Study Guide

The Fall Justice and Judgment

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Justice and Judgment

Furthermore, I was buoyed up by two sincere feelings: the satisfaction of being on the right side of the bar and an instinctive scorn for judges in general. […] I could not understand how a man could offer himself to perform such a surprising function. I accepted the fact because I saw it, but rather as I accepted locusts. […] I earned my living by carrying on a dialogue with people I scorned (2.2).

By comparing his scorn for judges to a reaction elicited by a biblical plague (that would be the locusts), Jean-Baptiste roots the idea of judgment in religious zeal.

Besides, if everyone told all, displayed his true profession and identity, we shouldn’t know which way to turn! Imagine the visiting cards: Dupont, jittery philosopher, or Christian landowner, or adulterous humanist – indeed, there’s a wide choice. But it would be hell! Yes, hell must be like that: streets filled with shop signs and no way of explaining oneself. One is classified once and for all (3.8).

Compare this to Jean-Baptiste’s later definition of his profession: simply a tallying up of everyone’s sins. Is he guilty of applying simple labels to others? If man is defined by such a "tallying up" of his errors, with no allowance for "extenuating circumstances" or "indiscretions," then isn’t Jean-Baptiste labeling his clients by the crimes they’ve committed – crimes like "landowner" or "adulterer," as he lists here?

The question is to slip through and, above all – yes, above all, the question is to elude judgment. I’m not saying to avoid punishment, for punishment without judgment is bearable. It has a name, besides, that guarantees our innocence: it is called misfortune. No, on the contrary, it’s a matter of dodging judgment, of avoiding being forever judged without ever having a sentence pronounced (4.5).

Jean-Baptiste changes his stance by the end of the novel. Here, he says the point is to escape judgment. Later, he expresses that you can judge, but should permit yourself to act however you please anyway. In fact, these are not contradictory statements. Jean-Baptiste sets up his conclusion here – the problem with being judged is that it means you have to try to preserve your innocence. As long as you don’t care about your innocence, as long as you’re willing to be guilty, then who cares if you’re getting judged? You’ve stripped the judgment of its meaning.

People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. What do you expect? The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence (4.10).

Jean-Baptiste says that men judge in order to not be judged themselves – but the very basis of his profession is to judge others and himself; one enables the other.

In order to forestall the laughter, I dreamed of hurling myself into the general derision. In short, it was still a question of dodging judgment. I wanted to put the laughers on my side, or at least to put myself on their side (4.23).

It seems that, to Jean-Baptiste, laughter represents judgment by other men. There is, then, an element of absurdity to his life that he finds shameful. Others judge him, find him ridiculous, and laugh at him – and Jean-Baptiste goes to great lengths to avoid this assessment.

In any case, the very word "justice" gave me strange fits of rage. I continued, of necessity, to use it in my speeches to the court. But I took my revenge by publicly inveighing against the humanitarian spirit (4.23).

One possibility is that what angers Jean-Baptiste so much about "justice" is the hypocrisy built into the system. Judges, guilty themselves, condemn others and call it justice. Lawyers speak of innocence without any comprehension of what the word means. Where’s the justice in that?

You were speaking of the Last Judgment. Allow me to laugh respectfully. I shall wait for it resolutely, for I have known what is worse, the judgment of men. For them, no extenuating circumstances; even the good intention is ascribed to crime (5.14).

Jean-Baptiste will later prove guilty of this assessment of mortal judges –even though he imagines himself to be god-like in his stature as a judge-penitent.

The keenest of human torments is to be judged without a law. Yet we are in that torment. Deprived of their natural curb, the judges, loosed at random, are racing through their job. Hence we have to try to go faster than they, don’t we? And it’s a real madhouse. Prophets and quacks multiply; they hasten to get there with a good law or a flawless organization before the world is deserted. Fortunately, I arrived! I am the end and the beginning; I announce the law. In short, I am a judge-penitent (5.22).

Jean-Baptiste doesn’t seem to value any particular system of law at all. His view is that it’s pointless to look for "the right system," if even that can’t bring justice anyway? As soon as we realize there can’t be justice, we can stop looking for a system of rules and order that will enforce it. Therefore, any system will do – and Jean-Baptiste is happy to use his own discerning powers.

I first advised our friend to hang it in a place of honor, and for a long time, while they were being looked for throughout the world, our devout judges sat enthroned at Mexico City above the drunks and pimps. Then the ape, at my request, put it in custody here. He balked a little at doing so, but he got a fright when I explained the matter to him. Since then, these estimable magistrates form my sole company. At Mexico City, above the bar, you saw what a void they left (6.9).

Well now, this makes an interesting metaphor: if the judges left a clear void at the bar, then we have to conclude that judgment – in any form – is necessary for all men.

Well, here’s the stroke of genius. I discovered that while waiting for the masters with their rods, we should, like Copernicus, reverse the reasoning to win out. Inasmuch as one couldn’t condemn others without immediately judging oneself, one had to overwhelm oneself to have the right to judge others. Inasmuch as every judge some day ends up as a penitent, one had to travel the road in the opposite direction and practice the profession of penitent to be able to end up as a judge (6.18).

A little explanation of this Copernicus business: before Copernicus, everyone figured the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun rotated around it. Around 1543 Copernicus made it clear that, in fact, the earth went around the sun. In Jean-Baptiste’s thinking, Copernicus "reversed the reasoning." He imagines himself doing the same. Before Jean-Baptiste, the world judged others in order to avoid judging themselves. His reasoning is that we should judge ourselves in order to have the right to judge others.

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