secular righteousness, sacred justice

Thanks to Anne-Marie for pointing to some cool word sites — Lexipedia, Visuwords, especially — in her post about the phenomenon of people looking up, or trying to look up, synonyms by googling phrases like “words that mean pretty” — though now I can’t get “I Feel Pretty” lyrics out of my head: “I feel pretty, oh, so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and bright!”!

Heheh, anyway, when I read Anne-Marie’s post this morning, I had just been thinking about the synonyms “righteousness” and “justice” — and how, even though they ARE synonyms, and still in many cases used interchangeably — the former is pretty much just a religious word and the latter a secular word.

You pick this up when studying the Bible. Even though the Greek or Hebrew uses one word (respectively) for righteousness/justice, the English translators — some would translate it “righteousness” and some “justice.” But then fortunately this is one cool thing about having so many English translations: you can compare English translations of different types (or of different times) and learn a hec of a lot both about the original Greek or Hebrew (without knowing those languages) AND about English.

So, for example, I’d read “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” in most translations and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” in a few others (e.g., in the Douay-Rheims), and so I like most people, I assume, initially got pretty different senses from each, the former more religious (and individual), the latter more secular (and societal).

So, after reading Anne-Marie’s post, I decided to check these word sites and see what they indicated about the relationship of these two words. Lexipedia, at least at this stage in its development, doesn’t connect these two synonyms at all. The only non-cognate word it gives for “righteousness” is integrity. Same thing with “justice.” No hint of the synonym “righteousness” or even “rightness.” "righteousness" "righteousness"

Visuwords does show at least one connection between righteousness and justice (at middle-right). -righteousness- -righteousness-

Finally, I checked the OED, and it, of course, doesn’t miss anything:

RIGHTEOUSNESS (OE) = “1. Justice, uprightness, rectitude; conformity of life to the requirements of the divine or moral law; virtue, integrity.”

JUSTICE (OF) = “1. The quality of being (morally) just or righteous; the principle of just dealing; the exhibition of this quality or principle in action; just conduct; integrity, rectitude. (One of the four cardinal virtues.)”

But the OED also reminded me that English has these two synonyms because we got one from old English and one from old French (via Latin). And like “cow” for what’s in your field and “beef” for what’s on your plate, the English and French versions of words, since 1066, have developed their own fairly-separate domains. And in the case of “righteousness” and “justice,” it looks like the Anglo-Saxons got control of the sacred domain and the Normans the secular. Probably because English Bible translators and liturgists have long favored Anglo-Saxon words (though there might well be another more socio-political reason as well), and because the Normans long had control over the government and courts.

The koine Greek for righteousness/justice is one word, δικαιος.  I don’t think, though, that even if I had three wishes, I’d vote to merge these two English words into one. But it sure would help everything if we could blend the two realms of meaning more, if we thought of public justice when we thought about “righteousness,” and we thought of personal holiness when we thought about “justice.”

These split meanings just seem to be another sign or symptom of the secular/sacred split.

At some point in the future, I’m sure, I hope, that the pendulum will find a stasis, a point at which both realms learn from the other and neither holds any hegemony over the other. Wouldn’t that be nice. It’s almost too hard to imagine. But I think, I hope, it’s inevitable.  In time.

Meanwhile, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. And who have fun with words.


2 thoughts on “secular righteousness, sacred justice

  1. I think one reason these two words are so separate is because the historical religious connotations with “righteousness” — a word that connotes indignation and elevatedness. Someone with righteousness is seen as viewing hirself as above others, a moralist in a sense. Whereas someone who works for justice is seen as working for others. Even how we use the words (one has righteousness but doesn’t have justice; one works for justice but doesn’t work for righteousness, at least in common usage). I know I’m coming at this from a different perspective than you (I’m much more of a secular post-humanist), but I cringe at the word “righteous” because those who are “righteous” (or, rather, claim to be) tend to be the ones that shame others — for being deviant, queer, perverted, debased, etc. It’s just a word that’s too much associated with moralizing (note: not morality) to carry much “good” for me.

    I do like the idea of blending public justice and personal ethics (I wouldn’t use the word holiness, but again, my secular standing) though.

  2. Hi, Michael.
    Oh, yeah, exactly. That’s another sad example, I think, of the negative effects of the separation between the two words (though sadly the moralizing thing might’ve happened without the separation, come to think of it). And it’s too bad that word — righteousness — has accumulated all that negative baggage. It should almost be retired, or let to lay fallow for a century or so — even in the biblical translations where translators could use “just” or “justice” instead — so that it can recoup some of its original tone and meaning.

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