Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: Plato on Breivik

The trial of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik might have met with Plato’s approval — for the time being.

In his last work Laws, Plato provided a detailed description of the vision that would inform Magnesia, his unchanging, perfect utopia, covering everything from size, population, occupations and education to religion, laws and government. In his discussion of the justice system, Plato laid down the principles that lie behind almost every humane theory and practice of punishment.

Plato takes for granted the Socratic doctrine that every unjust man is, in fact, unjust against his will, on the grounds that he has welcomed evil into his soul, the most precious part of him, and no one would willingly do that. He argues that treatment of a criminal should be seen as the same sort of activity as curing a disease. No one willingly contracts a disease; such a person deserves sympathy and help. So with a criminal. The purpose of the help that one gives him, Plato argues, is to cure him of his false belief that evil can ever be advantageous, and that the punishment for it, curing him of that false belief, is something he actively needs. Punishment of that sort is good for you. Retribution does not come into it.

So, on top of the payment of compensation for the damage inflicted, punishment will involve public protection, instruction and the attempted reconciliation between criminal and victim: good, modern practice. But — and it is a big but — what if the man turns out to be beyond cure? ‘The lawgiver will recognise that the best thing for such people is to cease to live — best even for themselves.’

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