The Lost Virtue of Epikeia



Well, it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Family Guy has some unexpected lessons in justice. Joe Swanson, Quahog's indomitable cop, is something of a paragon of the lost virtue of epikeia.

According to Aristotle, epikeia is that part of the virtue of justice that sometimes sets the letter of the law aside so that true justice can be served. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, explains epikeia thus:

"...since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view" (ST II.II.201.1).

In other words, the law itself is about maintaining order and promoting the good. But what if following the letter of the law actually had the opposite affect? What, if by enforcing a particular law, we ended up hurting the very community we wanted to protect? Again, Aquinas gives us an example:

"Thus the law requires deposits to be restored, because in the majority of cases this is just. Yet it happens sometimes to be injurious—for instance, if a madman were to put his sword in deposit, and demand its delivery while in a state of madness, or if a man were to seek the return of his deposit in order to fight against his country."

Joe Swanson is such a character. Throughout all of the idiosyncratic perversions of the characters on the show, paraplegic policeman Joe is consistently balancing the law with a spirit of justice that transcends the written rules. Of course, given that Family Guy is a cartoon, all of the examples of epikeia we can point to in the show are themselves cartoon-like: his refusal to turn his AWOL military son into the MP's; his refusal to charge his friends for burning down a local drug store. But even in this cartoon world, Joe Swanson is perhaps the most human of all the characters: long-suffering, reliable, conscientious and loyal. And he always manages to balance his duty with friendship...a long lost tradition in our world, one which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was at pains to point out to the west.

Family Guy may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Joe Swanson is one of the few characters on TV that always reminds me of this long-lost virtue, one which we could sorely do with having back with us today: a virtue to unlock the Iron Cage of our bureaucratic obsessions and litigious appetites that suffocate so much of the creative human spirit and its natural impulse towards love and friendship.

#TV #Culture #Epikeia

(c) October 2018: Rebus Institute & Rebus Education Services