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Ancient and modern

Punishment and retribution

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

Prime Minister Cameron has argued that ‘retribution [against criminals] is not a dirty word’ and ‘punishment is what offenders both deserve and need’. Many ancients would have keenly agreed.

Ancient Greeks argued that society was held together by systems of rewards and penalties, and revenge, recompense and deterrence were the main features of their penal thinking. In Homer’s epics (c.700 bc), for example, the hero demands recompense to restore any loss of status or wealth, see the offender squirm, advertise that he is squirming, and deter him from repeating the offence. Romans were in general less sophisticated. Deterrence featured marginally and correction was mentioned, but for the most part they felt criminals should suffer in turn something of the suffering they had caused, the more horrible the better, especially if they were from the lower orders.

But some Greek thinkers put the emphasis elsewhere. For the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 bc), crime was a moral error, a disease, and needed to be cured.  So he took seriously the idea that the purpose of punishment was to reform the criminal, and listed a large number of tactics for doing so, including even pleasuring, honouring and bribing the criminal to mend his ways: anything to prevent him corrupting his soul.

Plato’s rival Protagoras (b. 485 bc) took largely the same line, emphasising the deterrent theory: ‘Punishment is inflicted by a rational man not for the sake of the crime that has been committed (after all, one cannot undo what is past), but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again.’ But retribution should play no part, he insists: ‘In punishing wrongdoers, no one concentrates on the fact that a man has done wrong in the past, or punishes him on that account, unless he is taking vengeance blindly, like a wild beast.’

So, Mr Cameron: what form will your retribution take? How (precisely) will it differ from punishment? Or be incorporated in the justice system? How will it differ from punishment?

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