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Plato's Penal Code: Tradition, Controversy, and Reform in Greek Penology.

There are seldom clear |firsts' in the history of ideas. There were utilitarian penologists before Beccaria and Bentham: Aquinas was one (of sorts: secular penalties should aim at utility, God's at retributive justice); Plato was another, and he in turn was influenced by Protagoras. Yet Bentham despised Plato. and acknowledged no debt to him,, at least so far its penology was concerned. He may not even have been familiar with The Laws (who is?).

It is The Laws, Plato's last work, which is the main focus of Professor Saunder' book. Like Dr Mackenzie's Plato on Punishment, however, it approaches its subject with a lengthy excursus on Plato's cultural tradition: Homer, Hesiod, Theognis, and the Athenian dramatists. Unlike Dr Mackenzie, on the other hand. Professor Saunders devotes space to the forensic orators, some of whose arguments illustrate what Greek jurors might be persuaded to accept as excuses of mitigation in real life rather than literature.

A point which he brings out clearly is the Greeks' almost despairing awareness of the extent to which wrongdoers excaped secular punishment, as of course many did in those troubled times. I could not help contrasting this with our own obsession with the risk of punishing the innocent. But that is by the way: the effect of the Greek neurosis was a mythology in which the gods did their best to see that the guilty unpunished suffered, if not in person then through their descendants.

Plato was not so superstitious. His gods should be honoured, but not relied upon, at least in penal matters. The dead were different. Although the Greeks thought of them as powerless ghosts, in Plato's Laws they are still people whose grievances against wrongdoers must be taken into account, as if they still belonged to the community. He was what would nowadays be called |a therapeutic optimist', with an almost medical notion of |treatment'. He acknowledged, at the same time, that not every wrongdoer was curable, and that some could only be got rid of, by exile or execution. His way of dealing with insane offenders was an interesting compromise between desert and utility: they should be excused the penalty, but exiled for a year (in order, Saunders suggests, to let the aggrieved cool down). Exiling in utilitarian, but excusing isn't

Like Bentham, Plato could be a bore, of which The Laws is his final and most convincing demonstration. But Professor Saunders isn't it bore. His book is long-range anthropology of the most scholarly kind. Unlike Dr Mackenzie he leaves it to the reader to compare Plato with modern utilitarians; but he tells us more about the ways in which the ordinary man-in-the-agora reasoned about crime and punishment.

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Author:Walker, Nigel
Publication:British Journal of Criminology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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