Study Guide

Libation Bearers Justice and Judgment

By Aeschylus

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Justice and Judgment

(Chorus): "To have good success –
this is god among men, and more, even, than god
Justice weighs down with its dark,
quickly upon some in the light;
for some mid-way to the dark,
delay grows full with time;
some have night with no fixed end." (59-65)

Scholars have long debated the exact meaning of these lines. We at Shmoop think they're certainly pretty confusing, so don't get worried if you can't puzzle them out completely. All the same, the general gist of them is basically clear: human beings worship success, and justice comes to everybody sooner or later. This view presents Justice as essentially a divine force, or a goddess, who interferes in human affairs. Do you think this is meant to be taken literally? How could the rest of the play be used to back up this idea, or argue against it?

(Electra): "How am I to speak sensibly to my father, how am I to pray to him? Am I to say that I bring [these mourning-libations] to a dear husband from a dear wife, from my mother? I have no words for that, no words I should say as I pour this offering on my father's tomb. Or am I to follow men's custom and make my speech this, that he should well repay those who send these offerings, and with a gift which their goodness deserves?" (88-93)

One interpretation of "justice" would be giving people what they deserve. Thus, in this early speech, we already see Electra engaging with the problem of justice, by asking what form of prayer she could make that would be appropriate to the situation.

(Chorus): "And while you remember him, upon those guilty of the murder…"
(Electra): "What am I to say? Explain, and instruct me; I have no experience."
(Chorus): "…pray there comes upon them some god or man…"
(Electra): "A judge, you mean, or a just avenger?"
(Chorus): "…state it simply: someone to kill them in return."
(Electra): "And I may ask this from the gods in proper piety?"
(Chorus): "And why not, to requite an enemy with harm for harm." (117-123)

Here, we can see that Electra's ideas about justice might be a little different from those of the Chorus. Notice that, when the Chorus starts suggesting prayers for her to make, she asks them if they want her to pray for a "judge" or a "just avenger." Even though Electra clearly thinks that revenge can be justified – how else could there be a "just avenger"? – she also thinks that justice and revenge are two different things. The Chorus, however, seems to think there's no big difference between them. Based on everything that happens in the plot and the views of the various characters, which of these views do you think Aeschylus's play supports?

(Electra): "Those are the prayers I say for ourselves; for our enemies I pray for your avenger to appear, father, and for your killers to die justly in return. In speaking this curse for evil upon them, I am putting it in the open before those whose concern it may be. For ourselves, send up here above the good which we ask, with the help of the gods, and of Earth, and of Justice who brings victory!" (142-148)

These words show that, for the moment at least, Electra has adopted the Chorus's opinion that Justice and Revenge are compatible. The same question from the previous quotation applies: does Aeschylus's play encourage us to agree with this opinion, or not?

(Chorus): "You great powers of Fate, may Zeus grant an ending here
in which justice changes to the other side!
'In return for hostile words, let hostile words be paid!' –
in exacting what is due, Justice shouts that aloud,
and 'In return for bloody blow, let bloody blow repay!'
'For the doer, suffering' is a saying three times old." (306-314)

These words continue the Chorus's belief that revenge and justice go hand in hand. They also seem to think that Justice is basically about giving back as good as you get. This idea is a very prevalent one throughout Aeschylus's trilogy; for example, when the Chorus says "'For the doer, suffering' is a saying three times old," this is actually totally ironic because this same idea comes up THREE TIMES in Agamemnon (Part 1 of the trilogy), at lines 177, 250, and 1564. He's a crafty one, that Aeschylus.

(Chorus): "But Justice has her foundation laid;
Fate is early
to the forge as her swordsmith.
The child of older bloody murders
is being brought as well into the house,
to pay for their pollution at the last,
by the famous deep-scheming Fury." (646-651)

Here, the Chorus says that justice goes hand in hand with fate. If this were true, why would they have to spend so much time praying for justice to come? (Think about it: if it were always fated that things would turn out for the best, wouldn't they just turn out that way anyhow, without your having to pray for it?)

(Chorus): "There came justice at last to Priam's children,
heavy and just in punishment;
there came to Agamemnon's house
a double lion, double warfare;
there drove absolutely forward
the exile, as Pythia
enjoined, well sped by warnings of the gods." (935-941)

The thought in these lines by the Chorus is similar to that in the previous quotation. Here, however, the Chorus's analysis is a little bit more sophisticated. That's because this time, instead of just generally saying that fate and justice have each other's back, the Chorus points to actual examples from the past, which prove (in their opinion) that things tend to turn out in a just way. We have to fill in some of the details, but basically, they're saying that (1) Priam, the King of Troy, was justly punished by the Greeks (because Paris, the Trojan prince, stole Helen); (2) Agamemnon was justly punished by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (because he killed his daughter Iphigenia and because his father killed Aegisthus's siblings); and (3) Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are about to be justly punished by Orestes (because they killed Agamemnon).

Do you notice anything weird about this list? How about the fact that the people who carry out justice at different points in this story are the same people whose injustices are punished later on? Can the universe really be just if it leads to these long chains of actions and reactions? Or does this really just mean that actions lead to a cycle of vengeance and further vengeance?

(Chorus): "There came stealthy fighting, the favourite means
plotted by guile in punishment;
there lent her hand's touch in the fight
a true daughter of Zeus – as Justice
we mortals name and address her
with happy accuracy –
breathing rancour's destruction on her foes." (946-952)

Here we have another interesting contrast to the way we normally think about justice today. How often you hear, nowadays, the idea that justice comes about in a sneaky way, using "stealthy fighting" or "guile"? Probably not very often. That's because, today, we tend to think about justice as happening in courts of law, which are designed (within certain limits) to make justice explicit and transparent. Why do you think the Chorus is so eager to connect justice with sneakiness?

(Chorus): "This very Justice Loxias, who keeps
the great inner vale of Parnassus, cried loud and clear –
without guile, though guile brought harm to Justice;
mature now with time, she attacks.
The gods' will somehow prevails
in everything, refusing to serve wicked men;
respect is due to the power which rules in the sky." (953-960)

Now hold your horses. This seems to be the exact opposite of what we were told in the last lines. (Notice that these lines come immediately after the preceding set.) What gives? Now we're being told that guile (i.e., trickery) "brought harm to Justice"? (955). But didn't the Chorus just tell us that guile and justice go hand in hand? What gives?

Clearly, we've got some pondering to do here. Could the Chorus's change of opinion have anything to do with the context of oracles? (Don't sweat it if you have trouble understanding the first part of the first sentence here; translated into more colloquial English, it would read, "This is the Justice that was proclaimed loud and clear by Loxias, a.k.a. Apollo, who has a sanctuary at Parnassus, near Delphi.") Why would it be especially clear for oracles to give clear instructions with respect to justice? But how often do oracles give clear instructions anyway? Either way, what would any of this matter if, as the Chorus says at the end, the will of the gods "somehow prevails / in everything" anyway? Any one of these questions could induce a major headache. Is this Aeschylus's fault, or is it just that the issue of Justice is really hard to understand?

(Orestes): "Stretch it out and stand round it in a circle: show the thing which covered a man, so that a father may see – not my own father, but the one who watches over all this – so that I may have a witness in justice one day that I pursued this death justly – my own mother's!" (980-989)

Depending on what edition of the play you're using, your text might be a little different here. In some versions of the play, there's an extra line (numbered 986 is most Greek editions) that makes it clear that the "one who watches over all this" is actually Helios, the Sun-God. Christopher Collard, the translator we're following, thinks that this line wasn't part of Aeschylus's original play, but got stuck in by somebody else at a later date. (Collard didn't come up with this idea on his own; for backup, he cites M.L. West, a very famous classicist who also thinks that this line wasn't part of the original.) Collard's reason for thinking this is that, throughout the Oresteia, justice is very closely associated with Zeus, who is also known as the "father of gods and men." Thus, he thinks that Orestes is referring to Zeus when he says "not my own father, but the one who watches over all this."

What do you think of this interpretation? What if Collard and West are wrong, and Aeschylus really did mean to have Orestes call upon the Sun-God here? Would that change anything in the way the idea of Justice comes into play? In thinking about this question, you might want to compare a passage in Agamemnon, Part 1 of the Oresteia, which actually does refer to Helios; this passage comes in the Herald's speech at lines 674-679.

Libation Bearers Justice and Judgment Study Group

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