Aristotle and the Graces

40 Pages Posted: 5 Nov 2004

See all articles by Bernard E. Jacob

Bernard E. Jacob

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law

Date Written: October 2004


This paper is a reading of Aristotle's book on justice (Book V of the Ethics) as what he says it is, a study of the disposition or inclination towards doing just (or unjust) acts. In that light, the content of Aristotle's famous treatments of distributive and corrective justice are only incidental, for their true role is as clues to a meaningful picture of the Just and the Unjust person.

Aristotle's treatment of Being Just as a specific virtue is the most detailed treatment he offers of any moral virtue. Being Just as distributive justice emerges as a commitment to the equal treatment of all citizens, but to an equality tempered by always contentious considerations of merited reward. Being Just as corrective justice is a commitment to protecting and repairing the sphere of each person's dignity and opportunity from damaging and sometimes malicious interactions.

But more is required. For Being Just means overcoming the disordered and misdirected desire that both Aristotle and Plato call "pleonexia", wanting - tyrant-like - more-of-and-more-than. If that is overcome by re-directed libido, the virtuous will then have to integrate more subtle elements if they are to achieve an inclination to this tempered, but real equality.

These elements are two. One is present only implicitly, the passion Aristotle calls nemesis, a demand that the world - and justice within the world - must never permit an evil person to go unpunished or a good one, to suffer harm. That passion cannot be admitted, but at best can only be temporarily stilled.

The second impediment arises from the dynamic of human communities that are made up of diverse and actively striving individuals: such citizens, haunted by suspicion grounded in their own pleonexia, demand that the community be one of laws. That creates a true dilemma, for in Aristotle's estimation, no set of rules can cabin any virtue. The Rule of Law is in tension with the particularity of justice in real life, and that tension is ultimately only bearable through the invention of equity, the trusted deviation from the law to preserve the law.

In making this abstract I have had to leave untouched the subject matter of the first and two last chapters, but in my paper I do treat these. More importantly, I also show how all political community and the inclination to seek to be a Just Person rests on a gracious act of reciprocal commitment.

Keywords: justice, justice as a Virtue, inclination to justice, injustice as vice, equality, merit, rule of law, equirty, general vs. concrete, reciprocity

Suggested Citation

Jacob, Bernard E., Aristotle and the Graces (October 2004). Available at SSRN: or

Bernard E. Jacob (Contact Author)

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )

121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States

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