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Hesiod’s Idea of Justice Based on His Works

Hesiod’s writings are known for discussing universal truths, such as law and justice. One of such works is Works and Days which expresses the idea that labor is an essential part of human beings’ lives, and if they are diligent enough, they will be able to handle even the hardest work. This poem consists of approximately 800 verses with which Hesiod tries to convince people that work is the source of the good and that idleness can destroy society. Hesiod’s Theogony is also an important work to consider since this text presents “a most extraordinary combination of philosophical abstractions and living myth [and] … reflects a profound criticism of morals and politics” (Blickman, 1987, p. 342). Theogony and Works and Days are alike in their view on the issue of justice, though their interpretations of this issue differ from time to time. This sometimes makes the scholars believe that Hesiod was hesitant as for his position regarding justice in society. Hesiod’s idea of justice is indeed not quite consistent; however, basing on his poems, such as Works and Days and Theogony it is possible to understand that he distinguishes justice with respect to three kinds of living beings, namely, gods, people, and animals; the essence of justice for each of these categories of living beings differs with the gods having priorities over the human beings and the latter differing from the animals by hard labor and pursuit of justice.

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One of the ideas which Hesiod presents in his writings is that of divine justice. Basically, Hesiod expresses an idea that gods (mostly Zeus) watch the mortal people to live in justice and punishes those who live in injustice. Hesoid mentions that gods keep an eye on people (especially kings) all the time; Hesiod warns that “immortal, invisible guardians watch them on Zeus’s behalf [and] that Dike sits by her father Zeus’s knee and tells on those who give crooked judgments [and] that “the eye of Zeus” sees all and knows all” (Beall, 2005, p. 173). Thus, the first section of Work and Days covers the relationships between Gods and people with Zeus being recognized as a God who is able to exercise justice over people with a just society being the one which Zeus’s daughter recognizes as such. One of the reasons to follow justice, according to Hesiod, is that it helps to win the divine favor which can lead to prosperity (Heath, 1985). Consequently, injustice leads to divine disfavor and poverty. The rules of justice are also applicable to other Gods, which can be seen in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days from the example of Prometheus who has fallen out of the gods’ grace for contradicting them, as well as the story about Pandora’s gift to men. Theogony, for instance, considers punishment of Prometheus himself a just deed on the part of the gods; despite Prometheus’ desire to commit justice, Prometheus was punished because his disobedience to the gods was regarded as injustice by the latter. The punishment which Prometheus received afterwards can be regarded as the consequence of the divine justice. Works and Days, however, focuses more on the punishment of human beings for Prometheus’ offence with the illnesses from Pandora’s Box affecting them. This may seem unfair with regards to ordinary people, but the word of gods should not be argued with, which is why people simply accepted the punishment imposed on them. Therefore, justice exercised by Gods is incontestable and all the people should strive to win the Gods’ favor by acting justly.

Justice for ordinary people, according to Hesoid, has its own peculiarities and is mostly based on the diligence in work. Just as in case with winning divine favor, work leads to prosperity. This happens because diligent work leads to flourishing of the farm. This further creates an idea that idleness leads to poverty (due to the fact that the farm does not flourish) and causes divine disfavor. This is where the connection between work and justice, as well as idleness and injustice lies:

… Idleness leads to injustice, since the man who does not earn his living must steal it, plundering his neighbors; conversely, the hard worker will not be able to afford the expenditure of time and resources on disputed with his neighbors, nor will be he willing to jeopardize the network of good relations with them on which he might wish to draw in an emergency. (Heath, 1985, p. 246)

People’s necessity to work is closely connected with the issue of divine justice which has been discussed above. Human beings have to constantly work in order to earn their living with work defining their condition of being human. It is according to divine justice that people have to work, though namely this justice makes it possible for the people to work. In this way, human beings are the participants of the scheme designed by the gods and their accepting the obligations as for their place in this scheme means that they recognize their humanity. Such a behavior is later rewarded by gods (through winning the divine favor), while rebelling against such a system or avoiding work is punished. This becomes especially clear if the human beings are considered in contrast with other two categories, those of the gods and the animals. As far as the gods are concerned, they have the superiority over the ordinary mortals; thus, they do not have to work, but they possess unquestionable justice and are entitled to make the mortals work. This is the obligation which ordinary people have to simply accept with Prometheus’s story serving as the brightest example of what may happen if a person rebels against the divine rule. The first part of the Work and Days emphasizes the necessity to work with the subsequent part telling how Zeus made it possible for people to work. Hesoid tells the story of Perses as an illustration of avoiding the labor. In the opening of the Works and Days, Perses is presented as idle and predatory. Hesiod, in his turn, aims to prove him that work is better than idleness and that piety and justice can be of more favor to Perses: “He should give the gods due honor; he should be on good terms with his neighbors, cultivating a web of reciprocal good-will from which he will benefit, rather than seeing in them an opportunity for easy … gain through plunder” (Heath, 1985, p. 250). As stated by Hesiod, namely such a behavior guarantees a way to prosperity. Thus, as stated by Hesiod, justice for the human beings consists in accepting their obligation to work and working hard to earn their living.

Finally, Hesiod’s idea of justice is expressed through tracing differences between the animals and the human beings. This difference is presented in the fable of the hawk and nightingale (Works and Days) in which justice is established as an anthropological universal. This is a story of a hawk that caught a nightingale and is intended to eat it; at this, the hawk convinces the little bird that eating the weakest is the right thing to do. This fable is meant to contrast the conditions of human beings and animals. The amoral application of this fable is reversed by the “distinction that is subsequently drawn between the bestial and the human order; strength is not a sufficient justification among men, as it is among animals, since men are required by Zeus to conduct their relationships by (justice) not by (strength)” (Heath, 1985, p. 249). In the fable, the hawk obeys the rule that the stronger animal has the right to eat the weaker. This does not mean that the hawk is mistaken; this simply means that some principles of judgment are applicable only to the animals, while the others work only on the human beings. Taking into account the fact that the animals have no justice, their devouring each other can be justified. Human beings, in their turn, have justice for it has been given to them by Zeus. Hesiod expresses an idea that “Zeus gave humans [justice] so that they would not have to feed upon one another” (Beall, 2005, p. 173), though this is not the only explanation. If this issue is viewed from a slightly different perspective, justice has been given to people for them to be able to work and, consequently, to differ from the animals. By getting a possibility to work, people started earning their living and nourishing themselves without being forced to eat each other. Thus, by committing injustice, people become equal with the animals this is why only hard labor and diligence can make them better than the animals; and since animals do not have to work, they know nothing about justice and have to use their strength to survive.

In conclusion, though certain inconsistency in Hesiod’s ides about justice does exist, discussion of justice with regards to three categories of living beings eliminates this inconsistency. These categories are possible to distinguish by means of Hesiod’s Works and Day and Theogony with the former writing being more convincing. Both the writings contain the stories which illustrate that gods have unlimited powers over the human beings this is why earning the divine favor is important for human beings. Earning this favor, however, is possible only through the hard work with idleness leading to injustice (due to the idea that an idle person has to steal from his neighbors). Working diligently helps a person to win the gods’ favor, Zeus’s favor in particular, because it was namely Zeus who gave human beings a possibility to work. One of the reasons of his doing so was to help people earn their living, rather than devour each other like animals do. A vivid contrast between gods, human beings, and animals allows realizing the distinction and connection between work and justice and idleness and injustice.

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Beall, E.F. (2005). Hesiod’s Treatise on Justice: “Works and Days”. The Classical Journal, 101(2), 161-182.

Blickman, D.R. (1987). Styx and the Justice of Zeus in Hesiod’s “Theogony”. Phoenix, 41(4), 341-355.

Heath, M. (1985). Hesiod’s didactic poetry. Classical Quarterly, 35(2), 245-263.

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