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Herodotus and the Human Quest for Justice

“Herodotus, as we can begin to see, is a theorist of human action—and a theorist of justice. Justice, according to Herodotus, is the chief force of human action.”

Herodotus of Halicarnassus is the most famous historian of antiquity. He is also the patron saint of journalist-historians, that rare breed of men and women of the pen who relate exciting tales from afar in a prose digestible and energetic to read. Is there a theme that unites the seemingly disparate and elongated work of The Histories? What drives The Histories onward? Herodotus certainly did not have a conception of History as we moderns tend to have, but Herodotus’ Histories does have a major theme underlying its composition—the contest between justice and injustice, or, properly, between tisis and hybris, and how this governs human action.

It is false to suggest that Herodotus is the historian of social justice. But it is true to say that Herodotus gives a lot of consideration to the problem of justice and how the desire for justice governs human action. As Donald Lateiner wrote long ago, “Herodotus’ extension of tisis from a merely ethical principle to an encompassing law of nature is now widely recognized.” 

At face value, The Histories is the account of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, which ended in the defeat of the supposedly monstrous and barbarous Persian Empire at the hand of a collection of rough Greek city-states who even had conspirators in their midst (a sad fact that the city-states that allied with the Persians would never be allowed to forget). Yet a deeper reading of The Histories shows an intensely philosophical and inquisitive man that is sometimes lost in the long digressions on ethnography and cultural practices of diverse peoples. Herodotus was, and remains, however, a deep thinker of the highest caliber despite popular—if not otherwise ignorant— ridicule of him as a mythmaker and liar.

History, as we know, comes from the Greek word historia. The problem with history for moderns is that we have inherited two rather recent conceptions of history born of the Enlightenment mode of thinking. Many will no doubt be familiar with the notion of “scientific history” best encapsulated by Leopold von Ranke’s conception of wie es eigentlich gewesen. The other conception of history is born out of modern philosophy; Hegel is probably the most notable figure in the crafting of Historicism, but the Progressive or Whig view of History is what most moderns will immediately recognize: the belief that history progresses from darkness and primitivism to light and civility over a period of organic successions. Both conceptions of history were alien to the Greeks and therefore unknown to Herodotus. Reading Herodotus (or Thucydides, for that matter) as a “scientific historian” misses the point; it also does tremendous harm in understanding the point of the work.

Historia, in Greek, means inquiry. What, then, is Herodotus inquiring into? “Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.”

In his opening, Herodotus evokes Homer and states the reality of his work being an inquiry into human action. Herodotus does not invoke the muses, as Homer does. However, like Homer, human beings are the subject of his inquiry. Herodotus is more the heir of Homer than it initially seems. 

Homer, moderns crudely believe, wrote a poetic fairy-tale. Or at least some people still believe this. It was common through much of the 19th century to believe the Trojan War to be poetic invention—until the discovery of a burnt out city on the coast of Turkey gave greater credence to the view that the Trojan War had some basis in reality. We must remember, however, that Homer—though a poet—sung of a man, Achilles. Homer, as I have written, begins the humanistic turning in Western consciousness. Hesiod’s Theogony sung the praises of bloodthirsty and capricious gods; Homer’s poems—while still retaining the gods as central figures—focus on men. Moreover, Homer’s epics are adventures marked by war and conflict; the astute reader of Herodotus will immediately recognize, now, that he is indeed the heir of Homer. Herodotus, after all, is chiefly concerned with “human achievements” so that they will “not become forgotten in time” and writes a work that is an adventure narrative across many landscapes and cities dominated by the maelstrom of war and conflict. Herodotus’ own prose and style, for those who can read Greek, mirrors that of Homer. 

The first book of The Histories paints for us the picture of a bleak world not far removed from the dark agonistic cosmos of Hesiod. Herodotus’ inquiry begins by telling stories of abduction and rape, acts of injustice which get the ball rolling, “These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.” As Herodotus goes on tell, “This, according to the Persian account, was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.” The Greeks subsequently land in Tyre and repay the Phoenicians back for their unjust act by abducting Europa and bringing her back to Hellas, thus bestowing the continental name to Europe.

In the opening moments of The Histories, Herodotus informs us that injustice is what propels the narrative forward—and how unjust acts lead to a desire for justice. Aristotle may have provided the most familiar account of justice in the Greek world, paying each his due, but the Greek understanding of justice was essentially punitive and retributive. τίσις, or tisis, is the Greek word for justice which Herodotus uses in his work; and tisis is entirely retributive in its Greek context and understanding. As Hipparchus later learns from the oracle, “No man does wrong and shall not the penalty bear.” There would be no great movement of human action without the motivating impulse of justice to punish a preceding act of injustice. At the start, then, Herodotus lets us know there is something deep about his inquiry: it is an inquiry into human action and how justice, tisis, is at the core of the human condition which is shared by Greeks and “barbarians” alike.

The first book seems far removed from the Persian Wars which occurred in the fifth century B.C., but with the understanding that Herodotus is investigating human action—and principally the role of justice as a governing force for human action—we can begin to understand the remoteness and obscurity of the many stories before we finally arrive at the climax of human action up to Herodotus’ time: the battle for justice that was the Persian Wars.

After discussing the abduction and rape of Io and Europa, Herodotus tells us the story of the abduction of Helen by Paris of Troy and the Trojan War which followed and ended with the sack and burning of Troy, “Such then is the Persian story. In their view it was the capture of Troy that first made them enemies of the Greeks.” Herodotus, though a Greek partisan, does give consideration to “the Persian story” and explains why the Persians felt themselves in the right in seeking to conquer Greece: the Greeks had first conquered a brother of the east.

From there, Herodotus proceeds to tell us what many might regard as mythic stories of courtly rape and usurpation. Again, to get lost in the supposed fictionality of these stories—for that is what “myth” means in Greek—is to again miss the point of Herodotus’ inquiry. These stories, brutal and banal as they sometimes are, all underscore the reality of revenge, power, justice, and injustice which govern human action and advances the inquiry (“history”) further. We also witness an investigation of human psychology over committing unjust acts like when Gyges usurped the throne and then sought out the Delphi Oracle to have a story legitimize his seizure of power. Knowing one has committed injustice leads to a pervasive psychological guilt—a guilt which St. Augustine would further develop in his psychology of sin and Original Guilt—but that guilt can be assuaged if divine sanction backs it up.

This accruement of mass power is what is called hybris, or immense pride, which is necessarily culled by an act of destruction which the Greeks called nemesis.  

In relaying the long story of Croesus, who is important because he came into conflict with King Cyrus of Persia in the prelude to the Persian Wars, after hearing the news of the death of his son in a hunting accident “Croesus prayed to Zeus…to witness what he had suffered at the hands of his guest; he invoked [Zeus] again under his title of Protector of the Hearth, because he had unwittingly entertained his son’s murderer in his own house; and yet again as God of Guest-Friendship, because the man he had sent to guard his son had turned out to be his bitterest enemy.” In the story of Croesus, we witness the long march and desire, nay, demand, for justice which becomes the retributive fuel that advances human action to seek closure.

The “great and marvelous deeds” of men that Herodotus wants to eulogize are actions seeking justice against injustice. Caught up in this turbulent struggle is how pride cometh before the fall; for Herodotus, power is the product of injustices piled upon injustices—as should be clear after reading the first book. Power is constantly usurped by acts of betrayal, treachery, and murder. The attainment of power subsequently inflates the ego in a conceit of self-importance. This accruement of mass power is what is called hybris, or immense pride, which is necessarily culled by an act of destruction which the Greeks called nemesis.  

The Persians may have felt themselves justified in their war against the Greeks by reaching back to the past and invoking the destruction of Troy as their casus belli for war, but here Herodotus’ pro-Greek sentiments begin to show. “The Persians, whom Darius had left in Europe under Megabazus’ command, began hostilities against the Greeks on the Hellespont by subduing the Perinthians, who refused to accept Persian domination.” Herodotus, in resuming the narrative of the Persian War at long last, informs us that the Perinthians refused to be subjugated to Persian imperialism. Importantly, the Persians are also “in Europe” having transgressed the natural boundary of Europe and Asia, which is the Hellespont. 

Persia is no longer the small but consolidated kingdom it was prior to the sacking of Babylon. It has grown into an oversized empire filled with hybris over its glorious conquests and accomplishments. Everywhere the Persians go, Herodotus tells us, they commit injustices. Forced relocation, slavery, and subjugation are just a few of the injustices they commit as their power expands by these acts of injustice. When enslaving the men and women of Lemnos, Herodotus explains, “The reason Otanes gave for subjugating and enslaving all these people was that some had shirked service in the Scythian expedition, while others had molested Darius’ army on its way home.”

While Herodotus does portray the Persians as despotic and unjust, he is remarkably even-handed all things considered. Just as he had—all the way back in the first book—informed us that the Persians invoked the destruction of Troy as their call for justice against Greek invasion and colonization, even here—in more nakedly brutal episodes—“the Persian story” is interwoven into the narrative. The Persians felt injustice done unto them at earlier times; this was merely the manifestation of justice repaying a prior act of injustice. So, while we know that Herodotus felt the Greeks were in the right to seek justice against Persian aggression, whenever we look carefully at his narrative, he does give the Persian side of the story.

Herodotus, as we can begin to see, is a theorist of human action—and a theorist of justice. Justice, according to Herodotus, is the chief force of human action. Justice—his inquiry is clearly telling us—is what governs all human action. Fathers, sons, warriors, kings, queens, priests and priestesses all cry out to their gods for justice (retributive justice) to be done. Again, Herodotus is not far removed from Homer in this regard; for Homer repeatedly has his characters cry out to Zeus and the other gods for justice after having been spited by an act of injustice. (Though Homer has a more subtle deconstruction of the injustice of the gods in mind when he does so—for the gods never do come procure justice for their devotees in The Iliad.) It is now clear why Herodotus juxtaposes “the Persian story” with “the Greek account” in this dialectical tale of contrasts; he wishes us to think alongside him about the nature of justice. Is the Persian account of justice truly just? We obviously know what Herodotus thought, but he never denies the Persian side of the story, even if we are meant to view “the Persian story” as manifestly unjust.

What brings the Greeks and Persians into full blown war are acts of injustice demanding acts of retributive justice in return. Aristagoras of Miletus sails to Hellas to try and convene an alliance of Greek city-states to help their beleaguered brethren in Asia Minor. Rebuffed, initially, by Sparta, Aristagoras makes progress in Athens. Herodotus again gives a extensive digressive backstory, but it is still filled with themes of power, usurpation, justice and injustice. 

Aristagoras convinces the Athenians to aid them in their struggle against Persian expansionism. Greek custom and history now comes into conflict with Persian expansionist power. Aristagoras has been, thus far, an ambassador seeking justice and liberty on behalf of those suffering injustice and oppression (this makes Aristagoras’ fate even more tragic since he becomes the very thing he fretted, a despotic conqueror). Now, in Athens’ entry into this abyss of violence and revenge the themes of liberty and justice against despotism and injustice come to the fore.

While it is seductive to see the tale of liberty and despotism pervading The Histories it should be clear, upon closer inspection, that this theme which had been catapulted to the front of our readings of Herodotus by the Whigs is actually secondary to the larger theme of justice and injustice that guides the entire work. Liberty, to be sure, manifests on the side of justice just as despotism manifests on the side of injustice but the liberty-despotism dialectic is a product of the modern conceptions of history otherwise alien to Herodotus and his contemporaries. Take, for example, the great poet-playwright Aeschylus. 

Aeschylus had served with the Athenians at Marathon and likely served at the Battle of Salamis. Undoubtedly Athenian in orientation, even his play The Persians doesn’t put liberty vs. tyranny as the central concern of the play. Instead, it is the illusive question of justice which pervades the play (as it does in The Oresteia.) Liberty, life, and love when it does manifest in the Greek literary corpus is always subordinate to quest for justice. The Greeks lose liberty, life, and love whenever injustice rears its ugly head.

Returning to the Athenian intervention, the Athenians burn the Cybebe Temple of Sardis down—a city and temple now under the control of the Persians. “In the conflagration at Sardis a temple of Cybebe, a goddess worshiped by the natives,” Herodotus writes, “was destroyed, and the Persians later made this a pretext for their burning of Greek temples.” Again, even here the Persian side of the story is recounted. We witness an act of injustice (from the Persian perspective) which motivates them to take revenge (retributive justice) against the Athenians. “The story goes,” Herodotus relays to us when considering the emotional outburst of Darius, “that when Darius learned of the disaster, he did not give a thought to the Ionians, knowing perfectly well that the punishment for their revolt would come; but he asked who the Athenians were, and then, on being told, called for his bow. He took it, set an arrow on the string, shot in up into the air and cried, ‘Grant, O God, that I may punish the Athenians.’”

Herodotus helps to give thematic consideration to the Persian War by the end of the fifth book. Human nature, it is now clear, is moved by desire for (retributive) justice (tisis). But what is the basis for the breach of justice? The lack of honoring custom and natural boundaries. The Persians, as they expand, breach all the customary laws and traditions of the people they conquer. In conquering them they also expand beyond normal boundaries. This feeds them with hybris, powerful pride, which demands destruction at the hands of those seeking justice.

Justice and injustice, now, is the unmistakable spirit guiding Herodotus’ inquiry. In the sixth book we witness Persian injustice and despotism wherever they advance: pillage, destruction, and enslavement occur on a massive scale. This is the prospect waiting the free city-states of Greece who, as Herodotus has informed us through those long digressive backstories, had thrown off the old tyrannies and their injustice to enjoy the relative justice and liberty they now have. (The long digressions thus serve to emphasis the just defense of Greek liberty; even here, however, we once more see how liberty is still subordinate to justice.) Individual and collective acts of injustice are met by tisis which brings nemesis to the guilty party. Individually, we see this with Cleomenes and Miltiades. Collectively, we witness this with the Persians at the ferocious Battle of Marathon—the ultimate act of justice which brings destruction to the unjustly powerful. This will, however, renew the cycle of violence and the need for retributive justice from the side of the Persians.

Thus the cycle is renewed “[w]hen the news of the battle of Marathon reached Darius.” Darius is enraged at the news of this defeat. As we are told, “he was more than ever determined to make war on Greece.” So the war continues. Acts of injustice occur. They are countered by acts of retributive justice ending in destruction, often in the form of battle, and the cycle repeats ad infinitum until we reach the battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale, which throw off the Persian yoke from the besieged Greeks.

Although we descend into a cycle of injustice and justice, which is manifested through violence, the eighth and ninth books see the slow then rapid dissolution and retreat of the Persians from Europe. Mycale returns us to Asia Minor where the Persians are once again defeated and the Ionian coast seemingly freed from the unjust tyranny of the Persians.

Herodotus gives great weight to human choice and action despite accusations of a theologized history. Again, this seems to me to be the product of blind Whig historians who see too much invoking of gods. But even where the gods are invoked, they are invoked for purely human reasons. The desire for justice. The desire for justification. The desire for sanction and remission of guilt for the crime of usurpation or patricide.

The organic and natural succession of events that constitute “history” from the modern mentality can be synthesized with Herodotus’ account of human action governed by a dialectic of injustice and justice.

Moreover, human action in Herodotus is the result of human encounters. Whether the femme fatale, the treacherous murder, or the marauding invading army human action is undertaken not from face-to-face encounters with the divine but with mortal humans plagued by all the imperfections of human nature. Herodotus is, on this account, a very “modern” writer.

Can Herodotus be salvaged from the modernist disposition? If we take the minimalist approach to Historicism he most certainly can. The organic and natural succession of events that constitute “history” from the modern mentality can be synthesized with Herodotus’ account of human action governed by a dialectic of injustice and justice. As The Histories open, an act of human injustice is counteracted by an act of retribution—what the Greeks would have considered justice. This starts the entire cycle of movement that takes from the seas and walls of Tyre, Troy, and Lydia, to Miletus, Athens, and Sparta. The manifold personalities we meet are also all too human in their desire and psychological problems. Augustine may have been the first systematic psychologist of the soul and will, but Herodotus anticipates the direction that Augustine will take by some 800 years.

Herodotus ought to have been required reading for the leaders, policy-wonks, and experts in the euphoria of the 1990’s when the Soviet Union came tumbling down and the United States—leading the “free world”—embarked on imperial overreach and aggrandizement not that dissimilar from the Persians in Herodotus’ Histories. Part of the fall of Persia was due to its extensive size and power. Persia is, by every account, far more powerful than the tiny city-states of Hellas who decided to stand up to her. The fall of Persia was preceded by a spirit of overweening power and pride that convinced her that she should—and could—rule the world. Tisis, then, is not only about retributive justice but also the hand that produces equipoise in an unbalanced world. Thus, we see why the final books bring us back to Asia Minor and the liberation of those formerly conquered Greek city-states.

The inquiry of Herodotus into the inner working of human action is what is most important for us today. The Whig view of history likes to claim we have made progressive strides away from our darker ghosts and base desires. Herodotus shows us that human action is governed by the desire for justice—especially after suffering an act of injustice (however just the justification may be). The whole movement of human action, as Herodotus’ inquiry reveals, is the movement of justice confronting injustice. Yet, we also see—in Herodotus—how this desire for justice has a retributive and destructive side to it. We might remain unsure which side will win but the “great and marvelous deeds” which Herodotus sings of are the “great and marvelous deeds” of justice in a world filled with injustices. We are still the children of Herodotus after all.

Paul Krause is writer and editor with advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).

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