Every year, the people of ancient Athens would gather to write down the answer to one question: does the safety of the state require that we send anyone into exile? But only once did a man write down his own name.
Today we’re talking about Justice in the story of Aristides the Just. Aristides was an ancient Greek general and statesman who made a name for himself through circumspect leadership in Athens
and at war, and through opposition to his rival, the great hero Themistocles. Aristides’ story is about the triumph of justice despite the injustice that is so often shown to those who prize it.
The story of Aristides comes from our classical studies course, Famous Men of Greece, a collection of stories gathered from the annals of history and myth; it’s perfect for any student or teacher of classical history from 5th -7th grade.
His story begins during the classical period in Greece, around 500 BC, when there were two great leaders in Athens. They hated each other. One of those leaders was Themistocles. He was a new kind of leader. He didn’t come from the Aristocracy, but instead muscled his way to the top through sheer force and power of will. The other leader was Aristides.
A famous legend about Aristides illustrates the kind of person he was. Once when Aristides was acting as a judge in a dispute between two men, one of the men criticized Aristides. The other man, hoping to win some favor with the judge, went to Aristides secretly and told him about the slander. Aristides responded, “My friend, tell me the wrong the man has done to you, not what he has done to me. It is not my cause that I am to decide, but yours.” Aristides knew that what was right was more important than his own feelings.
Perhaps Themistocles felt ashamed of himself when he thought of Aristides’ character, because he started to turn the people of Athens against Aristides. Every year the people of Athens would come together and write down a name on a shard of pottery, called an ostraca, and if six thousand people wrote down the same name, then that person was banished from the city; that’s where we get the word ostracize, or to exclude from a party or group.
Eventually Themistocles had rallied so many people against Aristides that on the day of the ostracisms, a man who did not know how to read or write walked right up to Aristides, and told him that the people wanted to ostracize Aristides the Just. Aristides responded by asking, “What did Aristides do to you?” The man answered, “Nothing! I just hate that everyone calls him ‘the just.’”
Downcast, but knowing that deep down this man’s vote was more important than his feelings, Aristides gave the man his due and wrote down his own name.
As Aristides left Athens, he offered a prayer for the city. Many who saw him do this remembered Achilles. When he was offended by the leader of the Greeks on the fields of Troy, he prayed that Zeus would strike down the Greek army. In contrast, Aristides the Just—betrayed by his own people whom he had always treated fairly—prayed for peace and hoped that the city would thrive without him.
Aristides’ prayers were not answered, or so it seemed, for Xerxes led the Persian army to conquer Greece only three years later. Now the leader of Athens, Themistocles, knew that the Greek army needed all the help they could get, so he personally found the most reliable man he knew: Aristides. Aristides joined Themistocles at the battle of Salamis and he fought admirably. His steadfast loyalty to what was right and his sense of justice gave him the courage he needed to lead a ship arm-in-arm with his sworn enemy, Themistocles, against the Persians.
When the war was over and the Greeks had won, Themistocles and Aristides returned home to Athens which had been razed by the Persians. The two old enemies joined together and began to rebuild. The port of Athens and many public works had to be rebuilt and it would cost a fortune. The people had to choose someone they trusted to use their money fairly to rebuild the city. The people chose the man they knew would do what was right and spend the money fairly giving each man his due: Aristides. The man they had once banished governed in the city ruling justly and wisely until his death.
At the core of Aristides’ story is the virtue: justice. Justice is giving every man his due. Oftentimes today, justice is called for without any regard for a compassionate perspective. We so quickly rush to condemn the actions of others without considering the unique circumstances and factors that have led them to where they are. If justice is giving a man what he’s due, then justice requires that we spend a lot of effort listening to him, so that we know precisely what his due is.
Aristides listened to an illiterate man with an illegitimate, hearsay explanation for why he wanted Aristides ostracized, and concluded that—as a citizen of Athens—it was still this man’s due to vote against the man he wanted to vote against. We too must learn to listen to those we disagree with and don’t understand, and not allow our differences to become an excuse for withholding from them their due.
On the other hand, justice can often be disregarded in the name of compassion. Love is not a greater virtue than justice and without justice there can be no true love: only pity. Oftentimes justice will seem cold and uncaring, but true justice creates the conditions for peace and prosperity. It was only through Aristides commitment to fairness that Athens could be rebuilt and prosper.
Aristides the Just showed that true justice is a love for what’s right and fair, more than a love for one’s self. Through this love, despite the injustice of his exile, Aristides secured peace for the armies of Greece and the people of Athens. His example reminds us what Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
So what do you think of Aristides’ story? Let us know in the comments below.