Ray Koehler on “Fiat Iustitia Ruat Caelum”

by Jamison Koehler on February 13, 2012
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Guest Entry By Raymond Koehler

My initial enthusiasm at being invited to write a piece for my brother’s law blog quickly turned to concern.  I am a Latin teacher, not a lawyer, and although I often find myself citing my brother in defense of my subject before the incoming hordes of freshmen – twenty-seven to a class – I find my victories only fleeting. You see, I teach at the only school in New Haven that requires a year of Latin for graduation. After subduing the cries of “it’s a dead language” and “we’ll never use it,” I say with as much dignity as I can muster:  “My brother, who is a lawyer, said that his two years of high school Latin were the most valuable he ever took. He says they prepared him not just for college, but for life!”

My students look at me quizzically for a moment, weighing this new argument as they visibly size up just who this new witness for my defense is. Then one or another of them renews the attack and I go home quoting my younger brother to myself in an effort to convince myself of the value of my subject. This is not always an easy thing for an older brother to do.

The truth is I never really thought about the value of Latin. I just studied it, along with ancient Greek, for itself. But now that I have so generously been afforded this new forum in which to build my defense, it would be a waste if I did not at long last try to do something useful with my classical education. Therefore, not only will I use this opportunity to put together a stronger case against my students, I will attempt to have an effect on the minds of those who make up our modern legal system, especially my frater, through meaningful connections between legal ideas as we think of them today and the actual Latin words used to preserve them. Of course in today’s world of education a sine qua non for any language instruction is an exploration of the lives and culture of those who use that target language. I suppose that principle must be applied equally now not just to living languages, but to dead ones.

As I am now thinking of this as the first in a series of entries, it seems obvious that the best place to begin is not with technical legal terms, but with a simple look at the Latin word for justice itself – iustitia.  When my students can’t find it, it is usually because they are looking under the wrong letter of the alphabet. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the letter “j” was established to separate the two uses of the Latin “i,” one as a vowel and the other as a consonant.  Hence the 10th letter of our alphabet and hence I will use justitia from now on when talking about that condition or state of what is right or lawful – even if my students must still remember to look it up under “i.”  Presumably all relevant law dictionaries were published post -17th century.

The most popular Latin phrase containing this word is Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum. This maxim on the urgent necessity of justice was discovered first not by myself, the Latin teacher, but by my brother, the law student. He called home and shared it with the man who had, so many years earlier, forced Latin upon him — our father. “Let Justice prevail,” our father translated, “though the heavens may fall.” Besides being a good phrase for teaching the hortatory subjunctive (Let Justice be done) and the potential subjunctive (though the heavens may fall), it is a great umbrella philosophical statement under which any future entries (my brother willing) might fall.

My brother, it turns out, was not the only one to embrace these words in part or as a whole. Fiat Justitia appears at the bottom of the 1835 portrait of the Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall by Rembrandt Peale, which hangs in a conference room at the Supreme Court Building in Washington.   It is also the motto of the Massachusetts Bar Association, appearing on the official seal of the institution. The maxim in its entirety, historians claim, was applied to fathers other than my brother’s and my own, such as those who inspired the American colonies to break from the British crown.  Then years later, in 1933, Judge James Edwin Horton quoted it when explaining why he made his decision to set aside the death sentence of Haywood Patterson, a black man wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama, although he knew it would be the end of his judicial career. Fiat justitia caelum ruat even finds its way into movies, such as the Oliver Stone 1991 film JFK in which New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) uses the phrase during his investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy.

I was thus surprised that this quote, when I called my brother to tell him what I was doing, failed to elicit that same enthusiasm it had years ago. It is understandable, of course, that a student’s ideas, formed as they sometimes are in the ivory tower, lose some of their ideological purity when tested in the various arenas of real life, and there had been a number of years (I won’t say how many) intervening between school and current practice. Nevertheless this led me to look further into the origins of this saying and, to my own surprise, my investigation turned up two separate origins that had at some monumental historical moment come together.

The tail end of the first thread is a story we are probably all familiar with from our own childhood – the story of Chicken Little. This story goes back to Aesop’s Fables and the fable “The Sky Is Falling.” This theme also appears in a passage from Terence, a Roman playwright of the 2nd century B.C., suggesting its popularity among the early Romans. Of course we can also recall images from our early study of Greek mythology where  Atlas, supporting the sky on his shoulders, tries to trick Hercules into performing this duty for him.  But my favorite reference goes back to the campaigns of Alexander the Great.  According to the story, when Alexander asked several ambassadors of the Celtae — tall, haughty men from the Adriatic Sea — what they feared most, they responded “that the sky fall on our heads.” Unless we look upon these “barbarians” as childlike in their conception of the universe, one can conclude they were directly insulting Alexander’s power by saying that nothing, short of a total destruction of nature, could harm them.

To look at the first thread of this maxim, Fiat justitia, I would like to relate a story told by Seneca, a Roman philosopher and dramatist who, by the way, was also entrusted with the moral training of Nero during that emperor’s  early education. In his treatise De Ira (On Anger), Book I, Chapter XVIII, Seneca ells of Gnaeus Piso, a Roman governor and lawmaker who, angered by the news that a soldier had returned from his leave of absence without his comrade, ordered his execution.   Leaves were granted in pairs throughout the Roman empire for obvious reasons of safety, and the grounds given for such a sentence was that if the soldier could not produce his companion, he could be presumed to have killed him. However, in this story it so happened that, as the condemned man was presenting his neck to the executioner, the comrade who had been presumed murdered, suddenly appeared. The centurion overseeing the execution stopped the proceedings right there and brought the condemned man back to Piso in anticipation of a reprieve. The Roman governor, however, ordered the execution of all three soldiers, the first because his sentence had already been passed, the second for failure to perform his duty in carrying out the original execution, and the third, the man who had just returned after being presumed dead, because he was the cause of the death of two innocent men.

This application of “Justice” in the pursuit of Justice, or even justice, where the use of principals perhaps technically correct result in something so obviously wrong, has most likely been played out in modern arenas as well. Such dramatizations of Fiat iustitia, I will wager, are responsible for this second, negative interpretation of Fiat iustitia ruat caelum and the reason that the Latin maxim which my brother had enthusiastically called home about so many years ago had lost some of its luster.

So what, then, is justitia? How does one find it when watching students turn over their bookbags to be searched every morning as they enter school and go through the metal detector? Is this the justice that came from the prosecution of Eric Harris and all those other children who harmed their schoolmates, teachers and themselves? Or do we try instead to bring to justice the doctors of such students who should have known that the administration of such chemicals as, in Eric’s case, luvox, to someone a little out of touch with reality might very well lead to such atrocities.

I think that if there is an answer it goes back to the confusion between ethics and justice that is now even preserved in dictionaries but which can be cleared up if we dig out the origins of these words. Ethics comes from the Greek word ethos meaning “character.”  Justice, we already know, comes from the Latin adjective iustus meaning “right,” which comes from the Latin neuter noun ius, iuris meaning “law.”  We can imagine a group of early people, whether the early Greeks, Romans or those barbarian Celtae living near the Adriatic Sea, all engaged in the activity of living. In fact, I would bet that their natural “character” was such as to make them engage in activities leading not only to their survival as individuals but to that of their families, groups and maybe even the entire human race. But what do you do when people begin to act “unethically” or “out of character?” When they actually bring harm to themselves, their family or their group? The first step, it seems, would be to, using reason, re-establish the person’s own ethos, to help him or her “find him- or herself” again.  But ethics, being natural, cannot be forced on one. If it is, it is not ethics but justice. And so it is here, out of the labor pains of getting others to apply ethics to themselves, that justice is born. When reason fails and an individual can no longer engage in ethical behavior voluntarily, then the group in fact must take action if it is to persist and so justice systems spring up — like the goddess Minerva who sprang fully armed from Jupiter’s head — in every corner of the earth. The trouble is, of course, as evidenced by our story of the Roman governor Piso, when applied by a man of anger or one not of good will, justice soon becomes “justice” and another civilization goes by the boards.

So what does this all mean? In my imagination I can picture warring factions all led by men not of good will reducing our planet, in the name of justice, to a smouldering pile of rubble. In this same fantasy I hear some sky god, perhaps Jupiter, laughing jovially before pronouncing from Mount Olympus (in Latin of course), “Fiat iustitia ruat caelum.”

But to be honest, I have another picture in mind for how I would use this Latin maxim. You see, I imagine my students – raw and uncultured as they may be – someday all making it to Latin III. When they do, I will have to solve that Latin teacher’s problem of how to teach them the formidable Latin Result Clause. As all empires, even that of the mighty Romans, have come crashing down for the lack or misapplication of iustitia – or justitia – my success depends on two things. Firstly, it depends upon men and women of good will, such as my brother and sister-in-law, preserving justice long enough so that the sky does not come down before I fulfill my goal.  Secondly, I must modify the Latin maxim slightly, from Fiat iustitia ruat caelum to Fiat iustitia ut non ruat caelum, or  “Let Justice prevail so that, as a result, the sky does not fall!”

Men and women have dreamed dreams greater than mine. I draw comfort from the fact that the same conditions necessary for me to accomplish my goal are a vital necessity if those of greater aspirations are to fulfill theirs.

18 Comments on “Ray Koehler on “Fiat Iustitia Ruat Caelum”

  1. I disagree with the “windbag” appellation. I liked it. I’ve always wanted to study Latin. I did take two years of Greek in college, but have forgotten virtually all of it through disuse.

    The closest I’ve gotten to Latin is teaching myself “bad” Spanish (but enough to communicate with clients).

    If you think he’s a windbag, I look forward to more windbaggery.

  2. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson famously said, “hadst small Latin and less Greek,” so I think Rick (and I, whose excursion into Greek during college left me mostly ignorant in multiple languages [rather like major league catcher, spy for the Allies during WWII, and linguist Moe Berg who it was said spoke five languages but couldn’t hit in any of them]). That’s an aside (containing others) but I agree wholeheartedly with Rick. I look forward to more from brother Raymond.

    But I wonder if the problem with Piso’s justice is really that he needed to balance it with ethos. What it seems to me he needed was mercy. So Edmund Spenser makes clear in Book V of The Faerie Queene which focuses on Sir Artegall, who is the Knight of Justice. If there’s a single lesson we can take from that Book (and really, there’s more than one), it’s that Justice is no virtue by itself but must be tempered by mercy.

    As I’ve said more than once, I have no real idea what “justice” is, and I’m not even sure I’d know it when I saw it. I have a pretty good feel for injustice, though, and suspect that what I see as injustice others frequently would call justice.

    Of course, for all the legal maxims, there’s also this perhaps apocryphal story about Justice Holmes.
    After a lunch with Judge Learned Hand, as Holmes was departing in a carriage to return to work, Judge Hand said to him: “Do justice, sir. Do justice.”
    Holmes had the carriage stopped. “That is not my job,” he said. “My job is to apply the law.”

  3. I enjoyed the comment by Rick and discourse on justice from Jeff following my post. Regarding my brother’s post, well maybe the windbag reference was right to the extent that I was overinflated in my flattery of him. Anyway, to keep this entry more spartan I will conclude by reminding him of what became of Remus after his criticism of his older brother Romulus.

  4. Ray’s students are very lucky. I might have done better in high school Latin myself if the teacher had had that kind of enthusiasm for the topic. I assume the windbaggery thing was just teasing.

  5. I found it inspiring! The enthusiasm with which it was written does rekindle my postulate that Justice and Truth will always prevail and I especially liked your father’s translation, “though the heavens may fall”. Being myself from Argentina, I know that Justice is not always what is right but often becomes what the majority can be convinced of or worse yet, nonexistent and something that one will either die in the pursuit of or just give up completely. But I offer these words to you, “mas vale man~a que fuerza”. The symbol ~ is for the pronunciatin of the “n” as I do not have a spanish keyboard. But basically it states that ideas are senior and have more power than force. Thank you for your ideas!

  6. Thanks for the great post, Ray — I was tipped to your brother’s blog only recently from SHG’s (now late, lamented?) “Simple Justice”, and have thoroughly enjoyed making it part of my day. Now, I hope, I have your posts to look forward to as well. So much of our culture derives from the Greeks, and so much of our law and culture from the Romans and their medieval Christian interpreters, that a knowledge of the classics (let alone classical languages) cannot but help to give all of us a fuller understanding of the principles that underlay our profession. (I should add that our Founders were also steeped in the classics and knowledge of Latin.) I know that is the case for me, but I have long had a classics itch — sadly, my Latin has fallen by the wayside.

    If you do post more (please do!) perhaps you could turn your attention to this phrase: Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto, which I recommended my state’s judicial conduct agency to adopt as a mott0 when I worked there.

  7. Damn. I have spent a lifetime trying to measure up to the accomplishments of my older brother. Now he writes one lousy blog entry and gets far more feedback from readers than anything I ever write.

  8. Great, keep them coming! Just don’t let my brother know two of them are his.

    As for the phrase Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto, I like it. I’ll have to look into it. Before I moved to a public school system in New Haven, I’d been asked to submit a Latin motto for a private boys campus in Greenwich. I was mortified when all my hard work was overlooked for a one word motto submitted by the other Latin teacher, Pueris – “For the boys.” I have to admit, it was short but right on.

  9. Brother,
    Latin is a dead language,
    as dead as it can be.
    First it killed the Romans
    and now it is killing me!

  10. – Im one of Mr. Ray Koehler’s students in Career High School ‘ he told us to make a comment about what we think justice is from our perspective in my opinion justice is a concept of moral rights mostly based on ethics , natural law , equal rights and religion. everyone should be treated fairly no matter what color their skin is or what race they are. Its also based on fairness although have its flexibility in some cases .

  11. Gratulationes, Ray!
    Your scholarly post reveals strong evidence of the myriad benefits of studying Latin and Greek which reach far beyond familiarity with foreign language.

  12. I have always thought that my two years of high school Latin did more for my formal education than any other class I ever took – in high school, college, graduate school or law school. Not only did it impress my kids (briefly, until their knowledge surpassed mine.) It helped with grammar and syntax and vocabulary. It helped with foreign languages. It introduced me to Julius Caesar, Psyche, and Roman civilization. A passing knowledge still comes in helpful in learning many legal concepts. And you have to love a language with the logical structure of German and the simplicity in word choice of a Raymond Carver short story or poem.

  13. Salve magister!

    I have been making this argument since being inspired by your tutelage at Brunswick. I must admit I have succeeded only twice to get a High School Student to take Latin seriously. The rest think it a dead language. Our western society is based upon certain foundations. A most important one being our body of law. This law is rooted in classical studies of the progenitors of our current governors. Thank you once again for a fun way of looking at classical studies, language and it’s deeper meaning, and our place in society past, present and future.

  14. I chanced upon this blog on a search… about justitia… and decided to read it. I am happy I did. It was an intriguing and pleasurable read! Thank you for writing and sharing.

    Latin formed my basic thinking process – I started when I was 10 and took it for 8 years – and, consequently, the way I would look at the world; I know mentors like you are what make the difference, opening worlds of the mind and soul to young people and not so young.

    I believe I will pass by, from time to time, to continue being delighted with such depth told so lightly, and by your learned writing.

    Greetings from Italy.

  15. Ray! Write me! I’ve been hoping to catch you for years now. I’d like to get my hands on a copy of the video/DVD of the Vergil Book I performance we did for CANE in which I sang and spoke the part of Juno! My students would get such a kick out of it, plus I remember it was a wonderful composition.

    No arguments from a fellow Latin teacher about the value of studying Latin…

    Hope you’re well.


  16. Thank you Jamie, for letting me know about the recent responses to my blog entry. To hear from Brunswick School, of which I have such fond memories, Italy, whence came Catullus, Cicero, Horace and Vergil, not to mention Latin itself, and then the very person who brought Juno ipsa and my music to life in our performance of Book I – well it filled me with joy. Thank you Doyaun (et salve!), Mariana and Lorie.

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