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The Rise and Fall of Ancient Greek Justice: Homer to the Sermon on the Mount

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 2, No. 1.

I begin with the murders of two daughters, from two different sets of parents, and ask: How did their mothers react to these crimes?

Our first story goes back to Homer—or more accurately, to a story that (if based in fact) took place during the Greek Bronze Age, in the 13th century BC. This is the story of Iphigenia­, at the outset of the Trojan War (part of which is described so poignantly by Homer).1

A Trojan prince named Paris ran off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, who was the brother of Agamemnon, the mightiest of the Greek kings. Agamemnon responded by leading the Greeks against Troy, and he did so in the name of justice and with Zeus’s blessing. The Greek ships and troops—from all over the Greek mainland and islands—met at Aulis, from which they would together launch their attack on Troy. But the north winds pinned them down. A seer told the Greek leaders the reason for their misfortune: the goddess Artemis wants blood, and the only way to satisfy her is for Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia­.2 So Agamemnon is faced with a choice: Go home and spare his child, or sacrifice his child and go to war. He chooses the latter: the possibility of victory in war—with the honor, plunder, and revenge that entails—over his own daughter’s life and his own family’s happiness.

How did Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, take this?3

Back in Argos, she took a lover (Aegisthus, a cousin and enemy of Agamemnon) and patiently waited for the war to end, and for her husband to return. After ten years, she hears that the war is over, and is waiting for Agamemnon when he arrives. She acts like a dutiful wife, welcomes him with open arms, beckons him into the palace to take a bath, and when he does so, she kills him brutally. (She also kills the Trojan princess Cassandra, one of Agamemnon’s prizes.) In Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon, the killing occurs offstage. Clytemnestra appears afterward, covered in blood, and declares:

So long my mind has been preparing for this, this trial of ancient vendetta. Now the day has come, I stand here where I struck, and the deed is done. This was my work, I do not deny it; he could not have escaped his destiny. I cast my vast net, tangling around him, wrapping him in a robe rich in evil. I struck him twice and he screamed twice, his limbs buckled and his body came crashing down, and as he lay there, I struck him again, a third blow for Underworld Zeus, the savior of the dead. He collapsed, gasping out his last breath, his life ebbing away, spitting spurts of blood, which splattered down on me like dark sanguine dew. And I rejoiced just as the newly sown earth rejoices, when Zeus sends the nourishing rain on young crops (lines 1377–92).4

Clytemnestra believes justice is on her side—that Agamemnon got what he deserved.

Some ancient Greeks would have questioned Clytemnestra’s actions, saying, for example, that she should not have killed Cassandra, who was an innocent; and that, as a woman, she should not have taken it upon herself to decide the fate of a great king. But the Greeks would have understood her claim that, in killing Agamemnon, she acts from justice—that it was understandable and right for a parent to act this way in response to the murder of her child.

We now move more than three millennia into the future. The year is 1993. Amy Biehl, a 23-year-old Stanford University graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship, is working in South Africa, around the time apartheid is coming to an end, for what she considers “social justice.” She devotes most of her time to altruistic causes.

On the evening of August 25, she was driving through the Gugulethu township outside of Cape Town, when she encountered a Pan-African student organization, chanting—among other things—“One Settler, One Bullet” (i.e., they believed white farmers should be shot). When they saw this white woman, they stopped her, dragged her from the car, and proceeded to beat, kick, stone, and stab her to death.

Four of the men involved were found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in prison.

In 1997—four years after the murder—they applied for amnesty under the terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995. How did the parents of Amy Biehl react? They flew to South Africa and spoke in favor of amnesty for the murderers of their daughter. They shook hands with these men, and spoke of the need for going into the future with arms linked.

The murderers of Amy Biehl, with the help of her parents, were released in July 1998. Two of them were later hired by the Biehls to work as employees of the Community Baking Trust in Cape Town, delivering loaves of Amy’s Bread: The Bread of Hope and Peace.

We know what Clytemnestra did a decade after the murder of Iphigenia. In contrast, approximately a decade after the murder of Amy Biehl, her mother stated in an interview: “They are not murderers, but they are amazing and beautiful young men.” Bishop Desmond Tutu commented: “What was so remarkable was not only that they forgave the killers of their daughter, but that they went so far as to rehabilitate them.”5

What accounts for these two radically different reactions to the death of one’s child? That is what I want to make clear, for the difference, fundamentally, is that one is the expression of ancient Greek justice, and the other of the Christian conception of justice. In what follows I show that on the issue of justice, the ancient Greeks eventually came admirably close to the truth—a truth that was then overturned by the triumph of Christianity, a fact that still haunts us today.

“If God did not exist, everything would be possible”—that is to say, morally possible or permissible. This line (mistakenly attributed to Dostoyevsky), and how different thinkers have reacted to the thought behind it, will help frame the rest of my discussion.

Broadly speaking, there are three reactions that one can have to this line:

  1. It is true, and moreover, there is a God. Therefore, it is argued, it is not the case that everything is morally permissible.6 Because of the existence (and dictates) of God, some actions are right and others are wrong. This is the oldest view; it represents the traditional attempts to link religion and morality (including justice).
  2. It is true, but God does not exist. Therefore, everything is morally permissible. The possibility of moral absolutes depends on the existence of a powerful God who issues moral commands, but there is no such entity (or no reason to believe there is). Therefore, anything goes. In the ancient world, this is the position of the Sophists.
  3. It is false. It is not the case that moral absolutes are impossible without the existence of God. The best representative of this view in the ancient Greek world is Aristotle, though it is also held by Socrates and (in part) Plato. (I include Plato because he would consider himself to be in this category, though as we shall see, he does to some extent rely on the gods.)

Let us look at the first of these, in the context of the history of ancient Greek thought.

Traditional Ancient Greek Justice

We return to Homer.

The central conflict of Homer’s Iliad involves Agamemnon and Achilles. While the Greeks were besieging Troy, they sometimes plundered nearby cities. Among the booty they carried off from one city was Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo. She became Agamemnon’s prize. When her father came to pay a ransom to get her back, Agamemnon refused. So this devoted father prayed to Apollo for justice, and the god answered with a plague on the Greeks.

A seer told the Greeks to send the girl “back to her father without price, without ransom, and lead also a blessed hecatomb to him” (1.98–100).7 Agamemnon agrees (in a manner of speaking): “I am willing to give her back, if such is the best way. Find me then some prize that shall be my own, lest I only among the Greeks go without, since that were unfitting” (1.116–19). Justice and honor, Agamemnon believes, demanded that he take the prize of another prominent Greek. So he takes Briseis from Achilles.

Achilles, of course, is not pleased, finding the new arrangement unfair—especially given the role he has played in the fighting:

Always the greater part of the painful fighting is the work of my hands; but when the time comes to distribute the booty Agamemnon’s is far the greater reward, and I with some small thing yet dear to me go back to my ships when I am weary with fighting (1.165–68).

So Achilles withdraws from the fighting, and asks Zeus to punish the Greeks, which he does. The result is military disaster for the Greeks.

For the sake of Greek victory, Agamemnon apologizes to Achilles and promises to set things right, but Achilles is not interested. The Greeks are saved only much later when Achilles returns to the fighting—not owing to any kind of reconciliation, but to avenge the death of his dearest friend, Patrocles, who was killed by Hector. Achilles kills Hector, and treats his body horribly. Only then is a genuine reconciliation possible between Achilles and Agamemnon. The Greeks, now united, go on to defeat the Trojans. Zeus made sure that justice was done. As the classicist Hugh Lloyd-Jones writes, “just as the Trojans will finally receive rough justice in return for their aggression against Menelaus, both Agamemnon and Achilles receive rough justice for their injustice to each other and the rest of the [Greeks] perpetrated during their quarrel.”8 Achilles lost Patrocles and is killed toward the end of the war; Agamemnon suffered defeat—however temporary—and lost face, and he is killed by his wife upon his return from Troy.

Homer’s Odyssey also illustrates well the Homeric idea that justice demands that virtue be rewarded and vice punished. After ten years of fighting, it takes Odysseus another ten years to return home. He finds that despite the efforts of a number of suitors who want a chance at Penelope’s hand and his wealth, Penelope has been patient and faithful, and his son, Telemachus, has acted nobly and devotedly. In the end, the virtuous Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus emerge successful. This is not a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that Odysseus succeeds in killing all of the suitors. Moreover, when he is finished, the nurse Eurykleia tells him that of his fifty serving women, twelve acted immorally with the suitors. So Odysseus instructs Telemachus:

Lead all these maidservants out of the well-built palace between the round-house and the wall of the courtyard, and hew them with the thin edge of the sword, until you have taken the lives from all, and they forget Aphrodite, the goddess they had with them when they lay secretly with the suitors (22.419–45).9

Again, this is “rough justice.”

The conception of justice underlying the action of Homer’s epics runs throughout much of Greek culture, from before Homer and Hesiod (in the 8th century BC) through the acme of Greek classical culture in the 5th century, and well beyond. I call this the traditional Greek conception of justice. What is its nature?

The poet Simonides provides us with a formula with which most Greeks would agree: “It is just to give to each what is owed.” But this is too general. It does not tell us much about the precise nature of justice. In the first book of Plato’s Republic, the character Polemarchus elaborates on it: “Justice is helping friends and harming enemies.”10 Similarly, the 6th century BC poet and statesman Solon wrote: “So shall I bring pleasure to friends and pain to my enemies.” And note that harming enemies is a crucial component. For example, the 7th century BC poet Archilocus wrote: “One main thing I understand, to come back with deadly evil at the man who does me wrong.”11

Central to the traditional Greek conception of justice is the idea of helping friends and harming enemies: One must truly help the former and seriously harm the latter. To do otherwise is dishonorable and dangerous. But who counts as friends, and who are one’s enemies? “Friends” would include one’s closest companions, one’s family, those in the same socioeconomic class, fellow citizens, fellow Greeks, those who have treated you well and honorably (i.e., acted virtuously toward you). Enemies would include the opposite: anyone outside your circle of close friends, family, class, city; non-Greeks; those who treat you ignobly. For example, Achilles’ friends include Patrocles, the soldiers under his command, noblemen, Ithacans, Greeks joined in the fight against Troy, all who have treated him well. His enemies include Hector, the Trojans, the non-Greek cities along the way that he plundered, and Agamemnon (at least for a time).

We can already see a problem with this conception of justice: What counts as friend and enemy is not stable. For example, Agamemnon’s move from one of Achilles’ chief friends to one of his enemies is extremely swift. Note too the (partially) collective nature of traditional Greek justice. It is certainly true that a just person, according to this conception, judges individuals and acts accordingly: Odysseus singled out his disloyal maidservants for punishment. Still, there is a strong collective element—justice demands we help some groups and harm other groups: Help the Greeks and harm the Trojans because Menelaus (a fellow Greek) was dishonored; plunder non-Greek towns because they are non-Greek—not tied to you; the sins of a father or brother may be paid for by the sons or brothers. For example, Aegisthus helped to kill Agamemnon because of the crime Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) committed against Theystes (Aegisthus’s father).

Here’s another example: From Odysseus’s perspective, he was just in dispatching the suitors; but from the point of view of the suitors’ kin, justice demands the punishment of Odysseus. Only the intervention of Zeus stops the bloodshed:

Now that noble Odysseus has punished the suitors, let the relatives of the suitors make their oaths of faith and friendship, and let him be king always; and let us make them forget the death of their brothers and sons, and let them be friends with each other, as in the time past, and let them have prosperity and peace in abundance (24.482–86).

This collectivist element in the traditional conception of Greek justice is the source of a huge problem that later thinkers will try to solve; in fact, Homer may be presenting this as a problem.

Note that in this last passage from the Odyssey, it is Zeus who brings about a resolution and thus peace—and since Zeus is the cause, who would dare say it is not just? This provides a good example of the source and purpose of justice according to the traditional Greek conception: Justice is a gift from the gods that enables humans to live in peace and prosperity.

Hesiod, in his Theogony and especially in his Works and Days, applies Homeric justice (which reflected Bronze Age warrior culture, at least as conceived by Homer) to his own, 8th-century BC agrarian context. The gods are the source of moral law and the punishers of those who transgress it. For the gods, Zeus “made a fair settlement and gave each his domain” (Theogony 73–74) and he laid down the laws for humans (Works and Days 276). It is this god-given moral law that sets us apart from the animals: “fish and wild beasts and winged birds know not of justice and so eat one another,” but justice Zeus “gave to men” (Works and Days 277–79).12 Justice is often treated as a goddess. In fact, she is a daughter of Zeus—he is the source of justice—and she complains to her father when men are unjust.

Aside from the idea that justice is a god, this conception is an important cultural achievement, for the Greeks have identified a crucial difference between human beings and animals, as well as a connection between justice and the well-being of humans. But other aspects of their conception will undercut this connection and seem to dim the line dividing man and beast.

We find in Homer and Hesiod the idea that just actions lead to rewards from the gods, whereas unjust actions lead to punishment. For instance, Hesiod writes that for “those who give straight verdicts and follow justice,” their city “blossoms,” and they experience peace and suffer neither famine nor blight (Works and Days 225–39). But Zeus is harsh to those who are unjust, and often “one man’s wickedness ruins a whole city,” as Zeus sends down on anyone who breaks the divine law “famine and plague, and the people wither away, women bear no children, families die off, by the will of Zeus the Olympian” (Works and Days 240–45). In fact, that unjust people pay for their crimes is taken as evidence for the existence of the gods. As Odysseus says after the death of the suitors, “you gods of Olympus . . . still rule on high if those suitors have truly paid in blood for all their reckless outrage” (Odyssey 24.351–52). But are there not people who commit crimes without receiving divine punishment? Not in the long run. “If [Zeus] at once has not finished this matter [i.e., punished those who violated an oath], late will he bring it to pass, and they must pay a great penalty, with their own heads, and with their women, and with their children” (Iliad 4.157–162).

According to Homer and Hesiod, and many Greeks long after them, the gods gave man the potential for justice, since justice is necessary for a civilized existence. Although some wars can be just, Homer makes it clear that justice promotes peace and prosperity. In fact, Homer presents—as an alternative to a just, civilized, peaceful society—the Cyclopes, who embody injustice. Homer calls them lawless, and elaborates: “These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels; rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others” ( Odyssey 9.112–15). Odysseus wants to “learn what they are, whether they are savage and violent, and without justice, or hospitable to strangers and with minds that are godly” (9.174–76). Odysseus discovers that they have no concern for the gods or morality, and thus are cannibals (or rather, they eat humans). Just institutions, combined with a respect for the gods who are their source, would (it was thought or hoped) prevent Greek culture from collapsing into the horrors of Cyclopedian existence. But as Homer’s works themselves at times imply, and as later playwrights and philosophers would come to point out, there were problems with the traditional Greek conception of justice—including precisely its ability to promote peace and security and prosperity.

Knowing the problems inherent in the traditional Greek conception is crucial for the study of the rest of the history of ancient Greek justice. Here are three major (and related) problems.

  1. There is no firm, secure, rational foundation to this conception of justice. Thus, it is easy to topple if subjected to philosophical scrutiny—which is, historically, what happens.
  2. There are conflicts among, or contradictions between, the various obligations or claims of justice: city vs. family; friend vs. family or city; friend, family, or city vs. one who is virtuous. For example, Agamemnon was the leader of the Greeks who set out for Troy, and so justice demands that Achilles obey and respect him; but Agamemnon acted against Achilles’ interests and honor, and so justice demands that Achilles harm him.
  3. Justice is supposed to lead to a civilized existence. But in fact, aspects of this conception of justice can itself bring about barbarity and an endless cycle of violence. There is an excellent portrayal of this in Aeschylus’ Oresteia (Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, so Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon, so Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra. . . . How will it end?).13

In what follows, I investigate some responses or alternatives to this conception of justice, beginning with the Sophists.

The Sophists

The Sophists were a group of thinkers who appeared in the 5th century BC and traveled around ancient Greece—primarily Athens—claiming to be able to teach rhetoric (and in fact the ability to argue successfully for any position). They are a brief, but important, chapter in the history of ancient Greek thought.

Recall the line: “If God did not exist, everything would be possible.” The Sophists clearly accepted the truth of this idea, while denying the existence of the gods (or our knowledge of whether they exist). For example, the earliest and most famous Sophist, Protagoras, wrote, at the opening of one of his books: “Concerning the gods I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist.”14 The Sophist Critias held that some clever person invented the gods, with the hope that wrongdoers would be frightened of sinning in secret. Clearly, if the gods do not exist, according to these thinkers, everything is permissible. Humans invent moral and legal codes to keep from killing each other.

Unlike their modern counterparts, who tend to be pessimistic and deeply malevolent (e.g., Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Rorty), the Sophists were optimistic. Because we do not know if the gods exist, anything is morally permissible. Far from being a depressing prospect, in their view, this is liberating, both epistemologically and morally. It opens up all kinds of possibilities for human reason (as they saw it) and human action.

Not only did the Sophists reject traditional Greek religion, they also rejected much of pre-Socratic philosophy. The Sophists thought the pre-Socratics were correct in showing that there was no rational justification for believing in the gods of Olympian religion. (For example, Thales predicted an eclipse, which makes it difficult to claim with any reasonableness that eclipses are caused by the gods.) But the Sophists rejected the natural philosophy of the pre-Socratics, too, because they concluded that the pre-Socratics had no knowledge about the nature of reality. In fact, the Sophists most likely thought that the pre-Socratics themselves illustrated how well one could use reason to demonstrate virtually anything about the nature of reality (Thales said everything is water; Anaximenes said everything is air; Heraclitus said everything is in flux; Parmenides said nothing moves; Democritus said everything is atoms in a void; etc.). Pre-Socratic science shows, the Sophists no doubt would argue, that we know nothing about reality but can use our reason to prove anything. And since we have no reason to believe the gods exist, anything goes (though in a court of law or political assembly, one may argue that this or that position or policy is correct—with a view to whatever one feels constitutes one’s own advantage).

The most famous sophistic line is from Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.” And we should take this quite broadly. Anyone—or anyone who possesses the rhetorical skills of the Sophists (which can be learned for a price)—can prove any claim that one finds desirable. That is the power and efficacy of reason. Gorgias displayed this skill by “proving” that nothing exists; that if something did exist, it could not be known; and, if something could be known, it could not be communicated.15 So think what a person armed with sophistic rhetorical skills could do in the political assembly or the law courts. Anything he desires. He could get OJ Simpson acquitted—or innocent lacrosse players convicted.

It should be no surprise to discover what this sophistic skepticism and relativism implied about justice. Justice too must be relative to each particular person and/or each particular culture. I will focus on Antiphon the Sophist.

Antiphon made explicit an important distinction in sophistic thought, a distinction between nature (phusis) and law or convention (nomos). Correspondingly, he made a distinction between what is true by nature (physical reality, mathematical truths, human nature—including the fact that we feel pleasure and pain, and have all sorts of physical needs and desires) and what is true by convention. It is possible that Antiphon was not as much of a skeptic about nature as some other sophists, but he certainly was when it came to moral philosophy. For justice, he wants to argue, is pure convention. It is something that people make up.

He defines justice as obeying the law in whatever city you happen to be in. (And “law” here can refer both to legal laws and moral “conventions.”) That is simply what justice is. Now when asked, “Should I be just?” (which means, should I obey the laws and conventions of the city I’m in), his response is, “That depends.” He makes the following distinction between nature and law. The edicts of nature, he says, must be obeyed, whether or not people are watching. There is no getting away with not breathing, eating poison, ignoring the law of gravity. But if no one is watching—if you can be sure that you will not get caught—what negative consequences are there to not telling the truth, taking what does not belong to you, ignoring the law prohibiting homicide? None. On the contrary, since most laws limit or contradict what nature tells us to do—that is, follow pleasures and avoid pain, do what is to your own advantage, and so on—it is often the case that not following the laws (i.e., being unjust) is something you ought to do, if you can get away with it. If you cannot escape detection, then it would be against your interest—you would end up imprisoned or executed.

So according to the Sophists, justice is a convention invented to help achieve security for people (that is justice as a social contract, which seems to be the view of Protagoras) or to help exploit the suckers who are stupid enough to believe what their parents told them about the gods and morality and obeying the law (this is the view of Thrasymachus, which follows logically from Antiphon’s). Answering the Sophists, without relying on or returning to religion and the gods, became the challenge to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.16


Socrates, Plato’s teacher, believed that there were moral absolutes, for example, that there was something in reality called “justice,” and that its nature was not relative to any person or culture. The problem, he believed, was that no one had discovered what these moral truths were, including Socrates. (This is the famous Socratic disavowal of knowledge: The only thing he claims to know is that he doesn’t know anything.) The best human life is found in the attempt to discover these truths, and even in their absence to try to live as virtuously as possible. Socrates tried without success to discover them, and chastised people for thinking they knew what morality was (and acting accordingly) when in fact they did not.

Plato took Socrates as his starting point, but was not satisfied with asking questions without getting answers. His most famous and extensive work is the Republic, which in the ancient world was given the subtitle On Justice. Justice is the initial concern of the work, and all of its excursions into the rest of philosophy—from the theory of Forms to the communism of the best city—purportedly aim at providing a complete picture of justice and a defense of the just life.

The first half of the Republic is largely an attack on the sophistic conception of justice, and the presentation of an alternative conception that Plato wants to demonstrate is both true and conducive to an individual’s own happiness. Plato argues that the Sophists are wrong to think that justice is relative, and they are wrong to think that one is better off being unjust if one can get away with it. He tries to show that it is better to be just and imprisoned or tortured on the rack than to be unjust and the ruler of a wealthy kingdom.

Plato’s arguments in this section of the Republic are relatively good.17 He tries to demonstrate that justice is something real by connecting it to certain truths about human nature; for example, that the human soul has three parts—reason, spirit,18 and the appetites—and that a just person is someone whose reason is in control, with the support of spirit, which together keep the bodily appetites and desires in check. People are unjust—they are prone to committing acts of injustice—when their appetites are in control, being more powerful than reason. In such cases, reason is the slave of appetites. That is what leads people to commit theft, rape, murder—and to become tyrants. Why should one not be unjust, if one can get away with it? Plato argues that that is like asking whether you would rather be poor and healthy, or wealthy and riddled with a horrible disease. For justice is nothing but the health of the soul. No rational person, Plato concludes, would prefer being a slave to his passions over being in control (i.e., having his reason rule in his soul).

Whatever problems there are with this conception of justice, I submit that had Plato stopped here and done nothing else, this would have been a decent first step on the part of philosophy in attempting to discover a rational conception of justice. But Plato did not stop here. If he had, he would not have been a Platonist.

I suspect that Plato did not stop here because a part of him accepted some version of the idea that if the gods did not exist, anything is permissible. He seemed to have believed that a secular conception of justice based on reason and the observable nature of humans cannot successfully defeat the Sophists. What are needed are moral truths (and every other kind of truth) that are not merely the result of natural cognition about the physical world, but that exist in their own right, apart from this world—and, in fact, are more real than this ever-changing physical world. These are the Platonic Forms. The physical world is an imperfect reflection of the Forms—it has its quasi-existence as a result of sharing in the Forms. The account of justice given in the first half of the Republic is, at best, an impression or imitation of the Form of Justice. If the Forms do not exist, everything is permissible; fortunately, the Forms exist.

Plato was not even content to stop here. In the Republic and elsewhere, he felt the need to embellish this sort of account with myths about the afterlife and how what happens to us in the afterlife is determined by how we behave on earth. Only then can the case against the Sophists be complete. So his solution to the problem of justice is not really a rejection of the traditional conception of justice, as founded on the existence of the gods, but a new, more philosophically sophisticated version of it, replacing the gods for the most part with Forms. It is old wine in new bottles; and this philosophical defense of metaphysical dualism, including the soul-body dichotomy, as a foundation to a proper conception of justice, inevitably warps Greek justice, and takes us a step closer to Christianity.

Before we leave Plato, let me mention another step in this direction. One idea held by Socrates, and later stressed by Plato, is that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Now, Plato is certainly right to say that it is better to be just than to commit an injustice. (Kira Argounova dying on the border of the USSR is better off egoistically than Comrade Sonia rising through the ranks of the Communist Party or Tonia tanning herself in the Crimea.)19 We cannot fault Plato for defending this view. But he goes beyond it to hold that if given a choice, a person is better off suffering injustice than committing it; and further, he holds what he takes to be a related position, namely, that justice can never involve the harming of another person (even punishment must always be therapeutic). I cannot be certain, because I have not researched the influence of these ideas on subsequent moral thought (and particularly Christian thought), but I suspect that there may be a connection between these ideas and the moral propriety of turning the other cheek—of not answering evil with “evil.”


We turn now to Aristotle—the climax of the ancient Greeks.

First, Aristotle rejects the idea that moral absolutes require either the Platonic Form of Justice or the possibility of punishments and rewards in the afterlife. He explicitly critiques and rejects the Platonic Forms—their existence, and their value as moral ideals—and holds that there is not much of an afterlife (if any).20

Second, Aristotle’s moral philosophy is nonetheless absolutist (he is not a relativist), and in his view it is based on reason and the facts of reality—especially the nature of human beings. Further, he argues that there are connections between reason and moral virtue and human happiness—that only a rational, virtuous person can be happy—and that one ought to be happy, that that is the highest good.21

There are flaws in Aristotle’s moral philosophy—for example, in his derivation and definition of the virtues, and their nature as means between two extremes—but I will not discuss those here. Instead, I want to focus on his conception of justice, and particularly what is good about his conception of justice.

According to Aristotle, moral virtue is the state of character by which one can rationally choose the mean (relative to oneself). This applies (somewhat artificially) to justice as well, which Aristotle believes is a mean between two extremes (more on this shortly). Aristotle devotes all of Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics to justice.22 He tells us at the outset that this is a complex concept, because “justice” (dikaiosunê) can refer (1) to what is lawful; (2) to virtue generally, considered in relation to other people; and (3) to what is fair or equal. It is this special sense of justice as fairness or equality that concerns him, and us, the most.

According to Aristotle, there are two kinds of justice in the specific sense: rectificatory and distributive. Rectificatory justice concerns exchanges between humans: proper, voluntary ones, in which case this justice deals with economic exchanges (e.g., what is a fair price to set on a product you are selling), or criminal, non-voluntary ones, in which case this is concerned with proper punishment and restitution. Distributive justice deals with “distributions of honor, or money, or the other things to be divided up among citizens.” In all these cases, justice requires giving the persons involved what is fair, what is right, what is deserved—in a particular context. Justice is the mean: giving the person the fair amount. Injustice is either the excess or deficiency: giving a person more or less than he deserves.

Cases of distributive justice all involve something to be distributed—affection, honor, jobs, money to be bequeathed, political offices, and so on—and the parties to whom these things are to be or could be distributed. Egalitarianism would, of course, say: Distribute everything strictly equally, or equally according to need, or the like. What does Aristotle say? I will emphasize two points: (1) The distribution must be “according to worth,” which depends on the context and a certain standard of what is worthy or good; and (2) this justice is based on “a kind of proportion.” Justice is equal in that those who are of the same worth (in a certain relevant context) deserve the same goods and/or treatment, and unequal in that those who are not the same do not deserve the same goods and/or treatment. Further, where two parties are unequal, what each receives should be proportionate to the degree of inequality, that is, to how different they are. Aristotle gives a political example: According to advocates of aristocracy (Aristotle is arguably one), all citizens with a certain high degree of practical wisdom must have access to the highest political offices (and in this sense justice demands equality); but those citizens without the requisite practical wisdom will not be allowed to hold such offices (and in this sense, justice demands inequality). Or suppose someone owns a company and wants to hire two new people, and has x amount of dollars per year that he can offer them as a salary. He goes through all of the applicants and chooses the two best people. They are not best in just any sense—the best human beings, the most beautiful, the best athletes—but best in the present context: their computer-programming abilities, say. Now, what to pay these two? According to Aristotle, if they are basically equal, they should be paid the same; if they are not, they should be paid unequally, though proportionate to their relative worth.

Aristotle writes that it is proportional reciprocity (i.e., justice), not strict equality, that holds a city-state together. He then adds that people should seek to return “evil” for evil and good for good, because not returning evil for evil “seems to be slavery.” Aristotle sees the importance of returning evil for evil—for if a person does not return evil for evil, he is acting like a slave, not a genuine human being (because a slave must take whatever his master dishes out with no expectation of fairness or giving anything back). And Aristotle also sees the importance of returning good for good—what Ayn Rand calls the trader principle—for not doing so means that “there is no giving in exchange,” or again, as she might put it, there is no exchanging value for value, and hence no economy and no political community.

Aristotle gives Greek justice a decent—this-worldly, rational—philosophical base. His conception of justice is not collectivistic, but focused primarily on individuals. We must judge others—within a context, and according to a rational standard—and then act accordingly, returning good for good, and evil for evil. Whatever its limitations, Aristotle gives us the ancient Greek conception of justice at its best, without the flaws that plagued the Homeric and Platonic conceptions, and with an answer to the Sophists.


Let us now move more than four hundred years into the future, to Christianity and its radically different approach to justice.23 As on so many other issues, Christianity represents a complete rejection of all that the Greeks had accomplished.24 First, the Christian account of morality in general and justice in particular is a return to the primitive view that connects God and morality. On this view, it is the existence of God that prevents a situation of anything goes. Second, as we shall see, Christianity represents a complete rejection of what is good about the Greek conception of justice: the importance of making moral judgments, and the idea that one must return good for good and “evil” for evil.

Two aspects of the philosophical basis of Christianity are needed to understand the Christian conception of justice: (1) In metaphysics, Christians are dualists, and like all dualists, they regard one realm of reality as more valuable than the other. Heaven is more important than earth; the spirit is more important than the flesh. Everything of actual value is set aside, in a realm apart from earth and out of the reach of actual humans on earth. (2) In epistemology, faith is superior to reason—and this makes it easier to defend the irrational in ethics, and especially to sacrifice the rational for the sake of something “higher.”25

To discover the essence of the Christian conception of justice, we must turn to the Gospel According to Matthew, and follow Jesus up the mount on which he gave his famous sermon.26 We learn from Matthew and St. Paul’s First Corinthians, and other books of the New Testament, that the good is simply obedience to God. Or to put it another way: To be good is to focus on, give reverence to, regard as valuable, the realm of spirit, of God and heaven; and as a corollary of this, being good involves turning away from the things of the world—the things of the flesh. Here is Matthew 6:20–21:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.27

The Christian conception of justice is an aid to, and an expression of, this turning away from the world—from living in the world rationally. For as the ancient Greeks recognized, justice is—like the other virtues—a means of living in the world.

Now some might think that Christianity is somewhat consistent with the Greek conception of justice, because of the Golden Rule—basically, the injunction to do unto others as you would have them do unto you (see Matthew 7:12). But this rule has no content outside of any context. (In fact, elevating this to a context-less absolute duty is precisely the function of Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative.)28 In the context of a rational morality, the Golden Rule is fine, if taken as an endorsement of integrity—to mean, for instance, that whatever code of ethics I think is correct for me I must regard as correct for others. But in the Christian context, the Golden Rule means something very different—for example, that I should love others unconditionally just as I should want them to love me unconditionally—and that is not an endorsement of a rational conception of justice.

Let us look more carefully at the Christian conception of justice. In what follows, I look briefly at seven interrelated points.29

1. Do not judge others.

As Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Matthew 7:22). According to Christianity, judgment is not any of our business. Who are you to judge? Who am I to judge? Clearly, implicit in this notion (and scattered throughout the New Testament and the writings of the early Church fathers) is the idea that human beings are all fundamentally worthless—we are all sinners. So, Christianity demands, attend to yourself and do not judge others.

2. Love everyone, including your enemies.

If we do not judge others, how should we treat them? Jesus tells us, in a manner that makes explicit his repudiation of ancient Greek justice. Recall that at this time, in the ancient Mediterranean, Greek was widely spoken (it is the language of the New Testament), and Greek ideas were still in the air. In what is the most anti-justice passage in the Bible (from the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus explicitly responds to both the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek conceptions of justice. First, the Hebrew (or Old Testament) conception of justice: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus next sets his sights on Greek justice:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans [tax collectors] the same? . . . Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:38–48).

Note that although we are not to judge others, this does not mean that all people are, in fact, the same (though we are all the same compared to God—that is, none of us is perfect, and we are all deserving of damnation). Jesus is saying that there are the good and the evil, but that we must treat them both the same. This is the death of justice.

From God’s point of view, we are all unworthy of salvation. But He is willing to overlook this, cut us miles of heavenly slack, and give us a chance to enter paradise. So if we wish to be as God-like as possible, we should do the same and forgive all those who are unworthy of forgiveness. This is what Amy Biehl’s parents were doing in forgiving the murderers of their child—they were trying to be perfect, like God.

3. Forgive everyone everything.

Loving others and following the Christian injunction not to judge those who are evil involve practicing forgiveness. According to the Greek conception of justice and others like it, forgiveness per se is not wrong—in a proper context, where the person who seeks forgiveness has acted to deserve it—though some acts (and certainly the murder of a loved one) are forever beyond forgiveness.30 But how much should a good Christian forgive? The Bible tells us:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not . . . Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matthew 18:21–35).

So, in effect, forgive everyone everything—if you would like God to forgive you (which you should, you worthless sinner).

4. Love others as you love yourself.

In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus presents the two greatest commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (22:37–40). So Jesus says that we should love others as we love ourselves. Does this imply that he is not fully committed to altruism, and self-immolation for the sake of undeserving others? No. Jesus is surely not saying: Be a rational egoist, and then try to regard all other people the way you view yourself—as a prime value. For, as Dostoyevsky pointed out, it is impossible for an egoist to love every other person the way he loves himself. So the only way to obey this divine injunction is to eradicate yourself and love yourself in the same nameless, un-special way that a Christian loves all others. This is from the notes Dostoyevsky wrote while composing The Idiot: “To love a person, as oneself, according to Christ’s commandment, is impossible. The law of the self is binding on earth. The I stands in the way.” But here, as elsewhere, Christ shows us the way:

To destroy that I, to give it away in its entirety to each and everyone, completely and unconditionally. That is the greatest happiness. In this way, the law of I merges with the law of humanism, and in that merger, both the I and the all . . . are mutually destroyed for each other. . . . And that is what the paradise of Christ is.31

And what better way to “destroy that I, to give it away in its entirety”—that is, to betray all of your values—than to love your enemies as yourself, and embrace those who seek to destroy you (or, in the case of Amy Biehl’s parents, those who destroyed a supreme value)?

5. Be egalitarian (do not discriminate).

As we have seen, Christianity asks us to treat each person the same—as one of God’s children worthy of our love (enemy or not). The New Testament explicitly applies this to property, thus rejecting outright Aristotle’s conception of distributive justice. This is from the Acts of the Apostles:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. . . . Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (4:32–35).

Karl Marx said the same thing: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”32

6. Reward the bad, and punish the good.

As Ayn Rand has shown, in Atlas Shrugged and elsewhere, egalitarians—those who maintain that everyone should be treated strictly equally—are in fact advocating treating the bad, the low, the evil, better than the good, and that this is, in fact, motivated by a hatred for the good (all the mawkish talk of loving humanity notwithstanding). Jesus too saw that the injunction to love everyone the same actually requires treating the bad better than the good, and this is what he advocates. Here are two lines from the list of “beatitudes” at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.33 . . . Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (5:3–5). This next passage is especially significant, as it connects the Christian rejection of justice with its rejection of egoism: “He that finds his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it” (10:39). A similar line (which appears twice in Matthew) is quoted by Gus Webb in The Fountainhead, as he points out that the Marxism that Ellsworth Toohey and the rest are spouting is in fact old hat: “the last shall be first, and the first last” (19:30, 20:16; see also Mark 10:31).34 Finally, what is the meaning of the entire story of Jesus—of God sacrificing His son for the sake of precisely those who do not deserve it—but that it is virtuous and divine to sacrifice the good (in fact, the very best) for the sake of the worthless. And as Jesus says (in John 10:30): “I and My Father are one,” so God’s sacrifice of Jesus is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.

I cannot let this aspect of Christian ethics go without comment, and there is no better comment than that of Ayn Rand, who says in Galt’s speech, “the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, . . . that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death. . . .”35

7. Accept Divine judgment.

I often hear the following from my students: If Christianity is so opposed to passing judgments, then why are so many religious people so judgmental? (This last is an obvious criticism, as “judgmental” has become a pejorative term.) This is a good question. The answer is that like all other values and virtues, justice has been removed from Earth and placed in Heaven. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19).36 We are supposed to leave justice to God, and he will dish it out when the time comes—with a vengeance. The Gospel According to Matthew, with all of its talk of love and forgiveness, is peppered with passages such as the following: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (13:49–50).37

Christians are quite capable of “judging” others, hating others, and even codifying their hatred and judgments in law, when they take the God’s eye view—when they claim to speak or act on behalf of God. And they find support for this in scripture. For example, in First Corinthians, Paul says:

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. . . . For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [With Jesus’ power, I shall] deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved. . . (5:1–5).

This willingness to apply divine justice does not make Christians better or more admirable; it makes them much more dangerous. If Christians moved about the earth like Buddhists, meditating about the nothingness of Nirvana and praying for more cheeks to offer their enemies, we would not be in the state we are in. And though we might still see such a grotesque spectacle as parents forgiving the murderers of their child, we would be less likely to have strident, ambitious, and righteous Christians in government advocating and putting into practice a foreign policy that appeases our enemies, the elevation of fetuses and stem cells over the well-being of actual human beings, faith-based initiatives, welfare, antitrust, and so on.

I planned to end this article with a statement of the crucial, immediate need to fight the Christian conception of justice—and was pleased to find that my conclusion had already been written by Leonard Peikoff (if he will forgive the presumption). In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, he writes:

Like all religions, Christianity is incompatible ultimately with every virtue. It seems to take special pride, however, in its principled exhortation to injustice, particularly in the spiritual realm. If men are to have any chance for a future, it is this aspect of the Christian ethics above all others—this demand, at once brazen and mawkish, for unearned love, unearned approval, unearned forgiveness—that the West must reject, in favor of a solemn commitment to its moral antithesis: the trader principle.38

And we find the trader principle, in its nascent form—however incomplete and imperfect—in the ancient Greek conception of justice.

← Return to Spring 2007 Contents


1 The main sources for this story are Homer’s epics, Aeschylus’s Oresteia (the trilogy made up of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), and Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians.

2 We need not concern ourselves with Artemis’s reasons, as they do not form part of the action of the play. According to the chorus of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, they involved Artemis being an ally of the Trojans and thus wanting to harm the Greeks (see lines 126–39).

3 She had been tricked into sending Iphigenia to Aulis with a supposed promise of marriage to Achilles. (See Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis.)

4 Peter Meineck, trans., Aeschylus: The Oresteia (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).

5 The statement of Linda Biehl, Amy’s mother, was originally included in an article in the Cape Times, June 4, 2004, which can be found at (last checked October 30, 2006). The statement of Desmond Tutu is from Mike Anton, “Peter Biehl, 59; Forgave Killers of Daughter” [Obituary of Amy Biehl’s father], Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2002.

6 This is an instance of the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

7 Richard Lattimore, trans., The Iliad of Homer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). “1.98–100” refers to Book 1, lines 98–100.

8 Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 27.

9 Richard Lattimore, trans., The Odyssey of Homer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

10 Both formulations of traditional Greek justice can be found in Plato’s Republic (see 1.331e and 332d).

11 Richard Lattimore, Greek Lyrics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 6.

12 Apostolos N. Athanassakis, trans., Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

13 To give a more recent example, in the film The Godfather, when Michael Corleone is in Sicily, he asks his entourage where all the men are, and one of them answers quite naturally: vendetta. The men have all been killed because of disputes between warring families, and the idea—accepted by all parties—that honor and justice demand that one strike back at the family that has harmed one’s own family.

14 Rosamond Kent Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972; reprint, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), p. 20.

15 Gorgias, On Not Being or On Nature. See Sprague, Older Sophists, pp. 42–47.

16 Owing to limitations of space, I cannot discuss the ancient Greek playwrights. But note that each of the big four (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides) presented some view on the conflict between traditional Greek religion (including its conception of justice) and the appearance of philosophy and science (and the Sophists), and what that appearance might mean for Greek culture and morality. But none of them provided a rational and complete solution to any of these problems or a rational alternative. For that, philosophy was necessary. (I discuss each of these Greek dramatists and their connection to 5th-century intellectual trends in Reason in Ancient Greek Drama, available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore. For Aristophanes’ views on justice, see the introduction to my translation of his Assembly of Women [Prometheus Books, 1997], pp. 10–33.)

17 For the details of Plato’s arguments, see Gregory Salmieri’s taped course Platonism (available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore).

18 “Spirit” is a usual, but imperfect, translation of the Greek thumos, which refers to the part of the soul connected to such emotions as anger and getting psyched for battle or athletic competition.

19 See Ayn Rand, We the Living, sixtieth anniversary paperback edition (New York: Signet, 1996); and Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991; paperback edition, New Meridian, 1993), pp. 339–40.

20 The sole support for such a view in Aristotle is the brief, cryptic De Anima 3.5, which at most defends the immortality of part of the faculty of reason or intellect ( nous)—that is, there is, according to Aristotle, no personal immortality. (Aristotle raises the possibility of the immortality of part of the soul at the end of De Anima 2.1, though in the rest of the chapter he argues for the intimate connection between soul and body.)

21 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, especially Book 1.

22 All of the quotes and paraphrases concerning Aristotle’s conception of justice come from Nicomachean Ethics 5 (translations are my own). See especially chapters 4–8.

23 I do not have the space even to sketch the complex history of ancient Greek justice in the post-Aristotelian, Hellenistic period—that is, from the death of Alexander the Great to the Rise of Rome and her complete conquest of what had been the ancient Greek-Macedonian world. The two most important schools of thought in this period on the issue of justice were Stoicism and Epicureanism—both of which would exert an influence on the culture into which Christianity will be born. A full account of this period would also cover the development of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Again, these are complex issues. Suffice it to say that in the case of Aristotle’s account of justice, it was an idea whose time had gone. For whatever reason, the withdrawal-from-the-world outlooks offered by Epicurus and the Stoics were more attractive to thinkers living in the crumbling monarchical Macedonian empire of the Hellenistic period.

24 I am referring especially to the Christianity of the New Testament and the early Church fathers. Some later Christian thinkers—and especially Thomas Aquinas (who, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics treats Aristotle’s conception of justice with respect)—are more mixed.

25 Those interested in primary sources on these fundamentals of Christianity should start with St. Paul’s First Corinthians—that is, his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. This lays out the implicit epistemology and metaphysics of the early Christians.

26 I concur with Nietzsche, who, in Twilight of the Idols, writes that “in that Sermon on the Mount . . . things are by no means viewed from on high.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, Duncan Large, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 21.

27 Throughout I quote the King James Version of the Bible, in some cases slightly revised.

28 See Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals, sec. 2.

29 One may find it surprising that altruism is not one of these points; the reason is that they are all connected to or are manifestations of altruism.

30 See Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 289.

31 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Notebook: April 16/28, 1864,” in Liza Knapp, ed., Dostoevsky’s The Idiot : A Critical Companion (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), p. 219.

32 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875).

33 Note that Jesus says the poor in spirit. The Greek word translated “poor” here is ptôchoi, which comes from ptôchos (beggar), which in turn comes from ptôssein (to crouch or cringe).

34 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943; Signet fiftieth anniversary paperback edition, 1993), p. 473.

35 Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957; Signet thirty-fifth anniversary paperback edition, 1992), p. 946.

36 See also Deuteronomy 32:35, Psalms 94.1, Romans 3:5–6, and Hebrews 10:30.

37 This expression—“there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”—is a favorite of the author of this gospel. See also Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30 (and Luke 13:28).

38 Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 290.