The Return of JUSTICE: The universal reason of things

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Volume I, “Program,” section VIII.

§ VIII. — Justice, the universal reason of things. — Science and conscience.

The people, in their laborious existence, even more than the philosophers in their speculations, have need of a guide: they need, we have said, a guide for their reason, a rule for their conscience, a superior point of view from which they may embrace their knowledge and their destiny. All this they found in religion.

God, the eternal Word, had created man from clay and had animated him with his breath; God had taught how to him to speak; God had imprinted in his heart the ideas of the infinite, the eternal, the Just and the ideal; God had taught him religion, worship, and the mysteries; God had delivered to him the elements of all sciences by revealing the history of creation to him, making the animals appear before him and inviting him to name them, showing him the common origin of all peoples and the cause of their dispersion. It was God who had imposed on man the law of labor, created and sanctified the family, founded society, and separated the States, which he governed by his providence. God, finally, living and seeing, principle and goal, all-powerful, just and truthful, guaranteed man’s faith, and promised, after a time of trials on this earth, to reward him for his piety with a limitless happiness.

Philosophy, which is the search for the reason of things, lost God in the process of seeking God’s reason; at the same time, a dispersion took hold of knowledge, doubt gripped men’s souls, and they became unable to think of anything but the origin of man and his final end. But this state of anguish could only be momentary: under better conditions, reason will render us what revelation had given us; and although this legitimate hope has not yet been fulfilled, we can judge, by a simple outline of the state of human knowledge, as to its conditions and its totality, as to how close it may be to that fulfillment. Is it so bad, after all, that something has always been lacking in our knowledge? Isn’t it enough for our security, for our dignity, that we see our intellectual wealth increase indefinitely?

It thus is a question of assuring ourselves that Justice, the principle and the source of which we will from now on locate within ourselves, fulfills, as a critical and organic principle, the object of philosophy, and that consequently it can replace religion for us, to our advantage. Deprived of the support of heaven, man remains himself. Like Medea, he will say: “Myself, myself alone, and is that not enough?” Philosophy is for the affirmative: it awaits the certainty of its principles, the justification of its hopes. Let us see now.

Since philosophy is the search for the reason of things, by including under the word things all the manifestations of the human being, and since, according to this definition, any search for the nature or the in-itself of things, for their substance and materiality, just as for any kind of absolute, is excluded from philosophy, it readily follows that the principle of certainty, the archetypal idea to which all our knowledge must be referred, must be, above all, a rational principle, that which is most frankly rational, that which is most eminently intelligible, that which is least a thing, if one can put it thus.

The idea of Justice satisfies this first condition. Its most apparent character is to express a relationship that is all the more rational, one might say, to the extent that it is formed voluntarily, in full knowledge of the cause, by two reasonable beings, two persons. Justice is synallagmatic: it produces not merely the impression of the not-self upon the self and the action of the one upon the other, but an exchange between two selves who know one another as they each know themselves, and who swear, on their mutually guaranteed honor, an alliance in perpetuity. One will not find, in all the encyclopedia of knowledge, an idea of this stature.

But it is not enough for Justice to be the relation of two wills: it would not fulfill its office if it were that alone. It is equally necessary that it be reality and ideality; moreover, that it should preserve, with the power of synthesis that we have just recognized in it, a character of sufficient primordiality to serve simultaneously as the summit of the philosophical pyramid and as the principle of all knowledge. Again, Justice combines these advantages: it is the point of transition between the sensible and the intelligible, the real and the ideal, the concepts of metaphysics and the perceptions of experience. [1]

It would be, indeed, a narrow understanding of Justice to imagine that it intervenes only in the fabrication of laws, that it has a place only in national assemblies and courts. Undoubtedly it is under this aspect of political sovereignty that it enters our thought and dominates mankind. But this Justice, with respect to which, in our relationship with our neighbors, we are especially preoccupied with the enforcement, imposes itself with no less authority on the understanding and the imagination than it does on the conscience; its formula governs the whole world, and everywhere, if it is allowed to express itself in this way, it preaches to us by precept and example.

Justice thus takes various names, according to the faculties to which it is addressed. Within the order of the conscience, the highest of all, it is JUSTICE properly speaking, rule of our rights and our duties; in the order of intelligence, logic, mathematics, etc, it is equality or equation; in the sphere of imagination, it is called ideal; in nature, it is balance. Justice is essential to each one of these categories of ideas or facts under a particular name and as an indispensable condition; to man alone, a complex being, whose spirit embraces in its unity the acts of freedom and the operations of the intelligence, the things of nature and creations of the ideal, impose themselves synthetically with an authority that is always the same; and therefore the individual who, in his relationships to his fellows, neglects the laws of nature or mind, lacks Justice.

A man asks: why? Because human society, different from the animal communities, is established on a constantly changing totality of synallagmatic relationships, and because, without speech, the determination of these relationships, and consequently legislation and Justice, would be impossible. Therefore, the solemn formula of speech is the sermon, the imprecation and the anathema; the liar is everywhere considered infamous, and among civilized people, the man who respects himself, according to the precept of the Gospel, eschews swearing: he gives his word. How many centuries will pass before we abolish this feudal shame, the legal oath? … It is through the influence of the same juridical sentiment and its dualistic formula that language tends to become more and more adequate to the idea, and that one notices there these innumerable dual forms (rhymes, parallelisms, agreements in kind, number and case, distiches, oppositions, antonymies, etc), which make grammar a system of couples, I would say almost transactions.

Man reasons, and his logic is only a development of his grammar, of which it retains the copulative paces: however, as it occupies itself less with form than content, it more closely approaches Justice, of which it is, if you will allow me this expression, the secretary. Tell, me, is it by chance that what is in grammar only a phrase, becomes in logic a judgment? And if grammar is the preparation for logic, is it less true to say that logic, having for its goal to teach us how to write the judgments of Justice correctly, is the preparation for jurisprudence?

At the same time as he receives impressions and images of external objects, man, we have said, ascends, by virtue of the identity of his thought, to those higher concepts that are called transcendental, because they exceed the range of the senses, or metaphysical, as if they were a revelation of supernatural things. Here, once again, the dualism of Justice appears. While Kant, after having made the enumeration of his categories, distributed them into four groups, each one formed of a thesis and of an antithesis, balanced by a synthesis; Hegel, following this example, built his entire philosophy on a system of antinomies that produce one another, while being mistaken as to the role and value of the synthesis, revealed to us that great law which dominated his entire critique, namely that Justice, a pure concept as much as it is a fact of experience, is the muse of metaphysics.

It was Plato, if I am not mistaken, who said that the beautiful is the splendor of the truth. This definition may please the artist, who asks only to be impressed; it is not enough for the philosopher, who wants to feel and to understand at the same time. It is certain that the ideal is a transcendent conception of reason, which elevates art, like religion and Justice, above real things and simple utility. But how is this idea of beauty formed in us? By what transition does our spirit rise from the imperfect and miserable aspects of reality to this divine contemplation of the ideal? It is an artist who teaches it to us: through Justice. The goal of art, said Raphael, is to render things, not absolutely such as nature presents them to us, but such as it should have made them, and such as we discover, in studying nature, that nature tends to make them without ever arriving at it. Being, reduced to its pure and just form, without excess or defect, without violence or softness: that is art. Anytime being, in its reality, approximates its idea in some thing, it becomes beautiful, it sparkles, and, without exceeding its limitations, it takes on the character of the infinite. Justness in form and expression, Justice in social life: the law is always the same. It is thereby that the man of genius and the man of good glorify themselves; this is the secret of the mysterious bond that links art with morality.

Shall we speak of politics and its balances? Of political economy, of the endless division of functions, the balance of values, the relation of supply to demand, trade and its balance? Just as the concept of accuracy, i.e. of Justice applied to the shape of the things, is the transition between the real and the ideal, so the notion of value is at once subjective and objective, and all of Justice is the transition between the world of nature and the world of society. Will we say, finally, that war, excessive, is only one investigation, through the struggle of the forces, of Justice? … But what good is it to insist on things that it is enough to name in order to see at once appear the principle which governs them and constitutes them, the right? It is by his conscience, much more than by his understanding and his imagination, that man embraces God, the Universe and Humanity; it is that conscience, for any statement, which creates in him reason, of which even the name, according to the etymology, means nothing but the justification of the fact by its causes, its circumstances, its medium, its elements, its time, its end, in word its idea, always Justice.

Each one knows what satisfaction seizes the soul upon the clear apperception of a truth, upon the regular conclusion of a reasoning, the demonstrated certainty of an hypothesis. There is something emotional in this pleasure caused by the possession of truth, which is not pure intelligence, which is not impassioned, and that one can compare only with the joy of the triumph gained by virtue over vice. One also knows what heated controversy can exist between men of the most peaceful character with regard to questions in which their interests are by no means engaged. In all of this, I repeat, we can sense an element of will intricately mixed with the operations of the understanding, and which, in my opinion, is nothing other than Justice intervening in the philosopher’s investigation and rejoicing in his success. Just so, the pure form or beauty, exact knowledge or truth, is still Justice.

Conscience and science would thus be, at base, identical. What gives the sanction to the one is the other. What makes us exclaim, in a tone of satisfied pride or rather of satisfied conscience: It is obvious, is that the obviousness is not only in us an act of judgement, but an act of the conscience, a kind of stop in the last resort which defies the lie: It is obvious!

The separation of science and conscience, like that of logic and right, is only a scholastic abstraction. In our soul, things do not occur thus: the certainty of knowledge is something more intimate to us, more emotional, more vital, than the logicians and the psychologists say. Also, as one said of the good man, that he could be eloquent, vir bonus dicendi peritus, because he had a conscience, pectus est quod disertos facit, one could also say that the wise man is incompatible with the dishonest man, and that what science builds in us is the conscience.

Assured, by justice, as to his science and his conscience, finding in his own heart the reason of the Universe and the reason of himself, what more does man require? And what could the heavens and the powers of the skies offer to him? …

Need I add that, as the quality of the philosophical spirit is the same one in all the men, and as they do not differ between them, from this point of view, except by the sum of their knowledge, so the conscience in all is also of equal quality: they differ, in this regard, only by the development of their moral sense and the sum of their virtues?

It is by virtue of this second principle that the Revolution, which declared all the citizens, because of the equivalence of their judgment, to be equal before the law, wanted further to make them all legislators and dispensers of justice: voters, jurors, judges, referees, experts, members of the communal assembly and the provincial council, representatives of the people, guardians of the nation; it wanted to given them all the right to publish their opinions, to discuss the acts and to control the accounts of the government, to criticize the laws and to pursue their reform.

Democracy of the intelligence and democracy of the conscience: such are the two great principles of philosophy, the two articles of faith of the Revolution.

Let us summarize this section.

Since philosophy is essentially dualistic, since in its language and its reasoning the ideas of sensible things incessantly call upon metaphysical ideas and vice versa; and since, in addition, among the objects of its study are included, often mixed and confused, things of nature and humanity, of speculation, of morals and art, it follows that the critical principle of philosophy, dualist and synthetic in its form, empirical and idealist by virtue of its double origin, must be capable of being applied, with equal suitability, to all the categories of knowledge.

However, the idea of Justice is the only one which meets these conditions: it is thus the Justice which we will take for universal and absolute criterion of certainty. The proposal of Descartes, I think, therefore I am, is not certain because it is obvious, which does not mean anything; it is obvious because its two terms are adequate, i.e. equal before the justice of the understanding, confirmed by the judgment of the conscience; and every obvious proposition is found in the same case.

That is not all. With the criterion of certainty, one needs for philosophy a principle in virtue of which it coordinates its materials, and which, in construction without end of knowledge, does not enable him any more to be mislaid.

Once again, the idea of Justice answers this wish. Indeed, Justice, or better the reason, the line reason, as it was formerly said, being all at the same time paramount and understanding with the supreme degree, is with itself its principle, its measurement and its end, so that for the philosopher, the critical principle and the organic or teleological principle is the same one. From where it results that the last word of philosophy, its constant goal, is to realize, by the synthesis of knowledge, the agreement between man and nature, that is to say, as Fourier called it, universal Harmony. There is nothing beyond that.


1. Kant endeavoured to show that there were a priori synthetic judgements, although that implied a contradiction to some extent, and he was right to think so, since without an a priori synthetic judgement, the unity of philosophical construction is impossible. Hegel, on the contrary, argued that such judgements do not exist, and all his philosophy, understood in good faith, is nothing but the analysis and then the reconstruction of a synthesis that is necessarily conceived a priori. What, then, is this synthesis that Kant affirms and does not find, that Hegel denies and demonstrates? It is nothing other than Justice, at once the most complete concept and the most paramount, that Hegel calls sometimes the Idea, sometimes the Spirit or the Absolute.


  1. The coming of the people to philosophy
  2. The definition of philosophy
  3. On the quality of the philosophical mind
  4. The origin of ideas
  5. That metaphysics is within the province of primary instruction
  6. That philosophy must be essentially practical
  7. The character that must be presented by the guarantee of our judgments and the rule of our actions.–Conversion from speculative to practical reason: determination of the criterion.
  8. Justice, universal reason of things: science and conscience.
  9. Supremacy of Justice. (next)
  10. . . .
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