Friday, April 25, 2008

The Magistrate's Monologue

“You feel that it is unjust, I know, that you should be punished for having the feelings of a good son. You think you know what is just and what is not. I understand. We all think we know.”
I had no doubt, myself, then, that at each moment each one of us, man, woman, child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.
“But we live in a world of laws,” I said to my poor prisoner, “a world of the second-best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are fallen creatures. All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”
After lecturing him I sentenced him. He accepted the sentence without murmur and his escort marched him away. I remember the uneasy shame I felt on days like that. I would leave the courtroom and return to my apartment and sit in the rocking chair in the dark all evening, without appetite, until it was time to go to bed.
“When some men suffer unjustly,” I said to myself, “it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”
But the specious consolation of this thought could not comfort me. I toyed more than once with the idea of resigning my post, retiring from public life, buying a small market garden. But then, I thought, someone else will be appointed to bear the shame of office, and nothing will have changed."
---from J.M. Coetzee, “Waiting for the Barbarians

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