Bernard Knox
Essays Ancient and Modern

I wish that I were not any part of the fifth generation
of men, but had died before it came, or been born afterward.
For here now is the age of iron. (WD 174-76)
With this fable Hesiod seems to have reinforced the lugubrious lesson taught by the myths of Pandora and the five ages: Zeus has abandoned men to a world in which might is right, justice the will of the powerful. 'He is a fool,' says the hawk, 'who tries to match his strength with the stronger.' And then, as if he had not ruled justice out of the world, Hesiod begins to talk about it, addressing his brother. 'As for you, Perses, listen to justice. Do not try to practice violence.'

The Greek word translated 'justice'—dike—is a troublesome one, a word with a long history, an obsessive theme in archaic Greek literature. Its etymology is obscure, but when we first meet it, in Homer, it means something like 'the way things are, the way things go.' 'This is the dike of godlike kings,' says Penelope in the Odyssey. 'They hate one man and love another.' That's the way kings are. And the shade of Odysseus' mother says to him, in the world of the dead, 'This is the dike of mortals when they die. The sinews no longer hold the bones and the flesh together.' From this basic idea—the way things are, the way they regularly are—there seems to have developed an additional nuance: 'the way they ought to be.' What is normal, what is expected, is right; departures from regularity are wrong. And along these same lines the word dike (and also its plural) came to signify 'rules of right, principles of what is right'; later the word described the process of setting to right—a trial, a law case—and it also came to mean the frequent result of such a trial, a law case—punishment, 'justice' in the punitive sense. In Hesiod most of these senses are latent in the word; yet its basic meaning can be deduced from its opposites—bia, 'force' and, as here in the advice to Perses, 'violence.' The Greek word for this is hubris, and although it came to mean simply physical violence, it also describes the mentality which allows and encourages violence—an overweening pride and sense of superiority, of invulnerability, of contempt for the rights of others. For the Greeks of Hesiod's peasant society (as for the peasant societies of the modern Greek countryside, and in fact the Mediterranean in general—Spain, Sicily, North Africa), this is the supreme, intolerable evil. For all such societies foster in the individual a fierce sense of his privileges, no matter how small, of his rights, no matter how confined, of his personal worth, no matter how low. And hubris is the mood which drives one man to deny another these elementary rights, to treat him as nothing, to show disrespect for his dignity as a man, to deprive him of his honor. These are the terms, of course—honor. rispetto, philotimo—which still govern relations between man and man in Mediterranean agricultural societies. And that is one reason why hubris brings retribution in the end: it drives its victims to desperation—they will think of nothing but revenge.

This hubris, says Hesiod, is dangerous for a weak man; it is not for such as Perses. But even the kings cannot indulge in it with impunity; they may fall prey to delusions, go too far—even for a king. For it is Justice which wins over violence when it comes out in the end. That phrase is enigmatic, in the Greek as in the English. And, of course, there is nothing to indicate when the 'end' comes—in our lifetime? Or is it in the next generation that retribution comes for violence? But come it does, says Hesiod. And the foolish man realizes the truth after the suffering comes to him in his turn.

This is cold comfort for the present spectacle of injustice, graphically presented in the next few lines as Justice is dragged off and molested by bribe-taking judges who give crooked decisions, but it is at least a flash of light in the gloomy picture conjured up by the myths of Pandora and the five ages. And in the succeeding lines this flash becomes a steady gleam as Hesiod contrasts two communities: one 'where men issue straight decisions,' justice, to their own people and strangers, another 'where men like harsh violence and cruel acts.' In the first, where men deal in justice and do not step off the road of just action, the city flourishes and the people in it. They enjoy the blessings of peace 'who bring boys to manhood,' they escape famine and they do the work that they must do as if it were a holiday. The earth gives them great livelihood, their oaks give acorns and honey, their flocks are heavy with wool, their women bear children who resemble the fathers. They are so prosperous, in fact, that they do not need to go to sea to supplement their livelihood.

There is more than one touch in this radiant picture which recalls the happy state of the golden age, and the end of the iron age is recalled in the picture which follows—the fate of the city 'where men like harsh violence and cruel acts.' Zeus ordains their punishment—it is the same word dike—and often not for the crimes of the community, but for the crimes of one man. Famine and plague, the deaths of the people, the barrenness of women, the destruction of the city's army, fleet and fortifications in war—all these are the punishment inflicted by Zeus. The reminiscences of the first and last of the mythical ages are no accident; Hesiod here is posing the results of communal justice and injustice against each other in the extreme form appropriate for moral examples, and such dramatic pictures tend to take mythical shape. In real life nothing is so clear cut; but the plea for justice is best served by this pushing of the contrast to extremes.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.