Vengeance, Justice, and Homer:
Comparing Ancient Greek Vengeance to Classical Greek Justice in scrolls xxi and xxii of the Odyssey
Paper Originally Submitted by Kelly Thomas-Cutshaw for Bible and Classical Literature taught by Dr. Lynn McMillon, and Mr. Chris Rosser
Odysseus struggled against the will of Poseidon for ten years in the hopes of returning home (nostos). After a journey of such magnitude, he finally arrived on his homeland to find “the suitors” had overrun his beloved home. “Wise Odysseus” constructed a plan to dispel the suitors and win back his home and family. The familiar final scenes of The Odyssey are a bloodbath that may seem excessive. However, the Homeric concept of vengeance brings about an order that allowed Ancient Greeks like Odysseus to feel vindication and conclusion. Why? Simply put, the Homeric concept of Vengeance in the scene illustrating the death of the suitors (scroll xxi and xxii) resonates with the virtue of Justice depicted later by the Classical thinkers Plato and Aristotle.
Vengeance is a term that merits further scrutiny. The word is most nearly associated with vendetta. The author of Revenge and Justice in Odysseus said it best: “Revenge has no concern for consciousness and culpability, willingness and motive: ultimately [it] is purely a matter of regaining incontrovertibly the lost reputation and re-establishing social standing and political power and credibility above and within the community. (Web. ← unsure about how to cite.)” Many times throughout the Odyssey a character invokes vengeance as a means of reestablishing the order of things within their Greek society. The ordered hierarchy (as we will discuss with justice) of society was fundamental to the Greek worldview.
William Allan links the importance of reputation in vengeance with the pleasure of acts of vengeance. “Moreover, revenge was not only necessary for the maintenance of status and honour, it was also recognized as pleasurable in itself, since it discharged the anger of the injured party and satisfied his sense of grievance (597).” Allan continues to describe characteristics of Ancient Greek vengeance where it was ideal, conveyed manliness, and needed restraint. The characteristics of vengeance, as described by both authors, allow modern thinkers to grasp the connection between Ancient vengeance and Classical justice.
Justice, in the general Classical sense, attains fairness and/or equality when everyone works together the way they ought to in their social status to promote the flourishing of the community. Again, everyone playing their role within the Greek communities was an integral part of Greek thought and life. Justice determined such order, and often times the other Cardinal virtues resulted from the ordering of society where the individuals play their part (The two Classical thinkers that we derive our idea of Greek justice from are Plato and Aristotle. Scholar D.R. Bhandari notes that Plato believed justice reigned supreme as the remedy to all social evils. In Plato’s philosophy, the word for justice, “dikaisyne”, most nearly means righteousness, or morality. Contained within the Greek dikaisyne is the whole duty of man (and thus, society). Once more, we see the Ancient Greek views creeping into the thoughts of great Classical minds.
Following Plato, history introduces us to a new philosopher: Aristotle. Aristotle, like Plato, preoccupied himself with the assessment of virtue. John Rivera concisely sums Aristotle’s perspective of virtue (specifically justice) as being the midpoint between two extremes. On the one hand of justice, there is the violent pursuit of an absolute standard. On the other, there is a leniency when applying rules that leads to social disorder. It is with Aristotle that we begin to see Justice as a sort of balance between the two. Justice is something like fairness and good reason. How then, does vengeance resonate with justice?
Justice and vengeance, by definition, have much in common. However, it is helpful in understanding the connection by discerning the major points of difference between the two concepts. Vengeance has the capability, even the tendency, to be personal, bloodthirsty and extreme. Justice, however it is carried out, is balanced rather than extreme. In addition, vengeance has the potential to create more problems than solutions, whereas ideal justice is the ultimate solution.
Examine the passage of the Odyssey where Odysseus slaughters the 108 suitors in an act that we would describe as vengeance. Without mercy, violently killing every last suitor, Odysseus acts in a way that the reader cheers and supports as virtuous. The scene sounds like a far cry from justice. Nevertheless, as per definition, the revenge of Odysseus allows him to regain his status in his own home, find pleasure and satisfaction in the death of the men, and display manliness in great volumes. The reader, much like Odysseus, finds relief in the resolution as a result of Odysseus’s vengeance.
Herein lies the connection between Justice and Vengeance in the scene: because Odysseus restored social order – nemesis to the deserving suitors who practiced bad xenia and acted out of turn for their place in the world – his act of vengeance was just, if not overzealous. Justice, as I believe Aristotle would agree, contains vengeance as one extreme in the balance of virtue necessary for every man to play his part. Vengeance, then, is not synonymous with justice, but is a part of justice, where justice is virtuous. Classical thinkers would see Odysseus’s act of vengeance as just because it restores the necessary social hierarchy that is key to Greek life.
Further into the passage of Odysseus’s revenge, we read of the hanging of the unscrupulous women. Surely, while not commendable, the women’s actions did not merit death. Odysseus’s vengeance may be the “extreme” form of justice that we tend to think revenge means. Regardless, it is important to note that: one, Odysseus acted in a way that reflects Ancient Greek standards, and two, vengeance is only a part of justice, not the complete, virtuous form.
In light of the Odyssey, we see that Vengeance is not a far cry from the virtue of Justice. While Vengeance may not solve problems in the way of Justice, it is easy to understand how the Ancient Greek peoples, such as Odysseus, would have turned to Vengeance as a solution for the restoration of fairness and order. Through the ages of Greek culture, we see the continued theme of social order. Ancient Greeks maintained order through vengeance, and later Classical thinkers looked to Justice. The Ancient Greek ideas were not so far from the developed views of the great Classical thinkers, and perhaps not even far removed from modern Western thought.
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