There has been considerable comment on the severity of the punishments handed out to the looters in the recent riots. In Aristotle’s Problems, most of which, admittedly, is not by the great man, a stern justification is mounted.
The problem is posed as follows: ‘Why is it that, if someone steals from a public bath or gymnasium or market-place or anywhere like that, the penalty is death, but if from a private dwelling, it is twice the value of what was stolen?’
In the case of the private house, Aristotle offers three arguments: first, it has walls and locks, and it is possible to set a guard; second, it rests with the owner whom to admit and whom to exclude. But in a public place, there are no such physical safeguards, nor does one have any choice about who is allowed into a bath or gym or not. Aristotle then adds a third: those who steal from public places will care nothing about their public reputation, and therefore be unreformable, while those who steal from private homes may be known to the owner and want to retain their reputation by returning the goods.
In the case of theft from public places, Aristotle again proposes a range of answers. First, and most important, not only does the victim suffer private loss, but the city is discredited, ‘in exactly the same way as responsible public behaviour brings it the greatest honour’ — and here he draws a parallel with the heavy penalties imposed on those who insult legal and other public authorities, but none on those insulting an individual.
He also adds that if one loses property in private, one can bear the misfortune in private; but if in public, there is the prospect of the humiliation the victim will have to bear in addition to the loss. The example Aristotle cites is that of a man whose clothes are stolen at the public baths: ‘it is embarrassing enough to have to walk home in the nude anyway, quite apart from being laughed at, which is worse than any loss’.
This, of course, was a time when self-help and a man’s public reputation, whatever his circumstances, were the order of the day…
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 27, 2011