Clearly, the corruption of justice, as occasioned through the conservation of personal political and economic power, was of extreme consequence to the ancients. In Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian Wars,” as well as in Euripides’ “Medea,” themes of personal power and universal justice comprise a central motive of expression, as well as informing the writers’ respective philosophical and historical visions.
As Hall remarks, “Euripides was clearly engaged with the intellectual and ethical questions which the war had asked and which underlay the policy debates in the Athenian assembly. These appear in disguise in his tragedies: the conflict between Medea and Jason revolves around the identical confrontation of justice with expediency which informs Thucydides’ first debate between the Corinthians and the Corcyraeans”
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Thucydides’ history is replete with the ironic observation on the nature of justice (as applied to the body politic) and the ubiquitous nature of personal corruption. In the first “debate” between the Corinthians and Corcyraeans, the culpability of political leaders is referenced:
“These Corcyraeans in the speech we have just heard do not confine themselves to the question of their reception into your alliance. They also talk of our being guilty of injustice, and they’re being the victims of an unjustifiable war. It becomes necessary for us to touch upon both these points before we proceed to the rest of what we have to say, that you may have a correct idea of the grounds of our claim, and have good cause to reject their petition. According to them their old policy of refusing all offer of alliance was a policy of moderation. It was in fact adopted for bad ends, not for good; indeed their conduct is such as to make them by no means desirous of having allies present to witness it, or of having the shame of asking their concurrence”
(Thucydides, 1950, p. 26)
In effect, accepting political responsibility on behalf of the Corinthians whilst accusing the Corcyraeans of injustice and corruption.
Following this thread, the speech goes on:
Besides, their geographical situation makes them independent of others, and consequently the decision in cases where they injure any lies not with judges appointed by mutual agreement, but with themselves, because while they seldom make voyages to their neighbors, they are constantly being visited by foreign vessels which are compelled to put into Corcyra. In short, the object that they propose to themselves in their specious policy of complete isolation, is not to avoid sharing in the crimes of others, but to secure monopoly of crime to themselves–the licence of outrage, wherever they can compel, or fraud wherever they can elude, and the enjoyment of their gains without shame..
(Thucydides, 1950, p. 26)
Because the ancients regarded justice as a power in itself, and one that was divinely inspired and maintained, peculiar ironies are made in Medea’s monologues which seem to indicate a similar personal corruption on behalf of the gods themselves:
Don’t say that. Even the gods, they claim,
are won by gifts. And among mortal men,
gold works more wonders than a thousand words.
Her fortune’s on the rise. God’s favor her.
She’s young, with royal power to command.
Thus, the dichotomy between justice and power is established on grounds of personal corruption. If even the Gods are “won by gifts;” if gold “works more wonders than a thousand words” (we may presume these “words” are those which would, perhaps, entreat justice) we see a sustained cynicism in comparing Thucydides’ history with the text of Medea. Both envision wars started and fought for reasons of personal ambition; both envision the position of the individual appeal for justice, unsupported by objective power, to be ineffectual and tragically ignored.
When Medea reflects on her own dichotomy between personal power and justice — she realizes with tragic consequence that her power, like the political power used to oppress her – emerges out of some unsavory sacrifice of personal morals.
But to spare my children banishment,
I’d trade more than gold. I’d give my life.
Now, children, when you get inside the palace,
you must beg this new wife of your father’s,
my mistress, not to send you into exile.
When you present these gifts, your must make sure
she takes them from you herself, in her own hands.
Now go and be quick about it. Good luck!
Bring your mother back news of your success,
the happy news she so desires to hear.
To achieve justice, one must stoop to immoral or personally degrading ends: “you must beg” and “present these gifts” so as not to be sent “into exile.” Similarly, Medea must herself, choose the murder of her children to achieve justice, which extends Thucydides theme of “inversion” where what is good for the state of for society at large has become weak or placed into a subservient role to the gratification of personal corruption. “Again, wherever there were tyrants, their habit of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them” (Thucydides, 1950, p. 23).
The tendency for “power to corrupt” and for “absolute power to corrupt absolutely as demonstrated in Thucydides history and in Euripides’ Medea is only minimally counterbalanced by the posting of justice as a divine power which resists corruption and seeks vengeance upon corrupt individuals. As mentioned, this notion is employed ironically in Thucydides histories and in the play Medea.
- Hall, E. (1997). Introduction. In Medea: Hippolytus ; Electra ; Helen (pp. ix-xxxiv). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Thucydides. (1950). The History of the Peloponnesian War (Crawley, R., Trans.). New York: E. P. Dutton.