A Reputation for Justice: Plutarch, “Life of Aristides”

1. Aristides was an Athenian politician renowned for his justice during the Persian Wars. His main rival was Themistocles, who saved the people of Athens as the city burned. Themistocles was successful working in the name of expedience; his swift rebuilding of Athens’ walls set the stage for Athens’ imperial rise. What did Aristides achieve?

Immediately after telling us Aristides’ name, Plutarch inquires into his wealth. It is shocking how quickly the question emerges of how much money a man who might be the most just politician in history had. Even more interesting are names dropped during the discussion. A certain historian, whom Plutarch disagrees with, thought Aristides wealthy as well as Socrates. Plutarch refutes what is adduced regarding Aristides’ wealth; while doing this, he casually mentions that Plato, the philosopher, put on a magnificent show of dithyrambic singers with money given by a tyrant. An extremely convoluted sentence that has something to do with honor and friendship and base intentions apparently makes Plato’s deed fine.

Something I take for granted based on a few passages of Xenophon: Socrates’ wealth was the beings. There is a way you can say the philosopher is wealthy. Still, “beings” and “poetic displays” are a far cry from justice, and Plutarch’s repeated mentions of Socrates force us to reconstruct the implicit relation between philosopher and politician. They are not simply interchangeable, despite some strong parallels in the narrative.

And those parallels have a limit. Themistocles was not just a political rival of Aristides: both men yearned early on for the same lover. Socratic erotics in Xenophon do include a moment where Socrates tells Xenophon himself to stay away from someone he is thinking of hitting on (Memorabilia I.3). However, it is difficult to think of Socrates as a rival lover. If he wants someone, it seems like he simply wouldn’t compete, or would put himself in a situation where he would be the only option. I think Alcibiades’ testimony about Socrates’ playing hard-to-get at the end of Plato’s Symposium definitely testifies to the latter. The former – simply not competing – is not traceable to the dignity of philosophy, but rather its lack of dignity. We recognize something very utilitarian in what we might see as an obsessive, perverse, inhuman attachment to knowledge.

2. The limit on Aristides, for a time, was Themistocles. Themistocles was a man of the people, a genuinely democratic man. Plutarch’s words about him remind me of something vaguely Tocquevillian: “[Themistocles was] ready, adventurous, and subtle, engaging readily and eagerly in every thing.” I have a lot of trouble thinking of those in a democracy as “ready, adventurous, and subtle.” It took my area in Jersey forever to discover Asian food which wasn’t cheap Chinese existed. Even in Tocqueville, the nobility of democracy is hard to see. Tocqueville opens Democracy in America with the thought that equality of conditions is the most striking and important fact about America.

Aristides himself was of the aristocratic party. He was a good aristocrat, refusing to get involved in schemes whereby his fellow partisans could be easily enriched at public expense. Themistocles was notorious for dipping into the treasury and openly bragged about being able to favors for his friends. It may seem strange to us that democracy and populism so quickly grasp for insider status and privilege. But no one said equality necessarily accompanied any perception of a majority’s right.

3. Aristides’ justice made him an extremely effective commander, diplomat, check on Themistocles and ruler in his own right. I should not make it seem he played Robin to Themistocles’ Batman. A reputation for justice is most powerful. In the war, he was able to keep the allies united under Spartan command. When the Spartan generals proved to be corrupt, his reputation made Sparta recall their generals in shame. He was able to secure help at key moments from many allies and keep petty fights from breaking apart the army over nothing. He did stand guard over things captured, keeping them secure, and was at one point in charge of assessing how much every Greek city should be taxed for the sake of the war.

He was not imprudent. He showed tactical smarts and did not hold that justice had the final say in all decisions. He moved the allied fund for the war to Athens openly because of expediency. However, expedience did not allow him to sacrifice his sense of shame. Themistocles once told the assembly he had something which was very advantageous he wanted to do, but had to keep it secret. So the assembly told Aristides to hear the proposal and tell them whether it was worth doing. Themistocles told Aristides that he wanted to burn the arsenal of all the Greeks, which they could do as they were all allies and no one would expect such sabotage. Aristides told the assembly that, regarding what Themistocles wanted to do, “nothing would be more advantageous… and nothing more unjust.” The assembly declined the proposal.

The contrast between him and the others of his time is remarkable. Persians he captured intact he left intact. He sent some who were royalty to Themistocles; Themistocles promptly performed a human sacrifice in accordance with some oracle. Plutarch tells us a story of the Plataeans, who willingly ceded their land for the Greeks to fight on. It was a tremendous sacrifice, but when we hear of how the Plataeans perform an elaborate, monied ritual where only the “free” men of Plataea can participate, we realize the sacrifice of most governing is those of others. When one starts reading into Plutarch’s narrative conflicts between oligarchs, aristocrats and democrats, one realizes that these people are not simply grappling with each other out of pettiness. Nobility is hard to realize when one’s very civilization is at stake, when one’s own fellow Greeks can ally with Persia (as the Thebans did) or factions can accuse you of anything.

4. Aristides’ sacrifices were his own. Thrown into exile at least twice, the second time because of vicious accusations that turned his own reputation for justice and public service against him, he died penniless and away from Athens. Plutarch’s last thoughts on Aristides focus on his descendants, including a granddaughter who, also poor, may have lived with Socrates. A number of women are listed at the end of the narrative, all penniless and supported by the state for the service rendered by their ancestor.

It would be easy to say justice is womanliness or cowardice, a refusal to act or be better. Women are absent from much of Plutarch’s narrative. They only emerge at the end, in a most non-erotic context (save the Socrates story). The question is that of generation. Justice didn’t produce anything for Aristides himself. But it gave the city a chance to preserve something that might blossom, or be a blossoming itself. The city doesn’t know what it is doing in giving Aristides’ descendants money; it is honoring deeds done in a remote past. It is hard to say it is acting ignobly. In fact, what it is doing is the opposite of exiling/ostracizing others – it is preparing the ground for its true greatness, a greatness it probably will not appreciate.

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