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The Latin phrase goes back to an old Greek principle of justice which translates literally into English as "to each his own". In Plato's Republic, Socrates offers the provisional definition that "justice is when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others' affairs" (Greek: "...τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν καὶ μὴ πολυπραγμονεῖν δικαιοσύνη ἐστί...", 4.433a). Everyone should do according to his abilities and capabilities, to serve the country and the society as a whole. Also, everyone should receive "his own" (e.g., rights) and not be deprived of "his own" (e.g., property) (433e). Aristotle took up this conception of distributive justice as an alternative to justice as fairness in his Nicomachean Ethics.
The Latin phrase was made famous by the Roman author, orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC): "Iustitia suum cuique distribuit." ("Justice renders to everyone his due." (De Natura Deorum, III, 38.) De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, liber V, 67: "(...) ut fortitudo in laboribus periculisque cernatur, (...), iustitia in suo cuique tribuendo." - "so that fortitude (courage) may be seen in hardship and danger, (...), justice in attributing to each his own".)
The phrase is also mentioned in the beginning of Justinian's Institutiones: iuris praecepta sunt haec: honeste vivere, alterum non laedere, suum cuique tribuere. (Inst. 1,1,3-4). (Translated into English: "the precepts of law are these: to live honestly, to injure no one, [and] to give to each his own".)
Suum cuique was the motto of the The Order of the Black Eagle (German: Hoher Orden vom Schwarzen Adler), the highest order of chivalry in King Frederick the Great's Kingdom of Prussia. The motto is still used by the German military police (the Feldjäger).
- Jedem das Seine ("To each what he deserves") - A German translation of the phrase. It became notorious for its use as a Nazi slogan displayed at the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp.
- Arbeit macht frei ("Work Makes you Free") - A Nazi propaganda slogan. Originally used by the various paramilitary Bauer ("Builder") and Helfer ("Helper") labor units, it became notorious as a slogan on the gates of concentration camps.