Justice in Ancient and Modern Literature

Justice in Ancient and Modern Literature

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     The first blow of the machete landed on the boy. “My father, they have killed me!” he cried as he ran towards him. The father then drew his own machete and “cut him down.” In Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, this was justice. The boy was from another tribe, a payment for a misdeed, and his life was theirs to do with as they pleased. Justice is something that all of us have a notion of. However we differ in our implementation of it, we all know when it’s been violated. Many of the seeds of our modern idea of justice have existed for millennia. Those seeds comprise two basic forms based on Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian thought – Should justice be rooted on a higher ideal or is justice primarily something established by us in the here and now? For one justice my involve taking the life of another as just recompense for previous crimes while another my feel that standing for what is just would be something worth giving one’s own life for. And sadly one may put off embracing justice to the detriment of his own life and the lives of those around him.
     Plato, one of the great philosophers of the ancient world, approached the subject of justice by believing that an ideal form of it exists. He might say that it is something outside of ourselves that we strive to attain. He shows how Socrates (his teacher) would choose not to bow to popular opinion just because it was the majority view. “In questions of justice and injustice, and of the base and the honorable, and of good and evil…ought we to follow the opinion of the many?” (Plato: Crito) He mentions how others feel that they do not hold to a higher ideal but that “political decisions [are] supreme.” And he shows the Athenian view of the inequality of different groups of people.     “Can you deny that you are our child and our slave…? And if this be so do you think that your rights are on a level with ours?”
     Plato and Socrates both felt that a truth that one holds should be defended and upheld regardless of the personal cost in doing so. In the end Socrates concluded that it was better to die for the truth he believed in than to run from its consequences and be labeled hypocritical. He might use the phrase: Do what’s right, regardless of the price.

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In Crito it is written, “Is not acting unjustly evil and shameful in every case, whether we incur a heavier or lighter punishment as the consequence?
     Aristotle, the great pupil of Plato, would differ with his teacher’s worldview. As Plato points above indicating his belief in ideal forms and beliefs, his student, Aristotle points below emphasizing his view focusing on the hear and now. He did not focus on justice in ideal states, but he focused on the meaning of justice as it applied to his own time and form of government. He didn’t look at what might be considered justice to God, but in its outworking among men here on earth. Justice could not be applied across the board to everyone, as everyone is not equal. Freeborn males could discuss the question of what was just or equal among themselves because they were equals, and it was clear that not all classes of people were equal. A slave is not the equal of a citizen, a woman not the equal of a man and a barbarian not the equal of an Athenian. He emphasizes the supremacy of that state over the individual when he states in “A Definition of Justice” that people are “bad judges in their own affairs”. He feels that common people do not always choose wisely what is best for themselves. Perhaps it is necessary for the superior above them to make choices for them in matters of government. Aristotle does, however, support a democratic style of government. He feels that the decisions made by many tend to be more correct than decisions made by few.
     Moving to more modern times we see how the founders of our form of democracy decided to set up their view of justice. In the Declaration of Independence we see what Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. These include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He and our founding fathers alike felt that what was being done to them by the British monarchy amounted to tyranny and that it was the most just course of action to oppose and overthrow such a form of rule. Any laws governing people should not only be “for the good of the people”, but should also be “wholesome” in their application. It must be noted, however, that even then – thousands of years after the Aristotle’s time – “all men” referred to white landowners and not the wives they married nor the slaves they owned. Even our Electoral College was set up so the social elite could guard against the common man making the wrong decision in a popular vote. It seems that the founders of our country would agree with Aristotle that people would be bad judges of their affairs as well.
     Continuing on to our present century we examine Martin Luther King Jr’s view on justice. We see his view that unjust laws must be opposed. He felt obliged to bring his gospel of racial freedom to the areas around him because he realized the interconnectedness that we all share. As he wrote in Letter From Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He also snaps us out of our complacency with the phrase, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” King also feels that a man-made law must match with the law of God for it to be just.
Just as we see how Socrates stated his view on justice and was willing to accept the punishment for those views we see too how someone like King was willing to accept ridicule, imprisonment and eventual death at someone else’s hand for the sake of spreading and standing by his views. The female character Antigone from Sophocles work by the same name was also willing to face death – perhaps in our view an unjust punishment for her crime – for the actions that she chose that she felt were right. They were actions that she believed in, were willing to act on and were part of a higher divine code.
     We see too how Aristotle’s view of the supremacy of the state to make just policy is evidenced in King Creon from Antigone. His decision was law. He made no real appeal to law higher than himself and even refused to listen to his counselors or citizens around him. Creon learned too late about the interconnectedness that we share that King Jr spoke about – to his own ruin. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart we see how this Athenian view of different, unequal classes of people is mirrored in British imperialism. These foreigners have no problem destroying the culture of another country because of their self-perceived superiority.
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