[Editor’s note: This is part 5 of a year-long series on how the 12 Classical Virtues- as identified by the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics- applies to the legal profession]
Righteous indignation is described as a state where a person feels pain at the undeserved good fortune of others. Aristotle holds that it’s a middle ground being feeling jealous or envious, where you feel great pain for all the good fortune of another, and spite (or schadenfreude as we might say today), where you feel great pleasure from the bad fortune of another. Righteous Indignation is also connected to a sense of Justice, a connection Aristotle says he’ll discuss later in the book but ultimately never does. (Nicomachean Ethics, II.vii).
Honestly I found calling “righteous indignation” a virtue strange at first. It’s definitely one that I normally wouldn’t connect with. Partly this is because the term to me is a really negative one- for the linguists out there, the Attic Greek word here is nemesis, as in the decided not-a-virtue of vengeance- and partly because this is something you’re really not supposed to feel anyway, especially if you’re a lawyer who’s supposed to speak effectively and passionately for all your clients, no matter how good you feel their lives are going. In fact, I’d say most people would rather go with acknowledging the two extremes of jealousy and spite over indignation, though they wouldn’t call any it a virtue.
But then I thought about those moments in the lives of the people I know where someone told them that what they wanted to do was impossible, that they would never graduate/get a job/get married/help their loved ones/get their life together, etc., and instead of agreeing, they 100% rejected that person, choosing instead to say “I know what’s right, and I’m going to do it.” It’s a kind of defensive righteousness, one that rises up when there’s a sense that the boundaries of your world are being rejected in way that simply cannot be allowed. I thought about how those moments almost always came after a comparison of their life with someone else’s and…I dunno, this made more sense to me. Because it’s not just feeling hurt that other people’s lives are going well- it’s about harnessing that sense to get motivated to bring about changes in your own world (which, for lawyers, can mean everything from bringing meaning into their practice to helping their clients heal their own hurts). And that motivation, to balance out the excesses of good and bad fortune, of pain and pleasure, to one that allows you to be you? That’s something I think we could all stand to have a little more of.