Resisting Evil, IV: The Duty to Defend

Private Violence in Self-Defense--A Natural Duty

Christ’s equation of physical violence with internal anger raises questions that juries often have to face: What are the circumstances that might justify the use of lethal violence in self-defense?  Specifically, when an argument leads to a violent altercation, does the one party bear any responsibility for the consequences if, though the other party struck the first blow, his own anger was a contributing factor?  The varied legal traditions of human societies will have different answers to this question.  Differences in ethnicity, religion, and social structure will all color the approach to violent self-assertion, but even among European nations, there are serious differences.  In general, the barbarian ancestors of Americans and Northern Europeans were less likely to condemn acts of violence between consenting adults, while ancient Greeks and Romans, as we shall see, imposed more stringent requirements on those who used violence to defend or assert their rights.  Nonetheless, even the most civilized societies have condoned some forms of self-defense.

Greek mythology and literature are filled with violence, not just the great wars—the Trojan War and the war of the Seven Against Thebes—but the exploits of Heracles and Theseus and dozens of lesser known heroes and villains.  In most cases, the victims of heroic violence were themselves homicidal maniacs whose deaths were a step toward civility, but triple-bodied Geryon (among others) was an innocent victim:  He was robbed of his cattle by Heracles and killed simply for trying to recover his property.  The great poet Pindar used the story of Geryon to illustrate his view of Nomos, usually translated as law:

Nomos, the king of all, mortals and immortals,  justifying/making just the most extreme violence with an overpowering hand.  I bring as evidence the labors of Heracles, since he drove the cattle of Geryon to the massive gates of Eurystheus [the king of Thebes who commanded the labors], though he had got them neither by asking for them nor by buying them.

To understand what the poet is saying, we have to understand that the word Nomos, refers both to written laws and to customs handed down from time immemorial.  It can thus be the equivalent of “the way things are.”  While in ordinary human terms—ancient Greek as well as modern American—Heracles is a criminal, he was a son of Zeus, who had been given a higher destiny than Geryon, and there is nothing that anyone, including Geryon's patron god Poseidon, can do. 

  Pindar’s treatment of Geryon, which may have been inspired by a much earlier poem of Stesichorus, indicate a growing discomfort with the amoral conduct of some mythological heroes.  Stories of heroic violence, while they remained popular, were subjected to critical scrutiny in the classical period, when Greek cities forbade the carrying of weapons and most forms of violent revenge.  One of the most famous literary cases of a violent altercation leading to death is narrated by Sophocles' Oedipus (OT 800-813), who uneasily gives an account of how he killed an old man and his retainers. 

As I was walking near the place where three roads meet, there was I confronted by a herald and a man mounted on a horse-drawn wagon.... The guide and the old man himself tried to drive me from the road by force, and I struck in anger the driver, the one who was trying to turn me aside; and the old man, when he saw, having waited until I passed by the wagon, struck the middle of my head with his two-pronged goad, and I paid more than I got; namely, having been struck by this hand with a stick he rolled backwards right out of the wagon, and I killed them all.

Sophocles has described one of the earliest recorded instances of road rage.  Oedipus was, however, not quite correct in claiming to have killed the entire party, which, in addition to King Laius of Thebes, a herald, and probably a driver, included the slave who escaped to tell the tale.  Laius and his company were certainly at fault in trying to drive the young wayfarer out of the road, and, while Laius himself struck Oedipus, it was only after the young man had struck one of his men.  It is a sign of Oedipus' intemperate character that he responds to a passing blow by murdering as many as he could lay his hands on, including the old king, who will turn out to have been his own father.  

Greek roads, in the time of Sophocles, were not the grand highways built by the later Romans but were more like single-lane tracks.  It would not have been easy or even possible for a walker to pass by a wheeled carriage heading in the opposite direction.  Both father and son were arrogant characters, neither of them willing to give place to the other.  Such conflicts must have been a common occurrence, though not often with such fatal results. 

Although the dramatic date of the Oedipus Tyrannus is two generations before the Trojan War (thus about 1300 B.C.), the play was staged in Athens in the 420’s, and Sophocles would certainly have been thinking of Athenian law and custom rather than of Thebes in the Bronze Age.  Oedipus seems not to have been much disturbed by the events, but under Athenian law, he would almost certainly have been prosecuted for murder by the kinsmen of Laius and the herald.  (The obligation to prosecute extended as far as the sons of first cousins.)  Oedipus might argue in his defense that it was lawful at Athens to kill in self-defense and that Laius had struck him first.  But the prosecutors would certainly point out that the violence was initiated by Oedipus, and rest their case on the principle that a killing was not justifiable, when it was committed by the man who struck the first blow.  

Setting aside the case of Laius, a jury would have rightly have convicted Oedipus of the other killings.  To avoid problems, the killer might attempt to bribe the victim's family--though to accept such blood-money was considered shameful--or go into exile.  

In Athens, Laius’ male next of kin (unfortunately Oedipus himself) could demand that the killer be executed for striking the first blow before going on to kill four men.  On the other side, Oedipus could argue that the driver had offered violence in attempting to drive him off the road.  Laius and his retainers, had they killed the insolent young man who attacked them, would probably have got off, even though their behavior was provocative.  It is useless to speculate on the decision that might have been rendered by an Athenian jury that was liable to be swayed by extra-legal considerations.  Nonetheless, one can say in general terms that the conduct of a young man who displayed angry disrespect to a distinguished older man, whom he proceeded to kill along with his attendants, would not have been approved.  

Every society has its own laws regulating self-defense, but it is only reasonable to distinguish between the wanton killing of an innocent man and the killing of an assailant.  Much later in his career as dramatist, Sophocles brought Oedipus back on stage as an old man of his own age—though the chronology is impossible.  There, the aged Oedipus says, in killing Laius he had done what anyone would have done.  It is not that the old blind man has a failing memory but, rather, that for the purposes of the play Sophocles emphasizes the innocence of Oedipus and portrays, though without details, the homicides as justifiable acts of self-defense.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Roger McGrath says:

    I may have missed something in all this and my reasoning might be that of a young kid but wasn’t the confrontation started by the Laius and his retainers? In effect, they asked for a fight and they got it. So now their relatives want to whine. Tough toenails.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger, of course the story exists in different versions. In Sophocles first version in the Oedipus, the retainers are rude in trying to force him aside, but young Oedipus upped the ante by striking them and in the end kills them. An audience would recall that Laius was a distinguished older man, a king in fact with his retinue, while Oedipus was a kid who is supposed to defer. If Oedipus had been contempt to whip them, preferably sparing the distinguished old man, he would have been justified, but it takes a lot to kill a group of men. Of course, he is a chip of the old block. Laius is in fact getting what he deserved first for begetting a son he was not supposed to but then having him exposed, but the son is equally willful and even more carefree in his approach to prophecy and the gods. What has also to be kept in mind is that Athenians in Sophocles’ day did not go armed and regarded the public wearing of arms, outside of military campaigns, as a sign of barbarism. Thucydides does point out that in less settled parts of Greece, men still carried weapons, but not in the great cities. They would have understand John Wayne’s little speech in “The Shootist”: I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” But they would not have approved his methods.

    I should add that I am neither approving nor condemning either the Greek or Western American attitude, and in this and subsequent chapters I have much go say in praise of Westerners, including even gunfighters like Hardin and Allison. My point here is simply to show that even in societies that restrict violence severely–ancient Athens and Rome–there was a recognized right and duty of self-defense.

  3. Roger McGrath says:

    Thanks for all the above, Tom. We ought to have a group discussion on this sometime. You and I have discussed this before and it’s always of interest as well as timely. As you well know I don’t believe in a state monopoly of violence. I think any aggression against an individual private citizen, including “fighting words,” can be met by force and I don’t believe the force has to be proportional, which might have theoretical logic to it but is unrealistic in an actual fight.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger, you raise several serious questions, some of which I go into in this and other chapters of volume two, “The Reign of Hate,” but others I do not. I am going to write a little excursus taking up some of them. In short, what I have been arguing for is a recognition of natural duties, which I facetiously refer to in my mind as the three F’s: Feeding, Fighting, and—. One eats to stay alive, breeds to perpetuate one’s blood line, and fights to defend one’s current life and one’s posterity. These are duties incumbent upon us, not rights we got in some imaginary state of nature. Human institutions grow up to help us fulfill these duties better–better agriculture, laws on private property, marriage and family regulations, law and police, but when these institutions fail or betray their purpose, we must resume those primitive duties.

    The question of the state’s role partly turns on what we mean by the word. It is sometimes used far too broadly to refer to any form of social control beyond kinship structures, thus making a Scottish clan or a Greek polis a “state.” More properly, it us used to refer to a certain kind of permanent institution of control, and I would restrict it to political forms that developed about the time the word was invented by carte Medieval/early Renaissance Italians. Obviously it makes a real difference, when we are talking about who can tell us when and how we may defend ourselves, whether the authority is our father, our clan leader, a commonwealth that unites kindreds, or an imperial permanent government. I’ll try to sort this out in a few days.

    I am grateful to Prof McGrath for raising questions that I should be taking up.