LECTURE 7: GREEK PHILOSOPHY OF CRIME
• He lived from 469 – 399 BCE in Athens
• He was married to Xanthippe and had two sons
• He fought bravely in the Peloponnesian War
• As epistates of the prytaneis, he refused to try the generals of the battle of the Arginusae as a group
o Epistates – in charge of the assembly, when the assembly was to vote on the issue of the
generals of the Arginusae (small islands)
o In 406 BCE, it was the site of a naval battle between 120 Spartan triremes and 150 Athenian
o Athenians won, but a storm prevented them from saving the survivors. Upon their arrival, the
generals were accused of being derelict in their duty towards the survivors and public opinion
was very much against the generals.
o A motion was put toward the assembly to try the generals as a group on a capital charge;
Socrates disagreed with this, as this was illegal because Athenians had a right to individual
o But he was overruled, and the assembly agreed to execute the generals
• In 399, Socrates was tried for and convicted of introducing new gods and corrupting young men
(religious offences, thus may have been brought about as a case by his political enemies as
revenge). He proposed that as a penalty he should be given free meals at state expense, or maybe
that he should have to pay a fine. His opponents proposed death. The jury chose the death penalty.
The Five Things
o We are reading the Gorgias
Note that the definite article is not capitalized or italicized
o Gorgias was a sophist from Leontini who lived from about 485 to about 380 BCE. He visited
Athens as an ambassador in 427 was an important event, not least for introducing his Sicilian
style to Athenian rhetoric
o Plato (c. 429 – 347 BCE)
o One of the followers of Socrates
o Eventually founded a school called the Academy
o As often with ancient texts, we don’t know an exact date, but sometime between 399 (the
death of Socrates) and 347 BCE will do
o Seems to be an early dialogue, with some characteristics with middle dialogue, so probably
closer to 399 than 347 BCE
o Plato lived in Athens, and wrote most of his works there
o Plato wrote in Attic Greek
• The Five Things:
o Author – Plato
o Title – the Gorgias
o Date – 399-347 BCE
o Location – Athens
o Language – Attic Greek
1. CHAEREPHON: Yes. All right. I’ll ask him. Can you tell me, please, Gorgias, whether Callicles here
is telling the truth when he says that you claim to be able to answer any question that’s put to you? GORGIAS: He is, Chaerephon. That’s exactly what I was doing a short while ago, in fact, and I’ll add
that for many years now I’ve never been faced with a question I hadn’t met before.
• Sets the scene – at Chaerephon’s house and Gorgias is there as well, answering questions
and Socrates his friends show up to talk to Gorgias
• Gorgias is a sophist, and this is something he does – he impressed people with his
knowledge and his ability to persuade them
2. GORGIAS: Well, Socrates, I think – to repeat what I was saying not long ago – that its effect is to
persuade people in the kinds of mass meetings which happen in lawcourts and so on; and I think its
province is right and wrong.
• Starts to explain rhetoric
• Gorgias says that rhetoric is about the kinds of things that happen in lawcourts, about what is
right and what is wrong (crime and not crime)
3. SOCRATES: A rhetorician, then, isn’t concerned to educate the people assembled in lawcourts and
so on about right and wrong; all he wants to do is persuade them. I mean, I shouldn’t think it’s
possible for him to get so many people to understand such important matters in such a short time.
GORGIAS: No, that’s right.
• Rhetoric is about persuasion, convincing people that what you think is right/wrong is actually
• Rhetoric defines what is criminal and what is not in Athens, the power to convince the jury no
matter what is right or wrong lies in the hands of rhetoricians
4. SOCRATES: Well, Polus, here are some thoughts of mine for you to criticize. Imagine I’m in the
agora when it’s chock-full, and I’ve got a dagger tucked in my armpit. I tell you, ‘Polus, I’ve recently
gained an incredible amount of power, as much as any dictator. Look at all these people. If I decide
one of them has to die, he’s dead, just like that… Can you tell us what’s wrong with that sort of
power, to your mind?
SOCRATES: What is it? Do please tell us.
POLUS: It’s that anyone who does the kinds of things you were describing is bound to be punished.
• Socrates is setting up a situation in which someone has the power or the ability to perform
• Possibility of punishment is what prevents people from committing crimes
• Socrates, however, doesn’t think that the reason crime is bad is because of the possibility of
punishment; he thinks that there is something that is morally wrong which he argues in the
next dialogue of their discussion
5. POLUS: My man Archelaus is unhappy, then, according to you.
SOCRATES: Yes, if he does wrong, Polus.
POLUS: But of course he does. He didn’t have the slightest claim to the throne he currently
occupies. His mother was a slave of Perdiccas’ brother Alcetas, so by rights he should have been
Alcetas’ slave too. If he’d wanted to behave morally, he’d have been Alcetas’ slave and that would
have made him happy, according to you. As it is, though, he’s become incredibly unhappy as a result
of the awful crimes he’s committed. In the first place, he sent a message to Alcetas, who was his
uncle as well as his master, in which he invited him to stay on the grounds that he would restore the
kingdom, which Perdiccas had stolen from him. So he welcomed Alcetas and his son Alexander, his
own cousin (who was more or less the same age as him), into his house; then he got them drunk,
bundled them into a cart, took them away under cover of darkness, murdered them both, and
disposed of the bodies.
• Example of tyrants – takes the legal view of crime and opposes it to the moral view of crime
• Polus argues that Archelaus is doing the right thing because he is the one who gets to make
the laws, and he is not a criminal because he is not breaking the laws
• Socrates argues that Archelaus is a criminal, because even though he is not breaking written
laws, he is breaking moral laws
• Murder, Socrates believes, is wrong whether it is legal or not • Polus takes the legal view of crime, and is viewing crime as the rational choice theory views
• Socrates, on the other hand, views crime as something akin to social control – believes that
murder is wrong not as a rational choice (fear of punishment), but morally wrong because of
his social involvement in classical Athens
6. SOCRATES: Let’s start with the question facing us, which is the crux of our present discussion. You
think it’s possible for someone to be happy in spite of the fact that he does wrong and is an immoral
person, and you cite the case of Archelaus who is, in your opinion, an immoral, but happy, person. Is
that a fair representation of your view?
SOCRATES: On the other hand, I claim that this is impossible. So here's one point on which we
disagree. Now then, this happy criminal ... will he be happy if he pays the penalty for his actions and
POLUS: Definitely not. That would make his condition very unhappy.
SOCRATES: So is it your view that a criminal is happy as long as he doesn’t get punished?
SOCRATES: My view, however, Polus, is that although an unjust person, a criminal, is in a
thoroughly wretched state, he’s worse off if he doesn’t pay the penalty and continues to do wrong
without getting punished than if he does pay the penalty and has punishment meted out to him by
gods and men.
• Continues the views of Polus and Socrates
• Polus argues that people commit crimes to get what they want, and are thus unhappy if they
are punished for those crimes
• Socrates says that punishment is good for people (also a modern view)
• Polus represents the common view in Athens, however, against which Socrates is arguing
• Punishment, is corrective rather than punitive, according to Socrates – later makes an
analogy between medicine and punishment
7. SOCRATES: So much for that issue. Next we need to look into the second point of disagreement
between us. You claim that nothing could be worse for a criminal than paying the penalty for his
crimes, whereas I claim that he's worse off if he doesn't pay the penalty. Which of us is right? Here's
a way into the question: would you agree that there's no difference between a criminal paying the
penalty for his crimes and being justly punished for them?
• Socrates introduces concept of justice, being justly punished for crimes
• Revealing that the good quality of punishment for criminals (benefits) is not just about the
individual who is committing the crime, but it is also about society
• Heals society as a whole, justice is what makes a good society – what helps criminals, is
helping them to live together as just people in a just society
• Punishment helps reintegrate criminals into a society, and live as just people
8. SOCRATES: And isn’t this precisely the state of an arch-criminal, with his utter immorality, who
successfully avoids being criticized and disciplined and punished – in other words, exactly what,
according to you, Archelaus and his fellow dictators, rhetoricians, and political leaders have
managed to do?
POLUS: I suppose so.
SOCRATES: Their achievement, then, Polus, is not so very different from that of someone in the grip
of an extremely severe illness who successfully avoids having the doctors exact the penalty for his
body’s crimes – that is, who avoids medical treatment – because he’s childishly frightened of the
pain of cautery and surgery. Don’t you agree?
POLUS: Yes, I do.
• Medical analogy
• Punishment is good for individual because criminals are like sick people, sickness of the soul
(immorality) and punishment is a way of correcting this 9. SOCRATES: And he's afraid, I suppose, because he doesn't understand health and doesn't know
what a good physical state is like. I mean, the position we've reached in our discussion makes it
seem likely that this is what people who evade punishment are up to as well, Polus, they can see
that punishment is painful, but they have a blind spot about how beneficial it is, and they fail to
appreciate that life with an unhealthy mind—a mind which is unsound, immoral, and unjust—is
infinitely more wretched than life with an unhealthy body. This also explains why they go to such
lengths to avoid being punished—that is, to avoid being saved from the worst kind of badness.
Instead they equip themselves with money and friends, and make sure that they're as per