Arrian on Justice

 Posted by on 26 December 2006 at 6:50 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 262006

I recently read Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. I enjoyed it immensely, particularly for Arrian’s concern to clearly portray Alexander’s moral qualities, for better and for worse. I found much to admire, both in Alexander and Arrian.

The following story is just a small example, at least of what I found admirable in Arrian. The basic context is that Arrian has just told the chilling tale of Alexander’s murder of his beloved friend Cleitus in a drunken rage for insulting him. (Cleitus himself was justly peeved by the fawning flattery heaped upon Alexander by others in his entourage.) Alexander was immediately horrified by his action, so much so that he reportedly considered suicide in the moments immediately thereafter. He was disconsolate in his grief and guilt for many days, even refusing food and drink. Arrian then says:

There is a story that Alexander sent for the sophist Anaxarchus, in the hope he might give him comfort, and was still on his bed, bewailing his fate, when he came in.

Anaxarchus laughed. “Don’t you know,” he said, “why the wise men of old made justice to sit by the side of Zeus? It was to show that whatever Zeus may do is justly done. In the same way all the acts of a great king should be considered just, first by himself, then by the rest of us.”

This was some consolation, at any rate for a time–though in my opinion he did Alexander a wrong more grievous than his grief, if he seriously, as a philosopher, put forward the view that a king need not act justly, or labor, to the best of his ability, to distinguish between right and wrong–if he really meant that whatever a king does, by whatever means, should be considered right.

That’s a rather different view of justice in governance than found in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:1-8).

For Paul, subjection and obedience are themselves good. The rulers need not act justly; they need not earn obedience by governing well. God is in charge of such matters, since rulers only rule by His will. Moreover, according to Christian principles of judgment, mere mortals ought not dare judge the fitness of their rulers, lest they be judged for their inevitable faults in return. (On that point, see Matthew 18, for example.)

Given these ideas, it’s little wonder that Christian rule in Europe entailed a reversion to the very kinds of despotic and arbitrary rule so reviled in the Greco-Roman world.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha