Principal Doctrine 33

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Absolute justice does not exist. There are only mutual agreements among men, made at various times and places, not to inflict nor allow harm.


Contrary to the beliefs held by most other philosophical schools (and, of course, religions), Epicurus asserts that justice is not "something in itself", but simply something that arises in the course of human association, and that it is based on the consent neither to harm, nor to be harmed.

The first point is in line with Epicurus' "adverbial" understanding of justice (and happiness, and much more): justice is not a "thing", a self-standing entity; it is a way, a manner, a modus in which human behavior is conducted. Being such, it is circumstantial to the particular behavior it attends (in this case, koinonia, i.e. society, human association). If all humans were hypothetically hermits, there would be no such thing (or rather any need for such an abstraction) as justice at all.

Justice is also relative, various, and mutable: that is precisely why Epicurus mentions that justice "happens" not indiscriminately, but specifically "in whatever places" such agreements about neither harming nor being harmed have been established; as Epicurus further delimits his notion of justice in Principal Doctrine 37 and 38, justice is not only locally, but also temporally contingent.

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