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

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

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

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


This book assesses Plato's penal code within the tradition of Greek penology. Saunders provides a detailed exposition of the emergence of the concept of publicly controlled, rationally calculated, and socially directed punishment in the period between Homer and Plato. He outlines the serious debate that ensued in the fifth century over the opposition by philosophers to popular judicial assumptions, and shows how the philosophical arguments gradually gained ground. He demonstrates that Plato advanced the most radical of the philosophical formulations of the concept of punishment in his Laws, arguing that punishment is or should be utilitarian and strictly reformative. This first comprehensive and detailed study of Plato's penology gives deserved attention to the works of a most important political and legal thinker.


In his Laws and elsewhere Plato advanced a radical new penology, sharply different from any penology practised or advocated down to his day. The ideas and practices which he sought to modify or displace were those of the Athenian legal system of the fifth and fourth centuries. They have their first attestation in Homer; and so too have certain elements in Plato's attempted reform of them.

To Homer, then, we must betake ourselves; and difficulties arise immediately. The Iliad and the Odyssey are generally thought to have been composed shortly before 700 BC. The stories they tell are set in a society whose historical existence is uncertain. For the poems witness only to themselves; little independent check on their testimony is available. If they do describe some historical society, it is not one contemporaneous with their date of composition. Homer inherited a vast mass of poetic material that had accumulated over a long period, and by selection and adaptation constructed the two full-scale epic poems. Hence the picture he gives us may well not be of a single historical period or even of a single society, but of some composite.

Any attempt to reconstruct 'Homeric' society is open to further distortion from the nature of the poet's themes. His stories focus on the exploits of aristocratic 'heroes', and have little to say about the common man. The Iliad is set in a foreign country during a long and exhausting war, when conduct among the heroes may well be unusually harsh and aggressive; while the Odyssey, although its scenes are more domestic and set in times of peace, contains many episodes of folk-tale and imaginative invention.

Hence the Homeric poems are probably something of a distorting- mirror, and if we wish to use them as sociological sources we have to bear in mind that we may unwittingly be working with grotesqueries. Indeed, there is some temptation to throw up one's hands and abandon the poems as plausible fiction. Such methodological gloom seems, however, hardly justified.

[See p. 10 for n. 1]

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