Ancient Greeks were not slow to express their enthusiasm for taking revenge. Observing the recent proceedings in the Scottish parliament, they would probably have concluded that Alex Salmond was of like mind. But will that revenge do him any good?
Plato made Socrates define ‘justice’ as ‘rendering to each man what he is owed’, which another speaker amplified as ‘owing good to one’s friends and ill to one’s enemies’, a sentiment repeated across Greek literature. As a result, pure enmity was regarded as a perfectly good motive for revenge. The Greek orator Demosthenes once justified bringing a case against a man for tax evasion by pointing out that his opponent had once accused him (unsuccessfully) of killing his own father. Clearly he expected the jurors to applaud the motive. All very Salmond: taking revenge on personal political enemies within the SNP who, as he alleged, were conspiring against him.
But what will it do for his reputation? The essayist Plutarch said that a statesman’s reputation granted him ‘the trust which affords him an entrance into public affairs’, and the more that trust was confirmed, the greater its yield ‘since the enjoyment of confidence [in him] and his good repute afford him the means to do yet further and greater good’. That confidence is also vital, said Plutarch, because ‘the good will of the people is the only defence the statesman has’ (against those seeking, for example, to replace or defame him).
The fact is that Salmond’s grounds for revenge are based not on his reputation and good works but on the implications of a mishandled trial which, while it cleared him of criminality, revealed he had been using his authority to take sexual advantage of women serving under him — hardly the index of man of high principle in which ‘trust and confidence’ can be placed. But does his action add up to a ‘greater good’? If he succeeds in taking down Nicola Sturgeon, it will certainly seem so to him, and to many others. Whether that will make him a Mr Valiant-for-Truth is quite another matter.