Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 2. Díkē


Latin dico and Greek díkē together imply the idea of a formulaic law which lays down what is to be done in every particular situation. The judge—Hom. dikaspólos—is the one who keeps the formulary and pronounces (dicit) authoritatively the appropriate sentence.


The counterpart of thémis is the notion of díkē. The first, as we have said, relates to justice as it is exercised within a family group, whereas the second is that which regulates relations between families.
Straight away we perceive two significant differences between these two notions. The first relates to the formation of the terms. We saw above that thémis is a derivative from *dhē– by means of a suffix the equivalent of which is found in Indo-Iranian. It is quite different with díkē, which is made from the root *deik– with the addition of the feminine –ā. Its nominal correspondents simply reproduce the root without a suffix. These are the so-called root nouns like Skt. diś– ‘direction, region’, Lat. *dix, which survives in the phrase dicis causā ‘for form’s sake’.
Another difference between thémis and díkē lies in the way in which they are conceived. The basis of thémis is a root meaning “put, place, establish.” The basic meaning of the term is thus plain, and its institutional value is derived from the same conception as is present in the verbal forms of this root. With díkē, on the other hand, we have a root which does not immediately explain the sense assumed by the noun and which in Greek itself has a different development in its verbal and its nominal derivatives.
The root in question is *deik-, which appears in Sanskrit as diś-, as dis– in Iranian, as dic– in Latin and deík(numi) in Greek. But these forms, though in perfect formal correspondence, do not agree in meaning, for Greek deíknumi means “show” and Latin dico ‘say’. It will be necessary, therefore, to undertake an analysis to elicit the sense which will explain why díkē in Greek has the sense of “justice.”
If the agreement of Indo-Iranian and Greek makes it plausible that the sense “show” is primary as against “say,” this does not make the transition from one sense to the other any easier. Here we have the first problem.
Let us try and reconstruct this ancient idea of “showing.”
(1) “To show” in what way? With the finger? This is rarely the case. In general the sense is “show verbally,” by speech. This first determination is confirmed by a number of Indo-Iranian uses in the sense “teach,” which amounts to the same thing as “showing” by words and not by gesture. Besides, there is in Latin a compound to which we shall have to come back, in which *deik– is joined with ius: this is iudex, in which *deik– stands for an act of speech.
(2) “To show” in what way? Incidentally, by way of example? And can simply anyone “show”?
The Latin compound iudex implies the notion of showing with authority. If this is not the constant sense of Gr. deíknumi, this fact is due to the weakening of the force of the root in Greek. The whole history of Lat. dicere highlights a mechanism of authority: only the judge can dicere ius. This combination is also found in an Italic language, with med– substituted for ius in Oscan meddiss, which was Latinized as meddix, where med– is related to Lat. medeor. In this Oscan equivalent of iudex, the term for “law” is a different one, but dicere remains constant.
We should also bear in mind the Latin formula in which the praetor summed up the three functions which he had the right to exercise only on certain days prescribed by the calendar: do, dico, addico. He has the right to “give,” to “announce certain rules” and to “adjudge.” This same concept leads to the frequent use of dicere in the language of the law courts: diem dicere ‘fix a day for the hearing of a case’, or multam dicere ‘pronounce a fine’.
(3) “Show,” but what? A visible thing, an existing object? Here we have the last feature in the meaning of *deik-: it means to show what must be, a pronouncement which may take the form of a court judgment.
These indications allow us to state with greater precision the original sense of Gr. díkē, insofar as it is an institutional term. By comparing the forms Skt. diś and Latin dicis causā, we see that *dix insists on the normative implications: dicis causā really means “according to a formal pronouncement,” or as we should say, “for form’s sake.” We might therefore define *dix literally as ‘the fact of showing verbally and with authority what must be’; in other words, it is the imperative pronouncement of justice.
This imperative value of díkē appears in a number of examples. In the description of the Shield of Achilles a court scene is described in detail (Il. 18, 497ff.). Two parties are pleading their case before the court: the assembly, in great excitement, is divided, some favoring one side and others the other. What is at stake is a poinḗ, blood money for manslaughter. In the center of the assembly are the elders sitting in a sacred circle on polished stones. Each of them rises in turn and gives his judgment. In their midst are two talents of gold reserved for the judge who will have given “the straightest judgment,” díkēn ithúntata eípoi (l. 508).
A poinḗ is the typical instance of a case involving díkē, that is, inter-familial justice. The terms of the Homeric expression attest one and the same construction both in Greek and in Latin: we have díkēn eipeîn ‘say the díkē’ just like Latin dicere. We now see how this “showing” became an act of speech: in Greek the substantive díkē attracts a verb “to say” (eipeîn); in Latin it is the verb “to show” (*deik-) which took on the sense “to say.”
We now turn to the adjective ithús (ithúntata) ‘straight’ (in the sense of a straight line). This figurative expression fills in what is implied by *deik-: ‘to show what must be done, prescribe a norm’. For we should not forget that díkē is a formula. To give justice is not an intellectual operation which requires meditation or discussion. Formulas have been transmitted which are appropriate to given cases, and the role of the judge is to possess and apply them. In this way we can explain one of the ancient and rare names for the “judge,” the Homeric dikaspólos. This is a curious term, formed like aipólos ‘goatherd’, bou-kólos (with –kolos alternating with –polos, both going back to *kwólos) ‘cowherd’, oiōnopólos ‘he who observes the flight of birds’ (and interprets it to foretell the future). In his capacity as dikaspólos, the judge is “he who watches over the díkai.” Here we have an archaic type of juxtaposition with an accusative plural as the first term. The díkai are certainly the formulas of law which are handed down and which the judge is responsible for keeping and applying.
This idea corresponds to what we know of codes of law among peoples of a traditional civilization, collections of oral pronouncements, which are centered around the relations of kinship, of the clan and the tribe.
Such is the point of departure for the sense which is usually assigned to díkē: ‘custom, usage, the way of being’, in which the institutional value is apparent. When Odysseus in his descent to the underworld meets his mother, he asks her why he cannot embrace her: such, she replies, is the díkē of mortals, all’ haútē díkē estì brotō̂n (ἀλλ’ ἅυτη δίκη ἐστὶ βροτῶν, Od. 11, 218). It is not “the way of being,” but rather “the imperative rule,” the “formula which regulates one’s fate.” In this way we can understand the adverbial use of díkēn ‘in the manner of’, that is to say, “according to the norm of a certain category of beings.” The “habitual” manner is in reality an obligation of nature or convention.
Hence this formula which determines one’s lot and allocation became in Greek the word for “justice” itself. But the ethical notion of justice, such as we understand it, is not included in díkē. This has gradually evolved from the circumstances in which díkē was invoked to put an end to abuses. This traditional legal formula becomes the expression for justice itself when díkē intervenes to put an end to the power of bía, ‘violence’. Then díkē is identified with the virtue of justice—and he who has díkē towards this is díkaios ‘just’.