Scales of Justice & Divine vs. Mortal Measures



Scales of Justice; Divine vs. Mortal Measures



Throughout The Odyssey, as men and gods aid Odysseus in his return to Ithaca and in vanquishing the suitors, Homer contrasts mortal with divine justice. The expectations of an appropriate outcome, justice, vary according to the perspective. Athena petitions Zeus multiple times to help the struggling hero on his way home; she reveals her interest in affecting his experiences and, at times, intercedes to overrule mortal objectives. Ultimately, while both men and gods strive toward the elusive goal of Odysseus's return, their differing perspectives expose a dichotomy between mortal and divine justice. Gods, witnessing thousands of years of human history, only interact with a select group of individuals at a germane moment. Most mortals are preoccupied with thoughts of the immediate future, and long term goals are not a priority. Thus, while divine justice focuses on a broader, more expansive outcome and only affects certain people, mortals pursue a narrower, personal application of justice that places emphasis on the importance of each life. Homer reveals a world in which human justice is dominated by the interests of the divine. Ultimately, divine justice prevails either by surpassing mortal expectations or through outright defiance.

When both gods and men try to implement justice, the gods' interests will always dominate regardless of man's wishes. Odysseus experiences this when he mingles with the suitors, as a beggar, to determine who is loyal. He is constantly disparaged by all but one man, Amphinomos. Odysseus hopes to reward this compassionate suitor by sparing him from the retribution intended for the other suitors. In response to Amphinomos's kindness, Odysseus offers him insight and advice:

Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move,

earth bears none frailer than mankind. What man

believes in woe to come, so long as valor

and tough knees are supplied him by the gods?

But when the gods in bliss bring miseries on,

then… blindly, he endures…

I tell you,

to his [each suitor's] own place, and soon; for he [Odysseus] is near. (18.164-187)


Odysseus's travels have taught him that humans can afford to embrace only the present happiness given to them by the gods. The gods supply a man with “tough knees”, or their sustenance, and valor. What else can a man desire? How could the same gods strip a man of this happiness? Odysseus, in his advice to Amphinomos, contrasts various extremes, which all fluctuate with the will of the gods. The state of bliss can quickly turn into misery. Homer uses bliss to represent two meanings, both the blissful life of the gods and the ephemeral bliss humans experience. Valor surrenders to woe. A simile creates the last extreme: “our [mortals'] minds are as the days are, dark or bright,/ blown over by the father of gods and men” (18.170-171). In one state, man feels that the the other will never come. He is “blown over” by the gods, dominated by them or simply disregarded.

Because Amphinomos offered kindness amidst hostility, Odysseus perceived him as distinct from the other suitors and therefore worthy of different treatment. In Odysseus's mortal vision of justice, Amphinomos should be rewarded for his loyalty and be allowed the opportunity to escape and save himself. Athena, though, has an entirely different perception of Amphinomos. According to divine justice, Amphinomos deserves to die along with the other suitors, even though he was kind to Odysseus. Athena chooses not to judge each suitor individually. She asserts her vision of justice upon the mortal world, and, although “his [Amphinomos's] heart foreknew/ the wrath to come… he could not take take flight,/ being by Athena bound there” (18.194-196). Aside from heroes like Odysseus, Athena and the other gods view the mortal world largely in groups. Regardless of whether every suitor is bad, equal punishment has been delineated for them all. Athena desires all, not some, of the suitors die. Divine justice imposes extremes upon the mortal world by grouping people and refraining from individualizing justice. When Odysseus's and Athena's versions of justice clash, Athena dominates, wholly directing mortal justice.

Mortals and gods may fight on the same side in accomplishing an identical goal; however, the means and caliber of their efforts differ immensely. When Telemakhos calls an assembly among the Ithacan men, he ultimately agrees to Athena's idea of going on a voyage to find Odysseus. Athena, disguised as Mentor, tells him: “The sea routes will yield their distances/ to his [Odysseus’s] true son… You need not linger over going to sea./ I sailed beside your father in the old days,/ I'll find a ship for you, and help you sail her” (2.289-302). Athena, in her guise as Mentor, suggests that Telemakhos travel from Ithaca for news of his father. This concept appeals to the despairing Telemakhos. To him, finding Odysseus is his duty. Athena, however, has a different perception of his duty. Upon their arrival in Nestor's court, “Clear-headed Telemakhos responded cheerfully, [to Nestor,]/ for Athena gave him heart. By her design/ his quest for news about his father's wandering/ would bring him fame in the world's eyes” (3.82-85). Telemakhos' interpretation of justice is to find his father who will, in turn, implement justice upon the suitors and his home. Athena realizes the futility of Telemakhos's journey, simply suggesting it to him in a way that complements mortal justice. She sees beyond the short-term mortal concerns and wants him to achieve glory, or kleos. Athena's actions contrast the different concept of kleos from the mortal and divine perspectives. While mortals believe that kleos may come of their travels, gods view the journey as a necessary path to expanding one's kleos. To Athena, the outcome of greater fame justifies his undertaking a futile mortal objective.

When the desires of mortals and divines are truly in harmony, the gods still prevent mortals from executing their own form of justice. In the last book of The Odyssey, Odysseus and his family confront the suitors' families. “Power flowed into him [Laertes] from Pallas Athena/… he let fly his… spear… It struck/ Eupeithes on… his helmet… Odysseus and his son now furiously/ closed… Athena raised a shout… 'Now hold!'/ she cried, 'Break off this… skirmish/… make peace'” (24.579-594). Athena, despite her strong intervention, wants this conflict to occur. She allows one man to die (on the suitors' side) and then decides to dissolve the conflict. Because of godly intervention, Odysseus is prevented from murdering the suitors' families. Her actions embody the principles of divine justice in disregarding the death of one man and later asserting her control of the situation. Mortal justice is constantly under the jurisdiction of the gods. When mortal justice challenges this hierarchy, gods intrude directly and prevent an outcome in conflict with their desires.

The Odyssey contains two versions of justice that frequently conflict. Both mortals and gods pursue their respective forms of justice. While mortals focus on short-term effects and individualized justice, gods select individuals to implement a more generalized effect of justice. Should divine justice prevail? Through exposing the differences between mortal and divine justice, Homer begins to answer that question, revealing attributes of justice that might otherwise be obscure. Mortal justice, in addressing immediate concerns, uncovers human values and insight into true character. After witnessing generations of men live and die, the gods have developed values that transcend men's perspectives. Without one form of justice, however, the other would lack its vital complement. Alone, a single perception of justice is flawed; together, they complement and expand the application of justice. The gods, seemingly all-powerful and superior in every way, have an imperfect form of justice on human terms. Humans, acting to fulfill short term interests, fail to perceive the sweeping principles of the gods. Again, justice depends on perspective and Homer switches from the mortal outlook to that of the of gods to afford the most comprehensive view. Even though the gods dominate, Homer reminds the reader that there is no correct interpretation of right, wrong and justice. Instead, they are varying concepts that are justified to suit one's perspective. By viewing Odysseus's journey through the eyes of gods and men, one may strive to conceive of a vision of justice that is truly just for all.


Andrew Milich
Age 15, Grade 9
The Dalton School
Silver Key

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