Weighing Desert: Justice for Kings, Justice for New Yorkers

One man is on trial for murder under the threat of the death penalty, and a jury must decide his fate; he lives. This is the basic outline of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides and Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, except one courtroom is in ancient Athens, while the other is in 1960s New York City. In The Eumenides, protagonist and Mycenaean prince Orestes is on trial for the killing of his mother, Clytemnestra, who herself murdered her husband Orestes’ father Agamemnon. The Greek gods Apollo and the Furies cannot agree on whether Orestes’ murder was just, so Athena conjures up a court of ten jurors she intends to become the model for justice in Athens. The jury is tied, but Athena has already cast her own vote in favor of Orestes, so he goes free. In Twelve Angry Men, a working-class boy is accused of murdering his own father. The prosecution’s case is strong; a mountain of evidence suggests the accused did the deed. But one juror believes there is room for reasonable doubt, and as he untangles the facts of the case and dismantles the prejudices of the others, he gradually convinces the entire jury to return the verdict “not guilty.”

The differences between the two plays run deeper than their disparate worlds—gods and princes on one hand, and baseball and elevated trains on the other. Both plays demonstrate how those worlds have different priorities concerning desert, that element of justice concerned with dealing people the proper consequences they deserve for their actions. Specifically, the ancient Greeks in The Eumenides view the distribution of “just” punishment as quintessential to the administration of justice, while the American jurors in Twelve Angry Men impose two limits on their own ability to administer the “just” deserts: the mandate to be unprejudiced and the recognition of reasonable doubt. In this sense, The Eumenides falls neatly into Aristotle’s model of rectificatory justice from Nicomachean Ethics, which holds that justice restores proportionality in response to transactions (voluntary or involuntary) that subvert it. Twelve Angry Men complicates Aristotle’s notion by illustrating how difficult it is to define such concepts as proportionality, equality, and fairness in an ostensibly equal, democratic society. It also introduces an extra dimension of probability, the recognition that enforcing desert can become quite murky when the facts are not known with total certainty. Finally, while Aeschylus does not necessarily acknowledge the shortcomings of jury trial that the Americans contend with, he at least points the way toward a more comprehensive judicial system by suggesting that the notion of desert should not be its singular focus.

In the Greek world of The Euminides, characters seek to dish out the consequences people deserve for their actions—but exactly what is just and what is unjust is hotly contested by the characters in the play, even the gods. Apollo is favorable to Orestes because he values the sacredness of the marriage bond; hence, Orestes was just to avenge Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. “Marriage of man and wife is Fate itself, stronger than oaths, and Justice guards its life,” he says (The Eumenides 215-216). The Furies, of course, beg to differ; they cannot forgive Orestes for committing matricide. “Wither you [Orestes] alive, drag you down and there you pay, agony for mother-killing agony!” they scream as they torment Orestes (265-267). Though the two sides disagree on the righteousness of Orestes’ actions, they are both keenly interested in delivering justice for him according to desert. This is illustrated in Apollo’s personal defense of Orestes and in the lengths the Furies go to harass him. Both sides fanatically pursue their notion of justice despite the mutual possibility that they could be wrong. As Athena points out to the Furies after Orestes’ acquittal, justice is not relative: “You were not defeated – the vote was tied, a verdict fairly reached with no disgrace to you, no, Zeus brought luminous proof before us” (806-809). Ultimately, Zeus, the greatest and most enlightened (“luminous”) of the Greek gods determines what is just and unjust, but this does not discourage Apollo and the Furies from seeking their own versions of justice because they value desert so highly.

In terms of Aristotle’s rectificatory justice, Orestes performed an unjust transaction when he killed Clytemnestra, who performed an unjust transaction when she killed Agamemnon, who performed an unjust action when he sacrificed Iphigenia, etc. The conflict between Apollo and the Furies stems from the question of whether the final sum of the transactions is proportionate and fair. As Aristotle implicitly showed, this is an open question, and judges can choose to answer it differently. It is as if both sides were presenting different solutions to one complex algebra problem. But to the ancient Greeks, as represented by Apollo and the Furies, enforcing a flawed notion of justice was preferable to letting a perceived injustice go uncorrected. In other words, dishing out just deserts immediately was more important than being right about whether those deserts were warranted.

While justice acts as a kind of personal crusade in The Eumenides, justice is constant and universal in Twelve Angry Men. As participants of a murder trial, the jurors are asked to put aside their personal prejudices to uphold an American notion of fair and equal justice. “It’s very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this,” says the Eighth Juror (Twelve Angry Men, 66). This statement implicitly suggests that in America, justice must be administered without bias concerning factors such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Any dissent from that ideal is quickly hushed up by the other jurors, as in the case of the racist rant by the Tenth Juror about certain ethnic groups being “born to lie” (64). Responses such as “Ah, shut up!” and “I’ve heard enough. Now you just stop all this.” (65) indicate immediate condemnation by the other jurors and the recognition that the Tenth Juror’s capacity to administer proper justice is tainted. There is only one correct American conception of justice, in contrast to the gulf between Apollo and the Furies; though both have different interpretations of justice based on their different values and prejudices, they have equal footing before the Athenian court. Here, Twelve Angry Men imposes a constraint on Aristotle’s notion of rectificatory justice: unjust transactions should be ameliorated according to proportionate loss and gain, but only insofar as the judge subscribes to the American notion of political equality. At the same time, Americans also place limits on the pursuit of desert. Unlike the ancient Greeks, they would rather allow some injustice to fall through the system’s cracks than abandon the ideal of equality before the law.

Another difference between the two poems concerns certainty. The ancient Greeks in The Eumenides have no concept of what might be unknown. As Orestes put it, “I killed her. There’s no denying that” (The Eumenides 594). This is partially attributable to the omniscience of the Greek gods, but it also reflects a conception of justice itself as all-knowing. As Athena says just before the judges cast their lots, “Untouched by lust for spoil, this court of law majestic, swift to fury, rising above you as you sleep, our night watch always wakeful, guardian of our land” (718-721). Her new judicial system “[rises] above” and transcends ordinary life to become “always wakeful,” presumably calculated to elucidate the perfect (Zeus’s) form of justice. The jury in Twelve Angry Men is not so fortunate because they are keenly aware they don’t have all the facts. As the Eighth Juror says, “I don’t really know what the truth is … we’re just gambling on probabilities. We may be wrong” (Twelve Angry Men 66). Uncertainty is a recurring theme throughout the poem; in one scene, the Third and Eighth Jurors trade blows over the reliability of a key witness’s testimony. The Third Juror repeatedly asks the Eighth how he “knows” about the accusations he is leveling against the witness while the Eighth asks the Third why he thinks those allegations are “not possible” (71).

This is a reversal of the situation in The Eumenides. The American jurors agree on a common ideal of justice, but they hesitate to pursue desert because they fear their judgment will be clouded by lack of knowledge—and this the second complication they layer on top of Aristotle’s concept of rectificatory justice. A judge righting transactions must consider not only proportionality, but also probability. Without a reliable account of how those transactions took place, he or she would be inclined to be conservative when righting the wrongs. This is what the Eighth Juror calls “reasonable doubt”: “a safeguard that has enormous value” in the American judicial system (Twelve Angry Men 66). Reasonable doubt is a safeguard that prevents rectificatory justice from creating new injustices by correcting perceived injustices that may not actually exist.

In summary, justice in Aeschylus’s The Eumenides is swift and heavy-handed. The play’s Greek gods pursue just deserts fanatically, each convinced that their notion of justice is proper. The facts of Orestes’ trial are readily apparent, and the jury need only determine whether his revenge balances out his family’s past injustices, consistent with Aristotle’s notion of rectificatory justice. By contrast, the Americans in Rose’s Twelve Angry Men impose limits on the execution of justice and the pursuit of desert. They struggle to uphold one common, idealized form of justice that is free of personal prejudice. Simultaneously, they struggle to determine what they know and what they do not know, augmenting Aristotle’s concept of proportionate transactions with an additional dimension of possibility.

But if Athena’s new judicial system in The Eumenides is so simplistic and limited, then it seems problematic that it should become the new standard for Athens. “Now and forever more, for Aegeus’ people this will be the court where judges reign,” Athena proclaims (The Euminides, 695-696). The play never addresses the difficulty that the jurors of Twelve Angry Men face in their mandate to uphold their society’s standard of justice—in their case, the American concept of equality in democracy—nor does it address uncertainty. But by replacing justice by personal vengeance with justice by trial, in which Apollo and the Furies argue for their beliefs constructively instead of using Orestes as a pawn, Aeschylus gets the ball rolling. His message to the audience is that desert is not the end-all be-all of justice. When we place the power to judge in the hands of others, we do so with the understanding that while we may not personally agree with the outcome, society can come to a more perfect understanding of justice than we can as individuals. If Aeschylus does not reproduce the complex American judicial system, he at least points the way toward its development. He challenges his audience to reward and punish all citizens according to what they deserve, in spite of the thorny obstacles and nuances that may lay along the way.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides. Trans. by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Classics, 1977).

Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Men. Intro. by David Mamet (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006).

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