Written by Vladimir Moss



     The event that marked the transition from Archaic Greece to Classical Greece was the war with Persia (492-449). A Greek revolt against Persian rule in Asia Minor led to the Persian Emperor Darius invading Greece. He was defeated at Thermopylae and Marathon. Then his successor Xerxes was defeated on the sea at Salamis and on land at Plataea (479). This great victory gave the decisive impulse to the Greek city-states, led by Athens, to develop the great civilization of Classical Greece, which was to be of such importance in the development of both Eastern and Western European culture.

     The victory over Persia could also be said to be the beginning of that obsession with freedom as against tyranny, democracy as against despotism, that is the leit-motif of what we now call western civilization, which had a decisive impact on Republican Rome and, many hundreds of years later, on the Renaissance, the Age of Reason and contemporary liberalism. Of course, there are major differences between Classical Greek liberalism and ours – notably, in that slaves, women and “barbarians” were given no part in Ancient Greek democracy. Nevertheless, the ancestry is unmistakeable… In between, the Christian civilization of the New Rome of Byzantium, which begat all the medieval cultures of Europe, in both East and West, was also heavily influenced by Classical Greece. However, the foundational idea of the New Rome, Christianity, is quite different from liberalism, whether ancient or modern, and favoured another governmental form – Christian monarchism. 

     The achievements of Classical Greece were primarily secular – in art, architecture, literature and philosophy. Nevertheless, the fifth-century Greeks generally remained intensely religious; no serious steps in public life were taken without determining the will of the gods through religious rites and sacrifices. But the broadening of the membership of the citizen body, and the gradual democratization of public life had profound consequences, both religious and social. Thus “in Athens, the move from aristocratic to democratic government altered the nature of the tribes. They became, in a sense, offshoots of the public assembly, reflecting the claims of citizenship and voting rather than of the sacerdotal family. A similar symptom of social change in Rome appeared when the army was no longer organized simply according to family and gens. Instead, centuries – that is, numbers – became the basis of its organization. Former clients and plebeians had often become rich (the introduction of money facilitating the circulation of property) and they played an increasingly important military role. The original aristocratic means of making war, the cavalry, had declined as compared to expensive, heavily armoured infantry: Greek hoplites and Roman legionaries. Thus numbers and money – introducing a touch of abstraction – came to count for more within the privileged citizen class, supplementing its religious foundation…”[1]

     With regard to religion, it is hard to determine whether increased democratization brought a weakening of religious faith, or vice-versa. One thing is certain: in classical Greek democracy we see a particularly human view of God or the gods, suggesting that, for all their power, the gods were only relatively superior to human beings. The early word for “democracy”, isonomia, “equality under the law”, quite closely describes the relationship between gods and men: not equal in power, but equal – or at any rate, not radically unequal – under a higher law of cosmic justice.

     Thus J.M. Roberts writes: “Greek gods and goddesses, for all their supernatural standing and power, are remarkably human. They express the man-centred quality of later Greek civilization. Much as it owed to Egypt and the East, Greek mythology and art usually presents its gods as (recognizably fallen) men and women, a world away from the monsters of Assyria and Babylonia, or from Shiva the many-armed. If the implication of this religious revolution was that the gods were no better than men, its converse was that men could be like the gods. This is already apparent in Homer; perhaps he did as much as anyone to order the Greek supernatural in this way and he does not give much space to popular cults. He presents gods taking sides in the Trojan war in postures all too human. They compete with one another; while Poseidon harries the hero of The Odyssey, Athena takes his part. A later Greek critic grumbled that Homer ‘attributed to the gods everything that is disgraceful and blameworthy among men: theft, adultery and deceit’. It was a world which operated much like the actual world.”[2]

     If the gods were such uninspiring figures, it was hardly surprising that the kings (whether god-kings or not) should cease to inspire awe. Hence the trend, apparent from Homeric times, to desacralise kingship. For if in religion the universe was seen as “one great City of gods and men”, differing from each other not in nature but in power, why should there be any greater differences in the city of man? Just as gods can be punished by other gods, and men like Heracles can become gods themselves, so in the politics of the city-state rulers can be removed from power. There is no “divine right” of kings because even the gods do not have such unambiguous rights over men.

     As we pass from Homer to the fifth-century poets and dramatists, the same religious humanism, tending to place men on a par with the gods, is evident. Thus the conservative poet Pindar writes:

Single is the race, single

Of men and gods:

From a single mother we both draw breath.

But a difference of power in everything

Keeps us apart.

     Although cosmic justice must always be satisfied, and the men who defy the laws of the gods are always punished for their pride (hubris), nevertheless, in the plays of Aeschylus, for example, the men who rebel (e.g. Prometheus), are sometimes treated with greater sympathy than the gods against whom they rebel. Even the conservative Sophocles puts a man-centred view of the universe into the mouth of his characters, as in the chorus in Antigone:

Many wonders there are, but none more wonderful

Than man, who rules the ocean…

He is master of the ageless earth, to his own will bending

The immortal mother of gods.

     We see the same humanizing tendency in the fifth-century “father of history”, Herodotus. As Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, “For Herodotus, pride always comes before a fall, but he emphasizes that such failures are not the punishment of the gods, but rather result from human mistakes. This rational approach, in which the gods did not intervene in the affairs of men, was a major innovaion and formed the basis for the tradition of Western history.”[3]

     In about 415 BC the Sicilian writer Euhemerus developed the theory that the gods originated from the elaboration of actual historical persons.[4] This humanist tendency led, in Euripides, to open scepticism about the gods. Thus Queen Hecabe in The Trojan Women expresses scepticism about Zeus in very modern, almost Freudian tones: “You are past our finding out – whether you are the necessity of nature or the mind of human beings”. Euripides’ “gods and goddesses,” writes Michael Grant, “emerge as demonic psychological forces – which the application of human reason cannot possibly overcome – or as nasty seducers, or as figures of fun. Not surprisingly, the playwright was denounced as impious and atheistic, and it was true that under his scrutiny the plain man’s religion crumbled to pieces.”[5]

     If the dramatists could take such liberties, in spite of the fact that their dramas were staged in the context of a religious festival, it is not to be wondered at that the philosophers went still further. Thus Protagoras, the earliest of the so-called sophists, – travelling teachers or professional rhetors - wrote: “I know nothing about the gods, whether they are or are not, or what their shapes are. For many things make certain knowledge impossible – the obscurity of the theme and the shortness of human life.” And again: “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are; and of things that are not, that they are not.”

     Protagoras did not question the moral foundations of society in a thorough-going way, preferring to think that men should obey the institutions of society, which had been given them by the gods.[6] Thus he did not cut the bond between human institutions (nomoV), on the one hand, and the Divine order of things (jusiV), on the other – a step that was not taken unequivocally until the French revolution. Nevertheless, his thought shows that secular democratism went hand in hand with religious scepticism.

     Other sophists went further. Central to their teaching, writes Lane, “was the drawing of a distinction between nomos and phusis, between law and nature. In the context of that distinction, they used nomoi (plural of nomos) to refer not to divine laws, as had Antigone, but to the kinds of laws passed by humans, whether individual or in groups. Man-made nomoi were human conventions. ‘Law’ in that sense, born of the happenstance of human contrivance, whether a tyrant’s whim or an assembly’s close-run vote, was presented as contrasting with the real nature of things – a nature that might be governed by a justice or law that is altogether different from the laws passed by humans. To contrast nomos and phusis was to call attention to the conventions of human contrivance, in comparison with the unalterable nature of reality – and, for the most part, nomos came off worse.

     “The most controversial sophists interpreted the claim that nomoi were man-made as the claim that they were made by some men for imposition upon others – that they offered the dominators all the advantage, and their helpless victims only disadvantage. These thinkers presented ‘nature’ as something like the red-in-tooth-and-claw view that early social Darwinists would later propose: they contended that it was natural for the strong to pursue their ends with impunity, making prey of the weak to suit their own desires. The Athenian character Callicles of Plato’s dialogues is an example of someone who has imbibed these arguments and presents them in indelible form.

     “Even then, if what was natural was the rule of the strong, that left open the question of how human conventions should respond, and how their merits should be evaluated. Should one respond by attacking the strong for exploiting the wak using natural justice as a critical tool to expose the exploitative dimension of human laws? The first recorded criticism of the injustice of slavery as an institution (rather than of particular abuses) is framed in these terms. It treats slavery as a merely human law that violates the divinely sponsored and natural condition of liberty. ‘The deity gave liberty to all men, and nature created no one a slave’ is a saying of Alkadamas…

      “Using the nomos/phusis distinction to advance that radical critique of slavery or any other particular law did not find many takers, however. More common was the argument that the bulk of laws do serve human interests in general – but they do so only as a kind of second-best, not serving them to the fullest possible extent. Individual humans would be best served by pursuing the justice of nature, which is a justice in which the strong rule the weak, but only if they are assuredly among the strong. The difficulty of being sure that one would win out leads to a second-best solution, of accepting human law as a way of ensuring that one gets something rather than nothing. The best thing for each individual would be to dominate others rather than being punished. But the worst thing for him would be to dominate, and get caught and punished. So justice was the middle of the road, the second-best option. Forgo the fruits of being a dominator, but thereby ensure that you don’t suffer the pains of being dominated. Plato has the character Glaucon lay out this view – while distancing himself from endorsing it – in the Republic: justice is ‘intermediate between the best and the worst; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not a s a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity.’…

     “Such a relativizing of the value of justice – making it something we put up with when necessary, but not what is most beneficial or advantageous for our own happiness – marks an important challenge to the full-throated (if wistful) defences of justice in the poets… As new figures come on to the public stages of Greek society – from the older poets and philosophers, to the tragic playwrights and then the sophists – the consensus on the meaning of justice began to fray. Was justice central to the survival of civilization, or a swindle practised by the rich upon the poor?”[7]


     In spite of the humanism of Greek religion, and the very human frailties of the Greek gods, their power to make or break a man was still recognized by all except the most sceptical. Moreover, they insisted that there was some link, however difficult to discern at times, between the destiny of a man and a certain cosmic justice. As the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander put it: “All things pay retribution to each other for their injustice according to the judgement of Time”.[8] Justice was a major theme of Greek philosophy from Anaximander to Plato. It was also the principal obsession of the great fifth-century Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Most of their plots concern crime and punishment, hubris and nemesis. Tragedy was born as an inquiry into the nature of justice.

      Thus at the dawn of tragedy, we find Aeschylus’ archetypal tragic hero, Prometheus, “bound in adamantine chains unbreakable” and defiantly challenging the power of Zeus, the king of the gods:

Let him hurl at me the curlèd lightning’s prongs;

Let him rouse the air with spasms of saddened winds

And thunder; let hurricane convulse the earth

To her very roots; let the seas’ savage roar

Confound the courses of the heavenly stars;

Let him lift me high and hurl to Tartarus’ gloom

On whirling floods of inescapable doom

He cannot kill me.[9]

      Zeus cannot kill Prometheus, because Prometheus is a god and immortal. But he is also the son of Earth, so he feels a bond with the mortal race of man. He belongs, therefore, to both the kingdom of heaven and the society of men, which involves him in a conflict of obligations. In bringing fire from heaven to earth, Prometheus fulfilled his obligations to me but broke his obligations to heaven. Zeus therefore bound him in chains to a rock.

      Prometheus protests that this is unjust –

O sky divine, and swift-winged winds,

And river springs, and ocean waves’

Multitudinous laughter – see!

See, O Earth, mother of all!

And you, all-seeing circle

Of the sun, on you I call! See what

On me, a god, the gods let fall![10]

 For according to the justice of equality a god should not be coerced by another god. On the other hand, Zeus can invoke the justice of hierarchy – Prometheus has usurped a higher place than is his by right in the hierarchy of the gods.

      In Aeschylus the conflict between different criteria of justice can only be resolved by the goddess Justice herself: 

Justice lights up smoke-dimmed

Halls of the righteous, and honours

Those who walk with God.

She passes by, with eyes

Averted, gilded splendours

Stained by filthy hands.

For she disdains the power

Of avarice falsely stamped

With praise. And all things are steered

To their appointed end.[11]

 For Justice is in league with Fate:

Justice plants the anvil:

The sword is forged by Fate.[12]

 Thus for Aeschylus the whole of history is shaped by a divine hand, leading from injustice to the final triumph of justice.

      As for human justice, that has to be steered by the gods. Thus, as Lane writes, “the final play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, produced in 458 BCE, called the Eumenides, portrays how justice was established there in the form of the ‘Areopagus’, the aristocratic court that served religious as well as judicial functions. In the play, Athena sets up the court and serves in its first case as one of the twelve jurors, sitting alongside eleven Athenian mortals, to try the prince of Argos, Orestes, for the murder of his mother and her lover. Although Orestes had in fact committed this murder to avenge his father, Agamemnon, Athena casts the deciding vote to acquit him in order to break the cycle of vengeance and instead establish new terms of justice. The image of a goddess deliberating as one member of an otherwise human jury underscored the divine nimbus attached to the idea of justice, the awe with which it had to be surrounded if social ties were to withstand the many breakdowns and violations of justice that everyday life inevitably entailed.”[13]

      In Sophocles’ Antigone we find a similar conflict between different kinds or criteria of justice. The conflict here is between the justice of the state and the justice of the gods or popular piety; and the issue is whether a decent burial should be given to Polyneides, who has been killed leading an abortive rebellion against Creon, king of Thebes. Since Polyneides was a traitor to his country and state, Creon orders that he remain unburied; this is the justice of the state. However, Polyneices’ sister Antigone decides to defy the edict by performing this service for her brother’s unsettled ghost:

I will bury him –

What glory to die for that! I will lie with him

Loving and beloved; for piety

Condemned. For I have more time to serve those below

Than those up here; there I shall lie forever.[14]

      Noble words; but there is a hint here of a certain Pharisaism, even sensuality, corrupting the purity of her undoubtedly correct championship of a higher justice and morality. We find something similar in Shakespeare’s Isabella: 

Angelo. What would you do?

Isabella. As much for my poor brother as myself;

That is, were I under the terms of death,

Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,

And strip myself to bed as to a bed

That longing had been sick for ere I’d yield

By body up to pieces.[15]

Angelo will spare the life of Isabella’s brother, Claudio, who has been condemned to death for promiscuity, if she agrees to sleep with him. But Isabella remains brutally chaste:

Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die:

More than our brother is our chastity.[16

Antigone dies for her brother; but death to her is what chastity is to Isabella.

Nothing can robe me of my honourable death,[17]

 She says to her sister Ismene; and

Take heart – you live: my heart is long since dead

To serve the dead.[18]

      Creon is clearly wrong in condemning Antiogone to death and thereby upholding the justice of the state against the higher justice of the gods and popular piety. Nevertheless, Sophocles also sympathizes with his exasperation at her infatuation with death: 

There let her pray to Death – of all the gods

She worships him alone – to spare her death.

Then at length she will learn what pain unimag-

Inable is it to worship Death when dead.[19]

 There follows an ode to “unconquerable Eros”. But what kind of Eros is meant? If it is Antigone’s almost Isoldean passion for death, then it may be unconquerable, but it is also destructive. Her betrothed Haimon (haima is the Greek for “blood”) kills himself when he finds her dead – his eros has been crushed to death. The tragic irony is that she who said:

To join in love, not hatred, was I born,[20]

 has left in her heroic wake only hatred and suffering. She championed the justice of the gods against the justice of the state, and in this the gods supported her – Creon loses not only his son Haimon, but also his wife Eurydice in punishment for his “self-will”. But the chorus describes Antigone, too, as self-willed. Self-will infects both Creon and Antigone - as it infected both Angelo and Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. To fight for justice is great and commendable; but the moral is that even the greatest feats of heroism can be corrupted by pride and therefore lead to the suffering of the innocent.

      Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, performed in 406 as Athens faced defeat by Sparta, takes the analysis of justice one step further. In this work, Time, as in Anaximander, is the ultimate judge of all things. But there is no joy in the triumph of this justice, which destroys even the best that is human:

Only the gods escape old age and death:

The rest are victims all of ruinous Time.

Earth’s strength decays, and health departs; faith dies,

And falsehood blooms; the breath of friendship fails

‘Twixt man and man, and state and state. Whether soon

Or late, sweet turns to sour, and fair to foul.

If now ‘twixt you and Thebes the day is fine,

Time will bring forth a thousand days and nights

In which the most harmonious, close-bound friends

Will be parted at spear’s point for the merest nothing.[21]

      Oedipus’ son Polyneices enters, and appeals to his father in the name of “Mercy, who sits beside the throne of God”, to help him against his brother Eteocles. This is a new note in tragedy – mercy also has its claims, for it, too, is divine. However, it is not given to Sophocles to develop this new theme. For Oedipus, in the name of “old, eternal Justice”, brings curses on both his sons. Then he is borne away through the midst of thunder and lightning to “unseen fields of night”. He could say, as did Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens,

My long sickness

Of health and living now begins to mend,

And nothing brings me all things…[22]

      The third of the great Athenian dramatists, Euripides, did not share his older colleagues’ faith in justice. It wasn’t only that the justice of the state was often unjust, and the justice of the gods brought only suffering. The more fundamental question was: did justice really exist? Thus when Medea is betrayed by Jason and murders their children in revenge, the gods aid and abet her to the last. When Hippolytus ignores Aphrodite, he is destroyed together with Phaedra, the instrument of the goddess’ revenge. And when Pentheus persecutes the followers of Dionysius, he is torn apart limb from limb. Euripides did not try to justify the ways of God to men; “justice strain’d with mercy” is to be found neither in heaven nor on earth. The puzzled mind can only echo Hecuba’s cry in The Trojan Women:

O Zeus, be thou Natural Necessity

Or Mind of Man, to thee I pray.

 For, whatever they are, the gods exist – and in terrible power…


      The glorious age of fifth-century Athenian democracy comes to an end with what her greatest philosopher, Plato, considered to be the greatest of all acts of injustice: the condemnation and execution of Socrates. It is beyond the scope of this work to study how this event took place and how it influenced Plato – although we shall study his verdict on the democratic political system that carried it out. More to the point here is to contrast the great advance made by Greek philosophy and tragedy in probing the nature of justice, with the great prophets of Israel, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who were praising the justice of God and denouncing the injustices of men at about the same time.

      “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. This is, of course, a quotation from the Old Testament, but it could also serve as the motto of the great Greek tragedians. The Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worlds agreed that the world is governed in accordance with Divine justice. Wisdom therefore begins in acknowledging this ineluctable fact, and managing one’s life in accordance with it. To do otherwise is foolish – and will bring down upon oneself the just wrath of the Divinity.

      Beyond that acknowledgement, of course, the Jews and the Greeks diverged in their thinking. The Jewish prophets, having a direct knowledge of the One True God, and a deeper and more accurate knowledge of His laws, entertained no doubts about His justice. And, having a much higher estimate of the God of Abraham than the Greeks had of Zeus and his often wayward family, they were much less patient with the idea that God was in any way unjust. Thus “The house of Israel saith, ‘The way of the Lord is not equal.’ ‘O house of Israel, are not My ways equal? Are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways’” (Ezekiel 18.29-30.). Again, the last of the Prophets, Malachi (fifth-century BC), says: “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, ‘Wherein have we wearied Him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delighteth in them.’ Or, ‘Where is the God of judgement?’” (Malachi 2.17). But God, for the Jewish prophets, is never unequal – that is, unjust - in His ways; He is always the God of judgement.

      The Jewish prophets are no less stern than the Greek tragedians in seeing an inexorable link between crime and punishment, hubris and nemesis. But they have none of the black pessimism of Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus. The God of justice does not only punish: He also comes to save His people from their oppressors, “to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable years of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our Go; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be alled trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified” (Isaiah 61.1-3).

      Of course, this joyful outcome for the just and the justified would come only with the Saviour, Jesus Christ, of whom the Greeks had no conception and the Jews only a dim one as yet. However, in this obsession with justice in both the Jewish and the Greco-Roman world we may see a preparation for Christ, and an anticipation of the time when both Jews and Greeks would be one in Christ, worshipping the God both of justice and of mercy. If the Law and the Prophets were “a schoolmaster to Christ” for the Jews (Galatians 3.24), then the great works of the Greek tragedians and philosophers provided that cultural and intellectual earth in which the new Christian civilization could grow and prosper. For Greek philosophy, according to Clement of Alexandria, “was given to them for a time and in the first instance for the same reason as the Scriptures were given to the Jews. It was for the Greeks the same nurse towards Christ as the law was for the Jews”.

March 7/20, 2018.
[1]Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, London: Penguin, 2010.

[2] Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon Publishing, 1992, p. 139.

[3] Montefiore, Titans of History, London: Quercus, 2012, p. 33.

[4] C.S. Lewis, “Religion without Dogma?” in Faith, Christianity and the Church, London: HarperCollins, 1002, p. 165, footnote.

[5] Grant, The Classical Greeks, London: Phoenix, 1989, p. 130.

[6] J.S. McClelland writes: “The Greeks did understand that one of the ways of getting round the problem of the vulnerability of a constitution on account of its age and its political bias was to pretend that it was very ancient indeed. That meant mystifying the origins of a constitution to the point where it had no origins at all. The way to do that was to make the constitution immortal by the simple expedient of making it the product of an immortal mind, and the only immortal minds were possessed by gods, or, as second-best, by supremely god-like men” (A History of Western Political Thought, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 11).

[7] Lane, op. cit., pp. 49-51, 52.

[8] Anaximander, in Simplicius, Physics, 24, 17.

[9] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 1043.

[10] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 88.

[11]Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 773.

[12]Aeschylus, The Libation-Bearers, 646.

[13] Lane, op. cit., pp. 44-45.

[14] Antigone, 71.

[15] Measure for Measure, II, 4.

[16]Measure for Measure, II, 4.

[17]Antigone, 96.

[18]Antigone, 559.

[19] Antigone, 777.

[20] Antigone, 523.

[21] Oedipus at Colonus, 607.

[22] Timon of Athens, V, 1.

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