Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

ISAK DINESEN: Sorrow-Acre (Justice)

The Declaration of Independence is a document designed to build a new society based on equality and liberty.  The United States did in fact go on to become a new nation.  But equality and liberty were nothing new.  They were old ideas inherited from English history and political theory.  Where did the English get their ideas?  Did they inherit them from Roman history and political theory?  Or did the notions of equality and liberty just spring up naturally from the English countryside?  Isak Dinesen explores a similar theme in Sorrow-Acre.  Only instead of exploring the foundations of equality and liberty she considers the nature of justice and mercy.

English ideas do figure prominently in her story.  But it’s not a story about English ideas; it’s a Danish story.  So she sets the Danish tone on the very first page: “a human race had lived on this land for a thousand years, had been formed by its soil and weather, and had marked it with its thoughts...”  Denmark was “a Christian country… with a strong, clear voice in it to give out the joys and sorrows of the land: a plain, square embodiment of the nation’s trust in the justice and mercy of heaven.”  In those days England was a Christian country too.  So we might assume they had similar ideas regarding justice and mercy.  But they do not.  In the story a young Danish aristocrat has recently returned home from England.  He liked it there.  “In England he had met with grater wealth and magnificence than they dreamed of… And in England, too, he had come in touch with the great new ideas of the age: of nature, of the right and freedom of man, of justice and beauty.”  Here’s a sample of the English idea of justice taken from David Hume’s Of Justice and Injustice (GB1): “Though the rules of justice be artificial, they are not arbitrary.”  English justice is rational and tries to be fair.  Establishing laws and writing them down helps keep English judges from handing down arbitrary decisions.  This is important because Hume believes “…without justice society must immediately dissolve, and (echoing fellow Englishman Thomas Hobbes) every one must fall into that savage and solitary condition which is infinitely worse than the worst situation that can possibly be supposed in society.”  This is the English idea of justice.

But it’s not universal.  Consider another example.  In the Gospel of Mark (GB3) we see how the Hebrew idea of justice collides with the Roman idea of justice.  When Jesus had his Roman trial the Hebrews “cried again, Crucify him.  Then Pilate (the Roman governor) said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done?  And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him.”  Pilate simply couldn’t understand what Jesus had done wrong.  But the Hebrew priests did.  During the Hebrew trial “the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?  And Jesus said, I am… Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses?  Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye?  And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.”  Two trials, two different understandings of justice.

Denmark isn’t England or Israel or Rome.  It has its own home-grown theory of justice.  The old uncle takes his ideas from the Danish landscape and harsh climate and they reflect the old pagan Danish gods.  He tells the young aristocrat “We are not quibbling with the law, Anne-Marie and I.”  He goes on to explain a concept of justice deeper than any written law: “I have been reflecting upon the law of retributive justice.  A new age has made to itself a god in its own image, an emotional god.  And now you are already writing a tragedy on your god.”  The young aristocrat had glimpsed a new age in England.  But Denmark was still in the old age.  The uncle says “Tragedy is the privilege of man, his highest privilege.  The God of the Christian Church Himself, when He wished to experience tragedy, had to assume human form.”  The Roman Pilate never understood the old Hebrew concept of justice.  The old Danish uncle did.


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