Quid Est Iustitia?: The Search for Justice in Ancient Greece



     Progress, it is something that almost every nation from nearly every age of history claims to be making. But all too often, when we say we are making progress, we are really disregarding custom and tradition as old-fashioned and allowing what is relative to us to become the progress of our age. In the fifth century BC, this attitude of progressivism became common among the city-states of Greece and tradition was being lost. Justice became something relative, and with the new learning style of sophistry, people had the ability to prove that whatever they wanted was just. 

   In Athens especially, there was a great tendency toward a relativistic view of justice because there was a tendency toward individualism. Progressivism and abandonment of custom are most often clever disguises for the relativism of an individualistic democracy and the only way to have a good democracy is to instill in the people a common tradition and an objective understanding of justice. These ideals of progressivism, individualism, and sophist interpretations of justice are made clear in the historical writings of Thucydides as well as in the philosophical works of Plato. Moreover, Aristophanes ridicules this progressivism in his comedy, The Clouds.  

     In many Athenian speeches from Thucydides, we can observe the distinct ideals developing among the progressive Athens and the conservative Sparta. The root of the Peloponnesian War lies in the conflict of fundamental ideals between Sparta and Athens. In 446 BC, they made the “Thirty Years Peace” treaty that they would not attack one another nor interfere with one another’s allies. However, at an assembly in 432 BC, the Corinthians told the Spartans that this treaty had been broken. 

     Instead of denying this, the Athenians attempt to argue that the attainment of their empire is just because they were merely looking out for their own interest, saying: “It was not…contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us…And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. Besides, we believed ourselves to be worthy of our position…And praise is due to all who, if not so superior to human nature as to refuse dominion, yet respect justice more than their position compels them to do.” 

     For Athens, progress was made by following one’s own ambition and justice was not objective, but was a law made up by the stronger nation for its own interest. On the contrary, Sparta had a genuine respect for tradition and wisdom and believed rash ambition was unjust. In fact, Spartan King Archidamus says to his people: “We are both warlike and wise, and it is our sense of order that makes us so. We are warlike because self-control contains honour as a chief constituent, and honour bravery. And we are wise, because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws and with too severe a self-control to disobey them.” 

   Sparta scorns the progressivism of Athens because they see the importance of the old-fashioned customs and ideals of virtue. They associate justice with other virtues such as temperance, fortitude, wisdom, and piety. These conflicting views of justice between Sparta and Athens are also discussed by many sophists of the times, as shown in the writings of Plato. Athens’ view of justice is very similar to the argument of Thrasymachus against Socrates in Plato’s Republic. He defines what he believes to be justice, saying, “I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” 

     For both Thrasymachus and the Athenians, justice is not an objective law, but a rule made up by the stronger nation in order to have charge over the weaker. Since Athens is a democracy based on the will of the people, it naturally has an individualistic tendency. The emphasis of the individual good over the common good will naturally lead to relativistic ideals such as the ideal for which Thrasymachus argues. It is apparent that Athens is very individualistic, especially when Pericles says, “For all claims froman equal…be they great or be they small, have only one meaning, and that is slavery.” 

     He only cares for his own interest and he believes that if he has to give to another, he will become a slave. For Pericles, it is either individualism and the good of oneself or slavery and subjugation to another. On the other hand, Socrates portrays a good, just ruler as doing “always what is for the interest of his subject…and that alone he considers in everything he says and does.” Thus, for Socrates, justice is not at all as Thrasymachus and Pericles describe, but rather fundamentally aimed at the other rather than self. Socrates actually spoke against the progressivism and corrupt sophistry of Athens at his trial, saying: “Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money…and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?” 

     This progressive, individualistic, relativistic ideal of justice is also criticized by the Greek playwright, Aristophanes. In his comedy called The Clouds, Aristophanes attacks the new ideals becoming common in Athens. Phidippides represents this relativistic attitude when he is arguing with his father: “You will tell me, that according to the law, it is the lot of children to be beaten. But…was not the legislator who carried this law a man like you and me? In those days he got men to believe him; then why should not I too have the right to establish for the future a new law, allowing children to beat their fathers in turn? 

   The old tradition of Greece was that the gods were the source of the law and that they would deal out justice to the prideful. However, Phidippides shows how justice and law were becoming something that could be made up by anyone convincing or strong enough to enforce it. Like Thrasymachus and the Athenians, he cared primarily for his own good, and did not think law was for some common good, but was made by an individual for his own good. Aristophanes shows the stupidity in this relativism and how it is a result of disrespecting the Greek traditions. He shows that the proud idea that justice can be fitted to one’s own interest is a stupid idea, and this mindset leads to the humiliation and death of the characters who believed it. 

   Like Socrates and Thucydides, Aristophanes takes a jab at the progressivism of these new thinkers who dream of ridiculous things and ignore reality. We also get a hint at Aristophanes’ opinion of what justice is when the just and unjust discourse are debating. The just discourse says: “I will tell you what was the old education, when I used to teach justice with so much success and when modesty was held in veneration…all the youths of the same district…ranged in good order…not to be seen rousing his passion by soft modulation of the voice and lustful gaze.”

     This view of justice is very much like the view of King Archidamus of Sparta as reported by Thucydides. Both associate justice with self-control, order and discipline. Justice, for them, is more than an objective law, it is also an internal state of man’s character. But why is Athens’ view so much more relativistic than other views of justice? The real question is whether there is something in the nature of democracy that tends toward relativism and ultimately unjust tyranny? Since democracy has a great risk of individualism, as is shown in the words of Pericles and the Athenians, it seems like it is naturally at risk for relativistic tendencies as well. 

   As we see in the character of Phidippides and Thrasymachus, when one has the attitude that he ought to look out first and foremost for himself, it leads to him making up his own laws and his own justice. Individuals with this attitude often try to hide their false reasonings with the cry of progress and with rhetorical arguments of sophistry. They deny tradition as old-fashioned and no longer important, as the unjust discourse says, “What antiquated rubbish? Have we got back to the days of the festivals of Zeus?” He cleverly denies that he is being relativistic by claiming progress has led him to new methods of logic and rhetoric. 

   A weakness of democracy is that it is naturally tended towards individualism. Although democracy is meant to ensure liberty among the people, because it leads to relativistic ideals and each man looking out for himself, it can easily end up denying the freedom its meant to stand for. Josef Pieper says this most logically when he argues: 

     “The distinctive peculiarity of the democratic form of government as compared with monarchy consists above all…in the fact that the representative of the social whole is to a much greater extent the representative of particular groups or interests as well. Therefore, if ruling is tantamount to administering the general good of everyone…then the way in which democracy functions imposes the following tremendous moral burden upon the individuals…the limit is reached when it can no longer be expected of an individual that he place the bonum commune above his own particular interest.” 

   Here, Pieper points out the inevitable weakness of a fallen humanity and our natural tendency to put our own particular good before the good of the whole community. Since democracy is of the people, it is even more individuals all striving for their individual good instead of the common good, and this sounds a lot like the attitude of a tyrant. Thucydides talks about the nature of a tyrant, saying “tyrants” have the “habit of providing simply for themselves” and “looking solely to their personal comfort.” So the paradox is that democracy has a natural tendency to become what it is against, a tyranny. But how do we tackle this obstacle blocking the way towards a truly good democracy? 

     The only way to have a democracy that works is to have people with a common goal. A common custom and tradition would enable the cultural unity necessary for a democracy to be a good form of government because individuals would be striving for the same thing and be more likely to place the common good above their own particular good. Therefore, when the cry for progress becomes prevalent, we must ensure this progress does not involve a disrespect for tradition, for without tradition, we cannot have cultural unity. After exploring all of these ideals hidden by the cry of progress, we need to decide what ideas about justice are true. After all, we have not clearly answered the question of what is justice? 

    It seems that Socrates’ argument about justice being the art of the ruler is the most reasonable since most people say that a ruler is just when his subjects are treated well. Also, it makes sense that justice would be directed towards the other since all arts are directed toward their proper subjects. Justice, then, is definitely something directed towards the good of the other. However, there is much truth to the views of the Spartans and Aristophanes as well. King Archidamus and Aristophanes both said that justice was a virtue closely related to the other virtues such as fortitude, wisdom, discipline, and self-control. This makes sense, because a just ruler would need to have wisdom and courage in order to make good judgments and to follow through with just actions in the face of fear of ambitious men. Moreover, if justice is directed toward the good of the other, it requires denial of oneself, which means self control. 

     Therefore, justice is more than an art, it is “a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will.” Even the sophists and Athenians were right about justice 12 in a sense. They said justice was made by the strong, and this is true in the sense that men who are strong are more fit to rule and rulers make just laws. Plus, since justice is a virtue which a good ruler must possess, then justice is in a way made by the stronger man, although his laws are only just when in accordance with natural law. There is truth in each of the views about justice, but the most truth is found in combining the opinions of Socrates, King Archidamus and Aristophanes. 

   Therefore, justice is that virtue which we must all seek forever to attain by developing the habit of granting to each what is his due. This may mean ridding ourselves of relative ideas and giving what we owe to the social whole. It can also mean paying our debts to other individuals. For a ruler, it means determining what is due to an individual as a part of the community and according to what he contributes to the common good. All of these examples are different forms in which justice takes place. Furthermore, if we think about it in an allegorical sense, to be just requires the harmonizing of the parts of our soul, so that we may be united, whole, and ordered within ourselves. For only by being truly unified within ourselves, can we be totally united with the community and ultimately with the source of unity Himself.



Teresa Benedicta is a barefoot Cajun girl from Louisiana who hates shoes and loves running outside or walking the woods with no shoes on, feeling the dirt and grass between her toes. She also enjoys reading (her favorite book is “Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis), cooking, gardening and horseback riding. In the words of her confirmation saint, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she recognizes that “it is truth which prompts the searching human spirit into endless pursuit.” Her desire is to live the rest of her life in pursuit of Truth, and someday to have the privilege of sharing that truth with others as a teacher. She also dreams of one day living on a self-sustaining farm with a big family and lots of horses. For now, she is a student striving to obtain a classical education and grow in wisdom and virtue with the help of amazing teachers. She is thankful to have been introduced to the Fellowship, and hopes to become a better writer through it.