The Beauty of Law
November 8, 2016
I recently attended a magnificent performance of Les Miserables. As any great display of human talent should, it took my breath away. One of the most striking characters for me was Javert, the constable who spends his life chasing Jean Valjean to bring him to justice before the law. Javert has a very clear understanding of justice – the law.A man who violates the law, violates justice, and is therefore an evil man.This is not a new understanding, but one of Javert’s songs struck me as he saw the beauty of the stars. It seemed surprising to me that a man with such a strict understanding of justice, a man who strives constantly to bring evil men to justice, still has such a respect for beauty. At one point, Javert is captured and given to Valjean. Javert expects Valjean to kill him, but instead, he releases him explaining that he holds no grudge against Javert for doing his duty. In a following scene, Javert calls Valjean a devil for giving him his life because he is now in debt to a thief. His understanding of the law as untainted will not allow for this, and so he resolves that the world cannot allow for both of them to live. It must either be Valjean or Javert. Seeing Valjean no longer sinning, despite having sinned previously, causes doubt to enter into Javert’s mind. He remarks that the world he once knew is now lost in shadow,that the stars have gone black. With this, he resolves that this is the world of Valjean, and he jumps to his death.
I believe the deep sense of beauty that Javert finds in the law is what drives him to kill himself. His song extols the beauty of the stars in that they bring order and light to the chaotic dark of night. Law is the ultimate good because it provides order in a world that is otherwise complete chaos. No good is possible without order and law, therefore, no good can be placed above the law. However, Javert struggles when he sees goodness outside of the law, and actually opposed to the law. Javert has placed the law as so essential to goodness itself that this discrepancy with the law destroys his hope in the world. This shows its own significance as order becomes his standard of beauty. This quickly shows how a view of goodness determines so many other things; standards of beauty, wisdom, and justice all depend on one’s understanding of what is good. However, order itself is one of these lesser categories. It seems that one could replace Javert’s love for order with one for beauty and he would become a romantic constantly pursuing love and would find things just and wise only if they are beautiful. However, justice seems to be placed as his highest good, and so he extols order because it clearly establishes a sense of justice. He then finds things beautiful or wise because they are orderly and further justice.
The mistake Javert makes is confusing a single aspect of goodness, something that is certainly good, for being the entire good. To say that justice is the highest good does not leave room for mercy or grace. There is no forgiveness. All of which are things that men understand to be good. Rather, no single one of these is the highest good, but each of them play a part in it. Each of them cast a certain light onto the good.It is something beautiful, wise, and just. It is virtuous, merciful, and graceful. Yet, Javert’s mistake does have a sense of nobility as pursuing a single aspect of the good is still a pursuit of something good, and in his eyes, the highest good.
This unfortunate mistake cost Javert his life, driving him to madness when he found something good outside of that aspect. This will always happen because viewing one aspect as the whole equalizes two things that are unequal. To view beauty as the highest good would mean that all things beautiful must be good, and then meeting a beautiful woman who breaks his heart would destroy him. Rather, it should be understood that something beautiful is good in its beauty, but may not be good in its other aspects. Something ordered is good in that it is ordered, but is not absolutely good simply for that reason.In order to be absolutely good, it must aim beyond simple order, or even justice, to the good in all of its aspects.
Javert also shows how easy it is to make this mistake though. He views the stars as beautiful because they represent order, not because they are beautiful. The stars do represent order,which contributes to their beauty, but it is not the source of it. All virtues are related in that they are virtues, that they are aspects of the good, and so any one of them could be confused to be the cause of the others. We think that we immediately see the error of Javert’s reasoning because we do not hold such a fanatic belief in order.
Our judgment of Javert is based on a principle like the one that led him to make his mistake – we judge him for not giving Valjean the freedom to change because we tend to believe that freedom is the ultimate good.We willingly allow disorder and confusion about goodness because we accept that one man may see something as good because it is beautiful while another sees it as evil because it is not practical. Virtues are merely aspects of the good itself, but we do not allow anyone to place his idea of the highest virtue above another; in this, we eliminate knowing the good because we have actually placed freedom above goodness itself. Javert displays the misery that one faces in attempting to extend any aspect of the good beyond the good itself.The good involves a combination of all of its aspects, including both order and freedom,which makes it confusing to understand, but that does not make each of its aspects equal, nor does it allow freedom to demolish order entirely