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Origin of Justice in Ancient Political Philosophy

By: Nirjhar Bhattacharya | August 12, 2019

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”

The concept of justice in the field of politics is one that is often overlooked because politics is viewed as a game of manipulation and strategy that one plays in order to further their desire for gaining power. This perspective is not only shared by the masses who assume the role of powerless spectators but also by those who play an active role in this Byzantine contest.

The Background of the Subject

Ancient Political Philosophy refers to the ancient Greek and Roman thought, from the classical period of Greece thought in the fifth century BCE to the end of the Roman empire in the west in the fifth century CE. Political philosophy as a subject was first introduced by Plato and later on, reinvented by Aristotle.

The subject essentially deals with reflections on the origin of political institutions, the concepts that are required to interpret and organize political life such as justice and equality along with the relationship between ethics and the nature of politics.

Political Philosophy as a term is fairly easy to understand. Political means pertaining to the ‘polis’ or city-state while philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality or existence. Ancient Greece had already dipped its feet in the ocean of philosophical thought by the end of the fourth century BCE.

With the steady increase in the size of the city-states and the gradual transformation of these cities into established empires, Greek political thought put forward the question of the forms of regimes or constitutions that could theoretically exist or be adopted. Of course, such political thoughts have changed throughout the course of history, but certain principles that were a result of these ancient discussions are still relevant today.

It began by asking the obvious and logical questions one asks when approaching a particular subject or topic. ‘What is politics good for?’, ‘Who could participate in politics and why?’ and ‘Which arguments were significant tools in civic battles that were logical and served as effective ways of ideological and material control?’ At the root of it all, was the idea of justice. Now, what is justice?

Dawn of a New Beginning

Yes, I am sure that the majority of my readers are related to the field of law and would answer this question quite effortlessly. Justice is nothing but the quality of being fair and reasonable. But from where did this idea of justice originate? The concept of justice was created by poets, lawgivers and philosophers, who noticed the glaring inequality between the masses, to devise an effective structure of civic bonds.

Justice was thus defined as the basis of equal citizenship. It was the requirement for human regimes to be acceptable to the gods. Justice served as the bedrock for political life, where the participants who were competing with each other, were fueled by the need to be just and reasonable in their quest to achieve power, as this would ensure not only the performance of their civic duties but also enable them to achieve the human end of happiness or as the Greeks said ‘eudaimonia’.

But at the end of it all, this is nothing more than an idealistic setting. The problems arose when the concept of equality had to be taken into account. Justice, in the political setting, was the practice of treating equals equally and distributing citizenship and the privileges of officeholding accordingly. But, in Ancient Greece, there was a significant problem in defining the term ‘an equal’.

An oligarchy might treat only the elite or wealthy landowners to be full equals while democracies might treat the common masses as the political equals of the elite ‘few’. In Athens, women were denied active citizenship. Slavery was quite rampant and the absence of the slave status did not grant recognition as a citizen. Hence, justice, though an idea that attracted the most rational minds, also brought with it certain issues at that time.

Once the equals were defined, the space of participation in political affairs was a hallmark of the classical Greek world. Either the few rich citizens or the common masses gathered together to conduct public affairs on the basis of custom, by election or by the lot. There existed legitimate means of holding those who held public offices, accountable and for bringing about amendments to the laws, if necessary.

Then, in the mid-fifth century BCE, professional teachers, also known as ‘sophists’ entered the scene. Their main contention was whether the laws and customs embodying political justice were indeed a reflection of the actual principles of natural justice or merely an imposition of unpredictable and inconsistent human norms. Most of these sophists thought it was the latter at play.

Protagoras, a noted teacher from Abdera, thought that the creation of the political life was a cause of celebrating human virtues and practical abilities while Thrasymachus, an ambassador to Athens from Chalcedon, felt that it was nothing more than arbitrary laws being imposed on the people of the cities to serve the interests of those in power. This debate, therefore, raised significant issues for defining the very essence of political thoughts.

Ancient Greece has for centuries, provided the intellectual fuel needed to keep the wheels of human rationality and wisdom from coming to a standstill. The political scenario today is quite different than what it was in those ages. Our politics today is governed more by modern bureaucracy than anything else. But for what the Ancient Greeks lacked in modern bureaucracy, they made up for in archaic poetry, religious cults, music, sexual practices, gender roles and drama.

We should not make the mistake of thinking that we have evolved into a sort of political utopia from those times. For us today, our definitions of state, intergovernmental relations, large scale economic and fiscal policies define the core of political thought. For them, it was their culture.

And it is this culture that gave rise to the concept of justice which in turn started the genre of political philosophy. Through the contributions of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, certain principles and theories are relevant today and will continue to be as long as society exists.

It is imperative to understand that the idea of justice is perhaps the only saviour we have that protects us from plummeting into the pit of tyranny. In pragmatic terms, the real danger that we face is from the people we elect or appoint to protect us and safeguard our interests. The Ancient Greeks recognised this and perhaps, gave human civilization the greatest gift, the concept of justice.

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Nirjhar Bhattacharya

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