What Exactly is Justice?

Theognis 543-546

I must decide the matter at hand along the edge, as it were,
of a carpenter’s rule and square.
Kyrnos, I must give both sides justice and what is fair,
relying on seers, auguring birds and burnt offerings,
so I don’t face shameful reproach for a mistake.

χρή με παρὰ στάθμην καὶ γνώμονα τήνδε δικάσσαι,
Κύρνε, δίκην, ἶσόν τ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισι δόμεν,
μάντεσί τ᾽ οἰωνοῖς τε καὶ αἰθομένοις ἱεροῖσιν,
ὄφρα μὴ ἀμπλακίης αἰσχρὸν ὄνειδος ἔχω.

An Interpretation:

Does the speaker want A and not-A at the same time? Contrast the stated obligation of precision in decision-making with the imprecision of the decision-making procedures (seers, augurs, and sacrifices to the gods). Or, put it this way: contrast objective methods (e.g., drawing a line along the edge of a carpenter’s square) with subjective ones (e.g., reading bird omens). The two approaches are in conflict and yet the speaker presents the latter (subjective) as the means of achieving the former (objectivity). 

So, what’s justice? A strict obligation is laid on the speaker, but the instruments available for satisfying it are unreliable: the carpenter’s edge guarantees a straight line, the bird omen guarantees nothing. This of course the speaker knows. But what’s the alternative? The speaker is stating, however indirectly, a problem fundamental to law: justice is a strict obligation, but there are no infallible procedures for its production. What exists are procedures (maybe reading the birds, maybe empaneling a jury), and fidelity to them is what justice more or less is (i.e., more process than outcome).  Therefore interpret the poem’s final line not as “omens and the like save me from mistakes” but as “because I follow the established practice of omens and the like, even when I make mistakes I’m spared the worst criticisms.” 

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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