Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Why (What Cause)?.
Danielle S. Allen, edition of March 23, 2003
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The Athenians had no doubts about why they punished: it was simply because someone was angry at a wrong and wanted that anger dealt with. Specifically, the anger of the victim necessitated punishment, and the Athenians made this idea central to their penal practice. Although the city’s penal laws allowed any citizen to prosecute on behalf of someone who had been the victim of a crime, or on behalf of the city in general, in 96% of the cases for which we still have copies of the courtroom speeches, the prosecutor was in fact either himself the victim of the wrong done or else he was personally involved in some dispute with the wrong-doer. In court, one after another prosecutor would launch his case by invoking and explaining his personal animosity toward the defendant. This is what Aeschines is doing here in
“When I saw that Timarchus was, though disqualified by law, speaking in your assembly, and when I myself was personally being slanderously accused [by him and his allies], I decided it would be most shameful not to help the whole city and the laws and you and myself. It would seem, O Athenians, that the usual saying about public trials is not false: i.e. the saying that private enmities do indeed correct many public matters” (Aeschin. 1.1-2).
After the initial story of personal outrage, one after another prosecutor would move beyond that to argue that his jury should also adopt an anger equivalent to his own. Here is Demosthenes doing exactly this in the
“It’s not right that Meidias’ behavior should arouse my indignation alone and slip by, overlooked by the rest of you. Not at all. Really, it’s necessary for everyone to be equally angry!” (Dem. 21.123).
With rare exceptions, cases of punishment in Athens were directed at resolving a problem that had arisen between two people and that were identified when someone said he was angry. Anger was so central to the Athenian experience of wrong-doing and punishment that courtroom litigants could describe laws as having been established for the purpose of establishing what levels of anger were appropriate for various acts of wrong-doing (e.g. Dem. 21.43; Aeschin. 1.176). Thus Demosthenes writes:
“Observe that the laws treat the wrong-doer who acts intentionally and with hubris as deserving greater anger and punishment; this is reasonable because while the injured party everywhere deserves support, the law does not ordain that the anger against the wrongdoer should always be the same” (Dem. 21.42-43).
Anger was thus assumed to be not only the source of particular punishments but also at the root of law itself. The Athenians accordingly felt relatively little uncertainty or unease about why (that is, in response to what causes) they punished: they acted in response to anger.
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