Intercourses seeking to construe justice can be traced back to 375 B.C in Plato’s Republic. In the dialogue between Socrates and Polemarchus in Book I, Socrates says the following: “Justice, then, seems according to you and Homer and Simonides, to be a certain art of stealing, for the benefit, to be sure, of friends and the harm of enemies.” (Plato 334b) As the exchange continues, Socrates dismantles Polemarchus’s definition of justice and his reference to Homer is striking. Socrates and, in turn, Plato are evidently bothered by the prescribed approach to justice that is introduced by Homer through his compelling stories. Plato ignites within us this drive to identify justice throughout the heroic tales we absorb. By comparing heroes to one another, and their different responses to threats, we can unearth what justice really is. Upon analyzing two of literature’s finest heroes, Odysseus and Beowulf, justice, it would appear, belongs to God, and the hero’s responsibility is to respond to threats and injuries by removing them and turning justice over to the Supreme Judge.

In the epic poem Beowulf, our hero, Beowulf, arrives in the kingdom of Dane eager to remove a threat which has plagued the people for twelve years. “For twelve winters, seasons of woe, the lord of the Shieldings suffered under his load of sorrow;”(Beowulf 147). Beowulf was not threatened by Grendel, therefore he was not pronouncing judgment by contending with him. Instead, Beowulf’s motivation was to remove the danger Grendel imposed upon King Hrothgar and his people. “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God.”(Beowulf 440) Later in the poem, Beowulf has been threatened, and his procedure after learning of this threat which takes the form of a dragon provides clarity to what his greatest concern is. “It threw the hero into deep anguish and darkened his mood: the wise man thought he must have thwarted ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord, broken His commandment.”(Beowulf 2327) Next, “The lord of the Geats took eleven comrades and went in a rage to reconnoitre. By then he had discovered the cause of the affliction being visited on the people.”(Beowulf 2401) Beowulf’s refused to be deceived on any account of the reality and nature of the threat made against him. Strategizing the proper way to remove this threat depicts Beowulf’s genuine concern, not for comeuppance, but ending the dilemma. Beowulf’s determination to follow “the eternal Lord”, his keenness to understand the nature of the threat, indicates both his willingness for God to be the judge and his aspiration to resolve the crisis. These qualities and inclinations are what delineate a true hero. 

In contrast, Odysseus’ conception of justice in Homer’s work The Odyssey is that, in order to compensate for injustice done to him, he can be unjust to others. For nonmaterial injustices inflicted against him, Odysseus gives harsh judgment and enforces that conviction. When Odysseus experiences material or financial injustice, he performs unfair acts towards the innocent. According to Odysseus, for financial offenses made against him, he is validated to take from others and restore his financial status. “But as for the flocks those brazen suitors plundered, much I’ll recoup myself, making many raids.”(Homer 467) Odysseus has suffered grievous financial loss, but instead of seeking comeuppance from those in the wrong, he tarnishes the innocent. The suitors have not only plundered Odysseus’s house but have harassed his wife, an offense more spiritual than material. Odysseus feels the need to take the place of a supreme judge and pronounces a verdict, as well as enforce that decree by slaying all of the suitors. “No fear that men’s revenge might arrive someday-now all your necks are in the noose-your doom is sealed!”(Homer 440) Plato gives words to the justice Homer chooses to depict in The Odyssey when he said “Justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies.”(Plato 332d) Odysseus feels it his duty to ensure the suitors receive their consequence, but he is governed by in-heroic rage that compels him to enforce justice rather than simply remove the threat. 

These two ancient and gallant stories tutor us on how and why justice is applied in various cultures and individual world views. We should be defining heroes by how they exercise and discern justice, rather than their personal qualities. If heroes are designated by the individual qualities they pose, then both Beowulf and Odysseus would be categorized as exemplary heroes.  A more narrow and ethical definition of heroism is to construe heroes by the consideration and regard they give justice as only exercisable honorably by God.  In The Republic, Plato’s concern is that in our eagerness for grand tales, we will fall victim to lies about reality, and in turn how we understand justice. According to Plato, a lie is “When a man in speech makes a bad representation of what gods and heroes are like, just as a painter who paints something that doesn’t resemble the things whose likeness he wished to paint.”(Plato 377e)

In Plato’s mind, not only are heroes defined by how they respond and use justice, but so are gods. Justice, in its most basic form, is the consequence of a choice. When an action has been performed, a consequence must follow. It is from this definition that we get Polemarchus’s definition of justice, “doing good to friends and harm to enemies.”(Plato 332d) The difference between our fictional characters, Beowulf and Odysseus, is in who they rely on to fulfill their claim to justice. The reliance on god(s) is painted by the authors. When authors give a bad representation of justice, then we have an inferior hero.  If the hero reacts to justice properly, they are relying upon a good god, and therefore this hero is worthy of our admiration. When a character receives their call to adventure and the threat is clearly depicted, it’s how they choose to respond to the appearance of justice and the desire to personally carry out these consequences that will make them a hero. Therefore, the conclusion drawn is that heroism is decided when a choice is made to remove a threat forsaking revenge, and not when a grand circumstance or challenge is overcome. Heroes understand that justice is something they cannot accomplish honorably, therefore they refuse to take God’s responsibility of judgment, and become content removing the threat imposed upon them.