SUUM CUIQUE - A storied saying
Maybe the ad writers did not appreciate the historical context while using the phrase SUUM CUIQUE in the german translation „Jedem das Seine“ to promote a new coffee for their clients ESSO and TCHIBO in 2009. Maybe they did not know that it was used as a redicule of the jewish prisoner in the KZ Buchenwald, in whose gate these words were engraved. But „Ignorance is no defense“ - to answer with another phrase - and the accountable marketing people had to stop the campain immediately when the protests started (spiegel.de 2009).
For 2500 years people use the latin phrase SUUM CUIQUE. Some use it without any thinking about the historical meaning of this old saw, others appraise it as a tautologic phrase without any meaning because it offers no criterion which marks what everyone deserves. But if you look at the history of this words, you will find a long way of a saying that couches the initial point of any thinking about the constitution of justice. So it counts to the basic priciples of equality.
But what is the meaning of the phrase? Who had used it in which way in the past? And how can you use it today? Or can you only disuse it because of its youngest historical connotation?
To come up to the answers of these questions I want do to a historical excurs through the different contexts in which SUUM CUIQUE was used and abused in the past. Afterwards I want to answer the question, if the saying today is useful or useless. At this I also account for the conditions which in my opinion are relevant and have to be fulfilled if you use the saying today.
One saying - Many meanings
If you translate the latin phrase SUUM CUIQUE to english language, you will get two denotations with related meanings: „to each his own“ and „to each what he deserves“. But whenever it was used in the past, the authors exercised it in different intents related to their own philosophical and historical context.
Already Platon quotes his teacher Sokrates in the GORGIAS with the words „In my opinion, Polos, someone doing injustice or someone being inequitable is abject in any case, but more abject if he not achieves the right punishment for his legal wrong as if he will get his punishment from gods and humans“ (P, G, Polos 333). In his meaning justice is an effort or a function of the soul like hearing is a function of the body. Thereby a successful life is a life accordingly to the demand of justice.
In his POLITEIA Plato concluded that "justice is when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others affairs. (P, P, IV, 433a). Also, everyone should receive "his own" and not be deprived of "his own" (P, P, IV, 433e). In this way of thinking the character and the virtuousness of a person assigns „to each his own“ to everyone. The origin of a virtue character is grounded in personal skills and in the right form of eduacation. Also everyone should get and nobody should be taken of his own. (P, P, IV, 433e).
In Aristotle´s eyes justice means a comprehensive personal virtuousness that sorts „to each his own“ (A, R, 1, 9; 1366 b 9 ff). In his thinking fair acting is the conditio sine qua non in the quest for good which is similar to the quest for happiness. To act fair is based on true discernment and is aimed at individuals and at the democratic polis. In doing so Aristotle obais his firm conviction that justice belongs to „the best“ because it is both, the persons sake and the consequences for all people. So if you want to be happy, you have to act fair.
In the sense of the distribution justice of Arsitotle „to each his own“ is entitled to the performance of a person. So „to each his own“ could be different for different people with different performances but still can be fair. Thereby the performances are not allowed to contravene the law and have to be „performances accordingly to rationality“ (A, AE V, 2; 1129 b ff).
Aristotle agrees with Platon when he says in the 5. Book of Nicomachean Ethics that if somebody wants more than he deserves he produces disparity and contravenes justice. If somebody takes more than „his own“ he enriches himself at the expense of others and harms the community. But in his understanding „the just is something human“ (A, NE 1137a). So following the distribution justice of Aristotle every member of a society has to contribute his part to the collective. The condition for this theory of justice is an ideal state of „free and equal“ citizens which are variantly ruling and be ruled in a participating political structure.
Here is noticed that Aristotle does not give information what kind of justice „non-free“, „nonequal“ or „non-possessing“ men and women would have to expect.
SUUM CUIQUE goes his next step with the Roman politician, philosopher and speaker Marcus Tullius Cicero, who integrated the culture and education of the conquered Greek into the political and moral thinking of the Roman republic. In his opinion moral acting is the perfection of the rational natur of human beings. It is like acting motivated by special interests: what is moral is useful at the same time and vice versa. He opposes the Stoics who are thinking „what is moral is useful, but what is useful is not moral“ (M.T.C., DO V, 3, 11).
In Ciceros understanding someone is not allowed to draw advantages from disadvantages of others, not enrich oneself thus at the expense of others (M.T.C., DO, V, 5, 21 f). So he places the public interest above the individual interest because of his comprehension of the humans rational nature being realized in the public welfare.
A central role in the moral concept of Cicero is played by the four sources of morality. One of them is characterized as aim „(...) with the conservation of organized society, with rendering to every man his due, and with the faithful discharge of obligations assumed (M.T.C., DO, V, 15, 5). For him SUUM CUIQUE is a concret formula of right, which could be fulfilled in a objectivly right way through the rational nature of human beings and not as a moral imperativ only recognizable with a character of virtue.
The philosopher of the middle age and doctor of the church Thomas Aquinas interpretes justice as a question of adequacy which results in relations between people (TH.A., SE II.II, 57, 4). So he recommended different forms of justice between equal people - so free male citizen which are only under control of the state - and between unequal people.