Justice In Classical Literature Essay, Research Paper
The question of the existence of a world order or an all-powerful force in the universe exacting justice upon violators of the world s order is a common theme among the works of classical literature we have studied in class. This essay will explore the answer to this question from within the context of three works of classical literature. In the Old Testament the order that is imposed upon the world is scripted, regulated and enforced by the one true God, the God of Israel. According to Homer in The Iliad, the world s order is defined by men, and retributions for violations are meted out by the gods acting directly and through the manipulation of men. In Sophocles Oedipus the King the order of the world is ambiguously defined and justice is returned to those guilty of transgressing these rules by the gods.
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-46 we learn of Joseph s rise from a position with little promise of his ever gaining prominence to the pinnacle of power in ancient Egypt. This ascension as a whole gives us a glimpse of God s order in the world, but the details of the story each provide evidence that God is the sole proprietor of order and justice. Joseph, the youngest of twelve sons, is provided with a prophecy of his future greatness which he tells his brothers: behold we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose…your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf…and behold the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. This is the first indication that God is at work defining and orchestrating events in the world. When Joseph s brothers later decide to sell him into slavery, they are attempting to circumvent God s will to prevent Joseph from ruling over them. They are not able to understand that Joseph is the only one of them who is capable of saving them from a future drought. God continues to work to carry out His will when Joseph goes to Egypt by providing Joseph with the means to interpret Pharaoh s dreams. Even then, Joseph realizes that this is God s work, telling Pharaoh It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace and God hath shewed Pharaoh what He is about to do. In the end, Joseph and God forgive his brothers and God s people live in Egypt in peace.
In Homer s The Iliad, the question of order is played out in a different manner than in Genesis. The order of the world is defined by the strict rules of the Greek society, i.e. the guest/host relationship and the obligations to a supplicant. When these rules are violated, the gods intervene and act through men to ensure that justice is served. The Greeks also seek justice by their own actions, asking for the blessings of the gods as servants of justice. In the first book of The Iliad we read Apollo, who in anger at the king drove the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished, since Atreus son had dishonoured Chryses, priest of Apollo, when he came…to ransom back his daughter…and supplicated all the Achaians. When Agamemnon refused this supplication, contrary to the wishes of his people, the gods chose sides and intervened. The gods continued to take part in the Trojan War, which was in itself a result of men seeking justice for a violation of the guest/host relationship.
Sophocles shows us a third view of the world s order. In Oedipus the King the order of the world is supposed to be a set of inviolate standards with which we are born. A violation of these rules, whether intentional or not, will bring societal disgrace, guilt and possibly madness. Oedipus tells us of the prophecy given to him by Apollo You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see you will kill your father, the one who gave you life! This seems to all people to be a violation of the basic rules of society. When Oedipus attempts to avoid this fate by leaving his father and mother in Corinth, he only brings on his destiny. Jocasta, Oedipus wife, summarily dismisses Apollo s prophecy to Oedipus as well as a prophecy given to her by Apollo (a paraphrase of the one he gave Oedipus) that her son would kill his father. When these prophecies are discovered to have come true Jocasta and Oedipus both go mad, Jocasta commits suicide, and Oedipus puts out his eyes. These were the consequences of violating the order of the world.
In all three of these examples from classical literature, the case is made that there is a definite order in the world. This source of this order is explained in different ways in all three, and justice always comes when someone violates these rules.