Zeus and Justice

The dramatic climax of the Iliad is the killing of the leader of the Trojan army, Hector, by the Achaean hero Achilles. The latter is irresistible in his blind fury and revenge because Hector was the killer of Achilles' friend Patroclus. All by himself, Achilles slaughters half an army. This fury, mēnis, is the first word of the Iliad and its primary theme. Mēnis is a word that is used only for gods and for Achilles. It is often appropriately translated as "wrath". This scene you might call the epicenter of the Iliad.
Just before that moment Zeus, the god of Fate, balances his scales, symbol of Justice, in an iconic gesture measuring the Kēres (doom) of the two heroes. Hector's side goes down to Hades, Achilles' Kēr goes up (towards Ouranos, heaven). So it goes. For a long time I wondered if that was Homeric Justice. Achilles, although a Greek, is a furious monster. His friend Patroclus has only himself to blame for his death, Homer makes that very clear. Hector, although a non-Greek, is a real mensch, a hero we would like to be, giving his life for his wife, child and city. This, too, is shown with great emphasis and pathos. This is a really curious contradiction in the rhetoric of the poem. Still, it is Zeus who holds the scales, i.e. makes the judgement. How is this just?

If the god of Fate is also the god of Justice, and Fate is "what happens", does that mean that everything that happens in the world (or in the Iliad) is just? We know better than that.

But, as always, the answer is provided within the picture. Balancing scales that go down on one side, are of course not "straight", not just. Scales that are perfectly balanced are the image of justice (Il 12.433-(1)). This Zeus with his unequal balance is showing us a judgement that claims justice but is really one-sided only. It is only just from Achilles' point of view.
Homer does not tell us this, we are supposed to see this ourselves. It is this image that made me understand that Homer's gods are not absolute. They are not beings "out there", distinct from us, but phenomena: we see and evaluate the world through their eyes subjectively. Achilles' mēnis is the wrath of Zeus, but it is the Zeus of Achilles. The latter is filled with Justice, or rather self-justification. First in his anger with Agamemnon, later in his implacable fury with Hector, for taking Patroclus (i.e. his honour) away from him. But is it Zeus who tells him to act this way? Actually his behaviour is driven by other gods. Homer shows this, too (Il 1.212-, 18.356-)(2). Achilles does not know himself.

gnothi seauton
Know Thyself

So far, this is clear. But it leads to an ethical paradox:
The image of the scales is about your share (Moira or Aisa = share = fate). The archetype is the sharing out of booty by the commander after a successful raid, or the share one gets in the common feast meal where everybody gets his portion according to status (Il 4.257-). Seen as a one-to-one transaction, the question is: how much for me, how much for you(2). The measure of my justice is the proportion I assign to myself.
This points to one of the motto's of Delphi: Mēden Agan, "not too much". The winner cannot take it all. There must be a balance weighing two portions. Zeus is the god, the only god, who knows the other person. All the other gods know only one: "me".

So the size of my portion is the measure of my injustice (in your eyes). If you get nothing or less than you think you deserve, you are in your own eyes perfectly just (and angry).
The loser of the judgement goes to Hades, literally or figuratively. Homer has a little pun with a deeper meaning:

Who are the most just people in the world? The Abioi (wordplay on a-bios: "without life").
Why? None of them ever committed a crime.

The people in Hades, having no share in anything, are by the law of the balance the most just people. The poet probably associated the word "Hades" with "not being seen" e.g. Il 5.845), just as he associates the mountain "Idē" (seeing) with Zeus' favourite lookout(3). Justice is dependent on seeing - seeing the rights of the other person.
Here lies the problem of judging: one of the parties is judged to be in the right, his side of the scales will go up. The loser finds himself disregarded, unseen. But this makes him automatically the most just (in his own eyes)! And if this Zeus comes down to earth, you had better beware...

Here, as is shown by the figure of Achilles, is the paradox of justice. Zeus is not only a loving god who tells us to share equally, he can also be a harsh and unreasonable god. Zeus is a god to be feared, the god of vengeance. There are of course echo's of the bible here. The problem lies in our judging: when we judge we hold the scales, we take a position that we should not, because we do not have the "god's eye view", we only know ourselves. Adam and Eve's sin is not so much the disobeying of a command, it is the judging, the presumed knowledge of good and evil.

Here also lies the root of the problem we have with understanding it: Zeus does not mean absolute justice, it means Achilles' - our - justice. The absolute (in Greece) was only invented or properly formulated by Plato. This immediately raises questions about Zeus. Relative justice? That does not mean anything at all. It only means that everybody thinks himself just.
But: before writing off Zeus as 'relative', we should first make sure that the god we are obeying is really Zeus. Do we know ourselves well enough to be sure? In the case of Achilles there is a telling scene at Il 18.356-. Zeus says to Hera: "So, Queen Hera, you have gained your end, and have roused fleet Achilles". Was it not part of the 'plan of Zeus' that Achilles would be raised? This bears thinking about. What is really the source of Achilles' mēnis and of his rampage and hatred of Hector? Is it really Zeus or does he make himself believe that it is Zeus? To see why Zeus would still be a worthwhile god, we need to take a detour to Plato.

Plato has an Idea

So, how can we live with this? We already ate from the tree and there is no going back. Does the freedom we have under Zeus make itself impossible? Plato would affirm this and proceeds, in the Republic, to abolish it. What we need according to him, is a sovereign Idea of the Good that is to be the philosopher-king's guiding light. This is quite different from the Rule of Zeus. Let us compare Zeus' order with that of Plato:

Homer's gods


Plato's Good

Olympic hierarchy
Zeus is supposed to be in charge. He boasts of being stronger than all the other gods together but appears to avoid putting it to the test. See "the golden rope", Il. 8.19. Hera is number two though she wants more, Athena is Tritogeneia, third-born (just as Zeus became first-born) and Aphrodite is fourth, though sometimes stronger than Zeus himself.

Plato's view of the Absolute Good

The solid red part is our Nomos, its border is Sophrosyne

The picture of Zeus, father of gods and men, is that of the pater familias who should be in charge of his family. He boasts that he is anyway (Il 8.5-) but, as befits a god of Justice ('Justice' meaning that you cannot have it all your way, see Th 535-) he often gives in to the desires of the other gods (see Il 4.20-). In human terms this means that we often give in to our selfish desires rather than obeying our 'better selves'. Zeus is the god of compromise, a god who is vulnerable to the 'stronger than his father' trope.

  1. The image of the balance in this citation is used to indicate that the fates of the two parties are equal - fate is justice again. In the simile, the woman has to balance the wool and the weights perfectly: too much and she might get accused of cheating by a stingy patron, too little and she does not earn anything. That is δίκαιος.
  2. For a further development of this statement, see the page about Achilles.
  3. We should not have a too materialistic view of this. For the Greeks, honour (also a zero-sum commodity) was at least as important: the material portion was for the most part a public acknowledgement of this. When the Spartans proudly called themselves "equals", they meant equal in honour, not in wealth (which they were not).
  4. Zeus is "Ἴδηθεν μεδέων", roughly translatable as "he rules by seeing"
  5. Is this why Crete is associated with lying? Rhea's plot was the first lie.
  6. M.L. West, Theogony pg. 29