“Honest Justice” (“Hot Law of Men”, Harsh Law of Men” and “Gentle Law of Men”) and “The Final Reason”

Honest Justice

It is the hot law of men:
from grapes they make wine,
from coal they make fire,
from kisses they make men.

It is the harsh law of men:
to keep themselves untouched
in spite of wars and wretchedness,
in spite of death’s dangers.

It is the gentle law of men:
to change water into light,
dream into reality,
and enemies into brothers.

An old and new law,
that continues to perfect itself
from the bottom of the child’s heart
up to the final reason.

Paul Eluard

What is Eluard’s “honest justice“, and why is it important to understand what it is? Eluard needs three stanzas to describe what he means by this term. It’s “the hot law of men”, “the harsh law of men” and “the gentle law of men” acting together. These laws are not imposed on human beings by a superior agency, be it god, the clergy or secular powers. They are a kind of immanent laws, in tune with human nature as it is “defined” by history moving from one period to the next. “Hotness”, “harshness” and “gentleness” as aspects of human life are defined correspondingly in the first, second and third stanzas. The fourth stanza provides a general characterization of how these features develop not only historically but ontogenetically.

Let’s first try to define “honest justice” as grasped by the intuitive impression from reading in the poem the depictions of the three aspects of “law of men”. “Honest justice” as an existential principle realizes itself when we don’t overestimate or underestimate the human potentials, overrate or underrate humankind, feel too much admiration for or too much disappointment in concrete people or the human race. In this sense to love people is a kind of moderate term taking into consideration the severe conditions of life on earth and being appreciative of human attempts to be decent “as much as possible”.

In each of the first three stanzas we see the operational (behavioral) definitions of three laws of men. The “hot law” and the “gentle law” are defined through the actions of “men”, and “harsh law” – through human ability to resist the morally degrading influence of the circumstances of human life.

The first stanza is a hymn to the human ability to change the given through miracle-making deeds – when what exists before human touch is transformed into something else (like making from grapes wine, from coal – fire, and from kisses – other human beings).

The second stanza is dedicated to human will for decency – to human ability to resist war’s call for cruelty and pleasure in murder and torture (the ability which many Americans surrendered during US war in Iraq and Afghanistan and, it seems, are ready to continue in the same direction) and the degrading influence of “death’s dangers”. Death’s dangers have nothing to do with dangers of war or menace of death. They are connected with the nature of death itself – with death being not only a killer but a Demon. It takes away not only life, but it enslaves us through fear, destroys human decency, shatters human personality, transforms human soul into sand. It makes us feel phobic or in panic. Death forces us to perceive it as a dark benefactor, a savior with the power to open in front of us eternity as a paradisiacal kingdom of stability and reliability. These reactions on death mean human degradation, our wretched collapse in front of the power of the deadly Demon.

The third stanza develops the topic of the first stanza – the human life now is enriched by human ability to become more sensitive and alert to humanistic call (transformation of water into light by a humanistically oriented scientific effort or enemies into brothers – today we are even farther away from this last possibility than before).

The fourth stanza makes a “resume” of the historical side of the “laws of men” – as human tendency to perfect itself through the subjective efforts and cultural development (“from the bottom of the child’s heart up”). But what is the “final reason” (the last concept of the poem)? With Eluard’s proclivity to coin poetic terms – finalizing his semantic inspirations, we feel a certain connection of the “final reason” with the second stanza’s “death’s dangers”. The “final reason”, it seems, is how we react on our own mortality – either as slaves of human destiny or with a noble humility to accept the truth without being motivated by hysterical vanity that pushes many to search for power, wealth, fame, popularity and for supernatural protection or for dissolution into collective identity (making individual destiny as if dissolved). It’s a matter of a person’s ability to consider his/her future death as a final gift of life. This ultimate ability Eluard considers as an apogee of human being’s life time development “from the bottom of the child’s heart up.” *

The remarkable uniqueness of this poem is that it’s constructed as an interpretation of itself. Every stanza starts with conceptual generalization that later developed into its component images. This makes it possible for the readers not only to feel the mood of the poem but to get the poet’s understanding of a synchronized structure of the individual and societal life.

The use of conceptuality in the poem is part of its “honest justice” when the system of images corresponds to sophisticated common sense type of language designed for understanding of human life and destiny. With this poem Eluard, as if, seals the very destiny of human existence in rapport with disinterested human intelligence.

Paul Eluard (1895 – 1952)
Paul Eluard (1895 – 1952)

*The poem’s “final reason” may be a semantic derivative of (an unintended commentary on) Aristotle’s “final cause” of his theory of causation (in comparison with “material”, “formal” and “efficient” causes). To interpret individual death as the final cause of human life means to claim, that we are able to feel our death as a retrospective greeting of our whole life as an existentially spiritual achievement.

Man Ray, Portrait of Paul Eluard
Man Ray, Portrait of Paul Eluard

Comparing Eluard’s photo and Man Ray’s drawing we see that the artist did the nearly impossible. He transformed sensitivity of the poet into a monument and by this – vulnerability of sensitivity into solidity of monumentality. There is a place where humility is greeted as an authority. This place is genuine art. May be, Man Ray preferred to do a sketch of Eluard’s portrait instead of a painting exactly in order to keep the poet’s sensitivity alive – to reconcile it with a nimbus of authority.