Is justice only in the eye of the beholder, or is there an absolute justice? Clytaemnestra believes she must exact revenge against her husband for killing their daughter. He believes that the...

 Is justice only in the eye of the beholder, or is there an absolute justice? Clytaemnestra believes she must exact revenge against her husband for killing their daughter. He believes that the honor of his family demanded the sacrifice that he made unwillingly, and that he was forced to give up his daughter. Who is correct?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Part of the complexity in Aeschylus's text is that it shows the logical consequence of what happens when justice is seen in the eyes of the beholder. Agamemnon sees it as "just" that he sacrifice Iphigenia in accordance to pleasing the gods.  Clytemnestra sees it as just that she kill her husband for his transgressions, which is the same logic that Orestes uses in eliminating his mother.  When Orestes pleads to the divine for justice, it becomes clear that in his own eyes, an absolute notion of the good is seen only in the most narrow and slim of contexts:

Has some new disaster befallen this house, or would I be right in guessing that these women bring libations for my father, appeasements of the dead? It could never be anything else! Why, I think my sister Electra is there too, conspicuous in bitter grief. O Zeus! Grant me vengeance for my father's death! Be my ally if you will!

In a similar light, the words of the Chorus speak to justice being seen as limiting conditions when viewed through the human perception:  "For word of hate let word of hate be said, cries Justice. Stroke for bloody stroke must be paid. The one who acts must suffer. Three generations long this law resound." In these examples, justice is seen as limited when perceived through the eyes of human beings and not accepted as a structure that guides social cohesion. The purpose in this endless cycle of blood- letting is that when the individuals view justice through their own eyes, there will never be an end to the regressive pattern of violence begetting violence.  Aeschylus's genius resides in how he asserts that relativistic views of reality are limited in scope and focus. They prevent a full acknowledgement of universal truths because human perception cannot see past the choices and decisions that are not understood.  

In The Eumenides, there is an argument put forth that universal notions of justice can exist when they do so outside of the realm of being trapped by the individual gaze.  The legal system, apart from the individual condition of vengeance, is the only hope for finding justice. The idea of "the kindly ones" is evident in the legal system for redressing individual wrongs.  Aeschylus asserts that without this, the cycle of "bloody stroke" will never cease.  In this regard, justice can be seen as universal, something that can be appropriated when individuals place their own interests within a larger entity and away from their own senses of self.  If one is looking for who is "correct," Aeschylus suggests that the answer is impossible because each set of criterion is equally compelling.  It is only when individuals place their trust in a system of justice that is larger than their own interests and more encompassing of social interests that the universal notions of justice and fairness can be envisioned. 

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