I’m reminded that it is an anecdote about the witnessing of corpses upon which Plato’s definition of justice pivots. This is the famous story of Leontius coming upon bodies from a public hanging, and then arguing with himself about whether to look at that “fine spectacle.” He is torn between the desire to see, and an aversion – a rational rejection of the scene. Desire wins, he rushes to the bodies to get his fill, but at the same time calls his eyes “wretches.”
For Plato, the root of justice is in maintaining a balance between rationality, desire, and spirit. Plato wants the rational mind to lead and control desires, and for spirit to work in the service of the rational, like good soldiers serving the state. A just person is one who keeps these three forces playing their respective roles. Plato thus models justice on the ideal city, in which guardians, soldiers and craftspeople are also assigned their roles, and stick to them.
Not that I’m a Platonist – his ideal republic requires a stultifying class system, after all. What’s interesting is that for Leontius, witnessing a public execution is spectacle, a base desire, rather than a rational, moral act. Perhaps that’s because the killing was done by the state, and in Plato’s universe, that means it’s almost necessarily good. The implication, as with the story of Lot’s wife, is that witnessing a just killing is immoral, and somehow decadent. Why else would Leontius castigate his eyes as “wretches”– a term loaded with judgment.
All this is a moral thicket. Of course states assert they are primary arbiters of justice, yet we know that claim is provisional and flawed in practice. What emerges is that the question of witnessing death somehow precedes the formation of our ethics. As if our struggle with the meaning of witnessing is our struggle with the meaning of justice.