Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

This is part of a series

Aug 26, 2015

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: A Tale of Two Cities

Hesiod thought that doing injustice could bring down the wrath of the gods, even in the chaotic, violent “Age of Iron.”

Homer, as we’ve seen, contrasts warlike and peaceful modes of life through his description, in the Iliad, of the “two cities” depicted on Achilles’ shield.1  A similar contrast occurs in Hesiod’s Works and Days, but, as is typical for the didactic Hesiod, with a more explicit moral drawn.

On the one hand, we are shown a wicked city whose denizens “like harsh violence and cruel acts,” and where “Justice is dragged perforce” by “bribe-eating men” who “judge their cases with crooked decisions” – no doubt like those judges that Hesiod charges with having taken bribes to favor Perses’ side in his legal dispute with Hesiod.  On the other hand, Hesiod presents a virtuous city where judges “issue straight decisions to their own people and to strangers.”  The cities’ destinies are likewise different:  those in the just city fare well:  “their city flourishes” under the reign of “Peace, who brings boys to manhood”; as for those in the unjust city, Zeus “ordains their punishment,” for Justice “brings a curse upon all those who drive her out.”  Thus “Justice wins over violence … in the end.”2                                

It is indeed a general theme in Hesiod that “[t]he man who does evil to another does evil to himself”3 – or, in other words, that virtue and vice draw down upon themselves the appropriate rewards and punishments. 

If any man by force of hands wins him a great fortune …
lightly the gods wipe out that man ….
with all these Zeus in person is angry, and in the end
he makes them pay a bitter price for their unrighteous dealings.4

In many cases the mechanism by which people get what they deserve is one of purely natural causation, as when Hesiod warns Perses that those who default on their debts will have difficulty borrowing the next time.5  Often this is so even when the causal mechanism is described in supernatural terms, as when Hesiod promises that “hard work” will cause “august and garlanded Demeter” (goddess of the harvest) to “fill your barn with substance of living,”6 or when economic incentives to compete in the provision of goods and services are personified as a manifestation of the benign elder Eris.7  

Another example is the power of habituation – the simple fact that what is “hard climbing at first” becomes “easy going … when you get to the summit,” since “if you add only a little to a little, yet if you do it often enough, this little may yet become big” – which Hesiod describes as a “road to virtue” created by “the immortals,” and its impact on one’s character and reputation as the product of the personified abstractions “Give” and “Grab.”8  In all these cases the manner in which the causes produce the effects is clear and intelligible even without the theological references.

But there are also many cases in which the causal mechanism linking virtue with reward and vice with punishment appears to be purely supernatural, with no corresponding embodiment in familiar, understandable processes:

Often a whole city is paid punishment for one bad man
who commits crimes and plans reckless action.  On this man’s people
the son of Kronos [= Zeus] out of the sky inflicts great suffering,
famine and plague together, and the people die and diminish. …
You barons also, cannot even you understand for yourselves
how justice works?  For the immortals are close to us, they mingle
with men, and are aware of those who by crooked decisions
break other men, and care nothing for what the gods think of it. …
Beware, you barons, of such spirits.  Straighten your decisions
you eaters of bribes.  Banish from your minds the twisting of justice.9

Now “famine and plague” are not the natural penalty for crime in the way that poverty is the natural penalty for idleness; they represent, instead, a purely supernatural retribution.  They are, however, a this-worldly retribution, not a postmortem punishment in an afterlife, and so Hesiod’s prediction that such ills will befall the wicked is empirically testable – and the results are not obviously in his favor.

This is especially awkward for Hesiod because his case for justice in general seems to be pragmatic rather than idealistic.  Violence, for example, is rejected as an excessively risky strategy, since it is “bad for a weak man,” and “even a noble cannot lightly carry the burden of her.”10  Yet Hesiod is well aware that the unjust often appear to flourish, and he admits that “it is a hard thing for a man to be righteous, if the unrighteous man is to have the greater right”; hence, he says, “I would not myself be righteous among men nor have my son be so” if he did not believe that “Zeus sees everything” and “will not let it end thus.”11

Yet Hesiod’s optimism that all will come right in due course, that “Justice wins over violence … in the end,” is difficult to reconcile with his conviction that he is living in an Age of Iron where social chaos reigns and is only going to get worse:

Strong of hand, one man shall seek the city of another.
There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath ….
rather men shall give their praise to violence ….
The vile man will crowd his better out ….
And there shall be no defense against evil.12

How can Hesiod promise that the good will win out over the bad, and at the same time prophesy that the bad will increasingly win out over the good?  If Hesiod’s willingness to be “righteous among men” or “have [his] son be so” depends, as he asserts, on a divinely guaranteed link between justice and virtue – and if, as he also seems to admit, this link is unreliable now and will become more so as the Age of Iron continues to deteriorate – then what grounds does Hesiod have for sticking to the path of virtue?  And how is Hesiod’s just city any better off than his unjust one?

To be sure, Hesiod assures us that divine justice will eventually bring the Age of Iron to an end:  “Zeus will destroy this generation of mortals also.”13  But this gives Hesiod no reason to expect any relief in his lifetime; hence his wish that he “had died before it [= the Age of Iron] came, or been born afterward.”14  (To quote the title of a Tolstoj short story:  “God Sees the Truth, But Waits.”)  Moreover, if it is really true that “a whole city is paid punishment for one bad man,” then what benefit does an individual earn from his own just conduct if he is to be penalized for the injustice of others?  The potential fragility of the sort of pragmatic defense of justice we find in Hesiod is one that Plato will later criticize, and seek to improve on, in his Republic.


  1. Homer, Iliad 18. 490-606.
  2. Hesiod, Works and Days 217-239; Richmond Lattimore, trans., Hesiod:  The Works and Days; Theogony; The Shield of Herakles (Ann Arbor:  University of Chicago Press, 1959).  Yet a third comparison of violent versus peaceful cities, borrowing heavily from Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield, is found in the purportedly Hesiodic Shield of Herakles; but most modern scholars regard this as a later composition and not the work of Hesiod.
  3. Works and Days 265.
  4. Works and Days 320-334.
  5. Works and Days 349-356.
  6. Works and Days 299-306.
  7. Works and Days 11-26.
  8. Works and Days 289-292, 356-361.
  9. Works and Days 240-264.
  10. Works and Days 213-215.
  11. Works and Days 267-273.
  12. Works and Days 189-201.
  13. Works and Days 180.
  14. Works and Days 175-177.

This is part of a series