Ancient and Modern Understandings of Justice

Ancient and Modern Understandings of Justice


How do we imagine the notion of justice? Is it a positive fact of society manifested in the form of, or is it a subjective ideology that fuels the human psyche to feel empowered to act in a way they desire? The numerous interpretations of the term have been applied in the various fields of law, politics, economics, theater, and literature just to name a few. I will refrain from providing a specific definition or lens of justice. This essay will instead engage in a collaborative exercise where we will discern together the notion of justice as Euripides presents it in Medea. How will we imagine the notion of justice both in the historical context of the play and in modern society? Is there heuristic value in discerning this notion of ancient justice to the practical purposes of today? It seems that Euripides himself does not argue for one particular meaning and conception of justice. Rather, he compels both his immediate audience and  contemporary readers to grapple with the ideologies, convictions, and discomforts that the various themes and complexities of justice that the Medea presents. Themes of infidelity, sacrifice, and guilt all add new dimensions of complexity to the understanding of justice where I invite you to conceive of your own interpretation of justice based on these topics.

The basic premise of the play rests on Jason’s decision to marry into the royal family despite his sworn fidelity and love for Medea. While it may not have been entirely uncommon for a man to practice polygamy, the issue is more importantly in the broken promise and infidelity to Medea that Jason effectively engaged in. The infidelity incites anger and indigence in many characters who indulge in Medea’s lamentations. The nurse, chorus leader, and tutor all believe that she holds the right to feel anger, even to the point where the chorus leader agrees to remain silent to Medea’s future act of retribution without fully knowing what she would do.1 An often unnoticed but crucial line that speaks volumes about the idea of a father’s infidelity is articulated by the tutor where he states, “And so the father of these boys does not feel love for them, because of his new bride.”2. In this particular line of dialogue, the tutor implies that the love of his new bride precludes Jason from loving his children. The infidelity alone proves as a form of evidence against Jason’s later claim that his engagement to the royal family was in fact out of a practical concern and love for his family. The tone and language of the characters that both implicitly and explicitly condemn Jason’s infidelity speak to how the society of the time viewed the act of new engagement as one of inherent betrayal. It can be argued that the nurse, chorus leader, and tutors’ greater affinity toward Medea and her children’s may have prompted them to respond in the way that they did. However, Euripides also includes the account of King Aegeus of Athens in his condemnation of the infidelity to affirm that even a male king has found the act to be immoral.3  There is great significance to the king’s response beyond mere plot development. The audience must now grapple with the idea that Jason’s betrayal is near indisputable. It is important to keep in mind that Euripides very deliberately employed these characters to this particular effect. Had he wished to normalize or even place the burden of blame on Medea, to do so would have been quite an easy enterprise. He could have used an old male chorus to chastise Medea for cursing and speaking out against the royal family but instead, Euripides places blame on Jason by articulating the shared views both of the partial nurse, tutor, and chorus leader figures as well as the relatively impartial king Aegeus figure. Such a deliberate choice speaks to the contemporary understanding of justice. It seems apparent the idea that polygamy, especially when linked to betrayal, was an obvious violation of morality and justice.

The next theme to be explored is the theme and interplay between sacrifice and self-delusion, focusing on the debate between Medea and Jason. Both characters articulate their defense through their individual sense of justice. Jason attempts to convince the chorus that his remarriage is justified on a utilitarian framework where, in the end, everyone benefits. He believes that his engagement to the royal family is ultimately justified through the benefits would be afforded to Medea and his children as well. The level of confidence and self-delusion that Jason exudes is appalling. Even from his opening, where he states, “It seems I’m going to have to prove myself as orator, and, like a skillful captain, reef my sails,” Jason embodies a certain confidence that can only be explained by his definite conviction in the justice of his actions. 4 Medea on the other hand argues that the act of infidelity was deontologically wrong. She categorically disagrees. Here the notions of justice and righteousness that Medea and Jason hold are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be justified, and they cannot both win this argument. Medea claims that Jason’s infidelity was categorically wrong while Jason fundamentally believes that his engagement to the royal family is ultimately justified in that the benefits to Medea and his children would be great. However, throughout his argument, Jason employs several rhetorical and logical flaws. In several instances, Jason blames Medea’s character rather than addressing the rational basis and morality of his actions. He attempts to shift the focus of the argument and sidesteps the immorality of infidelity that was widely and societally understood as evidenced by the passage above. 5 Rather than have Jason present a cohesive argument, Euripides seems to instead deliberately employ the logical flaw that this “great orator” possesses, highlighting Jason’s misplaced convictions. This idea is supported by the chorus leader’s confirmation that Jason has nonetheless engaged in an act of betrayal against his wife, a statement that both Jason and the audience must wrestle with and reconcile.6 The sacrifices that each character saw themselves making were so vastly different and as a result, difficult to reconcile. Medea frames her murder of her own brother and betrayal her kin as a sacrifice, made for her love of Jason, which Jason so easily disregards. There is a certain pathos at play where the audience feels inclined to recognize the critical sacrifice that Medea has indeed made. Up to this point, the audience can rest with relative comfort in the idea that Jason is in the wrong and justice remains on Medea’s side. It is in the scenes that follow where Euripides illuminates the true disconnect and ideological struggle of justice, morality, and action.

Besides Medea’s murders of both Creon’s daughter and the King Creon himself, the act that presents the greatest moral dilemma for both the contemporary and modern audience is the killing of her own children. Here again the chorus acts as a sort of arbiter of voice of justice and morality where they condemn her murder, stating, “look down and see this woman’s foul abomination, before she strikes her deadly blow, infanticidal.”7 They express an added layer of disdain toward the act of familial infanticide that runs beyond the purview of mere retribution. The question lends itself to one of guilt and of sin. It is noteworthy to add that the kids were not only Medea’s own children but also that they held no sin, regarding the situation, of their own. In the final moments of the play, as Medea leaves with the dead bodies of her children on a flying chariot, the audience is presented with the final dilemma. Euripides now paints Medea as the one bereft of morality and blind with rage. She is now the one who neglects the consideration and damage of her actions, forgetting the hesitation that held and instead finding a self-delusional justification for her actions. The final challenge of the audience in terms of grappling with the idea of justice is to determine who, if anyone, is justified? Keeping in mind the importance of burial in ancient Greece, the Grecian audience must have had a visceral reaction to Medea denying Jason the right to bury his own children. However, there is also something critical to note in the reclamation of power and agency. In a more modern context, such reclamation reads as potential tools against systems of patriarchal hierarchy, expanding possibilities of gender liberty through an investigation into the past.. Should there be a difference in how the coeval audience understood Medea’s infanticide in regards to justice and how we as a modern audience interpret that moment?

Exploring the various themes of infidelity, self-delusion, sacrifice, and guilt required us to further complicate our conceptions of justice. Eventually justice begins to break out of the binary understanding of wrong and right and instead becomes manifested in various ways in different situations. Euripides shows that justice can have boundaries that are contingent on the exact factors at play. At the very least, he problematizes the notion of blind retribution and cautions against the self-delusional state of argument that inevitable seems to lead to destruction and chaos. One can no longer say either Jason or Medea are in the right. Rather the story ends with both sides cursing the other, invoking an anxiety of a negative premonition. Another important dynamic to consider is the notion of justice over time. Are our understandings of justice the same as that of the play’s first audiences? If so, that implies that justice itself is a concept that is inherent to humanity, that it is a positive fact of reality and has a definite manifestation across vast measure of time. It seems that Euripides for one does not have a definitive answer to all these questions. Instead the practice that he is engaging in is effectively an inquiry into these dynamics. He prompts and at a certain point requires us to form our own boundaries of justice and of morality.

  1. Euripides, “Medea,” Euripides: I, Edited and Translated by Mark Griffith, Glenn W. Most, David Grene, and Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 83-95,267-926.
  2. Euripides, “Medea,” 88-89
  3. Euripides, “Medea,” Lines 695.
  4. Euripides, “Medea,” 522-525.
  5. Euripides, “Medea,” 567-575.
  6. Euripides, “Medea,” 576-579.
  7. Euripides, “Medea,” 1253-1255.
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