Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: Cicero on Leveson

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser Adam Smith landed the minister in the soup by his too-cosy texts to News Corp about the proposed BSkyB takeover. He resigned, and Labour smells Hunt’s blood. What can Hunt do? The buck stops with him, but Cicero would argue that if Smith had had no criminal intent, but just became over-excited, Hunt is in the clear. The Murena defence shows how.

In 62 bc Cicero was defending Lucius Murena on a bribery charge. He concentrated his fire on the prosecutor Cato’s refusal to compromise his Stoic principles and acknowledge human weakness. Cato is one of those people, Cicero says, who believes ‘that the wise man never allows himself to be influenced by favours and never forgives wrongdoing; that only fools and the weak show mercy; that a real man does not yield to entreaties or prayers; that all sins are equal, and all are serious crimes, so that he who unnecessarily strangles a cock commits no less a crime than he who strangles his father; that the philosopher guesses at nothing, repents of nothing, is never wrong, never changes his mind.’ Most men, Cicero goes on, treat such things as an academic exercise, but Cato has embraced it as the rule for life. So, when a grief-stricken suppliant comes to ask for help, Cato will say you are acting criminally and immorally if you allow yourself to be swayed by compassion. If someone admits he has done wrong and asks for forgiveness, Cato will say it is a crime to forgive a wrong. If you make an assertion, Cato will not let you take it back. ‘But it was only a conjecture.’ Philosophers do not offer conjectures, comes the reply. You make a genuine mistake: no, you did it on purpose.

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