Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Aitios in ancient Greek means both 'responsible' and 'culpable'. Since Greeks were well aware of the distinction, they would have much enjoyed the nuances of the Butler report and the responses to it.

The Athenian orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC) comes up with some fascinating general statements about the problem. First, Demosthenes recognises that a wrong policy might be recommended because the relevant facts were not known and the situation was not understood. In that case, the politician is not to be blamed: 'Suppose that a [politician] has done no wrong and made no error of judgment but, having devoted himself to a cause approved by everyone, has failed in it, together with everyone else: in that case, it is just not to reproach or insult him, but to share the burden with him. This distinction will be found not only embodied in our statutes but laid down by nature herself in her unwritten laws and in the moral sense of the human race.'

Second, Demosthenes argues that responsibility for disastrous policy ultimately lies with those who ensured that policy was adopted, not just with those who actually carried it out. For example, he argues that his rival Aeschines was ultimately responsible for the attack on Greece by Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great: 'Who supplied Philip with his pretexts for attack? …

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