Seth Benardete recounts an anecdote his father used to tell. Nasreddin Hoja was “half wise man and half fool.” From the Prologue to Encounters and Reflections:
Nasreddin Hoja had become quite famous, but he always traveled in a very meager way. He came to this village on Friday, and before going to the mosque to pray, naturally he went to the bath. Once they took a look at him, the servants plunged him into the coldest water and gave him the roughest towel and dismissed him. But like all Turkish servants they closed their eyes and opened their hands when they were about to be paid. So Nasreddin put a coin in their palms and proceeded to the mosque. He was half way to the mosque when they opened their eyes and saw there was a gold coin there. They told everyone. “Here was this man, we treated him like dirt, and he gave us a gold coin.” So a week later Nasreddin came back to the same bath, on Friday before going to the mosque, and there were flute girls and teas and ices and perfumes, and they were all lined up, and they treated him exquisitely, like royalty itself. Afterward they all lined up and closed their eyes, and put out their hands. So Nasreddin put the coins in their hands and he proceeded to the mosque. The first servant opened his hand and there was a penny. They were very shocked. They ran after him and said, “Master, master, there surely has been a mistake.” Nasreddin said, “What mistake?” “Well, last week we treated you like a beggar and you gave us a gold coin, and this week we treated you like a king and you gave us a penny.” And Nasreddin said, “Oh, the penny was for last week and the gold coin is for this week.”
I don’t want to injure the charm of this story. But it’s too good to not ask serious questions about how we intuit justice. Nasreddin is genuinely half wise, half fool. His giving a gold coin initially guarantees nothing. Nearly perfect restitution and even some revenge is had; he seems oblivious to all of it.
That probably means we want to focus on the servants and the village. They have fairly stable expectations. People should be treated as they look. The beautiful demands the good, unless the good is given outright. In which case, the good commands more good. Proportionality is only recognized at the correct moments. Are these expectations just? They not only provide a useful order for many, but they can be easily known. What could be more just than an order in which one’s status was plainly visible? Either they appear a certain way or prove themselves a good to others. Nasreddin satisfies one of these conditions. As he has provided something valuable, he seems just and can be trusted.
Of course, there was nothing just about how Nasreddin was treated, nothing just about his giving too much money initially, nothing just about the villagers thinking there was much gold to be had after their abuse. One way of defining tyranny: saying anything to get what is good, whether a truth or a lie. Lawfulness collapses if people cannot restrain themselves at all. The potential collapse means that many have to obey the law even if treated harshly by it if law is to be law.
Perhaps that is why Nasreddin does not quite know what he is saying, either. The villagers are relying on a more or less conventional justice. Nasreddin is naturally right though he is not aware of it. That’s why the atemporality of his justice, I think – not so much his ignorance, but natural right itself in play. The distance between natural right and conventional notions is most striking, if I’ve got anything correct in this comment. It’s not that one trumps the other, that there are higher laws all other dictates must obey. It is rather they talk past each other, with two different orders operating simultaneously.
Benardete, Seth. Encounters and Reflections. ed. Ronna Burger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002