, clearly. I thought my not getting six reserved tickets was somebody else’s fault, not mine. My plans did not work out. The best laid plans. All bases but one were covered.

I evidently heard what I wanted to hear. I did not find the student three days earlier to reserve the tickets for me in time. He was out, doing what students do, itself something of a mystery. I figured I had to use free enterprise. Mr. Montero probably knew the ropes, and I would have had, not a place on the waiting list, but on the coveted reserve list. Therefore, my friends would have seen Fiddler on the Roof.

I suspected all along that I should have had the tickets in hand before ever thinking of inviting friends. They had to delay saying for sure that they were free because that is the nature of communication in an active family with three boys.

What follows when the harshness of justice appears? The Bartletts were most gracious. They laughed at my perfect organization, at the uselessness of rank and status. We went over and had a look at Copley Lounge. They noted, not without some consolation, passing through the aisles by boys dorm rooms’ open doors, that their young boys, if left unattended, were not the only ones with chaotic rooms. When they got in their Volvo to go home, Grant said, “You owe us one, Father Schall,” and everyone laughed again. The principle of justice, now transformed by good cheer—I do owe them one. They won’t hold justice against me, though from now on, they will check to be sure I have the tickets.

The harshness of justice is overcome by kindness, by responding to a situation as it is, at the same time realizing that it often does not yield what we want in this or that particular case. After I understood that there was an element of accident, or harsh justice, of not listening, of laughter, of kindness in response, I realized it was rather a good evening. The principles of justice taught me something—never rely on a machine! The principles of justice are saved by the principles of kindness and charity.

In the end, I figure that, because of my friends’ graciousness before the inevitability of justice, it was worth talking to that machine, even if I should not rely on the dang thing to get them to Fiddler on the Roof.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).